"Deficit...the Internet...`draft dodger'...millennium." As the quadrennial quest for U.S. presidential power approaches its climactic season, one need not undertake a Nexis-like search of media databases to confirm that the American psyche is in the throes of revisionism.
Watching the ritual raft of televised year-end imagery for 1995, what was striking was not the attendant pomp of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations honouring the victors of World War II, but the absence of images marking a less illustrious military milestone: the April 29th, 1975, helicopter evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.
The seminal "what went wrong with the war" book is The Best and the Brightest, which was published in 1972. Its author, David Halberstam, wrote that when he began his research in 1969, having spent several years as the New York Times correspondent in Vietnam, he regarded the U.S. effort there as "the worst tragedy to befall this country since the Civil War; indeed I felt then and still feel that the real consequences of the war have not even begun to be felt."
Americans are still haunted by Vietnam. Recently, the PBS network's Frontline show aired an extraordinary, two-part documentary on an altogether different war: the high-tech military campaign to recover the oil fields of Kuwait. Amidst the 1991 victory celebrations, George Bush asserted that the nation had finally "exorcised the ghosts of Vietnam." The documentary, however, challenges that dictum: again and again, the generals who led the war against the Iraqis reflexively recounted Desert Storm strategy and tactics in the context of their still vivid Vietnam battlefield experiences.
Repeatedly, the field commander, Norman Schwarzkopf, was described by subordinate officers as having been "obsessed" with pursuing and destroying the enemy's elite divisions, the elusive Republican Guard, as they retreated towards Baghdad. These comments reveal "lessons" learned, but not necessarily understood, by American commanders in Vietnam.
Schwarzkopf, like his immediate Gulf War superior, Colin Powell, had served as a combat officer with the Americal Division in Vietnam. Powell stopped the Gulf War before Schwarzkopf could annihilate the troops that kept Saddam Hussein in power after the ceasefire.
In the aftermath of his country's redemptive post-Vietnam military intervention, Powell is viewed as the most capable American soldier-politician since Eisenhower. He recently became a multi-millionaire from the lucrative proceeds of his lecture circuit appearances (as conquering hero) and from the publication in 1995 of his beguiling, best-selling autobiography, My American Journey.
He was wounded by a poisoned "punji stick" during his first tour of duty in Vietnam, when he served as an "adviser" to South Vietnamese troops ("battalion commander in all but name"). He offers a sagacious summary of the futility of U.S. tactics in Vietnam: "We were forever trying to engage the North Vietnamese Army in a knockout battle-a Vietnamese Waterloo, an Iwo Jima, an Inchon-but the NVA refused to co-operate. No matter how hard we struck, NVA troops would melt into their sanctuaries in the highlands or into Laos, refit, regroup, and come out to fight again."
Though Powell and Bush were criticized for not completing the mission against the Iraqi regime, they were leery of television scenes of mass slaughter, afraid of losing support from their Arab coalition partners, spooked by the prospect of tipping the regional balance of power in Iran's favour, and determined not to be trapped in the costly quagmire of rebuilding Iraq's shattered infrastructure. Despite these valid considerations, another, spectral Vietnam-era conclusion in Powell's book may explain, in part, his abrupt termination of the Gulf hostilities:
"The enemy actually was taking horrendous casualties. But it made little difference. As one military analyst put it, divide each side's casualties by the economic cost of producing them. Then multiply by the political cost of sustaining them. As long as your enemy was willing to pay that price, body counts meant nothing. This enemy was obviously prepared to pay, and unsportingly refused to play the game by our scorekeeping."
U.S. national culture is transfixed by even minor symbolisms of "winning". Even when a Vietnam-era "peace" protester is ensconced in the White House, the U.S. is vigorously reasserting its authority as the world's "peace" policeman. Juxtaposed against an anti-elitist backlash of resurgent patriotism, religiosity, and neo-nativism, left-liberalism's ideological insurgency is beating a Viet-Cong-like retreat from the ramparts. Meanwhile the military class is re-emerging unashamedly from the trenches-wielding pens.
In 1995, five significant non-fiction books were published in which America's longest war was either the dominant subject or underlying theme. Of the five authors, one was the principal architect of the war's escalation, two were decorated veterans wounded in it, one was an American war correspondent in Vietnam, and the other an academic who attempts to locate the anti-war demonstrators of the 1960s and '70s within the historical spectrum of American protest movements.
