Haunted by Cambodia

If Iraq is to be compared to Vietnam, how relevant is Cambodia?

Ever since the news of the genocidal scale of mass murder in Cambodia reached the West, I’ve been trying to figure out how to relate it to my previous opposition to the Vietnam War.


At first it was self-exculpatory: No Vietnam War, no Nixon illicit secret bombing/destabilization of Cambodia, thus no Khmer Rouge take-over, thus no genocide. That was my story and I tried sticking to it for a long time.

But it’s more complicated than that isn’t it? Especially if you’re familiar with what’s come to light in the past decades from former Soviet archives about Vietnam. (You have read the Soviet archival documents haven’t you? Otherwise spare me your comments). When 2 or 3 million are murdered, it’s worth examining the causes further, especially in light of current potential parallels.

My opposition to the Vietnam war, developed during my college days was based on the oversimplified premise–which turns out, by most serious accounts, now bolstered by the former Soviet archives–to be false or seriously flawed.

My belief and that of most of the anti-war movement–that the North Vietnamese regime represented an indigenous, nationalist movement expressing the Vietnamese peoples centuries-long struggle for independence from foreign control–was only half-true at best.

There was a germ of truth in it, but more than a germ of foreign control in Hanoi, whose government was in fact a Stalinist puppet state of the Soviet Union (here’s where the diplomatic cables in the former Soviet archives are so important and dispositive). A Stalinist regime in Hanoi, which, as soon as it took over the South, established a gulag system of re-education and punishment camps for all who didn’t toe the line. Hundreds of thousands died in the camps, and hundreds of thousands, maybe more died as “boat people” escaping the unreconstructed Stalinist regime.


Put that in the context of another set of numbers–the 50 million or more murdered, starved, or Gulaged to death by Stalinist police states in the 20th century, and opposition to the war in Vietnam isn’t the moral slam-dunk it once seemed to be.

The Vietnam war, like the current one, was horribly mismanaged, yes. The war was, like this one, productive of horrific number of casualties among innocent civilians, but Vietnam wasn’t all as simple as I thought of it in college. One could still call it the wrong war at the wrong time fought by the wrong tactics, but one can’t portray the “foe” as somehow virtuous.

And Cambodia: the genocide there was as unimaginably horrific as any genocide in that genocidal century. Would that genocide have happened if the U.S. hadn’t so precipitously scurried out (under the aegis of a funding cut), leaving behind one half a nation hosting Stalinist gulags, and a good portion of a neighboring nation, Cambodia, rotting away in mass graves. Was the Cambodian genocide an inevitable consequence of the Vietnam war? Would it have happened however we managed to leave Vietnam? I don’t know, but it’s a question worth thinking about.


The “world community” did nothing to prevent genocide in Cambodia, in Rwanda, nothing to stop Saddam’s mass murder and the ethnic cleansing that bordered on genocide (did you hear his tape recorded cold blooded dismissal of the murder of thousands in the “Chemical Ali” trial?) in Iraq. And of course it’s doing nothing to stop it in Darfur. Whose responsibility will the aftermath of the (I think inevitable) U.S. pullout from Iraq be?

On the eve of the current war when it wasn’t clear to me whether we would actually go to war or not, I wrote, with habitual historical pessimism “war or no war, things are likely to get worse”. And I endorsed John Kerry in 2004 because I thought he would be smarter about the whole deteriorating situation. But things have gotten worse. Perhaps they haven’t for the Kurds, but for most of the rest of Iraq yes, and it’s our responsibility for the “mistakes” however you define them.

But does the fact–that it’s our responsibility for getting into this position (my view of the “surge” plan is the same as my view at the opening of the war: things are likely to get worse)–does that exempt or exculpate us from the responsibility to prevent the possible genocidal–certainly ethnic cleansing–consequences that will follow our withdrawal? Is there any way we can prevent those consequences?


And if not us, then who? The world community? I don’t have the answers, but someone has to ask the question. How do we prevent another Cambodia?


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