Eric Reguly is The Globe and Mail’s European Bureau Chief, based in Rome, and the author of Ghosts of War: Chasing My Father’s Legend Through Vietnam. An excerpt from the book is available below.
Listening to the reports coming out of Ukraine these past three months, I can’t help but reflect on how the job of war reporting has changed since my father, Robert Reguly, made his name covering the Vietnam War.
To be sure, the physical dangers in the 1960s and 70s, when Dad’s career was in its prime, were more or less the same. Then as now, artillery, missiles, grenades, land mines, and gun and cannon fire were the main threats, though relatively primitive body armour (or none at all) and limited emergency medical care probably made my father’s era somewhat deadlier.
But in my dad’s day, half the job was just getting the story to head office. Today, it’s a matter of hitting a few buttons on a laptop – as long as you have internet access. Journalists in Ukraine seem to have little problem sending reports quickly to readers and viewers.
Decades ago, this process was an epic logistical exercise that often compounded the risks. I learned this while researching my book, which tracks Dad’s career at the Toronto Star in the 1960s and early 70s, when he was Canada’s most famous print journalist and scoop machine. Vietnam was one of four conflicts he covered in Asia, the Middle East and Africa when he was the Star’s bureau chief in Washington and, later, Rome.
Dad told me it could take a full day or longer to get a story out from a Vietnam battle zone. The article first had to be banged out on a mechanical typewriter. Then it was taken by air – usually a Huey helicopter flight – to a military base that had a telex machine. Then the story had to be banged out again to encode the words into hole-punched paper tape; the data on the tape would be fed into a telephone line and the receiving telex machine on the other end would spit out the story.
Since only a few bases had telex machines, a second flight was often required to reach a Reuters, Associated Press or United Press International wire-service bureau with the right equipment.
The lack of modern information technology didn’t just affect getting the story out. In my childhood, it was often impossible to know if my father was dead or alive. My mom had to wait to see his byline in the paper. There were no WhatsApp messages. Calls home were rare or impossible. Even after reading an article, she couldn’t relax fully, since she knew the story was probably written days before it appeared. About 70 reporters and photographers were killed covering the American side of the war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1965 and 1975, and it is likely that a few of them lost their lives scrambling from the battlefield to file their pieces.
In other ways, covering the Vietnam War was easier – maybe far easier – than it is today.
The freedom was intoxicating, my father and his wild-eyed colleagues would tell me. There were almost no restrictions on where reporters could go, and no censorship (beyond the requirement not to report on the exact whereabouts of U.S. combat soldiers). Reporters were even given the honorary rank of major, providing them access to flights pretty much everywhere, and to combat bases, where they could grab meals and cots and interview officers without having to fight their way through layers of PR men and women.
The concept of “embedded” reporters did not exist in the Vietnam War. The embedded journalists who covered the Iraq War, which began in 2003, could only go where their American and British military press handlers allowed them to go, and see what their handlers allowed them to see. Dead bodies were usually excised from the tour. The Pentagon had learned its lesson from Vietnam, when horrific shots of death and destruction were instrumental in turning Americans against the senseless bloodshed. U.S. president Lyndon Johnson shocked the world in March, 1968, with the announcement that he would not seek re-election, admission that he had lost the home-front battle to keep the war going.
The big newspapers and TV networks like CBS, NBC and ABC were money-making juggernauts in those days. They were able to spend fortunes to open myriad foreign bureaus and could keep correspondents in the field for months, even years, renting them offices and providing them with drivers, photographers, interpreters and assistants. Bureaus were a sign of prestige; even fairly small newspapers employed their own foreign correspondents.
Today, those lavish budgets no longer exist. Competition from a myriad of cable channels, like CNN and Fox, and countless digital services has destroyed the profit margins of many of the traditional news outlets, forcing them to shrink and some to close.
Today, foreign corresponding is simply not affordable for most news outlets, though many of them are sending reporters to Ukraine to cover what is the biggest geopolitical story on the planet. As the war grinds on, and budgets max out, it’s likely that many of the reporting teams will be brought home.
