This weekend, they’ll lay to rest the body of Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, and the ghost of Robert Timberg will surely linger nearby.
Nobody understood McCain’s ordeal better than Timberg, nor wrote about it better. The two shared a history. Each graduated from the Naval Academy – Timberg several years behind McCain – and each went to Vietnam, where they went through the tortures of the damned.
Timberg wrote about McCain’s ordeal in “The Nightingale’s Song,” published in 1995. It’s a remarkable book about McCain — who died last weekend, at 81, after a year-long struggle with brain cancer — and some of his classmates at the academy, including Oliver North and Jim Webb.
And then, a few years ago, not long before he died in 2016 at age 76, came Timberg’s revealing autobiography, “Blue-Eyed Boy.”
McCain’s ordeal, as a prisoner of war in Vietnam who stood up to unimaginable torture, lasted 5 1/2 years. Timberg’s lasted much longer. Two weeks before he was to come home from the war, Timberg’s face was blown away by a land mine.
He went through 35 surgeries, one without anesthesia. The medical reports described his face as “highly repugnant.” For the rest of his life, children who saw him on the street stared in disbelief.
McCain went on to the U.S. Senate and twice ran for the presidency. Timberg spent three decades writing for the Baltimore Sun.
Nobody understood McCain’s ordeal better than Timberg. Few understood, better than the two of them, the American divisions during the long Vietnam War.
They were part of America’s warrior class. They translated their love of country into serving it with good intentions, but paid the worst kind of price.
They did it when millions were ducking away, choosing up sides from whatever safe place an entire generation could find. In “The Nightingale’s Song,” Timberg reports that 27 million men came of draft age during the war years, 16 million of whom escaped military service “through deferments, exemptions, legal technicalities, physical or emotional problems real or faked, all of it done with background, wit or money.”
McCain and Timberg went to war. They thought it was the right thing to do. That doesn’t make them saints, just true believers. The country depends on such people, and also on those who express their honest doubts, as millions did during Vietnam.
It’s a painful process, which gives the country its fine tuning, even when it feels like an awful grinding. Those who believe America’s going through a divisive time right now – and they’re right – should understand, it’s merely a fraction of the antagonism endured during Vietnam.
And only the dead paid a dearer price than John McCain – and Bob Timberg.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” has just been reissued in paperback by the Johns Hopkins University Press.