Interview: U.S. Army Intelligence Officer John Murphy & Director Michael Reiter Talk About Making “Agents Unknown”
Former U.S. Army intelligence officer John Murphy is the focus of Michael Reiter’s compelling new documentary film Agents Unknown which takes us inside America’s war machine during the Vietnam conflict.
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.
While the tragedy of war hangs over every conflict throughout history, Vietnam remains one of the most potent examples of military failure. In recalling his time during the conflict, Murphy outlines a picture of misinformation, culture clashes, and bureaucratic failings that, in combination, directly impacted the outcome of the war.
He tells me that, from a very early stage of his posting in the country, that the U.S effort was one likely doomed for failure. “My doubts about the war were confirmed fairly early in time there. In early letters to my wife and family I write about the difficulty of fighting a war when so few of the people are truly committed to the cause.
“Most of the civilians clearly wanted to just be left alone (probably true for every war), but even the Vietnamese military did not seem that interested. We were losing the effort to win “hearts and minds”. This does not mean that there were not dedicated and courageous ARVN soldiers, but that too often they were let down by the political and military leaders.”
Arguing that the problems in Vietnam still prevail within the U.S. military today, Murphy’s fascinating stories of the conflict present a history lesson 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.
“In many ways, my memories of Vietnam have been triggered by the stories of American soldiers experiences in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The similarities associated with intelligence gathering and “nation building” in those countries seem eerily reminiscent of what we saw in Vietnam. While I had no personal knowledge of those experiences, I could not help but hear in them the question we repeat in Agents Unknown, ‘who can you trust?'”
The problems Murphy dealt with are still relevant. “One example concerns the ‘Corral Reports,’ which attempted to analyse the numbers of Viet Cong active in provinces and districts. These reports were notoriously inaccurate, with ‘fudged’ numbers meant to show progress,” remarks director Michael Reiter.
“The same situation happened a few years ago with CENTCOM intelligence reports about the war against ISIS. Regarding advisors working with local populations, while doing publicity for the film, we spoke with several military-intelligence advisors who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said: “We can’t believe how little things have changed. Nothing has improved.”
Perception versus reality
I wondered if Murphy’s perception of Vietnam prior to his posting differed from the actual experience. After all, the war was well-documented on the ground and, of course, the most prevalent topic of political and social discussion back home.
“I first began covering what was happening Vietnam as early as 1963, before any serious discussion had genuinely begun. I was introduced by a friend to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a progressive, if not radical, newsletter that began to highlight reports by reporters, like David Halberstam, about the early U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“By the summer of 1964, while taking a graduate course at American University in Washington, D.C., I researched a Seminar paper on the media treatment of Senator Wayne Morse, the earliest and most vocal elected critic of the Johnson Vietnam policy.
“Later, in 1964 and 1965, my graduate studies at the University of Chicago included a course with Hans Morgenthau, whose “realist” and “power politics” critique of Vietnam policy was a great influence on my thinking. It led to my statement, in Agents Unknown that while I was opposed to the war on policy grounds, I did not consider it “‘immoral.'”
Of course, there was a level of apprehension before his posting. He says there were three phases to this. “I had hoped to enter my Army service before the escalation, but by May of 1966, everyone was going. That did not stop me from being extremely fearful once I got my orders, and considering possible ways to avoid them.
“The second phase was more comfortable, because several of my colleagues preceded me to the war zone and wrote reassuringly about their assignments in reasonably comfortable conditions in Saigon. Anticipating similar assignment, my fears were rekindled when I arrived in country to learn that I would not be assigned to the headquarters in Saigon, but would be sent out to ‘the field’, whatever that meant.”
From a military perspective, the former intelligence officer tells me he didn’t have a significant frame of reference before arriving in the country but some things still surprised him. “I suppose the greatest difference from expectation was the extent to which my days became normalised; that is, I did not live in fear every minute, I found other men whom I liked and with whom I shared common ideas and values, who were not all “gung ho” for the war, nor disrespectful, in general, of the Vietnamese people.”
What inspired Vietnam War documentary Agents Unknown?
The Vietnam War has been the focus of countless films, documentaries and books so filmmaker Michael Reiter was eager to tell a different story. “John’s experience is not the typical Vietnam veteran story as portrayed in the media – what documentary-industry people call ‘bullets and battles.’ The unusual angle, along with John’s articulate, even-tempered analysis, convinced me and my investors that it was a story worth telling.”
