observations and opinion
Cambodians believe the USA used their country, destroyed its stability and then abandoned it to the wolves in 1975. No doubt many Iraqis and Syrians feel the same today. Who can blame them? Doesn’t America and its Coalition allies owe these people more than apologies and bombing runs?
The war museum at Siem Reap, Cambodia looks kind of sketchy. First, it’s outdoors – a football field sized meadow, dotted with trees. Around its perimeter are open huts, housing piles of old guns and boards covered with photographs. The field itself is dotted with old weaponry – Russian tanks, a helicopter, an anti-aircraft gun, a plane. Rust tinges everything, the way shadows form at dusk. It looks a dodgy outfit.
Without the service of a guide, the place would be nothing but a jumble of dangerous junk. But we have a guide, a small, humble fellow who like everyone else in Cambodia looks younger than he is. He is affable, quiet and deadly serious – not solemn, just purposeful in making sense of the relics and the guide unscrambles the puzzle, leading a gaggle of tourists in searing heat through the small exhibition huts, telling his own story and, in the process, describing the recent history of his country.
It is a terrible story. As he tells it, disaster began with the Vietnam War. The Americans were shoring up their hopeless client regime in the South, while the North and its many southern supporters, whittled away with guerilla warfare against the greatest power on earth. Cambodia’s King Sihanouk permitted the North Vietnamese to use eastern Cambodia as a travel corridor, triggering Nixon’s illegal and “secret” bombing of Cambodia. A rightist, pro-American coup led by Lon Nol took over in 1970. This triggered a North Vietnamese invasion, aiding the Khmer Rouge in its ongoing civil war against the central authority in Cambodia. The KR won in 1975.
The KR then turned the whole country into a socialist genocidal experimental prison camp. Millions died, among them our guide’s parents. Every survivor lost someone and no-one has ever really recovered from the disaster. Cambodia has been called “a country with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” and so it may still be, decades later. The ghoulish nightmare didn’t stop until Pol Pot’s KR provoked a fight with Vietnam, leading to yet another war – this one where most Cambodians left to fight, were only too willing to see their country invaded. The Vietnamese won and even today, exert considerable influence over the Phnom Penh government.
Our guide avoids comment about the present administration, describing his personal history and the ongoing grudge Cambodia feels towards an outside world which used it so shabbily and left it to a horrific fate. “We are mad at Mr. Nixon” he says, which may be a polite way of being angry at the whole U.S.A. This man is a human ruin – a survivor too – of a time when a small country, good mainly for growing rice, became the stomping ground of the Great Power game.
As he shuffles from display to display, matter-of-factly showing us landmines, machine guns and photos of mass graves, he is almost apologetic. “This is simply what happened to us” he seems to say. He mentions that there used to be two other guides at the museum, one a retired rightist soldier and the other, whom he calls “the Crazy One”, a former soldier who three decades later still professes loyalty to the murderous KR. The two former opponents would often argue, the guide says, yet for a time managed to make it through the day together. “But then the Crazy One just stopped coming in.” Our guide doesn’t seem too sorry about that, either. He asks for a tip at the end of the tour.
Everyone in Cambodia, along with looking so young, seems to be looking for a buck. As well they should – it’s a poor country, rich with possibility but buried in its history (while I was there, yet another young guy plowing a field died when a forty year old landmine blew up under his tractor). If recounting the horrors of civil war, genocide and personal tragedy earns our guide a few extra sheckels (the U.S. dollar is the de facto currency there) then good for him – and good for the tourists, who need the lessons almost as much as he needs the money.
Before leaving the museum, I wandered back to look at the photographs again – things I had seen before and would see again in the coming days. Although understandably resentful of “Mr. Nixon” and what America did, the Cambodians cannot justly ascribe their worst calamity – the genocide – to anyone but Pol Pot, his fanatical KR supporters and to a wider world which simply sat on its hands after the Americans fled.
If you were to ask a Cambodian, “would you have preferred an American occupation to the Khmer Rouge regime?” it would take a certain form of madness for them to choose the KR. The truth is, the rightist pro-American coup of 1970 was interpreted by many Cambodians as bringing it a certain level of security. The Lon Nol government was supported in every way by the United States. Yet it fell to pieces and when it did, the Americans literally flew away, climbing onto helicopters as the KR crept in Phnom Penh, leaving innocent Cambodia to the madmen.
One wonders how people in Syria and Iraq feel today, in the aftermath of American incursions. They too were left to the madmen. As the beheadings relentlessly prove in ISIS-land, and the ruthless brutality of the Assad defenders demonstrates, the craziness that lurked under the surface was unleashed when the United States deposed the Iraqi dictator and then chose not to stay on the ground there (or to stand by the anti-Assad forces in Syria). Having seen their imperfect domestic peace destroyed by America’s incursion, were these millions of people really happy to see the U.S. step away?
There is a “you broke it you bought it” policy in retail but not, apparently, in the places where the United States chooses to drop its bombs. Seeing what happened to Cambodia in the 1970s, and how it was ignored then and for years after, it is hard not to conclude that the right American policy would have been to stay and fight in earnest – not to abandon the country to the local maniacs.
I love America and wish its soldiers no further harm, but there is a tower of skulls at the Killing Fields museum suggesting the Yanks should not have cut Cambodia loose in 1975. There are mass graves being dug and filled in Syria and Iraq today, which hold the same lesson – not only about the United States, but also about the other Coalition members like the UK, who overthrew Saddam and then went home. Our friendly Cambodian guide, gently but bitterly, made the point that his country had been left to the wolves in 1975. If the ISIS “Caliphate” is ever destroyed, or if Assad is ever deposed, there will be tour guides at Mosul and Ramadi, who in future might say the same.