Thursday, December 15, 2011

Documentary busts spymaster Colby myth

Documentarian Carl Colby has made a film (opening Friday at Landmark’s Maple Art Theatre in West Bloomfield) that is not only absorbing – indeed fascinating - about one of America’s most searing political episodes, the Vietnam War and its aftermath, but a bit of a myth-buster to boot. The film, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby, is also a kind of personal meditation about his father, castigated by anti Vietnam War critics during the 1960s and 1970s both for his role in the so-called Phoenix counter-insurgency program in Vietnam and later as director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Nixon and Ford administrations. The filmmaker takes us to the start of his father’s role as a patriotic World War II vet and one of the first people tasked with the idea of surreptitiously setting up small military groups with expertise to subvert the Nazi war effort through critical disruptions in infrastructure such as blowing up bridges and trains. The whole concept of post-war Special Forces, used extensively in Vietnam, “came out of these operations,” the documentary says. Carl, a normal American kid, always backed his father 100 per cent. The fact he had a covert military role just made Colby Sr. “the coolest character.” As the Vietnam War ramped up in the early 1960s President John F. Kennedy, a war hero himself, also had a romanticized view of behind-the-scenes military operatives and promoted this to the hilt. This “James Bond” and “third way” (neither traditional military nor diplomatic) found an outlet in Project Tiger, which dropped spies behind enemy lines. William Colby also believed that the best way the South Vietnamese could defend themselves from North Vietnamese invaders was to arm themselves in protective encampments supported by the South Vietnamese and American military. Colby left Vietnam in 1962, Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and the Phoenix program started falling apart. South Vietnamese authorities and military mistreated countless peasants, whether bonafide enemies or not, and the clash of cultures between materialistic Western American soldiers and rural Buddhist Third World villagers became “shockingly disruptive – and offensive,” as one former Phoenix member Senator Bob Kerry put it. This wasn’t the way to win hearts and minds, as the phrase went at the time. We know what the war’s outcome was. Post war Colby was appointed CIA director. But it fell to him to explain to Congress a range of illegal activities – from assassination plots against foreign leaders to spying on domestic critics – that occurred before his tenure. He testified 32 times in one year alone. Carl says his father had to tread a fine line between protecting the legitimate covert activities of the agency and revealing the illegalities. Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft called the task “enormously complex” and said he didn’t “know how (Colby) could make it from day to day.” The film has interviews with dozens of key characters from the 1960s and 70s – from defense secretaries James Schlesinger and Donald Rumsfeld to investigative journalists Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh, who exposed CIA spying. The clips are taut, mixed with fascinating film clips of the period – from rural Vietnam War scenes to testimony on Capitol Hill. A lot of this may seem to be a retread from dozens of other documentaries about the period. But it’s fresh - in many ways, because it’s from the viewpoint of a family member and because it shows Colby as a person, not simply a war criminal caricature. One might expect the son to defend his father but that’s not what’s going on here. Says Colby about his dad’s critics: “My immediate reaction was, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Then I’d find myself thinking, ‘Well, who was he really?’” But as someone whose missions in Vietnam and as CIA director might have had honourable intentions William Colby had to take the fall for their eventual corruption. Says one former official of the period, “He became a target, that’s the way Washington works.” Particularly eloquent is Carl’s mother, Barbara, an intelligent articulate woman who was kept at arm’s length by her husband. She was shocked when he asked for a divorce, a further sign that he was in essence an unknowable person. Scowcroft calls Colby a “tortured soul.” Says Carl, “I’m not sure if he ever loved anyone and I never heard him say anything heartfelt. I came to understand the man nobody knew or at least I thought I did.”

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