Reiter’s original plan was to produce a film that was “fast, easy and cheap” in the style of Martin Scorsese’s American Boy (“a raw, simply-shot movie in which Prince tells autobiographical stories”). The film makes limited use of archival materials with Prince mostly talking to the camera.
“As I researched John’s story, it became clear that this approach wouldn’t serve the larger themes of intelligence, culture-clashes, and military bureaucracy. From that point on it became a ‘production,’ instead of a down-and-dirty interview piece.”
Murphy says the film presented an opportunity to leave an account of his story for his children and grandchildren. But it was pleasing to see it become so much more than that. “Michael has transformed these stories into a much broader context, providing insights into the difficulties inherent in American efforts to militarily combat highly-motivated, indigenous popular movements, whether under the banner of “wars of national liberation” or religious fanaticism.”
Reiter’s approach – from a historian’s rather than “war buff’s” perspective – also helps Agents Unknown find its unique niche. “My folks are history professors, so the interest in history was always there,” he tells me. “The Vietnam War is compelling for many reasons. I’m not a historian, so I can’t give a comprehensive answer as to why. Some guesses: it is the last war America lost. Perhaps the first considered to be a waste. Yet since I hadn’t lived through it, there was a distance, and it was merely ‘interesting.’
“John’s role, the advisor, hasn’t been covered much in the media. Film people shy away from it because the job is more analytical and about relationships, as opposed to combat. I found John’s stories and the advisory/intelligence angle riveting, so I was sold immediately.”
Viewers with an interest in espionage and who want to learn about a lesser-known aspect of the war will learn a lot, he explains. “Vietnam War films and documentaries are mostly about combat or higher-up politics. There is nothing wrong with that – the stories are fantastic, and those subjects are easy sells. The role of the intelligence advisor hasn’t been covered. The books about it are mostly academic or for the military. Agents Unknown is not a combat-heavy story, although the film has action. It is about gathering, analysing, and presenting the information that leads to the action.”
Indeed, 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. In Agents Unknown we see the veteran visibly perturbed while talking about this, admitting the “moral justification” for eliminating someone who “hasn’t done anything” continues to cause him concern.
Reiter continues: “The intelligence adviser was and is part diplomat, journalist, detective, soldier, and ‘spy-manager.’ It is a crucial, complex role that can’t be sold as ‘Vietnam jungle combat’ or ‘Jason Bourne in Vietnam.’ From a documentary-industry viewpoint, it was a tough sell. But what industry people saw as a weakness, I saw as strength – a fresh angle.”
Making “Agents Unknown”
Agents Unknown is Michael Reiter’s first feature-length documentary film. He tells me the experience making it was like an “entrepreneurship”. “An independent film is literally a small business, with all the aggravation and satisfaction that comes with running it. It’s like running a restaurant – madness, but those who do it have to do it.”
Reiter’s original vision changed from a plan to have Murphy recalling funny and dramatic anecdotes direct to camera with few archival materials to recognising the need – and value – of acquiring relevant materials to help bring these stories to life.
“I worked with John to plan out the interview, since it was to be shot in one day. We had a list of topics and stories to cover. As I was putting the list together, I realized that the project was going to require far more materials than just an interview and a few photos. That’s when the archival-research phase began.
“John’s story is episodic, and I knew that I needed an ‘arc’ of some kind to provide a basic structure. His 365-day tour served this purpose. I then categorised the episodes thematically: ‘intelligence problems,’ ‘dealing with the locals,’ ‘MASH comic relief,’ and so on. When I began the script, I didn’t want to front, middle, or back-load the film with too many episodes of one type or another. For each act, I tried to create a mix of stories that reflected the different issues John faced.”
The finished result presents a refreshing look inside the U.S. Army’s intelligence-gathering operation where never-before-seen photos, newsreel footage and previously confidential military documentation help outline a America’s faults thanks to Murphy’s unique position working with both U.S. and Vietnamese intelligence services.
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.
How has Hollywood performed in the past?
I was interested to know how well Hollywood has captured the Vietnam War from someone who served there. “Most of those films that I have seen capture, at least some truth. I’d even suggest the television show, Mash, although set in the Korean War, had aspects of Vietnam.
“I will never forget the opening scene of Platoon or the sense it conveyed of the confusion and lack of information of what was going in the larger scheme. The infantry training in Full Metal Jacket as well as the swaggering with fear of Mathew Modine brought memories.
“The helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now and the Colonel played by Robert Duvall hit home. You could also go back to The Year of Living Dangerously and The Quiet American for the feeling of being lost in a culture I didn’t understand.”
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.
Words by Dan Stephens
Many thanks to Michael Reiter and John Murphy