Photo: Liana Miuccio
Eric Reguly Gets to Know His Late Father by Writing a Book About the Famed Canadian War Correspondent
In "Ghosts of War," the Globe and Mail journalist travels to Vietnam in an effort to reconcile Robert Reguly's globe-trotting career with his family life / BY Ian Coutts / May 5th, 2022
In the ’60s and ’70s, Robert Reguly was one of Canada’s top investigative journalists, working for the Toronto Star in the golden era of daily newspapers. He won a National Newspaper Award for his story tracking down crooked union boss Hal Banks in New York after he had fled Canada ahead of criminal prosecution. He won another for discovering the whereabouts Gerda Munsinger, a former call girl suspected of being an East German spy, who had dallied with a number of Canadian politicians. Some people though she was dead; he found her in Munich, very much alive. Later, as a globetrotting war correspondent, he covered the Vietnam War. Then it all went wrong. In Ghosts of War: Chasing My Father’s Legend Through Vietnam, his son, Eric Reguly, a columnist and foreign correspondent based in Rome for the Globe and Mail, recounts his father’s career and tries to understand the man.
Ian Coutts: What made you decide to write about your father?
Eric Reguly: There’s no easy answer. One is I felt I never really knew the man. When he was at the peak of his career in the 60s until about the mid 70s, I was young, and all I saw was this glamorous thrill-seeker running around the world. We lived this incredibly exotic life in Italy and Washington and Toronto and Ottawa, and it seemed normal to me at the time. As I grew older, I realized that our lifestyle was unique.
But also I was fascinated with journalism. I became a journalist in good part – not entirely – because I wanted to replicate my father’s career. I’m a bit like my father in some ways: I’m allergic to routine, I don’t like office life, I’m quite independent, I like traveling, I like languages, I like people, and those are all things that motivated my father.
IC: In terms of form, it’s an interesting book, because it’s part biography, part personal memoir and part history. What made you choose this approach?
ER: I actually didn’t think it out that much. I didn’t agonize over this book as much as some authors do. I wrote it the way I did to have a complete picture of him, and, to do that, I had to put his life in the context of an era and his family. All those elements had to come in.
IC: I know you were at least planning the book before COVID-19 hit. What was it like trying to write it after everything shut down?
ER: I wrote the book entirely during the pandemic. The lockdown in Italy was severe – the first and the longest and the most deadly. I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. As a foreign correspondent, you’re used to travelling constantly, meeting people, and all of a sudden, my professional career as a journalist had gone upside down. I was doing everything from my desk in Rome, and I thought, ‘now I am going to go into a book, which is even more of an isolating experience?’
I did go through some burnout between the book and the job and the sheer loneliness, but in the end it worked out well. My lack of travel meant I didn’t come home exhausted, and I had the energy to dive into this book. So, in that sense, if it weren’t for the pandemic, I would probably not have finished this book.
IC: It’s interesting read about newspapers in the 1960s when they seemed to dominate the news cycle to a degree they don’t now. And the competition was so intense.
ER: That was one of the most fun things about writing the book. Scoops were everything. Now scoops are ripped off or plagiarized within seconds. No one even knows who broke the story. Back then, you could hold onto scoops. Like the Toronto Star held onto the Gerda Munsinger and Hal Banks stories. Back then they were ultracompetitive, to the point where, with the Gerda Munsinger story, the first edition of the paper was a fake front – I just love that – and then the real story came out.
IC: Could a young journalist today be the kind of reporter your dad was?
ER: No. The era was much more liberating for a journalist. First of all, there were almost no [public relations] people back then. With almost everyone important I interview, I have to go through a layer of PR people, and it’s much worse in Europe than in North America. I have to write emails, list my questions – it’s a whole process. That did not exist back then, so there was much less spin. My father said that, too.
In Vietnam, there were no controls, and my father said it was an incredibly liberating experience. The only restriction was that you could not report militarily important information that could get American troops killed. You didn’t need permits; you could hitchhike on helicopters and trucks. He said some reporters bought motorcycles, simply drove into battle, and abandoned them.
IC: At one point, when talking about your father’s experiences in Vietnam, you mentioned there was one time when he actually had to use a gun to defend himself and really ceased being a reporter.
ER: I struggled a lot with that, because reporters aren’t supposed to do that, and I challenged him on that. I regret not challenging him more on it, but you know, when he died 11 years ago, I had no idea I was going to do this book. Or visit Vietnam.
On that particular mission, when he went in with the marines, he went in with 700 people and 200 came out. [He said] the marines were dying around him in great numbers, they weren’t going to protect a war tourist, so they handed him a gun, two grenades and, I think, a pack of marijuana and a shovel, and they said, ‘you’re on your own.’ He said, ‘I never actually took specific aim at anyone, I just sprayed when I thought I was about to get killed.’ I still found this incredible. What would I have done in the same situation? I don’t know.
IC: You visited Vietnam before the pandemic, to see where your father had been. A lot of it was unrecognizable now. But there was a Montagnard village he had reported from when it was being evacuated.
ER: The only place I felt his spirit there, and I know it sounds corny, but I was actually tingling, was the highlands when I went to that Montagnard village, and I interviewed the old man who was part of the evacuation. I felt that my dad met this guy. I felt my father’s ghost and I felt really close to him. That moment – that one moment – made the entire trip, and I think made the book. Because that’s when I connected with my father.
IC: After your father left the Star, he went to the Toronto Sun, where he was successfully sued by former Liberal cabinet minister John Munro over a story he had co-written with Don Ramsay who, it turned out, didn’t have the evidence to back it up. It ended his newspaper career.
ER: I still think about it every day. That was the only story in his life that he wrote with a double byline. He was a loner, and the one time he worked with another journalist, it ended his career. My father, in a sense, trusted no one, and he was an ultra-careful reporter. But, at the same time, he was awfully naïve, trusting of his friends and he considered Ramsay a friend, and didn’t check out his sources. And you know, he never really recovered from it. It destroyed him.
IC: You wanted to discover who your father was. So who was he?
ER: If there’s one thing I learned about him, he wasn’t just a thrill seeker, he was an extraordinarily brave man who took risks to find the truth. That’s basically what I found in this book, in a sentence. He was a truth warrior.