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Vietnam, Two Brave Men, and the Paths They Took

December 2, 2016

Not long ago, in the span of just three weeks, I said goodbye to two friends.

Robert Timberg and Gordon Livingston didn’t know each other, as far as I know. Though both were successful authors, their books were on very different subjects and professionally they followed different paths — Gordon as a psychiatrist and Bob as a journalist and writer. But their earlier lives had some striking parallels. Both were military academy grads — Bob from the Naval Academy and Gordon from West Point. Both served in Vietnam and were profoundly affected by that war, though in dramatically different ways.

I don’t remember ever talking with either of them about the other, but my friendships with them had some parallels, too. As I told Gordon’s widow at his funeral, I wouldn’t call him a close friend, but I thought of him as a valued friend, one who was important to me even though we were not close in the conventional sense. My connection with Bob was exactly the same. I didn’t share either of their lives to any meaningful extent, and for long intervals I was not in contact with them at all. But for fairly long if intermittent periods, I exchanged thoughts with both of them — separately of course — from time to time over lunches or in emails. I read their writings and they read mine. I valued their knowledge and ideas, and their comments gave an inkling that they found some value in mine as well.

Writing was one meaningful bond in both those friendships. Vietnam was another. I do not compare my Vietnam experience with theirs. I was a civilian war correspondent, not a soldier, and while it’s a significant piece of my personal history, the war did not upend my life in any way even remotely comparable to its impact on theirs. But having my own memories of Vietnam did put me a little closer to what Gordon and Bob experienced there. Though I can’t be certain of this, they may have felt I knew them from somewhat less distance than others who had never been there at all. In his book The Nightingale’s Song, Bob quotes a fellow veteran named Milt Copulos, who said: “There’s a wall ten miles high and fifty miles thick between those of us who went and those who didn’t, and that wall is never going to come down.” I’m not sure if Bob or Copulos would think of me as really belonging on their side of that wall — probably not — but at least they’d know that I had seen their side and had an idea what it looked and sounded like there.

I met Bob Timberg in early 1971 in the pressroom of the State House in Annapolis. I was covering the Maryland state legislature for the Baltimore Sun. This was the year before they assigned me to Vietnam. Bob — who later had an impressive career with the Sun — was then a reporter for the local Annapolis paper, the Evening Capital. He had come to work there a year earlier, the first stop in a long and distinguished career in journalism. Three years before that, less than two weeks from the end of his tour as a Marine officer in Vietnam, he had been badly wounded when the amphibious tractor he was riding in hit a land mine and blew up. Terrible burns and dozens of surgeries left him with a gruesomely and permanently disfigured face.

I remember seeing Bob’s scars, of course; you couldn’t not notice them. I don’t remember anything else about our first meeting, though. I suppose we occasionally took part in the usual pressroom chatter about happenings in the legislature, but I don’t recall that either.  The first specific memory I have of him involves a news story that didn’t happen in Maryland or have any connection with anything we were covering in Annapolis — the conviction of 1st Lt. William Calley for the massacre of Vietnamese civilians in a place called My Lai.

At the time, though Americans may prefer not to remember it, a large segment of the public vocally supported Calley and excused him and his platoon for the killings. He was a scapegoat, many said. He and his men just did what they had to do and that was how you fought a war where you couldn’t distinguish enemy soldiers from civilians. To Bob, those excuses were monumentally wrong. They told him, in effect, that he and the marines in his company and all the other men who fought in Vietnam were no different from murderers. Bob said exactly that in a strongly worded column for the Capital’s editorial page a couple of days after the verdict. Calley, he wrote, was guilty “both morally and legally” of murder — a judgment that was clear to anyone who understood the laws of war, but far more powerful when it came from a man who had been grievously wounded in the same war.

I had no idea then how long and terrible a struggle it had been for Bob to get from that burning amtrac in Vietnam to the newsroom where he wrote that column. Nor, I suspect, did I come close to appreciating how hard it must have been emotionally for him to confront the country’s Vietnam debate and its many doubts about the war that had damaged him so grievously. I would see the context of his story more clearly a few years later after seeing Vietnam for myself. As for the details of Bob’s personal journey, I would only grasp them decades after that when I read his stunning memoir Blue-Eyed Boy, the last book he wrote. But I did know enough back in 1971 to recognize as soon as I read his Calley column that it was a powerful statement of moral and intellectual courage written by a man who had paid a heavy price for the knowledge and understanding he expressed. Reading it made me an admirer and I remained one from then on.

•        •        •

My friendship with Gordon Livingston began several times, not just once.

