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The Nightingale’s Song

A story of Greek proportions

Anyone who’s visited Annapolis is familiar with the site of the white-uniformed Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy. But unless you’re one of the 1,000 or so to graduate from the service academy each year, life behind its stone walls and iron fences is full of mystery like some secret society.
    Inviting us inside is author Robert Timberg, himself a 1964 graduate of the Academy and a Marine in Vietnam. His 1995 book The Nightingale’s Song fleshes out perhaps the five most famous graduates of the service academy in the 20th century: John McCain, James Webb, John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane and Oliver North.
    Each of these men, Timberg writes, were forged at the Academy and tempered in the crucible of the Vietnam War. They were empowered with life-or-death decisions for themselves and the men they led.
    That strength of conviction would serve some of them well, and for others it would prove their downfall.
    It provided John McCain the will to survive his years of torture as a prisoner of war and fueled his rise in politics. It led James Webb to a stint as Secretary of the Navy — a post held by both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, whose lead he hoped to follow after a term in the U.S. Senate and his recently suspended quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
    A similar sense of conviction drove North, Poindexter and McFarlane, the three most well-known culprits — or to some, heroes — of the Iran-Contra scandal, which tarnished the waning days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
    In Timberg’s hands, their fates seem almost pre-ordained, like the characters of Greek theater. Despite being groomed to lead, each was following the song of the nightingale, a bird that can only learn its tune from another of its species.
    The Nightingale’s Song is a fitting tribute to the men — and since 1976, women — who graduate from the Naval Academy in a world still wrestling with the legacy of Vietnam.