In “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s classic account of the origins of the Vietnam War, the author recounts a 1961 conversation between Vice President-elect Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House. Johnson was highly impressed with the boy wonders being brought into the Kennedy Cabinet. Rayburn proved more skeptical. “They may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn told Johnson. “But I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”
As interest in a small strip of land along the Indochina peninsula ramped up, Halberstam found that the lack of real-world credentials in the Kennedy administration foretold doom. What these officials needed more of was “true wisdom . . . the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”
This sort of wisdom resonates throughout “Blue-Eyed Boy,” a fierce and enthralling memoir by Vietnam veteran and career journalist Robert Timberg. In early 1967, with less than two weeks remaining in his tour, Timberg’s vehicle struck a Viet Cong land mine. “I felt myself lifted,” Timberg writes, “as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.”
A young Marine lieutenant trained in the infantry but performing an admin role, he’d been on his way to the bush to distribute combat pay — an irony so perverse that it echoes Hemingway being injured by mortars while delivering chocolates and cigarettes to the front. Timberg survived the attack, but barely. Third-degree burns covered much of his face, and “what remained looked like steak before you throw it on the grill,” he writes.
The emotional impact of what had occurred came slowly. He resorted at first to flippancy, hiding behind the tough grit of the martial culture he inhabited. Then the bandages came off. Though his wife was upbeat, Timberg came to despise leaving their apartment and falling under the staring eyes of children. Depression came, along with thoughts of suicide, though he learned to fight off the worst downward swings and accepted what he described as “the living hell that had come to define my existence.” And that was just the first year of recovery.
Timberg was to endure more than 30 reconstructive operations, including a full-thickness graft done without any anesthesia — a harrowing scene that “Blue-Eyed Boy” depicts plainly but directly.
In a crisp, unsentimental style, Timberg (father of Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg) traces his long postwar journey from the hospital ward to the newsroom — or, as he puts it, “Remember[ing] how I decided not to die.” His memories come with blunt detachment. The first time a nurse referred to him as an object? “The Burn just lay there, uncomplaining, a pathetic slab of helpless protoplasm.” How he settled on a career in journalism? “I threw a dart and that’s where it landed.” (The dart in question landed on graduate school at Stanford.) On coming home to a nation divided by vitriolic protests? “The [antiwar] guys willing to go to the slammer . . . were okay by me.”
Timberg is perhaps best known for “The Nightingale’s Song,” his celebrated 1995 account of prominent Vietnam-era Naval Academy graduates — such as John McCain, Oliver North and Jim Webb — and what their careers and legacies meant in an America still deeply scarred by “that war.” In “Blue-Eyed Boy,” we get a behind-the-curtains look into the arduous work that went into Timberg’s first book, and how the research and interviews for it reawakened demons he’d long thought buried. And no wonder, given the intimate conversations he had with McCain about the latter’s years under torture, and with Webb about the rage they share for the American elite’s forsaking of responsibility during Vietnam.
Despite these intriguing political backdrops, at its core “Blue-Eyed Boy” is the story of a man who fought, fought like hell — first for survival, then for a life. The transition began when he started thinking of himself as lucky and blessed, rather than as a victim. Though he may have stumbled into journalism, Timberg took to it “like a Marine to mud.” We follow his steady rise from cub reporter at a small paper in Annapolis, Md., to a Nieman fellow at Harvard, an honor for which he hilariously interviews while wearing a shoe sopping with blood from a hotel-room mishap. Later he writes a 5,000-word feature for Esquire about the 1967 championship boxing match between Webb and North at the Naval Academy, and he becomes the White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. It’s not all triumph — Timberg dutifully chronicles his struggles and stumbles, turning his searing journalistic eye on his younger self, even when that younger self’s professional ambitions help end one marriage and then another.
Nearly 50 years after Lt. Timberg’s fateful patrol through hostile country, another generation of vets is returning home wondering what it was all for. I’m among this number. For all the dissimilarities in eras — we were greeted with yellow ribbons and parades, superficialities meant to atone for mistakes — the homecoming experience for American soldiers and Marines remains a messy, complicated affair. For some, finding the rhythms of everyday life again can be difficult. Turns out, that’s okay. It’s actually an indispensable part of the process of achieving something as abstractly noble as Halberstam’s “true wisdom,” which Timberg lays bare in the pages of “Blue-Eyed Boy.”
“I suspect there’s something essentially human about what I fought my way through,” he writes in the book’s prologue. That only begins to hint at the fullness of his life’s journey. This is vital reading.
By Robert Timberg
The Penguin Press. 304 pp. $27.95