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Lessons of War, Revisited

Book cover photo Beyond the Killing Fields by Sydney Schanberg
Potomac Books, Dulles, Virginia, 2010


Sydney Schanberg's new book Beyond the Killing Fields covers old ground. Anyone with a passing familiarity with Cambodian history has heard these tales: Repression. Widespread massacres. A horrific genocide, brought to a halt by a foreign invasion. In the wake of that invasion, no one knew the exact death toll, and the new government estimated that it might be as high as three million. "While foreign diplomats and other independent observers do not generally put the figure this high, all say it was at least several hundred thousand and many put it at more than a million." Stories emerging from the devastated country were horrifying. A witness described the constant executions: "They killed some people every day... Sometimes five or six. Sometimes 20. On one day, they killed 500." Elsewhere, at a temple "half destroyed with dynamite, almost the entire stone floor around the altar bears a dull red stain. The stain is from blood, for this is one of the places of execution."

Schanberg described the scene as he made his way across the countryside: "Though truckloads of skeletons have recently been carried away for proper burial, bones are still scattered along the gray roadside for over a mile... It almost seems, as one goes from place to place, that each story of the killings is more gruesome than the one before."

Before the invasion, many had warned of atrocities. Now, however, "All the evidence now indicates that the killings were on a wider scale and more sadistic than foreign newsmen and other independent observers had earlier thought."

These stories are all familiar. They are not, however, from Cambodia. They're taken from Schanberg's stories from Bangladesh, in 1971.

Beyond the Killing Fields is an anthology of Schanberg's articles from Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Iraq, written over the course of more than thirty years. The fact that the stories from Bangladesh are so eerily similar to Cambodia underscores at point Schanberg makes in the introduction of this fine book:

"Why put together a collection of old war stories? What useful purpose does it serve? My answer is simple. To me, now a septuagenarian, it seems that our planet -- and maybe Washington in particular -- has become almost comfortable with regular wars. President Eisenhower's warning to America to beware of 'the military-industrial complex' has been brushed aside.

"We Americans are notoriously deficient about taking lessons from our own history. So perhaps this book will remind people what war is really like. Slaughter is no less bestial now than it has been through recorded history."

Few writers have done more to etch Cambodia's place into history -- and into popular consciousness -- than Sydney Schanberg. The 1984 film The Killing Fields was based on "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," originally published in the New York Times Magazine in January 1980.

"The Death and Life of Dith Pran" is reprinted in Beyond the Killing Fields, along with a number of Schanberg's other articles from the New York Times and other publications. Several of the articles describe the horrors of the war that brought the Khmer Rouge to power. Particularly moving are Schanberg's descriptions of the accidental bombing of Neak Loung, in August 1973. At least 137 were killed, and at least another 268 were wounded:

"Yesterday afternoon a soldier could be seen sobbing uncontrollably on the riverbank. 'All my family is dead!' he cried, beating his hand on the wooden bench where he had collapsed. 'All my family is dead! Take my picture! Let the Americans see me!'

"His name is Keo Chan, and his wife and 10 of his children were killed. All he has left is the youngest -- an 8-month old son. The 48-year-old soldier escaped death because he was on sentry duty a few miles away when the bombs fell."

At least thirty bombs fell in the center of the town, striking markets, apartments, a hospital, and a military compound.

"Ammunition also exploded in this compound and many people died. A woman's scalp sways on a clump of tall grass. A bloody pillow here, a shred of sarong caught on barbed wire there. A large bloodstain on the brown earth. A pair of infant's rubber sandals among some unexploded artillery shells."

As the war pressed on, the Cambodian people were caught between the warring parties. "The American embassy in Phnom Penh -- and Henry Kissinger's team in Washington -- insisted that the refugees were fleeing only one thing: attacks by the brutal Khmer Rouge," Schanberg writes. "But in fact they were fleeing both the Khmer Rouge and the American bombs. I visited refugee camps regularly and consistently heard both accounts. Some peasants didn't flee at all; the Khmer Rouge used their anger about the bombing to recruit them as soldiers and porters."

The Khmer Rouge -- like Nixon and Kissinger -- were indifferent to the suffering that their tactics brought to the population:

"One afternoon in the summer of 1974, the Khmer Rouge trained a captured American-made 105 mm howitzer on Phnom Penh and fanned its muzzle across the city's southern edge. At first, as the shells fell in this half-moon arc, they exploded without result, but then the arc came to a colony of houses called Psar Deum Kor, and the death began. Fires started by the shells broke out and the houses were quickly in flames, whipped by high winds. Within half an hour, nearly two hundred people were dead and another two hundred wounded, virtually all civilians. The bodies were carted off on police pickup trucks. No military target was anywhere in the vicinity."

