Television Wars

Reporting under fire, from Vietnam to CBC headquarters

Michael Maclear, the dogged foreign correspondent whose pioneering television news reports and documentaries brought the Vietnam War into homes around the world in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, has just published a memoir. Guerrilla Nation: My Wars In and Out of Vietnam feels like an exorcism of long-held resentments against a Canadian news industry management structure that was more interested in ratings and appeasing the American administration in Washington than in broadcasting the truth about an immoral, failing, futile war. Perhaps it is because Maclear—who in the last decade has been honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Journalism Foundation and an Outstanding Achievement Award from Hot Docs, the Canadian Documentary Film Festival, as well as membership in the Order of Canada—is now in his eighties, that his account is so refreshingly un-mealy-mouthed. A younger journalist at the ascendancy of his or her career might be worried about alienating future employers and project sponsors.

Maclear is known for being the first North American journalist allowed into North Vietnam during the war—a privilege he never took lightly, spending the rest of his life building on the stories he saw emerging then. In September 1969, ignoring a telegram from Hanoi asking him not to come because of flooding in the capital, Maclear went anyway, adhering to the first rule of journalism: get to where the story is. His arrival coincided with the death of General Ho Chi Minh, the beloved leader of the North. Maclear admits it was not coincidence: Hanoi wanted to make a public show of its undiminished resolve. But the powers that be at Maclear’s CBC home base in Toronto—what he describes as the “Cult of Management, motivated, as I saw it, more by self-preservation than by its duty to the public”—did not want to hear what Maclear was reporting from North Vietnam: that the people he met there were never going to surrender; that they would pay any price, would sacrifice anything and everything, fight as long it took to win their nationalist cause of a Vietnam united under the banner of Communism. After this first trip, and those that followed (he made three between 1969 and 1972), Maclear would be held in suspicion for his reports, accused of having dubious communist contacts and of being used and duped by Hanoi. Someone he describes only as “a highly placed friend at the network” filled him in on management thinking: “The bigger question for the [CBC] is you—or your affiliations. How come you got into … North Vietnam, then get invited back. You understand how they think?”

The CBC did not want to send Maclear to Vietnam in the first place: “For years I had pressured [management] for an okay if I obtained a visa [for Hanoi]; for years I’d heard their response, ‘It isn’t our war,’ though it was, for the sixties generations everywhere.” This resonated strongly with me: as a Canadian who covered the war in Iraq I was often told, “Look, Iraq is not Canada’s war.” This seems to be a Canadian thing.

I was born the summer of the Tonkin Gulf Crisis in 1964, too young to remember much of the war from TV, and just old enough that it was being taught as history by the time I reached university. But the real way I learned about the war in Vietnam was from movies. Films such as The Deer HunterApocalypse Now and The Killing Fields, the last one based on a 1980 article by New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg about the Cambodian genocide, would introduce me to war and to the lives of the war correspondents behind the storytelling. The publication of Guerrilla Nation coincides with the new commercial release of Maclear’s epic 13-hour television documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, as a four DVD set. The tag line on the DVD cover (quoted from TV Guide, circa 1980) declares “This isn’t Apocalypse Now, this is real.” It must have stung to be scooped by a Hollywood version of the war.

Guerrilla Nation is also a history of the transitional period from radio to television and the rise of the television news documentary as the most important medium of information during what was known as the Television War. Maclear became a master of the genre, and so it is interesting to see him go through the motions of learning his craft and shaping the medium of the TV doc, “humanity’s first emotionally participatory medium.” Humans have always used the most recent technology available to document war—the history of every war has a parallel story of its emerging, dominant technologies. The Crimean War was the first war to be photographed; the Iraq war was the first to be defined by digital cameras and same-day transmission of media by internet and satellite; the Arab Spring changed the game entirely when civilians documented the uprising from within using their own smartphones; today, the World Wide Web is rapidly replacing newspapers and television altogether.

The logistics of journalism are a combination of extreme organization, extreme perseverance, and extreme luck—“the improbability of it all!” exclaims Maclear—getting yourself and your technology there (whether it be the 400 rolls of colour negative film Maclear took to Hanoi or the computers and satellite transmitters of today); navigating roadblocks and the complex world of minders, translators and fixers; figuring out access to money (in 1969 Maclear was given a “newfangled” company credit card, useless of course in Vietnam). On top of it all, war correspondents are extremely vulnerable in the field, as demonstrated by the numbers killed or gone missing in action (70 killed in 2013 alone, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists). It is not surprising, then, that four decades later, Maclear still feels hurt and betrayed by the very people he had counted on most to have his back (his Toronto bosses offered him $50 a week in “hardship pay,” but he did not claim it because “I didn’t want to feel so worthless.”)

Maclear—like a lot of his fellow Vietnam War media vets—has never stopped thinking about, making films about, writing about or obsessing about the war. In 1980 he went back to Vietnam to do interviews and find North Vietnamese film footage for Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, one of the most ambitious long-form television documentaries ever made and an early masterpiece of the genre. It is a remarkable document of enormous breadth and scope. If you have not seen it, reading Guerrilla Nation will make you want to. I was engrossed for the entire 13 hours.

