Agents Unknown, a captivating new documentary film, explores the United States’ intelligence-gathering operation during the Vietnam War. Via the recollections of U.S. Army military intelligence advisor John Murphy, we see a unique picture inside America’s war machine, the reasons behind its inevitable defeat, and the legacy that still lingers today.
For those who weren’t “on the ground”, the Vietnam War is remembered via news reels, newspaper and radio reports, books, TV and, perhaps most predominantly, Hollywood cinema. That’s why filmmaker Michael Reiter’s unique look inside the U.S. Army’s intelligence-gathering operation might change your perception of the conflict.
Via the recollections of U.S. Army military intelligence advisor John Murphy, who served in MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam), we gain a refreshing understanding of America’s faults thanks to Murphy’s unique position working with both U.S. and Vietnamese intelligence services.
Depicted through a variety of stories Murphy tells, the engaging speaker is the lone participant, holding our attention with the assistance of never-before-seen photos, archive footage and previously confidential military documentation, to outline a picture of misinformation, culture clashes, and bureaucratic failings that, in combination, directly impacted the outcome of the war.
Arguing that the problems in Vietnam still prevail within the U.S. military today, Agents Unknown’s history lesson is one that appears strikingly topical. Affecting military strategy, political propaganda and, most crucially, the post-war future of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam is a near fifty-year touchstone of what went wrong and how it should have been fixed a long time ago. And yet it continues. The lies on the ground filter up to the lies at the top.
Some of the film’s striking revelations include Murphy recalling implementing the Phoenix programme: an initiative to improve intelligence coordination and to identify civilian individuals in local communities who were secretly supporting the Viet Cong. They would be targeted for assassination as potential leaders of a Viet Cong government. The veteran is visibly perturbed while talking about this, admitting the “moral justification” for eliminating someone who “hasn’t done anything” continues to cause him concern.
Without the flag-waving of some military veterans, Murphy is reserved about his experiences in Vietnam. His cynicism stems from a role – to be the “face” of the U.S. military machine to the people of Vietnam and collect and analyse intelligence – that was doomed to fail. He tells us victory in Vietnam was possible but that the U.S. would have to accept a limited period of peace and control; but that a positive outcome, over the long-term, was not probable. He also alludes to the U.S. turning a blind eye to ARVN physical and psychological torture tactics (including using field telephones as a mild electrocution device and threats to throw prisoners out of helicopters).
With fascinating insight, Agents Unknown finds its own niche thanks to its focus on the detective work of intelligence operatives as opposed to foot soldiers engaging the enemy with guns blaring. Unable to fully shirk the sense of colonial power figure, Murphy was tasked to build bridges on ground that could not be stabilised. It makes “his” story a unique and interesting window on a tragedy of epic scale that was faltering at its very core.