As I started research on the countries visited, collating background material and transcribing past interviews, I happened on this advice from Graham Greene, in John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.”
He looked at me intensely. “The important thing is to write about things that matter.”
Well then. The purpose of “War: The Afterparty” is to write about things that matter. Specifically, the real outcomes of our interventions, whether we achieve our desired outcomes, and an assessment of the human and financials costs versus benefits of war.
Now that the travel is done, I am planning the when, where, how (and why) of posting interviews and essays and social media, of how to use the Patreon platform, of how to deliver value for my Kickstarter backers. Thank you for coming along for the ride. Expect a lot of provocative, timely material, culminating in the publication and distribution of the book this year. For those who read this after its initial distribution to Patreon patrons, you can support the project by pledging at www.patreon.com/briangruber.
I didn’t cry at the ‘killing fields’ memorial on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, but I did at Prison S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Perhaps because the villagers at the Choeung Ek memorial tore the place down, enraged, once the Khmer Rouge were in full flight, destroying the buildings, the torture spaces, the detritus of mass murder.
I write this at the end of the “War: The Afterparty” world tour, having talked to the witnesses of a half century of U.S. military incursions. Most astonishing to me is how people want to move on, to forgive, to focus on the future. It’s fitting to end the trip here in Cambodia, the endgame of human cruelty. Because forgetting is not the antidote, lest the cycle of violence continue.
A day after arriving in Cambodia, I watched the movie most widely associated with the genocide, “The Killing Fields,” with Sam Waterston, Haing Ngor, John Malkovich, Julian Sands and the late, great Spalding Gray. Phnom Penh has three guesthouse/ theatre/ cafes called Flicks 1, 2 and 3. The seats are the equivalent of couches, it’s very cozy, though I’m not sure the films are licensed. “The Killing Fields” plays once each day, without end. I liked Phnom Penh. A step or two behind highly developed Ho Chi Minh City, but a vibrant, historic city. The palace complex, where the great Khmer royals lived post-Angkor, was the most visually stunning highlight of the trip. The Khmer Rouge plotted Year Zero after their takeover in the sacred Silver Pagoda, camped out like schoolboys away on holiday. Pol Pot, the nom de guerre of Saloth Sar, Brother Number One, chose to sleep inside the pagoda in a makeshift bed, in an area usually reserved for statues of Buddha.
The most chilling images to me were not the mass graves but the fierce look on the faces of the Khmer Rouge fighters. Young, uneducated country boys with no other personal prospects, gleefully murdering and tormenting strangers. True believers to a purist ideology, like the rural hillbillies of ISIS, only sporting differently-styled red kerchiefs.
It’s hard to find interviews with witnesses of the four-year Khmer Rouge killing spree. So many are dead. The numbers are staggering and it is an obscenity to give ranges. 1.5 million, coulda been 3. From a quarter to a third of the country, dead. The most definitive estimates? 20,000 mass graves. Between 1.4 million and 2.2 million killed, half due to executions, the rest from starvation and disease. An additional 650,000 Cambodians starved to death in 1979 and 1980 due to the after effects of Khmer Rouge policy.
Cambodians, by the way, pronounce Khmer as ‘ke-my,’ as opposed to ‘ke-mare.’
At the Opera Cafe, a tony little bistro near my Phnom Penh hotel, I chatted up the waiter. There was no else in the shop, a few patrons sitting outside. He was handsome, educated, thirtyish. I had just visited the S-21 prison. He told me, well, the Khmer Rouge had both bad and good points. They fought the Vietnamese, after all. I had to restrain myself, besides being in the uncomfortable position of lecturing a Cambodian on his national nightmare.
President Richard M. Nixon approved bombing sorties in Cambodia to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines to South Vietnam. The Cambodian incursion was illegal, and secret for a while. The four students shot by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4th, 1970, were walking to class or participating in demonstrations against the war in Cambodia. Late that year, Nixon expressed his dissatisfaction with the effect of B-52 raids.”They have got to go in there and I mean really go in,” he told National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. “I want them to hit everything. I want them to use the big planes, the small planes, everything they can that will help out there, and let’s start giving them a little shock.” Operation Freedom Deal alone delivered a quarter million tons of bombs on Cambodia, eighty thousand tons released in the last month and a half of the campaign ending in August of 1973.
Best academic estimates indicate that, in all, 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, in 230,000 sorties on 113,000 targets, resulting in between 50,000 and 150,000 civilian deaths. Opinions are mixed on the causal relationship between the bombing campaigns and the growth in support for the Khmer Rouge insurgency. In the end, blame for the killing spree lies firmly in the hands of Cambodia’s indigenous murderers. Next in line come Stalin and Mao, the KR’s primary ideological parents. But it’s clear that the country was destabilized by the Vietnam/ American war, and without those years of conflict, the chain of events leading to the KR takeover doesn’t happen.
S-21 prison is a half hour walk from my hotel. Phnom Penh hotel standards are about two decades behind other Asian capitals. While I’m used to all manner of amenity deficits in my travels, my first hotel choice is just a bit rough. My new place won’t win any awards, but at least it’s perched along the Mekong River. Walking, the native human exercise, is my primary fitness program, and I walk the riverfront often. The ubiquitous motorbike and tuk-tuk touts demand I let them take me to the prison. It’s creepy that the genocide monuments are the most popular tourist destinations. “You want I take you killing fields, you want girl, what you want?”
I walk past the prison and have to backtrack. Apple’s map app is mostly useless in Cambodia, and the signage is discrete. First moment of horror: the prison is a converted high school, consistent with the regime’s suspicion of bourgeois education. Schooling ended in Cambodia, renamed Kampuchea, the day the communists rolled into the capital. There are signposts explaining the prison’s history throughout. The cells are visible from the entrance. I buy my ticket, inexpensive but, as in Vietnam, significantly more expensive for foreigners, which I can accept.
I don’t know why, but as I walk into the prison yard, I start weeping uncontrollably. I’m crying again as I write this. I’ll take a short break.
The cells are tiny. They must be unimaginably hot much of the year. There are torture implements throughout. The school exercise facilities are repurposed to torture machines. If you survive the torture, you are trucked off to Choeung Ek, like cattle for slaughter.