Reportage

Witness by James Cameron

Review of Witness by James Cameron….

Of the many journalistic achievements James Cameron has been credited for, his reporting of the Vietnam War from the viewpoint of the North Vietnamese Army must surely rank as one of his greatest. In the winter of 1965 and through into 1966 he journeyed through China and Siberia during a time when the Cold War was at its peak. He was one of the very few Western journalists of the period to be given access to Hanoi, its people and eventually some of the areas of conflict. In Witness (1966) Cameron manages to write a book of politics, travel and social commentary with a dash of typically understated boy’s own adventure.

The book is dedicated to a nameless woman: “I have never dedicated a book to anyone before, but I would like to present this one to an old lady who lives in the village of Nanh Nganh, in the Thanh Hoa province of North Vietnam, which is unfortunately near to a strategically important bridge. The bridge, as far as I know, still stands, but the old lady had her left arm blown off by one of the bombs that went somewhat astray. She was more fortunate than her daughter, who was killed. She said: ” I suppose there is a reason for all this, but I do not understand what it is. I think I am too old now ever to find out”

Cameron was an expert in  reminding his audience of the human cost of conflict, when taken to the Aircraft Cemetery of North Vietnam he questioned the legitimacy of the number of US airplanes the NVA claimed to have shot down and the resulting deaths of its pilots but ends with him writing “The only thing I could say, as I have said all my life is: what a sad and silly waste”. He does however, attest to one shot down plane whilst visiting Xa Dung in Vinh Bac district. Cameron describes the excitement of the locals as they dragged the remnants of a B-50 through the village, this great hulk of modern technology carted along on bamboo poles greeted by elderly men brandishing ancient rusty swords. It sums up the David and Goliath comparison of the entire war and once again he reminds us of the loss of life: “It is the United States custom to stencil the commander’s name on the hull of his aircraft, and this too had been found-I will not give his name, though I studied it with some care. He too had been found, the village commissar told me; he had not escaped; he had been buried that morning in the corner of a field some quarter of a mile away. What was left for his memorial was the fragment of metal bearing his rank and name, and very soon that disappeared under the mounting tangled pile of the debris from his final ride”

From the moment Cameron set foot in Vietnam he tried to meet both the President, Ho Chi Minh and the Prime Minister of North Vietnam, Pham Van Dong, he would wait several weeks before an audience with the Prime Minister was forthcoming, the President had communicated that “It would not be convenient to see him during his stay in Hanoi” After some considerable waiting and negotiating Cameron meets the Prime Minister who gives him a passionate defence of his position: ” I wish you could understand how simple our demands are. Since the American bombings of our country began the people have become bitter and angry, but my government’s policy remains straightforward. We don’t want thousands of American corpses or American prisoners. We want them to go away. We want the acceptance of the legal agreement-which, remember, YOUR government not only signed, but initiated. It was a BRITISH Prime Minister who presided over our independence” And so, as he continued his diatribe against the British acting as a mediator, Cameron describes the unexpected arrival of the president himself, Ho Chi Minh. It reads as a remarkable piece of reportage; Cameron is struck by the president’s amusement at surprising him and the way he casually pours himself a beer and lights a cigarette before declaring his wish not to speak about politics but rather reminiscing about his time in London and, rather remarkably, as a pastry cook under the great Escoffier.

But Cameron hasn’t gone this far to talk about Blighty, he asks the president : “Do you really think you can ever win? Do you honestly think you can ever lick the most powerful nation in the world?”  Ho Chi Minh replies: “I’ve got used to being an old revolutionary. The one thing old revolutionaries have to be is optimistic. You wait and see”

I cannot praise Cameron highly enough, his work deserves to be read by today’s audience, it is a lesson in proper reportage journalism. An editor told Cameron what to write at his peril, Cameron wrote what he saw and if a paper didn’t like it then he took it elsewhere. Cameron led an extraordinary life, he really did.

Witness by James Cameron published by Victor Gollancz, London 1966

For a James Cameron bibliography including reviews of his books please click here

 

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