The instant classic in this new wave of warrior chic is Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song, which elevates its author to the pantheon of Vietnam reportage alongside Halberstam, Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway (We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young), Neil Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam), Bernard Fall (A Street without Joy), Rick Atkinson (The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966), John G. Hubbell (P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience), Michael Herr (Dispatches), Stanley Karnow (Vietnam: A History), Theodore Draper (The Abuse of Power), and Jonathan Schell (The Village of Ben Suc).
Ostensibly, Timberg's tale chronicles, in alternating sets of profiles, the life passages of five ambitious Annapolis Naval Academy graduates over a forty-year span of superpower brinkmanship from 1954 to 1994. Part socio-biography, part war-memoirs, part investigative reporting, part military and intelligence anecdotes, part psychological study, part Washington political insider commentary, The Nightingale's Song is a trail-blazing feat of empathetic, epochal journalism written with a transcendent authority that Halberstam calls "almost hypnotic". It is a distinguished literary work that represents a radical revisionist's dream: figuratively, the main characters become sleepwalkers desperately seeking to disengage from the collective nightmare of America's failure in Vietnam.
A skeptic might rightly infer a romanticization, or, in the argot of the current vogue, appropriation, of factual material for the purposes of recreating a sort of second-rate epic in the Herman Wouk mold. Certainly, the identities of the five men-and the author's own-tend to support that suspicion. Though he wasn't a classmate of any of those five, Timberg graduated from Annapolis, too. And, like three of them-Oliver North, Bud McFarlane, and James Webb-he joined America's sacred regiment, the Marines, and fought in Vietnam.
North and Webb were wounded while leading their platoons; Timberg's injuries were the result of a random mishap, which he wryly described in a telephone interview as "the sort of thing that would have made Karl Marx chuckle." In 1967, he was a junior officer who, instead of heading off to an R&R break, was dispatched on replacement duty as a paymaster-it is standard Marine practice to pay the troops every two weeks, even when they are stationed in remote places. En route to deliver pay chits, the armoured vehicle on which he was riding hit a mine, igniting its fuel tanks. Timberg spent two years in military hospitals undergoing dozens of excruciating plastic surgery procedures to repair his horribly burned face.
The other two central cast members of The Nightingale's Song, John Poindexter and John McCain, joined the navy after Annapolis. Poindexter went to sea, became one of Robert McNamara's brigade of Pentagon "whiz kid" technocrats, and rose rapidly through the ranks to fill a series of choice jobs as a "horse-holder" and aide to the navy's top administrators. McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, became a navy flier, was shot down on a bombing run over Hanoi and spent five-and-a-half years of torture and deprivation as a prisoner-much of it in failing health in solitary confinement at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton".
Unlike Timberg and the others, McCain returned home a hero. But like Timberg, McCain learned to put the war "behind him" and get on with his life. Poindexter was never really touched by the war except as a paradigm for bureaucratic mismanagement. Webb, who later served briefly as secretary of the navy, was the only one of the five who had a truly heroic combat record; he was also the first to leave the military, in body if not in soul. While in law school, he began writing a Hemingwayesque novel, Fields of Fire, which, along with Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, is considered the finest work of fiction published in English about "Vietnam".
Of McFarlane, who enrolled in geopolitical graduate studies and went to work at the White House, Timberg writes that he "compiled a record of being at the scene of the action that another much-travelled Annapolis man, Pug Henry, the fictional naval hero of Herman Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance, might well envy. McFarlane had made the first landing in Vietnam and participated in the American pullout ten years later." (Under instructions from Henry Kissinger, he ordered Ambassador Graham Martin to abandon the embassy in Saigon.)
"He fought in Tet '68...[and] witnessed, at times all too intimately...the Watergate-driven dissolution of the Nixon presidency. He had travelled with Kissinger to China twice....By his own account, he spent three solid days...in a private room of the Great Hall of the People passing American intelligence on the Soviet Union to the Chinese."
The careers of the author and the Nightingale five converge eerily in the third section of the narrative-inside Ronald Reagan's White House. By January 1986, McFarlane had already resigned as national security adviser-following a power struggle with the White House chief of staff, Donald Regan (an ex-Marine). Poindexter then moved up to replace him after serving as his deputy. Ollie North, self-described "jarhead" and all-round fabulist, had been busy running a covert operations sideshow under McFarlane and Poindexter, which would soon fester into "the Watergate of the 80's", aka Iran-Contra.
