- - Tuesday, August 12, 2014

By Robert Timberg
Penguin Press, $27.95, 384 pages

Some nurses called him “The Burn” after he was hideously wounded in a landmine explosion in Vietnam four decades ago. He was a young Marine whose life also exploded as he endured the torture of repeated surgeries that left him with a scarred face as well as living a psychological nightmare. He still recalls how a young corpsman suggested he wear a paper bag with eye holes cut in it so no one could see his face. He also recalls the psychiatrist who commented, “That may not be such a bad idea.”

He not only survived, but he emerged as Robert Timberg, veteran newspaperman, author of books demonstrating his understanding of men such as Sen. John McCain, who also suffered the miseries attendant on war. In this grim and fascinating book, Mr. Timberg’s voice is harsh and uncompromising, perhaps like the man himself. He acknowledges without sentiment that it was his fault that what didn’t survive were his two marriages to women with whom he retains friendship. His first wife, Janie, emerges as a woman of great courage, determination and patience. She fought for him in hospitals, inspired him to seek a career and a life that seemed lost to him, and it wasn’t enough. She and their children watched the marriage crumble as Mr. Timberg marched alone to his own strange drummer.

Mr. Timberg became a newspaper reporter and made a success of it, impressing the editors he worked for with his unflinching resolve to deal with the demons of his past as well as the challenges of his current life. He married again, as he observes, because he didn’t like being alone, and again accepts responsibility for the failure of that match.

Perhaps only in his work could Mr. Timberg find what he sought. He was accepted at Stanford in the journalism graduate program in 1968, but recalls he rarely strolled the campus — “fewer shocked looks to endure, fewer chances of overhearing a devastating whispered comment.”

He recalls the variation in students, some of them the “long-haired, self-absorbed faux warriors who wore camouflage utilities and combat boots and lived their opposition to the war. At times I felt like I had infiltrated an alien nation inhabited by creatures with whom I had nothing in common. Where I came from, blind men or disfigured men or men without legs or arms struggled to build some semblance of a future, never quite overcoming the recognition that . their lives had ended before they had even begun — like me, old men before their time.”

Yet what lay ahead of him was literary success based on the rawness of his life as he lived it. When he wrote “The Nightingale’s Song,” he envisioned his audience who had been through the controversies of the Vietnam War. His most vigorous reaction came from an audience that included Mr. McCain, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, John Poindexter and Jim Webb. He became close to Mr. McCain, who spoke to him of the “breaking point” that eventually came with prolonged torture and his feelings of guilt. He became friends with Linda Poindexter, wife of Vice Adm. John Poindexter, who was enmeshed in legal difficulties involving indictments for conspiracy and lying to Congress, and he wound up with weekly interviews with Adm. Poindexter.

He interviewed Mr. McFarlane (in the wake of his Iran-Contra suicide attempt), whom he found “an unusual combination of a combat-tested Marine and strategic thinker” who was also “painfully vulnerable.” He also interviewed Oliver North, “one of the most interesting men in the world.” And he remembered the “remorseless judgment” of Mr. Webb on how the Vietnam War ended.

What he concluded from his work, writes Mr. Timberg, was that “Vietnam with the many shades of meaning that name had taken on, would continue to haunt the nation well into the twenty-first century.”

Few are better equipped to write about it.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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