By William Shawcross, the author of ‘Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia’ and ‘Allies: The US, Britain, Europe and the War in Iraq’ (THE TIMES, 03/03/07):
The Killing Fields illustrates brilliantly part of the long disaster that has been Cambodia over recent decades. It is a compelling film that follows the story of a young Cambodian, Dith Pran, who worked for the New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg in Cambodia during the brutal five-year war that resulted in the communist Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975.
At that moment all the foreigners and their Cambodian friends took refuge in the French Embassy, hoping for safe passage out of the country. They had not reckoned with the horrific total revolution that the communists planned to impose. They demanded that all the Cambodians, including Pran, surrender, while the foreigners were trucked out of the country. In tears, the foreigners, including Schanberg, let their friends go. Many were murdered at once as “Western agents”.
For the next three and a half years Pran had to conceal his past as he worked in the fields. The communists under Pol Pot shut Cambodia off and imposed one of the most vicious totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Up to two million of the seven million people died, either murdered by the Khmer Rouge or from starvation and disease as a result of the draconian agrarian policies they imposed. Pran survived.
At the end of 1975 I went to the Thai-Cambodian border to talk to refugees. Their horrific stories of people with glasses being killed as “intellectuals” and of “bourgeois” babies being beaten to death against trees were being dismissed as CIA propaganda by the antiAmerican Western Left, but it seemed obvious to me that they were true. I wanted to discover how the Khmer Rouge had grown and come to power; I wrote a book called Sideshow, which was very critical of the way in which the United States had brought war to Cambodia while trying to extricate itself from Vietnam.
But horror had engulfed all of Indo-China as a result of the US defeat in 1975. In Vietnam and Laos there was no vast mass murder but the communists created cruel gulags and, from Vietnam in particular, millions of people fled, mostly by boat and mostly to the US. Given the catastrophe of the communist victories, I have always thought that those like myself who were opposed to the American efforts in Indochina should be very humble. I also think it wrong to dismiss the US efforts there as sheer disaster. Lee Kuan Yew, the former longtime Prime Minister of Singapore, has a subtler view. He argues that, although America lost in IndoChina in 1975, the fact that it was there so long meant that other SouthEast Asian countries had time to build up their economies to relieve the poverty of their peasants and thus resist communist encroachment — which they probably could not have done had IndoChina gone communist in the 1960s.
That long view seems to me to be the one that has to be applied to Iraq. I still believe the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was the correct thing to do — and it was something only the United States could have done. For all the horrors that extremist Sunnis and Shias are inflicting on each other today, the US rid the world of the Pol Pot of the Middle East. So long as the vile Saddam family regime remained in power there was no hope of progress in the region. There is still hope — if we do not abandon the Iraqi people.
In Indo-China the majority of Western journalists (including myself) believed that the war could not or should not be won. Similarly today, for too many pundits hatred (and it really is that) of Bush and Blair dominates perceptions. Armchair editorialists love to dismiss the US effort in terms of Abu Ghraib or Haditha. They were not typical moments. Evidence of the courage and commitment of ordinary US soldiers is inadequately covered by many papers, as is the courage of millions of ordinary Iraqis.
There are encouraging signs — the Iraqi military is becoming ever more competent; Sunni tribal leaders seem increasingly angry with al-Qaeda brutalities; parliament is discussing contentious legislation on dividing oil and gas revenues fairly between different parts of the country; the dinar is still strong, indicating confidence; most Iraqis still seem to desire a united country.
Of course huge mistakes have been made. We should lament and criticise them but not dismiss the underlying effort. President Bush’s new strategy (and probably his last throw) is to “surge” thousands of US troops into Baghdad. Rather than abusing him we should all be hoping that it is not too little too late.
The consequences of an American defeat in Iraq would be even worse than in IndoChina. As the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Musab al-Zarqawi, said before he was killed by a US air strike: “The shedding of Muslim blood is allowed in order to disrupt the greater evil of disrupting jihad.”
If Iraq collapses, such nihilist killing will spread far wider. As in Cambodia, bloody mass murder is the only alternative to what the US-led coalition is trying to achieve. Thanks to the sacrifice of young American and British soldiers, and to the courage of millions of ordinary Iraqis, the country can still have a better future — if we remain committed. Remember 1975.