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book review

Eric Reguly at the Ben Hai River in Vietnam.

  • Title: Ghosts of War: Chasing my Father’s Legend Through Vietnam
  • Author: Eric Reguly
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Sutherland House
  • Pages: 140

For all the caricatures of journalism as a cushy, privileged job free from the risks of other, tougher sorts of work, there are insufficient chronicles from inside the industry that disabuse people of that misguided notion. Not all beats are the same, but threats and violence against journalists remain a serious global problem.

While attacks and killings of journalists are closely covered, other costs that come with the job receive less attention – including the ones that haunt those who are assigned to cover traumatic events. Broken lives, broken families, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and other forms of addiction are not uncommon. And yet the necessity of reporting what happens, of bearing witness to reality, from the mundane to the horrific, remains.

In Ghosts of War: Chasing my Father’s Legend Through Vietnam, The Globe and Mail’s European bureau chief Eric Reguly follows his father’s coverage of the Vietnam War through the archives and into the country itself. The small volume reads as a study of a historical moment and of the costs and rewards of investigative and combat journalism. The apogee of the book is the 1960s, but the take-aways – war is hell; the powerful seek to obscure the truth but good journalists must find it nonetheless; effective reporting requires shoe leather – speak to our moment.

In 1967, Robert Reguly, hot off his successful search for Gerda Munsinger, an alleged Soviet spy who had infiltrated the Diefenbaker government and was thought to be dead, chose to cover the Vietnam War for the Toronto Star. His assignment found him flying in helicopters, witnessing brutal violence and death, following Marines into battle, firing against the enemy, and perhaps even killing members of the North Vietnamese Army, the NVA.

Eric quotes his father’s notes from Operation Hickory, the first invasion of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone: “After the first night, a Marine lieutenant told me the NVA can’t tell you’re a journalist in the dark. So, I got a quick lesson on the M16 and used it the next three nights. It was chaos, with everybody shooting, so I never knew whether I killed anybody, but I may have.”

Operation Hickory was, perhaps, not the only combat occasion for Robert. Later, Eric asks himself whether his father had fired offensively – a serious breach of his civilian status – when his assignment took him on long-range reconnaissance patrol with the Marines. “I wanted to believe he did not shoot, even though he was armed as a condition of joining the patrol,” he writes. “But he may have.”

Robert Reguly returned from Vietnam opposed to the war and critical of U.S. foreign policy. As Eric writes, “Dad was realizing the war was an unwinnable outrage.” By then, years before the fall of Saigon – or its liberation, if you prefer – and the withdrawal of the United States from the country, Robert summarized the war and, incidentally, the many years of French domination in Indochina before it. In an article for the Star, he wrote, “The war can only be won by the Vietnamese; but it can be lost by the Americans.”

Despite myself, reading Ghosts of War I kept thinking of Robert Reguly, who died in 2011, as a kind of journalist’s version of Forrest Gump. I know. But it’s true. Robert was present at the major events and turning points of the 1960s and 70s: Gerda Munsinger, the moon shot, the Vietnam War, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy – for which he was present, metres away – the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Nigerian Civil War, American race riots, the fall of Lyndon Johnson and, later, Richard Nixon, and plenty more. But he was not there by accident. He was there to bear witness and share what he saw.

The portrait of Robert Reguly offered by his son in Ghosts of War is honest and layered. Eric tells the story of his hero: a famous, intrepid, award-winning journalist. A household name during his heyday. He was also an absentee father who left a wife and family behind while he travelled the world to record and share stories.

Ghosts of War: Chasing My Father's Legend Through Vietnam, by Eric Reguly.Handout

The book is not hagiography. Even though Robert reads as larger than life throughout, he is brought down to the plane of humankind time and time again. In that way, Eric’s book is also a chronicle of parents and children, a classic, timeless story of what it means to come from somewhere, from someone, in a world where you eventually learn your parents are not perfect and in which you’re soon left to make your own way.

“No, he was never a great father even if he was generous and entertaining,” Eric writes. “He was always away. When he was home he was absent too, obsessed with the next big story, buried in newspapers, drinking with contacts, largely oblivious to the needs of his stressed-out wife and three young kids.”

In concluding, Eric returns to another arc of the book: the story of a flawed, complicated, even toxic masculinity that persists in our time. “For that, I forgive him,” Eric writes. “Call it hero worship. Because a hero he was, to me. Following his footsteps in Vietnam made me realize he was far more than a thrill seeker. He was a truth warrior driven by astounding bravery.”

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