The pro­scribed scribe

Rebel Jour­nal­ism: The Writ­ings of Wil­fred Burchett Edited by Ge­orge Burchett and Nick Shim­min Cam­bridge Univer­sity Press, 314pp, $ 37.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

ALONG with John Pil­ger, Wil­fred Burchett is ar­guably the most con­tro­ver­sial jour­nal­ist and war correspondent Aus­tralia has pro­duced. Known to 20th- cen­tury con­ser­va­tive Aus­tralia as pub­lic en­emy No 1, to many on the Left Burchett was re­garded as a coura­geous rebel who, most of­ten, re­ported con­flicts from be­hind en­emy lines or, at least, from the other side.

This an­no­tated an­thol­ogy of Burchett’s writ­ings from World War II un­til his death in 1983 is topped and tailed by his great­est scoop: re­port­ing first- hand on the ter­ri­ble ef­fects of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The first West­ern re­porter to reach the ut­terly dev­as­tated city, Burchett’s wit­ness re­port was pub­lished on the front page of Lon­don’s Daily Ex­press news­pa­per on Septem­ber 5, 1945.

With the head­line read­ing ‘‘ I write this as a warn­ing to the world’’, Burchett be­gan: ‘‘ In Hiroshima, 30 days af­ter the first atomic bomb de­stroyed the city and shook the world, peo­ple are still dy­ing mys­te­ri­ously and hor­ri­bly — peo­ple who were un­in­jured in the ( ini­tial) cat­a­clysm — from an un­known some­thing which I can only de­scribe as the atomic plague.’’

As Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist T. D. All­man ex­plained in his eu­logy at Burchett’s funeral: ‘‘ It was a con­sid­er­able or­deal to reach Hiroshima, but it was an in­fin­itely greater ac­com­plish­ment, back then, to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of Hiroshima.’’

Strangely, there are two fore­words to th­ese se­lected writ­ings of Burchett.

The first, by Pil­ger, largely re­hashes an es­say he wrote in 1986 for ed­i­tor Ben Kier­nan in Burchett: Re­port­ing the Other Side of the World , while the sec­ond, by Burchett de­fender Ga­van McCor­mack, rightly claims that Burchett was close to and re­spected by a range of world lead­ers, from Viet­nam’s pres­i­dent Ho Chi Minh to US sec­re­tary of state Henry Kissinger, who sought Burchett’s as­sis­tance in ne­go­ti­at­ing an end to the war in Viet­nam.

To me, it beg­gars be­lief to ar­gue that Burchett was not a com­mu­nist.

Yet Pil­ger re­counts that be­fore his death in 1983, Burchett con­fided to him that he had never be­come a com­mu­nist: ‘‘ How could I be a com­mu­nist? There were so many par­ties, each draw­ing on dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, dif­fer­ent con­di­tions. Which one was I to choose? I chose none be­cause I wanted to re­main just me.’’

The truth is, just to take the case of Viet­nam, that Burchett was a close con­fi­dant and sup­porter of Un­cle Ho and also of the com­man­der- in- chief of Viet­nam’s Peo­ples Army, gen­eral Vo Nguyen Giap, who in 1954 had routed the French at Dien Bien Phu and in 1968 mas­ter­minded the Tet of­fen­sive against the Amer­i­cans. Re­mark­ably, to the best of my knowl­edge, Giap is still alive in Hanoi.

Af­ter visit­ing the for­mer states of In­dochina early in 1962, Burchett be­came con­vinced that the US was pre­par­ing for full- scale mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion.

From then on he de­nounced US im­pe­ri­al­ism in Viet­nam and be­came, ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­pher Tom Heenan, ar­guably the war’s most in­flu­en­tial jour­nal­ist.

Rebel Jour­nal­ism fol­lows on from Burchett’s up­dated au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Mem­oirs of a Rebel Jour­nal­ist , pub­lished in 2005 and also edited by Burchett’s son Ge­orge and his col­league at SBS, Nick Shim­min.

As Ge­orge Burchett and Shim­min ex­plain, in Novem­ber 1963 Wil­fred em­barked on his great­est jour­nal­is­tic en­ter­prise since Hiroshima. He spent six months trav­el­ling in the jun­gles of South Viet­nam with Vi­et­cong gueril­las, march­ing with Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front fight­ers, in­hab­it­ing their for­ti­fied ham­lets and, de­spite his size, us­ing their ex­ten­sive net­work of tun­nels.

Pub­lished in 1965, Burchett’s Viet­nam: Inside Story of the Guerilla War pro­duced enor­mous me­dia in­ter­est. In­trigu­ingly, Burchett high­lighted the fol­low­ing re­marks, made by John F. Kennedy on April 6, 1954, when he was a sen­a­tor for Mas­sachusetts: ‘‘ To pour money, ma­te­rial and men into the jun­gles of In­dochina with­out at least a re­mote prospect of vic­tory would be dan­ger­ously fu­tile and de­struc­tive.’’

Kennedy con­tin­ued, with re­mark­able pre­science: ‘‘ No amount of Amer­i­can as­sis­tance in In­dochina can con­quer an en­emy which is ev­ery­where, and at the same time nowhere; an en­emy of the peo­ple which has the sym­pa­thy and sup­port of the peo­ple.’’

By early 1965, it was clear even to the Amer­i­cans that if they were to avoid de­feat in South Viet­nam, troop lev­els would have to be ramped up. Thus the num­ber of US troops in­creased from 184,000 at the end of 1965 to 385,000 by the end of 1966.

As the book’s edi­tors put it, in a man­ner eerily ap­pli­ca­ble to the present sit­u­a­tion in Iraq. ‘‘ Strate­gists in Wash­ing­ton took some time to re­alise that in­creased troop num­bers were not likely to win this bat­tle.’’ In­deed, then as now, it may have been use­ful for Amer­i­can com­man­ders and strate­gists to have read the as­sess­ment of the rel­a­tive mo­ti­va­tions of the com­bat­ants in Burchett’s Viet­nam .

What­ever may be said about Burchett’s loy­alty to Aus­tralia and to the West, what can­not be de­nied is his courage and his ca­pac­ity as a correspondent to be where the ac­tion was. Ross Fitzger­ald is work­ing with Peter Cherry on Ho and Me, a fea­ture film about Wil­fred Burchett and Ho Chi Minh.

From the front: Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist Wil­fred Burchett in 1967 in Viet­nam dur­ing the war

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