I’ve finally had a chance to begin working my way through The Ten Thousand Day War, the 13-hour series about the Vietnam War produced by the CBC and Michael Maclear way back in 1980. The footage and access are remarkable, but I’m really struck by something else – the excellent journalism of series writer Peter Arnett.
Arnett first came to my attention (and probably the rest of the world’s too) during his coverage of the first Gulf War. CNN and Arnett stayed the course as the bombs began to fall, eventually becoming the sole news outlet reporting live from Baghdad. He details the experience in his book Live from the Battlefield - although I have to say Michael Keaton does admirable service to the story in his portrayal of CNN senior EP Robert Wiener in the HBO film Live from Baghdad.
Arnett has since fallen out of favor in North America thanks mainly to three controversial decisions/stories, namely: his coverage of the destruction of a baby milk factory in Baghdad which may or may not have actually been a chemical weapons factory; his limited participation in the Tailwind scandal; and for an interview he gave on Iraqi state television before the current Gulf War. He now spends much of his time working outside North America as the US networks are likely afraid to touch him. (The journalistic bravery of US networks being a whole other story…)
I can’t help but be struck by the irony of Arnett’s eventual fate as I watch Ten Thousand now. Early in the series, much attention is given to the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin that precipitated America’s full military participation in the war. For a long time, it was common wisdom that the war began in earnest only after Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked US destroyers.
Problem is, it didn’t quite happen that way. The US government made up the attack story in order to sway public opinion. In fact, in 2005, the National Security Agency declassified materials confirming there had been no attack.
So, Arnett relates a false story he believes to be true and begins a storied career. Decades later, he relates stories he believes to be true and his career is blown apart.
I guess you just have to be careful whose narrative thread you’re tugging on…