By 1986, Timberg had worked for almost three years as the White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. While the scandal debilitated the Reagan presidency, Timberg, one of the reporters who spent much of his time trying to decipher the elaborate Iran-Contra puzzle, was given a prestigious award for his White House coverage. That fall, McCain, a two-term Arizona congressman and long an ardent supporter of Reagan, was elected to the vacant Senate seat in Arizona, just as Iran-Contra dominated the headlines.
Poindexter resigned. North was fired by Reagan, who nonetheless praised him as "a national hero". Poindexter's replacement at the National Security Council was Frank Carlucci, a former deputy to McFarlane's "Reaganaut" nemesis, Cap Weinberger, the secretary of defence. Carlucci's choice as deputy national security adviser was a former military aide to Weinberger, General Colin Powell. The following year, Webb was named secretary of the navy, while North, his arch-antagonist from their days at Annapolis, was preparing his criminal defence. McCain was a leading player in the Congressional investigation of Iran-Contra. In November, 1987, Weinberger resigned and was replaced by Carlucci. Powell then filled Carlucci's former slot at the NSC.
In many ways, the best parts of this book are the exquisitely nuanced chapters that cover Reagan's presidency. For North, McFarlane, and McCain, Ronald Reagan was the beacon, the light that guided them to a safe haven in the long, dark wake of their Vietnam ordeal. In the metaphor of the book, he was the nightingale whose song extolling the restoration of honour for the forgotten (American) heroes of Vietnam allowed these muted warriors to sing, and to fulfill their fervid dreams as high flyers. For Powell too, the ultimate army careerist, Reagan was a mentor and "father figure".
An enigmatic and apolitical perfectionist, Poindexter shielded Reagan throughout. Consequently, he was the only Iran-Contra figure to be sentenced to jail (though his conviction was later overturned). His legal ordeal was the trial-by-fire he had not undergone in uniform: he too never faltered. By contrast, Webb, whom Reagan also had publicly flattered as a national hero, looked upon the president as a means whereby he could pursue honourable ends: the strengthening of the reserve system (which had been allowed to wither during the massive, involuntary inductions of the Vietnam draft years) and the chance to honour an overdue commitment to refurbish the fleet.
On the inevitably tawdry denouement of Iran-Contra and its tragic overtones-McFarlane's attempted suicide, North's sociopathic lying, and Reagan's disloyalty and incipient senility-Timberg's account of the Congressional hearings is coruscating: "[North] had learned some hard lessons...as he watched Ronald Reagan beat a hasty retreat from Iran-Contra, leaving his wounded strewn on the battlefield.
"[T]he terrain at last to his liking, North was taking no prisoners. He rose from his seat to be sworn, Bud McFarlane's old silver oak leaves tacked to his shoulders, Vietnam War medals covering his chest like body armor. At that moment, he seemed to embody his generation, the portion to which he belonged; to the others, the bright people of that same generation, unblooded, faking egg allergies, he must have seemed an avenging angel, their worst nightmare come true. At least, as Hemingway said, how pretty to think so. As for North's Congressional inquisitors, they were left for dead when he completed his testimony eight days later."
North sang the nightingale's song after Reagan's flight. No less fanciful than his former commander-in-chief, he embarked on a high-profile political career. Harnessing the fund-raising skills he had honed while clandestinely gathering money for the Nicaraguan Contras, he spent more than $20 million U.S. in his 1994 pursuit of a Senate seat in Virginia, a race he lost by a razor-thin margin to the incumbent Democrat, Chuck Robb (a decorated Vietnam Marine veteran and the somewhat sullied son-in-law of Lyndon Johnson, the president most responsible for the debacle in Vietnam).
Denounced by his former boss, Bud McFarlane, as "devious, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and true first and foremost to himself," North also had to withstand frontal attacks by other prominent Vietnam veterans, including Jim Webb; in what Timberg calls "political infanticide-the Nightingale strangling its young in the nest"-North was castigated by the Reagans. Surprisingly, John Poindexter actively supported the campaign of his former aide, in spite of his agreeing with Timberg that "Ollie lied about lying."
The final sentences of Timberg's epilogue raise the tantalizing spectre of North running again for high political office and becoming "an enduring public figure...[with] chilling potential for demagoguery. Reagan was gone, but the music played on. And Oliver North, testing his wings, perfecting his song, had become the Nightingale." Those who remember Reagan's salad days as a corporate spokesman and avuncular television host will be heartened to learn that North is now a wildly successful syndicated radio talk-show host.
Chosen by Time as one of the five best non-fiction books of 1995, The Nightingale's Song is rumoured to be a contender for a Pulitzer prize. But any selection jury may have a hard time categorizing Timberg's inspired, lovingly crafted text. One of the difficulties in evaluating its comparative reportorial merits is Timberg's Pirandelloesque presence as a sixth, offstage character in his own reconstructed morality play.
