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    It is difficult to describe how a friendship grows, for it often grows from seemingly contradictory roots--mutual needs, overlapping
    dependencies, intense shared experiences, and even the inequality of status, with one serving the other.
        -Sydney H. Schanberg, The Death and Life of Dith Pran

    The growing hysteria of the administration's posture on Cambodia seems to me to reflect a determined refusal to consider what the fall of
    the existing government in Phnom Penh would actually mean.... We should be able to see that the kind of government which would
    succeed Lon Nol's forces would most likely be a government ... run by some of the best-educated, most able intellectuals in Cambodia.
        -Senator George McGovern

This book is for the most part a reprint of the story that Sydney H. Schanberg wrote for The New York Times Magazine (January 20, 1980), which subsequently became the basis for the Oscar-winning film, The Killing Fields.  In structure it seems a simple enough story of one man's heroic survival and another's personal redemption : insensitive Western journalist (Sydney Schanberg) badly miscalculates the danger that his Man Friday (Dith Pran) is in as the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia; Sydney escapes deteriorating situation but Dith Pran can not leave; Sydney conducts a ceaseless rescue effort, while Dith Pran survives unimaginable horrors, before finally fleeing the country; they are reunited and all is forgiven.   Mr. Schanberg makes this portion of the story more compelling by being relatively honest about his shabby treatment of Dith Pran and by revealing just how guilty he felt about what he had done. It thus becomes a story of recompense, of how he initially did wrong by Dith Pran but then did his best to set things right, and eventually everything worked out okay.

However, this simple tale leaves out a much larger story of betrayal and moral blindness, one for which Mr. Schanberg never takes any responsibility and for which no one can ever grant him any absolution.  Mr. Schanberg was a member of a Western press corps in South East Asia during the Vietnam Era which disastrously misjudged the intentions of both their own country and of those we were fighting against, with catastrophic results for the native populations.  Writing in the pages of the New York Times on April 13, 1975, just five days before the final fall of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, to the Khmer Rouge, Mr. Schanberg wrote that for the :

    ...ordinary people of Indochina Ö it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone.

Over the next several years, once the Americans were gone, the Khmer Rouge would either intentionally murder or starve through gross incompetence some 1.7 million citizens out of a population of just seven million.

How could a journalist for one of the world's leading newspapers, who is supposed to have at least some minimal understanding of the story he's covering, have misjudged the situation so badly?  Well, when Mr. Schanberg explains why he and Dith Pran decided to stay on in Cambodia to witness and report on the triumph of the Khmer Rouge, he says :

    Our decision to stay was founded on our belief--perhaps, looking back, it was more a devout wish or hope--that when they won their
    victory, they would have what they wanted and would end the terrorism and brutal behavior we had written so often about.  We all
    wanted to believe that, since both sides were Khmers, they would find a route to reconciliation.

Wasn't 1975 awfully late in the 20th Century to still be harboring such placid delusions about the nature of Communism?  Where was the nation that such advocates for communist takeover could point to which had enjoyed such a peaceful transition and "reconciliation"?

Though it is conservatives who are most often accused of viewing other cultures and peoples through chauvinistic eyes, it seems apparent that this was a case of folks like Mr. Schanberg and Mr. McGovern (see above) and others on the Left seeing in the Khmer Rouge what they wished to see, a gentle rebuke to Western imperialism, rather than listening to what the Khmer Rouge made it abundantly clear that they really were, Leftist revolutionaries determined to remake their society by destroying it.    We can give folks like Mr. Schanberg some benefit of the doubt and assume that they did not fully comprehend that their own political philosophies eventually had to end in killing fields and charnel heaps, but the Left's utopian assumption that Man was essentially "good" in the State of Nature, until he was corrupted by various social institutions and political philosophies, virtually begs people to seek a return to those halcyon days and as Mr. Schanberg describes the actions of Pol Pot :

    There is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge are turning Cambodian society upside down, remaking it in the image of some earlier agrarian
    time, casting aside everything that belongs to the old system, which has been dominated by the consumer society of the cities and towns.
    Some of the Khmer Rouge soldiers we talk to speak of destroying the colonial heritage and use phrases like 'purification of the people'
    and 'returning the country to the peasant.'

In this the Khmer Rouge were merely realizing the dreams of Jean Jacques Rousseau, a State of Nature where Man had "neither houses, nor huts, nor any kind of property whatever" and returning society to the blessed status that Marx and Engels spoke of in The Communist Manifesto when man enjoyed a "primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership".  How futile and disingenuous then to express shock when the Khmer Rouge proceeded to return Cambodia to this kind of primitive "Year Zero."