The first time was when we lived a couple of doors apart in a modest garden-apartment project in Waverly, a somewhat run-down neighborhood a few miles north of downtown Baltimore. This was eight or nine years before I met Bob in Annapolis. Vietnam was still a small distant cloud on America’s horizon. Gordon was a medical student at Johns Hopkins University and also an active-duty Army officer (a captain, I think), studying under an Army program that brought him to medical school after spending his first two years out of West Point in an infantry unit. I was a brand-new 21-year-old reporter, learning the trade by covering police news for the Sun, and also a brand-new husband.

My main impression of Gordon in those days — how much was reality and how much was my own stereotyping I’m not sure — was as an archetypical West Pointer, the straightest arrow I knew. Much more clean-cut and wholesome than the scruffy newspaper crowd I spent most of my time with. For two or three years, he and I were friendly neighbors, but no more. Neither of us made any attempt to stay in touch after we both moved away from Waverly, and with all that happened in Gordon’s life in the next few years, I can’t imagine that he thought about me at all until we unexpectedly came back into each other’s lives years later — by odd coincidence, in the same State House and during the same legislative session where I met Bob Timberg.

I had no idea Gordon was in the building that day in 1971 until I walked into a hearing room and saw him standing in front of a microphone. He was there to testify for a resolution calling for U.S. troops to withdraw from Vietnam — a symbolic act with no legal force, but one the anti-war movement was promoting in Maryland and other states as a way to express the country’s growing opposition to the war. My super-straight, picture-book Army officer neighbor was now a war protester? A startling transformation, to say the least. And the details of Gordon’s journey over the years since I’d last seen him were startling as well. Here’s a quick thumbnail (not from my memory but from a first-person account Gordon wrote for Saturday Review):

After completing his medical degree and internship, Gordon returned to Army service, as he was committed to do in return for the Army supporting his medical training. He volunteered for duty in Vietnam and in late 1968, was assigned as regimental surgeon for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, based north of Saigon. There, Gordon became increasingly troubled by the treatment of Vietnamese civilians in the unit’s area — unnecessary civilian casualties, careless or sometimes deliberate destruction of property, mindless abuses like throwing ration cans at village children or deliberately speeding through hamlets so the dust thrown up by truck tires spewed over villagers’ homes and food stocks. In one particularly shocking episode, a helicopter pilot literally ran down two Vietnamese women on bicycles, killing them both. The pilot was exonerated of any wrongdoing.

Eventually Gordon felt compelled to publicly protest against those practices and the racial contempt that he believed was the underlying cause, along with the intense pressure for high body counts. His moment came at a change-of-command ceremony for the regiment’s commanding officer, Col. George S. Patton, III, the son and namesake of the famous World War II general. At the ceremony, Gordon passed out 200 copies of a satirical prayer he had written that expressed the real spirit, as he saw it, of the war Americans were fighting in Vietnam. I won’t quote the whole thing here but these lines will give the idea:

Give us this day a gun that will fire 10,000 rounds a second, a napalm that will burn for a week. Help us to bring death and destruction wherever we go, for we do it in thy name and therefore it is meet and just. We thank thee for this war, mindful that, while it is not the best of all wars, it is better than no war at all.

The Army reacted swiftly. Gordon was relieved of his duties, confined to his quarters for 48 hours, and given a psychiatric evaluation as a preliminary measure for a possible court-martial. After another month on temporary assignment at a different military hospital in Vietnam, he was declared “an embarrassment to the command” and ordered back to the United States. Telling his superiors that he intended to continue speaking against the war, whether in the Army or not, he asked to resign his commission. Instead of prosecuting him, the Army accepted his resignation, giving him a general rather than honorable discharge.

I don’t remember exactly how much of that story I heard after that unexpected reunion in the State House and which details I learned only years later when Gordon and I renewed our acquaintance for still a third time after another long hiatus. But, as with Bob Timberg’s column on My Lai, Gordon’s story left me with an enduring admiration for his humanity and moral courage — an admiration that became stronger and more meaningful after my own years covering Indochina and witnessing first-hand the devastation of civilian lives in that war.

•        •        •

In the years after those encounters in the Maryland State House, Bob Timberg became a respected reporter for the Sun, mostly in the paper’s Washington bureau. That made us colleagues for seven or eight years, though never in the same newsroom (I was overseas for most of that time, including my three years covering Vietnam). While still with the Sun Bob wrote his first book, The Nightingale’s Song; several others followed, including Blue-Eyed Boy and an earlier memoir, State of Grace, about his life before Vietnam. Meanwhile Gordon Livingston became a psychiatrist, practicing for many years in Columbia, Maryland. His first book, Only Spring, grew out of inconceivable personal tragedy, the agonizing death of his 6-year old son, Lucas, who died of leukemia a little more than a year after an older son, Andrew, committed suicide at 22. In later books, Gordon eloquently explored timeless themes of the human condition: love, courage, strength, tragedy, and survival.

