Friday, October 24, 2014

What We're Reading: Memoirs by Veterans

Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir, by Robert Timberg

Robert Timberg was a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served with the First Marine Division in South Vietnam from March 1966 until January 1967 when he was wounded. After Vietnam, Timberg went to graduate school to become a reporter, and he worked at the Baltimore Sun for more than three decades as a reporter, editor, and White House correspondent. He has written a major book on the military figures who were involved in the Iran Contra Affair, The Nightingale’s Song, as well as a biography, John McCain, An American OdysseyBlue-Eyed Boy is a compelling story, one of personal triumph over great adversity in the aftermath of war and a terrible wounding, but much of the power of this memoir comes from Timberg's use of his own story to trace the long-lasting and persistent divide in this country between those who served and those who did not. For the Vietnam generation, it forces us to remember emotional wounds we thought time had healed, and to face the fact that, perhaps like Timberg’s own physical and emotional wounds, they have healed imperfectly. Blue-eyed Boy is a call for redress from a country that treated but indifferently a generation of American veterans who served in Vietnam.

The wound Timberg received when his vehicle struck a Vietcong land mine was not one that could ever be hidden or forgotten. It would always be present for others to see, and he would have to deal with that for the rest of his life. Timberg skillfully recounts his own dawning realization of what had happened to him. He is in a great deal of pain immediately after the fiery blast, but when he first looks at his visage in the mirror he sees his familiar face, however badly reddened. He doesn’t realize what is about to happen--that the skin is simply going to fall off, that his features will morph and melt and scar. His former appearance will never be restored. He went through years of operations and reconstructive surgery after the disfiguring third-degree burns to his face. The reaction of others to his scarred and frightening visage, the pity of friends and the unguarded comments and frequent revulsion of children, is a moving story.

It is the nature of his wound that ties the personal and public aspects of this story together. The physical damage is a visible symbol of the abiding psychological damage that has taken place within. That damage is not just about the wound itself; it is about what Timberg feels is the reluctance of the nation to appreciate and honor the choices and sacrifices of those who served in an unpopular war, both the actual and metaphoric averted eyes and turning away, the frequent antipathy, these attitudes towards the soldiers that were extended to the idea of military duty and service itself in the years that followed the war. For Timberg it is not whether the war was right or wrong but whether you answered the call when your country summoned you. He can have a grudging respect for those that answered it negatively, such as the anti-war activist David Harris, who took the consequences for refusing to serve and went to prison. What he can’t abide are those who evaded giving an answer, who finagled endless deferments while they protested the war or fled the country. In Timberg's view, they were willing to let others serve in their place, and then they dishonored those who did so.

One can share Timberg’s feelings about the disrespect directed against those who made the choice to go to war because they felt they were doing their duty to their country, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that their country was in some measure complicit with those who sought deferments and found ways to evade the draft. In practice, the selective service system compelled those to serve who had little political power or influence in order to fill the ranks for a war that would not have been tolerated as long as it was if it had sacrificed the sons and daughters of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and the politically connected.

Timberg traces here an abiding divide in America about citizenship and its obligations, about the idea of duty to country. It is perhaps a discussion we should have. As ever seems to be the case with discussions of this sort, the polarization arises from entirely different value systems. The antagonists talk past each other--they don’t even seem to speak the same language. But what makes it even more difficult now to have the discussion and reconciliation that Timberg seeks is that as a nation we have, with some deliberation, devised a way to avoid it while still finding a way to carry on the business of war. In the aftermath of Vietnam, service to one’s country has become (however much we thank soldiers for their service) a voluntary career choice. It is a more dangerous profession than some others, but not a matter of duty or civic obligation. If we any longer have such a sense of duty, we have contracted it out to a segment of the population willing to carry that burden for us. You wonder if younger people who were raised in this country after the Vietnam War might even be able to understand Blue-Eyed Boy, the pain and the anger and from where it comes. This is a book for those of us who know.

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