by Jeong Lee, a freelance writer.
In former Senator Jim Webb’s classic Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire (1978), there is a scene where the protagonist, a young Marine lieutenant who is about to be sent to Vietnam, encounters his deceased father’s footlocker for the first time. After discovering his father’s belongings inside the footlocker, the lieutenant wonders to himself, “Will I, in the end, meet your fate, Father? I don’t want to, but I am not afraid. You and the others have taught me that.”
In more ways than one, journalist and author Robert Timberg’s recent memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy, mirrors the above scene in Webb’s novel. For Timberg, a journalist and a former Marine officer whose combat wound in Vietnam left him disfigured for life, telling his story must have been a painful process, but at the same time, a cathartic rediscovery of his younger self and the blessings of his second career as a journalist and a writer. Unlike other war memoirs, Blue-Eyed Boy neither embellishes the author’s achievements nor does the book wallow in self-pity. Instead, the author is brutally honest about himself before his readers. As he writes, “I was no more John McCain [the subject of his two books] than I was Chesty Puller in the Marine Corps. But I more than survived.”
As a Marine infantry officer who served with the 1st Antitank Battalion of the 1st Marine Division in South Vietnam, he had seen some action, but in his own words, the dangers he faced “were nothing compared to what the grunts faced every day.” The cocksure Naval Academy Marine had thirteen days left before the end of his combat tour when the amphibian tractor he rode on hit a Vietcong landmine that left him with third-degree burns to his right forearm and his face. When the Marine Corps medically retired Captain Timberg, they described his wounds as “highly repugnant”. The disfigured former Marine officer would endure 35 facial reconstruction surgeries and be forced to start a new life.
Timberg stumbled upon his stellar career as a journalist by accident. In his interview with Baltimore magazine, he said that he pursued journalism because as a former football player and a Marine, he refused to let his disfigurement get the better of himself. However, there was something else. In his memoir, he credits his first wife, Janie, for guiding him to his newfound calling. As Timberg writes, Janie insisted that he pursue journalism because he “wrote good letters to [her]”. Indeed, through his dogged determination and perseverance as a newspaper reporter, he finds his new niche in print journalism. Although he still faced hostile stares and pity from people who did not know about his combat wound, after he wrote his first article for the Annapolis Evening Capital, he writes that he “had no sense of being disfigured”. In 1979, Timberg was selected for the prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University where he would interact with finest intellectuals and journalists from around the world.
Perhaps more important, his stint as a White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun catapulted the disfigured former Marine to the status as one of the finest chroniclers of his own generation. After Timberg covered the White House during the Reagan Administration, he would go on to write The Nightingale’s Song (1995), a book that chronicled the lives of five Vietnam-era Naval Academy graduates, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, Marine LtCols Oliver North and Robert MacFarlane, former presidential candidate John McCain, and Jim Webb whom he describes as the “kickass troubadour” of the Vietnam generation. In the final third section of the book where Timberg details the process of writing The Nightingale’s Song, he makes it clear that he did not approve of the chicanery with which North, MacFarlane, and Poindexter sought to flout the Constitution and deceive elected representatives. But at the same time, he writes that he could not help but think that the three received undue criticism “that went beyond condemning their action and trespassed into the personal. It was as if these critics…seemed to hate them, hate them with a white-hot intensity I found hard to comprehend (Italics mine)”. For this reason, by discussing at length his personal interview sessions with MacFarlane and Poindexter, Timberg attempts to impart a measure of dignity for his subjects. In a chapter entitled “Identity Crisis”, Timberg admits that as he was writing The Nightingale’s Song, “the anger that [he] had so long controlled, whose existence [he] had refused to even acknowledge, broke through the vaccine that had allowed [him] to ignore [their] actions”. Indeed, in the same manner that Webb accused draft-dodgers of their supposed cowardice in his novels, Fields of Fire, and A Country Such As This, Timberg would render his not-so-kind judgment against those of his generation that did not serve.
Although I do not share Timberg’s contempt for those of his generation who avoided military service, I see his memoir for what it is. A wounded Marine’s personal story of duty, sacrifice and personal triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. And of course, a man’s candid admission of his own personal failures and flaws.
The New York Times called Blued-Eyed Boy “a better metaphor for the experience of Vietnam veterans than the somewhat contrived construct of his previous book”. But for me personally, it is an inspirational tale of personal triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds.
See also: “Q&A with Bob Timberg“, C-SPAN, 03.09.2014
— Robert Timberg, “Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir” (New York: Penguin Press HC, The, 2014), 384 pages.