In the years I knew them, I don’t remember thinking about Bob and Gordon at the same time. That thought might not have crossed my mind at all if their memorials hadn’t come so close together, so that Bob’s was still fresh in my mind when I attended Gordon’s. (Gordon actually died almost six months earlier, but because his family waited until the fall to hold a service, his funeral was three weeks after Bob’s.) I don’t know for a fact that they never met, but in my mind, at any rate, they existed separately, so it was only after attending both ceremonies during that short interval that I found myself wondering how they might have thought of each other and about the similarities and differences in their past lives.

In Gordon’s case, I have little doubt that he would have regarded Bob pretty much as I did, with respect for his honesty and eloquence as a writer and for the physical and emotional courage it took to look the world in the face all those years from behind his own scarred one. (If a West Point guy would entertain any positive thoughts about a Naval Academy guy, that is, but I am reasonably sure these two could rise above that particular tribalism.)

I’m slightly less certain about Bob, though only slightly. The peace movement that Gordon was associated with remained something of a sore spot for him, as it was for many Vietnam veterans — understandably, since if the protesters were right about the war, everything they went through was for nothing. That would be a painful thought for any vet, surely more so if the war had cost you as much as it cost Bob, and possibly even more painful, not less, if you came to have doubts about the war yourself. I don’t remember any conversations with him on that subject, but here’s what he wrote in Blue-Eyed Boy about his feelings while studying at Stanford University after his Vietnam tour and his long siege in hospitals, a period when the antiwar movement was at its height on American campuses:

I was perplexed, torn between two views. On one hand, I believed if called a man should be willing to take up arms for his country, even if the cause was murky and the reasons for going to war not clearly defined. On the other hand, what should a man do if he honestly believed the war was a ghastly mistake, as so many seemed to? Go anyway, taking a chance of being killed or maimed like me or killing another man while defying his own conscience?

As that passage shows, he recognized the real issues of conscience that draft-age protesters were struggling with. But he also felt many of them didn’t really care about the war, but just about avoiding the draft and letting others do the fighting and the dying. In that group, he found little to respect, then or later. “I know you think you were smarter than us, and more sensitive, and lived on a higher moral plane, and you probably thought you had more reason to live,” he once said, addressing the other half of his generation that didn’t go to Vietnam. “But that is not what you looked like to us.”

Still, he did not have easy answers for the questions the peace movement had raised about the war. And without forgiving those he saw as sitting out the war without paying any price for their decision, he did come, possibly not entirely willingly, to see something admirable in those who were willing to go to prison or accept some sacrifice for their refusal to serve. “There was no free lunch,” he decided at Stanford. “Somehow you had to put yourself in peril in a way that mirrored the dangers faced by millions of other men of your generation.” His specific example was David Harris, a prominent anti-war activist (also the husband of folk singer Joan Baez) who received a three-year prison sentence for refusing to report after getting his draft notice. “Guys willing to go to the slammer like David Harris,” Bob wrote, “were okay by me.”

Gordon Livingston’s circumstances were not the same as Harris’s. He was a serving Army officer, not a potential draftee, so Bob might have seen his obligations differently. But like Harris, Gordon wasn’t indulging in cost-free posturing. In making his quixotic protest, Gordon risked a court-martial and possible criminal punishment, and ended up sacrificing his career. Beyond that, the principle that inspired his protest was essentially the same, when you think about it, as the principle that inspired Bob’s column on My Lai — that soldiers do not make war on civilians and do not excuse those who do. So, it’s not a sure bet, but it’s certainly possible that Gordon would have passed Bob’s David Harris test and been found okay too. It’s too late to ask and make sure, but it seems conceivable, perhaps likely, that those two men would have recognized and saluted each other’s bravery and honor — words that I understand better for knowing these two men.

Brave men, who cared about important things and wrote well and honestly about them. I am thankful I knew them and sorry they are gone. Rest in peace, Bob and Gordon. More than most people I have known, you deserve it.

 

Arnold R. Isaacs is a writer and former journalist who covered the final years of the Vietnam war as a war correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. He has written two books on Vietnam: Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia and Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy, and is also the author of From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America. Isaacs lives in Anne Arundel county, Maryland.

 

Robert Timberg’s books are: The Nightingale’s Song; John McCain: An American Odyssey; State of Grace: A Memoir of Twilight Time; and Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir.

Gordon Livingston’s books are: Only Spring: on mourning the death of my son; Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now;  And Never Stop Dancing: Thirty More True Things You Need to Know Now; How to Love: Choosing Well at Every Stage of Life; and The Thing You Think You Cannot Do: Thirty Truths about Fear and Courage.

A reproduction of Gordon’s “letter from a Vietnam Veteran,” describing the protest that ended his Vietnam service and his Army career, is online.

For a fuller and more coherent account of their lives and achievements, see the following obituaries in The Baltimore Sun (Bob and Gordon), The Washington Post (Bob and Gordon), and The New York Times.

Image: Department of Defense

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