Yet, while Mr. Schanberg goes to great lengths to demonstrate his genuine remorse at the life-threatening danger in which he had placed Dith Pran, the book is utterly devoid of any contrition for the at least partial role his journalism, and that of many of his fellow pressmen in Southeast Asia and his colleagues at the NY Times, played in getting America to abandon Cambodia and leave its people to the predictably ungentle ministrations of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.  It is quite touching when Dith Pran and Mr. Schanberg are reunited, at a refugee camp in Thailand, and all is forgiven.  But the seeming closure that this affecting scene provides to the story is unfortunately false.  Even as we are thankful that Dith Pran made it out of the killing fields alive, we must be ever cognizant of the fact that nearly two million of his countrymen were not so fortunate.   This is a holocaust for which America must bear some responsibility, not merely, as Mr. Schanberg wishes to have it, for being involved in Cambodia in the first place, but for bugging out when the going got tough.  Surely some day the Left faces a reckoning for its century-long dalliance with homicidal Marxist regimes, but Mr. Schanberg does not begin that process here.

The book is still worthwhile, because the story of Cambodia and of Dith Pran and the events to which he bore witness must never be forgotten.  But there's a hollowness at the book's core, due to Mr. Schanberg's unwillingness, or inability, to perceive the true extent of his own culpability for the killing fields.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Sydney Schanberg Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Sydney Schanberg
    -ESSAY: The Tragedy and Triumph of The Killing Fields (Bradley J. Birzer, 6/14/24, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY : Cambodia (Sydney Schanberg)
    -ESSAY : Have Federal Judges Lost Touch With Reality? : Judges Exempt Selves From Law With Strange Internet Decision (Sydney H. Schanberg, Dec. 15, 1999 , APB Online)
    -ESSAY : Raymond Kelly: The Insider's Insider (Sydney Schanberg, March 24, 2000, APB Online)
    -INTERVIEW : Role Models with Sydney Schanberg (Columbia Journalism Review)
    -DISCUSSION : Online NewsHour: Pol Pot's Legacy -- June 18, 1997 (PBS)
    -DISCUSSION : Online NewsHour: Pol Pot Dies - April 16, 1998 (PBS)
    -VIDEO : Author Sydney Schanberg reacts to Pol Pot's death (CNN)
    -PROFILE : Print Legend Sydney Schanberg Online (December 14, 1999, Online Journalism Review) Ý
    -ESSAY : The Erasing Fields (William J. Bennetta, The Textbook Letter for September-October 1997)
    we can gfive ( Producer Jarrett Murphy, April 2000)
    -ESSAY : Pol Pot's Cheerleaders : Over a quarter a century ago,  American leftists cheered, justified, and denied as the communists plunged Cambodia into a nightmare of atrocity. In the end, they failed to whitewash Pol Pot's record. They will not succeed in whitewashing their own. (Jeff Jacoby, April 24, 2001, Capitalism)
    -ESSAY : Don't Blame America for the 'Killing Fields' (Stephen J. Morris, Wall Street Journal | May 3, 2000)
    -ARCHIVES : "sydney Schanberg" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of ÝReporting Vitetnam: Part One: American Journalism 1959-1969 and Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 (Jonathan Z. Larsen, CJR)
    -REVIEW : of Reporting Vietnam (Maurice Walsh, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Crimes of War : What the Public Should Know edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff (JOHN T. SLANIA, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Crimes of War (David L. Ulin, LA Weekly)

    -The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, Inc.
    -Heroism Project | 1970s | Dith Pran
    -INTERVIEW : Dith Pran (Brian Williams, MSNBC TV)

    -BUY IT : The Killing Fields (1984) DVD (
    -INFO : The Killing Fields (1984) (
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Roland Joffé Ý(
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Haing S. Ngor (
    -Discussion Questions: The Killing Fields (Robert Yahnke)
    -REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (Andy Brouwer's Cambodia Tales)
    -REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (1984) (Tim Dirks)
    -REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (Peter Reiher)
    -REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (Wendy Elizabeth Kuhn, Undergraduate at Lehigh University)
    -REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (Paso Robles Daily Press)
    -DVD REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (Vincent Vargas, DVDangle)
    -DVD REVIEW : of The Killing Fields (Digital Bits)

    -Embassy of Cambodia to the United States
    -American Friends of Cambodia Trust
    -Cambodia Information Center
    -Kingdom of Cambodia (Political Resources)
    -Cambodian Genocide Program : A project of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University
    -Cambodia : The Odyssey of the Khmer People
    -Human Rights Watch: Cambodia
    -Khmer Institute
    -Pol Pot : The Whimsical Murderer
    -ARTICLE : Cambodia's Pol Pot confirmed dead (April 16, 1998, CNN)
    -ESSAY : Remembering the deaths of 1.7-million Cambodians (Joyce Apsel, SPECIAL TO THE CITIZEN-TIMES)
    -EXCERPT : Ýfrom Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties by Peter Collier and David Horowitz
    -ARCHIVES : Directory : Cambodia