The Killing Fields

By Kopkind, Andrew | The Nation, December 1, 1984 | Go to article overview
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The Killing Fields


Kopkind, Andrew, The Nation


Since there is not likely to be an oversupply of mass-cultural products retailing the grim Cambodian "sideshow" of the 1970s of American audiences, The killing Fields must serve as our sole popular chronicle, Historical analysis and moral instruction of the apocalypse then. It gives a decent serve. The hideous consequences of Nixon's secret war, the holocaust that followed and the struggle of and enslaved and decimated people for survival are movingly, and often masterfully, projected on an epic screen. It is a serious attempt to make intelligible a few of the worst years of our lives, when reason died and life was debased no less in the Pentagon than in the paddies of Indochina.

But the article was better. In "The Death and Life of Dith Pran" (The New York Times Magazine, January 20, 1980) Sydney Schanberg, now a city-side columnist for that paper, gave a heartfelt personal testament of the last days of Cambodia's ancien regime and the long travail of his local stringer under the fanatical rule of the Khmer Rouge. Pran was Schanberg's in-country "fixer," a familiar functionary for Western reporters on their far-flung assignments. He translated the difficult languages (French as well as Khmer), facilitated teletype services, bribed the appropriate officials, arranged transportation, read the papers and generally served as the primary news source for a foreign correspondent severely restricted in an alien land. Schanberg would not have lasted a week in Cambodia without Pran, or at least he would not have worked efficiently enough to get the good stories that landed him a Pulitzer.

Pran worshipped Schanberg as a friend and a Westerner, and the two roared through the Cambodian twilight, high on politics, pot and the sheer adventure of war and revolution. As night fell, Schanberg offered to get Pran and his family out of the country; a well-educated Times stringer could not be expected to fare well under the Khmer Rouge, whoever they were. In fact, no one seemed to know very much about the guerrillas who were circling the capital, but Pran was sure that his wife and children should get out while the getting was good. For himself, he chose to stay by Schanberg's side and help report the dawn of the new order. Schanberg was complimented and pleased; he could hardly get the story without his fixer.

As it happened, their worst fears were immediately realized. The mysterious guerrillas rounded up Westerners of every political and ideological tendency, herded them into the French Embassy and kept them in a terrified state of siege while the swollen native population of Phnom Penh was driven into the countryside. That "Cambodian solution," like its Germanic precedent, would end in mass annihilation. In the three and a half years that the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia, some three million people were terminated with extreme prejudice, by slow starvation or sudden execution. As the beleaguered capital was draining of its natives, the foreigners were convoyed to Thailand and safety, but Westernized Cambodians were not allowed to accompany their friends and employers. The recipient of so many helpful fixes from Pran, Schanberg could not arrange the big fix for his native charge.

Having escaped Pol Pot, Schanberg returned to the embrace of Abe Rosenthal, which I suppose must be counted a blessing, all things considered. The Times's editor was proud of his correspondent's award-winning performance in the field, but he did not commit his newspaper to the task of further and fuller explanation of the Cambodian nightmare. The Times carried atrocity stories when they broke, but its readers never did learn much about the Khmer Rouge, their contradictory politics, internal struggles and external alliances. The standard of journalism Schanberg and other correspondents had developed in Indochina was rapidly and radically degraded. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and restored some semblance of civilized order to the country early in 1979, the American press, led by The Times, followed the State Department's description of the event as an example of Vietnamese expansionism, which posed a threat to Thailand and who knows what other Southeast Asian refuges of American power.

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