While he has taken great pains to distance himself from his subjects and has in no way written a "buddy" book, the narrative seems imbued with vicarious longings; somehow, the serial catharses that the five characters are made to relive provide emotional closure for the writer's repressed emotions.
Another dilemma is the book's methodological DMZ, in which the author's dramatic licence and the pseudo-techniques of historical revisionism meld into a sort of free-fire zone where facts seemingly fall victim to fancy. On the one hand, this decidedly literary work, which Timberg spent seven arduous years researching and writing, has it all: a skillful weave of period rock-song lyrics, inventive chapter headings, subtle literary allusions, movie analogies, and other perfectly tuned pop-culture echoes, expertly blended into an authentic narrative voice rich in the coarse idioms of Marine and navy vernacular. Quotes from conversations are often double-or-triple-sourced; the chapter notes, the lists of interview sources and of primary and secondary readings, and the index are all exemplary.
And yet, there is a whiff of ideological taint. Three glaring omissions in the bibliography and interview notes are instructive: the first has to do with Richard Allen, who was Reagan's first national security adviser, and thus Poindexter's first White House boss. Timberg did not interview Allen, nor did he challenge McFarlane on the Reagan campaign's 1980 "backchannel" contacts with the Iranians during the hostage crisis, a crisis that led Americans to conclude that Jimmy Carter was a "wimp".
The second deliberate oversight is Timberg's refusal to acknowledge the terms of the ransom demands from Iranian "moderates", which North and McFarlane accepted in exchange for the taped confessions obtained under torture from the kidnapped Beirut CIA station chief, James Buckley, the highest priority Hezbollah hostage, who was executed in Iran.
A third lapse in Timberg's thumbnail sketch of the complex Iran-arms-for-hostages links (between North and U.S. operatives controlling the Contras) nicely relieves him of the distasteful task of making the myriad connections between his Boy-Scout Marine warriors, North and McFarlane, and a cutthroat coterie of CIA employees, drug runners, contract killers, and blackmailers-many of whom had longstanding associations with several Republican White House types, including George Bush, the American counterpart to Yuri Andropov.
Upon examination, Timberg's seemingly exhaustive bibliographical references pointedly exclude some "non-conforming" source materials, notably the strident 1987 exposé by the left-liberal journalist Leslie Cockburn, Out of Control: The Story of the Reagan Administration's Secret War in Nicaragua, the Illegal Arms Pipeline, and the Contra Drug Connection. Conveniently, Timberg also ignored a number of damaging revelations in three important books that do appear in his bibliography: Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism by David C. Martin and John Walcott, Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Diplomacy in Nicaragua 1981-87 by Roy Gutman, and Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era by Steven Emerson.
While Timberg does not deserve to be relegated to the Oliver Stone scrapheap of mythistory, cynics will be tempted to ask, "Is he an ex-Marine whose cultural loyalties got the better of his ethics as a reporter. Or is he a reporter whose judgement was clouded by his own particular Vietnam-syndrome frailties?"
A recurrent theme in all the American "Vietnam" histories is the persistence of delusion-individual and collective-as the dominant motif that explains American behaviour. The advent of the Cold War and its concomitant doctrine of realpolitik, substituting "interests" for "principles", meant that the methods employed or acquired in the successful war against fascism (disinformation, assassination, state terrorism, etc.) were all fair game in the battle against communism.
From those beginnings, the national security state evolved and metastasized. Covert operations became normal, and as Halberstam said in The Best and the Brightest: "What your own population and your own Congress did not know was not particularly important; it was almost better if they did not know-it made it easier for them to accept the privileges and superiority of being a democracy..Thus it was better for the citizens, the editorial writers, the high school graduation speakers, to believe that we were different as a country. And a few chosen citizens working discreetly in Washington would do the dirty work for them. A public service."
By contrast, General Powell's recollections are filled with brusque contempt for the endemic Catch-22 cynicism of the war in Vietnam: "The policies-determining who would be drafted and who would be deferred, who would serve and who would escape, who would die and who would live-were an anti-democratic disgrace.. We accepted that we had been sent to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt.. Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressure and kept up the pretences, the phoney measure of body counts, the comforting illusion of secure hamlets, the inflated progress reports. As a corporate entity, the military failed to talk straight to its political leaders or to itself."