By the time the wars in Indochina were drawing to a close, the gap between the reality on the ground and the rosy predictions made a decade earlier was positively surreal. In an article originally published in the New York Times Magazine in 1972, describing the adversarial relationship between the press and the military command, Schanberg noted that "News stories from Saigon almost never use the word 'lie' about American press releases and reports -- perhaps because of the need for coexistence and because softer words will get the idea across. But there is really no other word for some of the stories the Americans put out." No one in the hierarchy really wanted to own up to their claims:

"Reporters can, from time to time, obtain interviews with all the top American officials -- with Ellsworth Bunker and also the commanding generals -- but none will speak for the record. No names can be used. No one accepts personal responsibility for what he says. What this means is that these men can get things in print as the official American view -- sometimes outrageous things -- and never have to answer for them personally if events prove their analyses totally wrong. How many times did we 'turn the corner' in Vietnam or sight that famous light at the end of the tunnel? Usually these officials do not assume this cloak of anonymity out of venality but rather out of fear, and presumably because of instructions from Washington. Toward the end of April, when Brig. General Thomas W. Bowen spoke frankly and on the record to reporters in Hue about the deteriorating situation on the northern front, he was admonished and silenced by his superiors in Saigon, who had apparently got the word from Washington."

A similar detachment from reality would come back to haunt another administration, decades later. The final chapter of Schanberg's book discusses Iraq, where the policy of the Bush administration seemed to be based entirely on ideology and wishful thinking.

Considering that most observers would describe Schanberg's political leanings as liberal, his assessment of Iraq is not surprising. It's foolish, however, to attempt to pigeonhole a journalist of Schanberg's caliber, and what is likely to be the book's most controversial chapter concerns an issue that is usually associated with conservatives. The title of the chapter minces no words: "The Cover-Up of U.S. POWs Left Behind in Vietnam."

Schanberg strongly believes that American servicemen were abandoned in Southeast Asia, and he makes a compelling case. He outlines a number of facts that support the belief that Vietnam failed to release all American prisoners in 1973.

Why would the communists have kept some of their captives? Schanberg notes that the 1973 Paris peace agreement called for the U.S. to pay $3.25 billion in postwar reconstruction aid that would be implemented "in accordance with its own constitutional provisions." In practice, that meant that the aid would have to be approved by Congress. The North Vietnamese were clearly skeptical about their chances of actually receiving the money. "Hanoi thus appears to have held back prisoners -- just as it had done when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their forces from Vietnam. In that case, France paid ransoms for the prisoners and brought them home."

Schanberg raises a number of facts that suggest that not all the prisoners were returned. James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, who both served as defense secretaries during the Vietnam War, testified under oath that they believed men had been left behind. Listening stations in the late Seventies and early Eighties picked up messages from the Laotian military, discussing the movement of American captives. Why were the messages disregarded? American listening teams had been moved out after 1975, and the posts were then manned by Thai officers who had been trained by the U.S. National Security Agency. When the Thais informed the Americans, however, the intelligence community ruled that the information had to be regarded as "third party" information, since it had not been garnered by U.S. personnel. The Reagan White House may have received a ransom proposal from Hanoi in 1981; two different individuals offered corroborating accounts of a meeting in which the offer was discussed. Even later, in the late Eighties and into the early Nineties, satellite photos appeared to show distress signals marked on the ground. "On one occasion, a Pentagon photo expert refused to go along. It was a missing man's named gouged into a field, he said, not trampled grass or paddy berms. His bosses responded by bringing in an outside contractor who found instead, yes, shadows and vegetation."

The official policy of successive American governments was consistent: All of the prisoners had been brought home in 1973. Reversing that position would have been tantamount to an admitting that men had knowingly been abandoned. In the most cynical evaluation, the soldiers left behind were simply another expense. War has costs.

The problem is precisely as Schanberg described in the Preface. We're not good at history. We forget those costs; we have to keep relearning the same lessons.

Will Beyond the Killing Fields help us remember? As Schanberg puts it:

"Armed with this knowledge, maybe the next time a politician says we must invade and destroy evildoers who are being well contained by other means, maybe we'll think twice.

"And, then, maybe we won't."


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Related Links:
Beyond the Killing Fields: Official Website
Beyond the Killing Fields: The Book in Pictures From the Author's Photo Archives

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