The Nightingale’s Song

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“Some looked on his cavalier attitude toward the facts as a harmless, at times amusing sidelight to his high-octane personality. Others seemed to view it as a disability for which he bore no responsibility, like a clubfoot.”

–regarding Oliver North’s lies and credit-grabbing but incredible work ethic in doing a job, and lack of accountability in the event of failure or wrongdoing

The Book of the Week is “The Nightingale’s Song” by Robert Timberg, published in 1995. In this large paperback, the author provided biographies of a group of Naval Academy-at-Annapolis graduates of 1958, 1959 and 1968. Their backgrounds provided insights as to their behaviors, and how they fared at the end of the Reagan Era. The group included John McCain, John Poindexter, Bud McFarlane, Oliver North, and Jim Webb, Jr.

During the Cold War, there were countless ways the United States government, through propaganda, incited phobia across-the-board that the Soviet Union might attack with nuclear weapons. In July 1958, the U.S., pursuant to such phobia, loaded nuclear missiles(!) into AD Skyraiders that would presumably counterattack if the Soviets got aggressive in Berlin or North Korea. For, the U.S. was distracted helping the president of Lebanon stay in power, as there had been a coup in Iraq. McFarlane participated in the Skyraiders endeavor, despite his alarm.

In late 1967, McFarlane was sent to Dong Ha, where he saw that the American senior military leadership was conducting the war extremely stupidly. They had pipe dreams of high-tech installations– while the infantry and artillery suffered shortages of basic supplies. A killing-the-enemy quota was imposed on the front-line soldiers, but the enemy was using guerrilla warfare.

Vietnam veterans such as McCain, McFarlane, Webb, North and Poindexter did their patriotic duty, and entered public service. While they were fighting, however, antiwar protesters and draft dodgers entered the professions and the political arena. “The president and many politicians appeared to be cheering them on.”

Further, the younger generation of civilians appointed by Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense in Lyndon Johnson’s administration) behaved haughtily toward the former old-school military leaders (WWII and Korean veterans) who were then serving in the federal government. The former were comprised of a “pampered, unbloodied elite.” Congress scapegoated senior military leaders over Vietnam. The usual egregious hypocrisy abounded over Monday-morning quarterbacking. There was serious brain drain from the Navy, and budget cuts, too.

North, McFarlane and Poindexter had met at Annapolis and were reunited in the National Security Council during Reagan’s first term. In early 1982, critics claimed there was a lack of foreign policy experience. That was disputed at a meeting of Reagan’s top staffers. Meanwhile, McCain was still recovering physically and psychologically from having been a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton” for five years and change.

In mid-1981, McCain insanely decided to run for Congress from the state of Arizona, even though he was labeled a carpetbagger. Having never lived in Arizona, he joined his wife’s family there. His campaign had a very short year and a half before election day, to get his name and platform known, raise money, etc., etc., etc.

All through the Reagan years, there was a constant tug-of-war between the policy makers in the White House, and the military men in the Pentagon. As a consequence, countless dangerous situations ensued; one occurred in the early 1980’s: each gave contradictory orders to a troopship off the coast of Lebanon. The men appointed to high-level policy positions in the White House (i.e., the major perpetrators of the Iran-Contra scandal) eventually went rogue– ignored the chain of command, and thought nothing of it.

In the mid-1980’s, the men in the Reagan administration argued over what to do about the mentally unstable Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They decided against killing him altogether. The reasoning went that he’d be viewed as a martyr, prompting Arab terror groups to counterattack with vicious vehemence. Poindexter simply wanted to humiliate Gaddafi, and maybe ordinary Libyans would be grateful, and finish getting rid of him themselves.

Of the Iran-Contra scandal, the author wrote, “If nothing else, the administration acted in a muddleheaded, thoroughly unprofessional manner… Administration spokesmen denied any American involvement [on the the CIA-Contra aspect of it] but evidence that they were lying piled up quickly.” By the mid-1980’s, Americans of “Generation X” and older, could see that the Cold War hysteria about Central America generated by the American government was overblown. The region was like Vietnam all over again, complete with guerrilla warfare.

In July 1987, North became a TV star when he testified at the Iran-Contra hearings. He launched a blistering attack on Congress. He considered himself a man of honor in actually helping the Contras because he kept his promise that he would. His other defenses were: the goal was to free six American hostages in Iran; secure supplies for American troops because their lives were at risk. On the other hand, North engaged in very illegal activities: shredded documents, committed perjury, broke federal law by skirting Congress and the president in funding operations that affected numerous people’s lives– and even put lives at risk.

Curiously, the author failed to provide significant information on a major component of the Iran-Contra story: William Casey and his CIA. Casey was conveniently dying of a brain tumor (a smart career move) when the scandal broke. This book, therefore, is missing a major ingredient. It is like baking a cake, and omitting the sugar!

Anyway, read the book to learn additional numerous factoids about the above and other major Reagan-Era characters whose common military schooling gave them a particular mentality and shaped their generation.