It includes film shot by the North Vietnamese that Maclear was able to obtain from his sources there, as well as footage shot by Maclear himself, which he describes in the book. There are some of the most heart-breaking and graphic images of war you will ever see, original interviews with a wide range of high-level actors in the war (General Maxwell Taylor, South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu, General William C. Westmoreland), Vietnam veterans speaking out against the war, communist footage of American pilots being taken prisoner, film of jungle medevacs by helicopter and of field hospitals, U.S. Army training videos, haunting and eerie footage of jungle warfare, bizarre Miss America pageants in Saigon, jaw-dropping views of some of the most devastating bombing campaigns ever, scenes in brothels of young GIs with little idea of how messed up it is to be buying war-refugees-turned-prostitutes in a country they were sent to save; burned-out, bombed-out, charred and maimed civilians, the worst kinds of atrocities you can think of. At the same time, a lot of airtime is given to interviews with key figures and analysts who never stopped defending American involvement in the war—“I would do it all again,” Westmoreland famously said.

If there is one thing Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us, it is that we could use a refresher course in the cost—human, environmental, monetary—and unwinnability of wars of attrition against a guerrilla enemy. In a way, Guerrilla Nation is an after-the-fact prelude to Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, a testimony to the kind of actions and reactions a person has to take in order to ensure that history is not covered up, that its lessons are passed on to the next generation—“like Baghdad or Kabul today,” Maclear writes, “the evidence, the warning was there so many decades ago on the streets of Hanoi.”

When Maclear first went to Vietnam in 1969 most Americans still supported the war. By the time he went back in 1970, criticism of the war was more widespread, so it should not have seemed inconceivable then that the opinions of some of the American prisoners of war in Vietnam would also have been critical. The U.S. government had been reporting widespread torture of prisoners and the American people were anxious to hear from the prisoners themselves. At its highest count in 1972, the number of Americans held prisoner in Vietnam was nearly 600. Most were bomber pilots whose planes had been shot down. Of those, only about half survived the landing after they ejected. They were considered war criminals by Hanoi.

So it was a major coup when Maclear was given permission on December 25, 1970, to interview two U.S. Navy commanders from Pennsylvania, Robert Schweitzer and Walter Wilber. Wilber said they read a lot, mentioning a particular title, Vietnam: The Unheard Voices by Don Luce and John Sommer. There is a remarkable photograph of another officer, Colonel Edison Miller, reading the same book in a prison courtyard. Luce and Sommer were a pair of American eyewitnesses who spoke Vietnamese and between them had spent 13 years in the country; their book was a damaging first-hand account of the failure of the war and an impassioned appeal to end it.

But when Maclear’s interviews with Schweitzer and Wilber were aired, the journalist was once again accused of being suckered into a dog-and-pony show put on for his benefit. Richard Nixon called the filming a “total disregard of the terms of the Geneva convention.” In response, CBC management arranged a special live television program where Maclear would be asked, flat out, “Were you duped?” A significant part of Guerrilla Nation is spent defending the legitimacy of these interviews and following up with prisoners who had voiced dissent during the war. In 1980 Maclear would track down and interview Miller, the officer seen reading The Unheard Voices in the photograph he had taken nearly a decade earlier. Miller, like other prisoners of war who criticized the war, was charged with misconduct when he got back to the United States in the spring of 1975. He never changed his position on the war, maintaining that the moral decision was to be loyal to the people of the United States and to be honest. Quoting Wilber’s words in 1970, Maclear reflects, “‘what was loyalty: where did it lie?’ Obeying orders you knew were wrong was highly dubious loyalty.”

Maclear’s is a fascinating story in retrospect, knowing as we do now that he and others who voiced opinions critical of the war were closer to being on the right side of history than those who tried to shut them up. But some questions need to be asked: Why publish this book now? What is the value in saying “I told you so” when two million people lost their lives despite your efforts?

My answer is very personal. In 2003, I took some of the first photographs of Iraqi detainees, at a time when the Bush administration was still denying there was any Iraqi opposition to the Americans in Iraq. The pictures of hooded and roughed-up suspects were not published at the time, ostensibly because they could not have been representative of the real story on the ground, having been procured, as they were, by a sole Canadian freelancer. It was not until the horrific Abu Ghraib story broke, nearly a year later, that my photographs were widely published. In the meantime, some of the soldiers in my photographs had gone on to murder four Iraqi civilians, in what became one of the best-documented atrocities of the war. I have never been able to let go of the idea that had I pushed harder, tried harder, had more confidence, perhaps been more like Maclear, the story might have played out differently.

Guerrilla Nation: My Wars In and Out of Vietnam gives a strong sense of the persistence of the experience of war and how it might take more than a lifetime to process, particularly from the perspective of the war correspondent. That perspective is different from the experience of managers, in the newsroom or in war rooms, for whom the situation on the ground is less immediate. It is a difficult gap to bridge in any battle.

In 2012, at the age of 84, Maclear returned to Hanoi to research a possible film on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to interview key figures such as Colonel Phan Huu Dai, who had spent ten years living on the trail during some of the most intense and devastating American bombing campaigns. As he sat listening to Colonel Dai that day more than 40 years after he had first set foot in North Vietnam, Maclear saw and heard things he had never heard in all the years he had covered the war: “Only now four decades later, could I sense the price paid, with never an end in sight, by the armies of the North … and though I rapidly took notes, personal memories took over.”

The “memoir” (from memory, not made up) is the part we never see in the television documentary—it is, ironically, the part that often gets filled in by Hollywood movies about war correspondents. Guerrilla Nation is an insurance policy against other people’s versions of events; it is the story that backs up Maclear’s life’s work and says, “Look, I told this story and it is true and these are some of the effects that telling that story has had on me, and these are some of the things that happened because no one wanted to believe back then that my stories were true.” I also hope it finally brings Maclear some peace of
mind.