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BOOK TAKES VIETNAM 1 STEP FURTHER

When a little-known Marine colonel named Oliver North appeared before a congressional committee probing the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, long-haired committee counsel John Nields cited a military document dated Nov. 17 at "two thousand, which I take it is 8 p.m."

"Twenty hundred," North corrected him dryly. "Military time."North's old U.S. Naval Academy buddies watching the exchange on television howled at the spit-and-polish Marine's subtle putdown of the hippie lawyer.

What they were hearing, writes Robert Timberg in "The Nightingale's Song," a splendid new account of five men who were hip-deep or on the fringes of that scandal, "was a generation cracking along a fault line that first appeared two decades earlier and haunted American society ever since."

That fault line was Vietnam, and it separated the believers from the unbelievers who cheered for each Viet Cong victory.

In the growing library of Vietnam literature, much has been written about disillusioned infantrymen, arrogant policymakers, isolated generals, civilian war victims and the resulting loss of American innocence and national confidence.

Missing from that library has been an unheralded cohort - those dedicated, maybe even naive, men who grew up in a muscular post-war America, made careers in uniform fighting for it, begged and connived to go to Vietnam rather than stay away, believed in the nobility of that fight, and unlike brother warriors over two centuries, returned to a society that reviled their sacrifice.

Timberg, former Baltimore Sun White House correspondent and a badly wounded Vietnam vet himself, has filled the void with graceful prose and exhaustive reporting.

His compelling account of five fellow Annapolis grads (four of them Vietnam vets) who all went on to serve in Washington with mixed results - Arizona Sen. John McCain, author and former Navy Secretary James Webb, former national security advisers Robert McFarland and John Poindexter, and political evangelist North - is a perceptive, passionate and more readable companion to Hal-ber-stam's much-heralded "The Best and the Brightest."

Aside from their alma mater, ambition and patriotism, these five were united only by a common source of inspiration - Ronald Reagan, the nightingale of the title.

Embittered by civilian leadership that they believed led them into America's first wartime loss, they swooned to Reagan's song of shameless patriotism that depicted their cause as noble and gave voice to "vocal cords (that) had been stunned into silence . . . by the hostility and ridicule their countrymen."

But Reagan, who was "anyone you wanted him to be," does not come off well here, for he left his own Iran-Contra "wounded strewn on the battlefield."

Despite his denials, did he know about the diversion of Iranian arms payments to the Contras? It's quite possible, concludes Timberg, for in McFarlane's words, "he had the attention span of a fruit fly," and may have forgotten what he was told.

Although it was Iran-Contra that attracted him to his tale, Timberg is too good a reporter to make such a bizarre melange of Iranian mullahs, Nicaraguan freedom fighters and shady arms dealers into a generational morality play. Such treatment defied the efforts of newsmen trying to make sense of it all.

Rather, he tells his story as mini-biography, keeping the scale human and letting the scandal serve as a stage to showcase the fault line. The result adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

By all odds, its most interesting part is McCain, a Navy pilot who was shot down and imprisoned for 51/2 years, and whose heroism there "is truly breathtaking to read about," in former Navy Secretary John Lehman's words.

McCain's story is rich in irony, for this son and grandson of admirals was a youthful hellion who resisted the academy's often idiotic regimen almost as fiercely as he did his captors (he finished fifth from the bottom of his class), and emerged from his prison hell more balanced - and less susceptible to the siren song's most seductive lure - than his compatriots.

The lesson in his story, and in Bob Timberg's remarkable book, should be obvious, but sadly isn't in the wake of that divisive conflict. Namely, one needn't have carried picket signs and burned draft cards for a piece of the moral high ground.