One of the themes that comes up a few times in the film is William Colby’s moral compass. I asked what Carl thought made up his father’s moral compass.
I think my father and mother were kind of cut from the same cloth. They were raised Catholic, and they felt they were on a mission. It was faith-based, but not evangelical. It wasn’t hair-shirt Catholicism. It was intellectual, Cardinal Spellman Catholicism. My mother actually used to euphemistically refer to CIA as Catholics in Action, because especially in that generation there were a lot of Catholics. Like in the FBI there were a lot of Jesuits—Fordham—and I was trained by Jesuits. The Jesuit angle, in a way, is a window in to my father. And my sister’s story is a window in to him.
People would often ask me repeatedly what do I think about Phoenix [a controversial counter-insurgency program during the Vietnam War] and the morality of it all. But if you ask those other questions you’ll get more of the truth of it all. Phoenix was a program that utilized some pretty brutal means, but my father most likely felt very much like [former National Security Advisor Robert] McFarlane and [former Secretary of Defense and Director of CIA James] Schlesinger say in the story which is, “This is the fight we’ve been given. We’re not fighting the last war; we’re fighting this war.” The insight into this conflict we have now in Afghanistan and elsewhere is all those men and some women, they learned lessons from Vietnam. [General H. R.] McMaster is now head of all intelligence in Afghanistan. General John Allen is commander of the entire Afghan campaign. My father was like a mentor to him. General [David] Petraeus [former commander in Afghanistan, current Director of CIA], it goes without saying, studied the Vietnam War in depth. John Nagl, in the film, co-wrote the counter-insurgency manual with Petraeus. These people understand the conflict they’re in. They’re not afraid to use the methods that you need to use for that.
So I think my father was sort of fixed in terms of how to win a conflict like that. You might think it’s very cold, but… It might be good even to go back almost 120 years to the American Indian wars. There was a lot of brutality, but how are you going to make a territory safe? And that’s what’s going on. It’s not conquering it and ruling it; it’s pacifying it. You may disagree with all of this, but if that’s your mission, then you need the person best equipped to do that mission. So Phoenix makes people question, what was this methodology? But to him they were the enemy. He was very clear about that. These were not wanton assaults on villagers. It wasn’t you go into a village and just torch it. You’ll be run out of town. It’s like the Marine Corps in Anbar Province in 2005. If you go in and just eradicate it, you’re not very welcome. You’re going to be thrown out. You’re going to lose. Whereas if you secure one little part of it and then allow people to go back to have some semblance of normal life—commercial activity—most people are happy just to get on in life. They’re not that ideologically driven. So then you can perhaps start to pacify and make safe the rest of the area. We may not want to be in conflicts like this, but that’s the hand we’ve been dealt now. So to me to get at his underneath is to understand that he is driven by a sense of moral purpose. So when you say “moral compass” I think it was quite clear to him what that compass was, and certainly for my mother.
I grew up obviously in a Catholic family. The heroes of our family were warriors, saints, and martyrs. We traveled all through Europe and my parents would take us to cathedrals. There’s a monument to St. George the dragon slayer—sort of a mythic figure really—we’re not really sure what he was doing in Syria of that era, but slaying dragons. He wasn’t sitting in church somewhere. He was a warrior. Joan of Arc was my father’s other great hero. Joan of Arc—18, 19-year-old maybe fanatical woman became the most powerful woman in France, led the war against the English. That’s almost unheard of. And burned at the stake. That’s who he kind of regarded as worthy of attention. And my mother was somebody whose favorites were the early Christian martyrs. She didn’t like the Roman emperors too much. She knew the names of all 222 of them. She’d walk me through the Borghese Gardens and the Forum, and she’d tell me stories about the Romans. I knew that she didn’t like the pagan Romans. She liked the Christians in the catacombs. We were taught to sacrifice as a family. There’s a greater good. And to this day my mother’s like that. Off camera—I could have put it in the film—she said about Iraq and Afghanistan, “Where’s my sacrifice? What am I being asked to do? Why aren’t I being asked to wrap bandages or ration or do something to help the cause?” She says that today. Isn’t this a shared struggle? Pretty interesting. She’s a World War II girl.