On Monday I went to the funeral of my great uncle, my grandfather’s brother and the last surviving Warner of his generation. His name was Denis Warner and he was something of a journalistic legend. He was awarded both an OBE and CMG (order of St Michael and St George) for his contribution to journalism. He lived and worked extensively throughout Asia and Australia, for many years as a war correspondent. His coverage included that of the allied push to recapture Asia-Pacific territory seized by Japan, the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War (get your context here) was widely considered to be a meaningless war, a catastrophic defeat for US-led forces and a sleight against humanity. This perspective contributed to widespread emotional and psychological health problems among the veterans that served in and returned from Vietnam. But Denis Warner formed a different view and one I’d not heard before.
In his eulogy, delivered by his longtime colleague and friend Michael Richardson, it was noted that a retrospective article written by Denis on Vietnam was particularly remarkable. It was published in the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times in April 2000 to mark the 25th Anniversary of the fall of Saigon and stated that the Vietnam War had
“bought time for the non-communist countries of Southeast Asia to strengthen themselves, and concentrate on reform and economic development, so that by the time the Vietnamese Communists emerged victorious, the Southeast Asian ‘dominoes’ stood firm instead of falling, as the Hanoi propagandists predicted.
In the end, it was the communist-led states pf Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) that had to accept peaceful co-existence and later join the non-communist Association of the South East Asian nations (ASEAN).
Denis highlighted in his article just how precarious hings were for these non-communist countries, namely Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. They faced a likely communist alliance between Indonesia and China, a strength of which could well have dissolved any resistance. After reading the article, Singapore’s leader (and close friend of DW) Lee Kuan Yew wrote to Denis expressing his agreement:
“You put it well. I was, and still am, convinced that if LBJ (US President Johnson) had not got US forces to stay in Vietnam in 1965, but had bowed out, the will to resist in South East Asia would have melted. The Thais would have yielded to the seemingly inevitable, and Malaysia and Singapore would have been chewed up. Indonesia would have also been overtaken. What a joy and relief to have a living witness speak out the truth, although it is unpopular with the liberal media.”
It’s an interesting perspective and one worth noting I think, however long ago it all happened. Well I think so anyway, maybe I’m just being overly proud of my great uncle.
On that note, and as an aside, Australians were highly regarded as war reporters, partly because they didn’t rely on military briefings but went to the front and lived with the fighters on the ground, and because, according to one correspondent, they were not afraid of camping. Denis Warner was one of these. As a man of integrity and good judgment he developed many contacts in high places over the years, many of whom trusted him with insights no working journalist would be privy to today. In light of recent events surrounding the Murdoch Press and phone hacking scandals (I am working on a post on this so watch this space), it is possible that the press will never again win the trust of any mover and shaker in the way of Denis and his contemporaries, and that a great percentage of what we read will be obtained by clandestine means with wobbly accuracy and questionable credibility. What a shame. Another reason to long for the Good Old Days.
Goodbye Denis Ashton Warner, you “giant of the best of journalism” and loving family man. And thank you.