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A conscientious objector unearths the lessons of the 'American War'

Photo: Photos by Steven G. Kellman, License: N/A

Photos by Steven G. Kellman

Skulls from the Cambodian Killing Fields.

Photo: , License: N/A

Captured U.S. tank.

Photo: , License: N/A

The author climbing out of a cramped secret bunker used by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.


Though I have been elsewhere in the Middle East, I have never been to Iraq. But I can imagine a point in the not-too-distant future when Americans — veterans and others — will return as tourists, cruising the Euphrates. I never did make it to Indochina — until this summer, when, at my own expense, I floated down the Mekong River through Cambodia and into Vietnam. There is much in the lush, verdant countryside of Southeast Asia to lure a tourist — imperial ruins, Buddhist temples, rice paddies, floating markets, silk weaving, fish farms. The region abounds in mango, papaya, rambutan, sapodilla, mangosteen, and other tropical fruits, and it is paradise for aficionados of stir fry and dumplings. Adventurous carnivores can savor ragout laced with rats and snakes. The natives, most of whom were born after the cessation of hostilities with the United States, are friendly, especially toward foreigners with dollars in their pockets. But the vestiges of atrocity haunt both Cambodia and Vietnam.   

In 1970, President Richard Nixon launched a secret, unauthorized attack within Cambodia against supply routes used by North Vietnamese forces. Though a strategic success, this ferocious bombardment and invasion — euphemistically termed an "incursion" — resulted in as many as 1 million civilian casualties. It destabilized the Cambodian government of Lon Nol and allowed Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge to sweep into power in 1975. Fanatically dedicated to national autonomy, the Khmer Rouge emptied the capital, Phnom Penh, of all but a few thousand government functionaries and forced everyone else into the countryside to toil the soil. "Rice fields are books," Pol Pot declared. In today's Cambodia, rice is ubiquitous, but books are hard to find. From 1975-79, starvation, disease, and murder claimed the lives of 2 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 million — the worst case of genocide since Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen ceased operations in 1945. And it was committed by Cambodians against their own people. The Khmer Rouge singled out intellectuals, artists, doctors, lawyers, engineers — anyone with an education — for extermination. They were brought to dozens of "killing fields" scattered throughout the country, where, because bullets were more valuable than human lives, they were stabbed, beaten, or poisoned to death.

The bones of Pol Pot's victims are still visible, scattered across the largest of the killing fields, just outside Phnom Penh. In 1979, the Vietnamese army forced the Khmer Rouge to retreat to an enclave at the Thai border, and surviving Cambodians struggled to retrieve their lives. Houses that lay vacant because of the evacuations became the property of resourceful squatters, even if the original owners showed up later. Some sought revenge against the old regime, but, because the slaughter was so widespread and the Khmer Rouge might yet return, a general amnesty was offered (Pol Pot himself died in 1998 under house arrest by a faction of his own movement while hundreds of other murderers avoided punishment). Too young to remember the genocide, most Cambodians I met focus on the future and deny any bitterness.

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