The simplest answer to the Vietnam conundrum and its legacies is that "Vietnam" was a signal catastrophe in American history because, for the first time ever, the United States lost a war on foreign battlefields. Unlike "Vietnam", the Korean War, the role model for democracy-vs.-the-domino-theory, was a limited success, a strategic standoff with honourable intentions that were strongly supported by the people of South Korea, where U.S. troops still protect the ceasefire.
A century removed from the internecine slaughter of the Civil War, the acrimony over the conflict in Vietnam signified that American society was once again split asunder by an intragenerational conflict over divided loyalties. This time, television and the continuing racial conflict were simultaneously forging new perceptions of democratic ideals, while stripping bare any illusions of a nobler conflict abroad.
I asked Robert Timberg to define what made "Vietnam" "different". He immediately retorted, "Vietnam wasn't any worse than Korea. What was different was the homecoming-coming home and being spat on, called `baby-killers'. Veterans had trouble getting jobs because of stereotypes about drugs and anti-social behaviour. Meanwhile, the other side, the deferment crowd, wore their anti-war credentials as if they were combat decorations. What that does is dislocate loyalty."
Written from the point of view of what he calls "the other side of the generational fault line", Timberg's narrative voice contains a lot of the suffused anger from that part of a generation that fought and returned to a society, which, they felt, denied them the honour they had earned. The driven duty-ethic of the men whose lives he traces in their post-Vietnam public service careers is perhaps best understood as a search for recognition from their peers and countrymen, a retrieval of their lost honour.
He and others who are contributing to the revisionist debate over the "meaning" of Vietnam blame the upper-middle-class members of their generation who ducked their duty-the other side of the fault line-for prolonging the war. "The last thing I would want to do is be a spokesman for Vietnam vets," he says, "but I think the feeling was, `If you believed in the war, then you had an obligation to serve; if you didn't, you had an obligation to put yourself in a position to mirror the danger.' What does that mean? It means that you went into your draft board and said `Hi, I'm John Smith and I'm not going to go.
"If the middle-class kids had done that, the machinery of the selective service system would have ground to a halt and the war would have ended years earlier."
It would seem that the "lessons" of the American experience in Vietnam are like the memories-subjective. Using the five men in The Nightingale Song as case studies, one would have to conclude that three of them-McFarlane, North, and Poindexter, once they entered the heady, geopolitical pressure chamber of the White House-lost sight of some of the pragmatic object lessons learned by Colin Powell.
John McCain and Jim Webb, the two strong individualists among Timberg's little group of warriors, have chosen divergent paths. First as a Republican member of Congress and then senator, McCain has publicly voiced his opposition and concern over the serial, aimless adventurism of three successive administrations: Reagan's (Lebanon), Bush's (Somalia), and Clinton's (Haiti and Bosnia). Webb, who as secretary of the navy expressed contempt for Reagan's strategic posturing over Iran and Iraq, has spent the past few years trying to make a feature film of his "Vietnam" novel, Fields of Fire.
As for the memories, Timberg suggests they will continue to reverberate, along with the lessons: "Vietnam syndrome will be gone when we've all passed from the scene or when we get in a war with the draft-when the sons of white middle-class people are called up-and they go." Until that happens, he believes much of the hatred and resentment across the fault line of the Vietnam generation will persist unabated. In his introduction, he quotes a terribly wounded Vietnam veteran who is a friend of Webb's: "There's a wall ten miles high and fifty miles thick between those of us who went and those who didn't, and that wall is never going to come down."
Finally, an observation about the memories of all those who go and live to dream about their war experiences. In a scene from one of the "Vietnam" chapters of The Nightingale's Song-a scene that is sure to be a part of Jim Webb's Hollywood script-an aging "mustang colonel" is instructing a bunch of raw Marine second lieutenants at officer training school." He tells them a story, a cautionary tale: " `When I got to Korea I was a seasoned combat infantryman from WWII...I was taking a patrol out and we hit a Chinese unit up on a ridge....I sent my platoon sergeant with a squad through the trees to envelope these guys. I sent fifteen men into the trees and fifteen men died.' He paused, letting his words do their work, then continued: `...I don't care how good you think you are. You're going to come back with skeletons in your closet. You're going to come back with memories that are going to follow you around for the rest of your life. And if you aren't tough enough to handle it, get out of here now.' "
Scott Disher is a Québanglo writer and media consultant who lives adjacent to the U.S. border, not far from the Melocheville site that honours Canada's Vietnam veterans. He is at work on a novel in which the central character is a Canadian who was a war correspondent in Vietnam.