Forty years after the American military attacked them, the people of Tropeang Phlong village in Cambodia were still traumatized.
Beginning around 1969, U.S. helicopters regularly strafed the village, according to survivors. The American choppers used the wind off their blades to blow the thatch roofs off homes, turned their machine guns on those who fled and on men and women working in the rice paddies and fired incendiary rockets that set houses ablaze. Aircraft dropped bombs and gleaming napalm canisters that tumbled end over end and bloomed into fiery explosions.
“My nephew was killed — his stomach was blown out — and my older brother was wounded by an airstrike”, Oun Hean, the village chief, told me when I visited in 2010. “During the attack, they fled to the pagoda, but the Americans dropped a bomb on it”.
Compared with other Cambodian villages along the border with Vietnam, Tropeang Phlong was relatively lucky. About 15 people from the village died during the Vietnam War, according to six survivors of the conflict I interviewed there. At more than a dozen nearby villages, the survivors I met shared similar memories of attacks by American forces from 1969 to 1973.
As secretary of state and national security adviser under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Mr. Kissinger created U.S. war policy in Southeast Asia. His expansion and escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia killed, wounded or displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. That legacy still reverberates, and not just in bombed and brutalized Cambodian villages. His disregard for civilian casualties in war established a blueprint for the projection of U.S. military power that would have deadly consequences for civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria, among other places.
Earlier this year, just ahead of Mr. Kissinger’s 100th birthday, I published an investigation in The Intercept of atrocities that had never been revealed and were results of his policies. Based on interviews with more than 75 Cambodian survivors and an exclusive archive of formerly classified U.S. military documents that contained previously unreported evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties, my investigation showed how Mr. Kissinger was responsible for more civilian deaths in Cambodia than was previously known. In one instance, an order conveyed by Mr. Kissinger to his military aide, Gen. Alexander Haig, to unleash “anything that flies on anything that moves” resulted in a sharp uptick in airstrikes and the killing of eight Cambodian civilians in an attack by a U.S. helicopter gunship in May 1971.
The interviews and documents showed the White House’s shocking disregard for Cambodian lives and its failure to assess the impact of U.S. military actions, investigate alleged abuses or hold U.S. personnel to account. These failures of accountability contributed to a national security mindset in which the U.S. military has repeatedly cast or misidentified ordinary people as enemy combatants, excused civilian deaths and injuries as regrettable but unavoidable and failed to prevent their recurrence or punish those responsible. This template has been followed in America’s more recent forever wars.
For instance, it took a New York Times investigation in 2021 to force the Pentagon to admit that a strike against a suspected terrorist target in Kabul, Afghanistan, actually killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. Another Times investigation that same year revealed that the air war in Iraq and Syria was marked by flawed intelligence and inaccurate targeting, resulting in the deaths of thousands of innocents. My investigation for The Intercept found that no Americans — from soldiers in the field to officials in the White House, chief among them Mr. Kissinger — are known to have been held accountable for the hundreds of civilian casualties in Cambodia I documented.
Mr. Kissinger’s critics, including Ben Kiernan, former director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, say he bears substantial responsibility for attacks in Cambodia that ultimately killed as many as 150,000 civilians — up to six times more noncombatants than the United States is believed to have killed in airstrikes since Sept. 11. The statesman’s policies destabilized Cambodia so profoundly that the Khmer Rouge was able to take power and plunge the tiny nation into a nightmare campaign of overwork, hunger and murder that killed around two million people from 1975 to 1979.
Mr. Kissinger spent decades ducking questions about the bombing of Cambodia and muddying the truth in public comments. “I just wanted to make clear that it was not a bombing of Cambodia, but it was a bombing of North Vietnamese in Cambodia”, he said of the secret U.S. airstrikes during his 1973 Senate confirmation hearings to become secretary of state. Mr. Kissinger estimated that U.S. attacks during his involvement in the war resulted in 50,000 Cambodian civilian deaths.
Confronted with the incongruity of not bombing Cambodians but somehow killing at least 50,000 of them, Kissinger offered little. When I asked him in 2010 about the hundreds of additional deaths I had learned about and pleas from Cambodian victims for an explanation, he sarcastically dismissed the question and stomped off.
Before the war, people in Tropeang Phlong were happy, they told me. Life wasn’t easy but they had plenty of food and lived in well-built homes. The conflict changed all that.
“They killed our family members, our houses were attacked again and again, our pagoda was destroyed, our cattle were killed, they turned our rice fields to craters”, said Mr. Oun, who was 65 when we spoke. “The people here suffered greatly from the American war”.
Mr. Kissinger was never held to account for that suffering, in Cambodia or in other countries where his brand of realpolitik was employed. Since his death, voices of the victims of his foreign policy have been absent from the many remembrances, reminiscences and obituaries. They need to be heard. For 50 years, Mr. Kissinger evaded responsibility for the trauma visited on Tropeang Phlong and so many other villages in Cambodia. He shouldn’t be allowed to do so in death.
Nick Turse is a fellow at the Type Media Center and a contributing writer for The Intercept. He is the author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.