Propaganda and outright lies are standard features in all wars, but the misinformation game is much more sophisticated now than it was half a century ago, because of the enormous number of fake-news and conspiracy outlets, many of them well-funded. Between the tighter government controls on journalists, and the endless waves of misinformation, I have to believe that war reporting has become more demanding in recent years.
The psychology of modern war correspondents has also changed, I believe. Ghosts of War is a portrait of the reporting era as well as a portrait of my father. Dad and most of his colleagues were hard-charging, hard-drinking men (female war correspondents were rare) who sought thrills and truth in equal measure; their families almost always came second. They leapt at the chance to cover wars, and the risks they took boggle my mind.
I have never been a “bang-bang” correspondent, to use the newsroom argot for a war reporter (although that could change as the war in Ukraine continues), but I have been in more than a few dangerous situations in parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. I don’t think I could take the risks Dad took and I believe I am not so different from the war correspondents of my generation, and those younger than me. We care passionately about our work and reporting the truth as we see it; but we also care about our families and know that what happens to us has an impact on them. My father’s type would be a rarity on today’s battlefields, I suspect, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Book excerpt: Eric Reguly on ‘the nature of the job’
Dad reported the Nigerian Civil War, which started in 1967 and ended three years later after some two million civilians starved to death. He was in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, when the war was winding down in late 1969 and early 1970. The government insisted that no one was starving in Biafra, the oil-rich but impoverished breakaway southern state that was fighting the Nigerian government. It claimed that ample food supplies were en route and that there was no need for foreign aid. Seasoned by his years in Vietnam, Dad knew he needed to verify the official line; he cut short his visit to Lagos and headed to Biafra to find out for himself what was happening.
In Owerri, the last of the three capitals of the short-lived Republic of Biafra, he opened his story with a firsthand account that left no doubt of a Biafran starvation crisis:
“The army truck roared into the wretched refugee camp and three soldiers threw two sacks of flour at the 2,000 huddled Igbos [the largely Christian ethnic group that dominated Biafra]. Two were trampled to death in the ensuing scramble. … Undeniably, many children are slowly starving.”
At that time, articles could be transmitted faster than photos; the raw film had to be flown to the photo editors a continent away if a wire transmitter could not be found. So his gruesome photographic evidence arrived three days later. The full-page spread featured four of his photos, their tragic images indelible. They showed internally displaced Igbos who had emerged from the forest, where they had fled when the bullets began flying, looking like victims in a concentration camp. In one photo, a tiny Biafran boy squats in the dirt, crying as he looks at the camera and the photographer – my father. The naked boy’s belly is distended with disease, his arms and legs thin as sticks. He is alone, an orphan. In the background, slightly out of focus, a group of children, equally malnourished, look the other way. I think it was my father’s most powerful published photo. Years later, he told me that the child almost certainly died shortly after it was taken.
How he had the professional detachment to report these stories day after day, horror after horror, is beyond me. I can only imagine that the brain wiring that muted his fear response also muted his immediate emotional response. I think the nature of his job demanded, or ensured, that his emotional walls rose the moment he was on assignment.
I doubt I could have shown the same fortitude. As a journalist, I am not convinced I could have simply walked away from the sight of the dead and dying and leapt into the next story without missing a beat. Dad and I were similar in many ways. We both loved exciting, even dangerous, assignments, both felt empathy for the oppressed, both took our careers exceedingly seriously, to the point we were absentee fathers a lot of the time. But we were different in many ways too. While my father thought expressing emotion was unmanly, I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, as I did covering the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan in 2001. The Catholic priest who married Karen and me, Mychal Judge, was the chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. He was the first certified fatality in the attacks at the World Trade Center and I went to his funeral four days after the towers fell. I cried on and off for more than a week, to the point I could not sleep and had trouble making deadline on some days on what was one of the biggest stories of my career. I cannot imagine my father breaking down like I did. Weeping at his desk would have been socially taboo in the testosterone-charged newsrooms of that era. Could I have taken a photo of a dying Biafran child and walked away an instant later? I don’t know; maybe not.
Ghosts of War: Tracing My Father’s Legend Through Vietnam is now available from Sutherland House.
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