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Commentary on ‘Cambodia’, by James Fenton

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James Fenton, the poet of ‘Cambodia’ spent several years in Asia, touring countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Indochina and became distressed and exceedingly more and more incensed by the atrocious war crimes being committed by those in authority. He wrote most of his poems upon his return to America, but ‘Cambodia’ was written while he was visiting Southern Asia. Cambodia was a country devastated by war, and over 2 million civilians died in the various conflicts. The conflict he is referring to here is when American troops conducted illegal bombing raids under the guise of killing Viet-Cong they thought were fleeing into Cambodia.

These bombing raids cost 750,000 innocent civilians their lives. Cambodia was then ruled by Pol Pot, who killed up to two million civilians in his reign. James Fenton was particularly disillusioned with those who had the power to stop the war, and became a fervent anti-war supporter. He knew that it was the ordinary citizen who was dying, not soldiers or the higher class. In this poem it is those ordinary people he focuses on, those who have either perished or are facing almost certain death on the battlefield.

‘Cambodia’ has a deceptively simple and childlike structure. In the 1st stanza he describes a man who smiled and said goodbye, a reference seemingly to his death. If this is so, it is debatable whether this is sarcastic, given that the man would not be smiling at the time of his death, or whether it is highlighting how war can instantaneously change things for people, so that one day he was smiling and happy and the next dead. However on closer inspection, it could appear to be a man either being sent away from the battle, or a man being called up for duty possibly saying his farewells to his family.

The fact that a constant theme throughout the poem is that the first line contains a survivor, while the second line depicts the dead or those who will soon be dead, adds credence to this thought as does the fact that he is saying two will be left-presumably left behind in battle. In the second line James Fenton initiates a trend that continues throughout the poem of an increasing number of people in the second line of the stanza. As stated above, this poem is to focus on the dead and those who will die and the second line here adheres to that. He gives us false hope by saying that two shall be left, but then cruelly dashes that when he says that “two shall be left to die”.

In the 3rd stanza we are told that a man shall give his best advice, but three men will die as a result of it. This is a reference to the habitually abysmal military intelligence that plagued these conflicts and often led men into traps. In the fourth stanza we see that one man shall live, but will live a life of regret and to meet that one man surviving four men will have to die. This could be the cause of the man’s regret, as survivor’s guilt that often plagues the survivors of war in these situations when they live, but their comrades don’t. In the fifth stanza we see the after-effects of war, the nightmares and flashbacks and the shellshock suffered. We see this expressed in many poems, but the minimalism of this line conceives an extremely vivid and therefore shocking image of the after-effects of war. The second line also describes that the man thinks it’s a nightmare or a dream, but it is actually happening and is reality. War is so bad that it must seem like a nightmare to those involved, and this also shows that there is no escape from war no matter where you are.

The last stanza escapes the form of the previous stanzas, in that it doesn’t have one man on the first line and then six men on the second line. Instead it says “one man to five. A million men to one.” I think here that James Fenton is trying to emphasise that for the one man who started the war, a million must suffer the consequences, and also that for every five people who stay at home and don’t go to war, one man must die. The last line, “And still they die. And still the war goes on.” is a chilling reminder to us, a line that is as brutal as it is simple. This line feels laden with anger, accusations, guilt and grief and could be tabled as an accusation at those who are in ‘control’ of the battles as to why they won’t end it. It also demonstrates how there is no end to war, and that that must be particularly astute to those involved.

The structure of ‘Cambodia’ is so 5 stanzas of two lines which lets the poem flow extremely fast and lets the poem get straight to the point. This makes it concise and almost allies us to the poem, rather than letting us feel detached. The poem is also almost lyrical and is presented in an almost joking way which only heightens the shock and impact of his words when we get to the real message. As these poems were always intended to be a form of anti-war propaganda (a fact touched upon by the Washington Post Editorial Feature) and so would be used as a way of getting his message across to the masses, it is clever that he gives us hope at the start of each line. Every first line starts optimistically like “One man shall live” which grants us false hope, before cruelly taking it away from us and showing us that war doesn’t have happy endings, as is shown with this line which ends with “live to regret.” Because we are hopeful at the start when we lose that hope we feel even more negative, which is a really good tactic for this form of propaganda.

Although references have been made to this already, it is necessary to remark again upon the importance of the simplistic outlook of this poem. This is because it is this simplicity that allows James Fenton to convey successfully to us the shock. The simple structure lends the poem a fast, snappy rhythm which ensures the poem gets straight to the point. This creates not only a tense atmosphere but guarantees that the reader will feel that this is an important message. The simple words of no more than 6 or 7 words contrive to build up devastating images because they allow our imaginations to run wild and think up horrors far worse than words could.

This poem brings up an extremely famous quote by a man who committed some of the worst deeds history has ever seen, mostly against his own people. Stalin once commented that while “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” While these words are ghastly, to a certain degree they are true. Reading in the papers of one mans heroic death is far more heart-rending than hearing that 1 million soldiers have died in the war so far. James Fenton uses that to his advantage here; by always keeping the numbers low – even when he talks about the million dead he reminds us that it is caused by one person.

As this was intended as a piece of anti-war propaganda, it is worthwhile to look at how effective a piece it is. To me, this is a superb illustration of how bad war is, but how simple it appears. Although not as comprehensive as pieces such as “Dulce et decorum est” by Wilfred Owen, I think that it is far more shocking and persuasive than the aforementioned poem, while not drawing on any personal experiences or describing the abominable conditions of war. It was published in countless newspapers and figured on leaflets and anti-war demonstrations which shows its eminence and value. Even now it is an apt and timely reminder about the perils of war.

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