Cambodia Section Home Mekong Network Home
About this site...

Fun With Milton Bradley: A Response to Josh Buermann

Every once in a while I look through my website's logs to see where traffic to the site is originating. This is often quite entertaining. Much of the traffic comes from Google searches, and at times the topics are close to bizarre. (A couple quick examples: a pair of intrepid souls have wound up reading my travel journals because they were searching for "eating tarantulas," or were hunting for a "stop staring at my tits t-shirt."

A few more high-minded visitors wound up on my site from a link on a article called Where's the Beef, an article discussing criticism of Noam Chomsky.

The author, Josh Buermann, seeks to convince his readers that my criticisms of Chomsky (Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy) are based mainly on the fact that Chomsky doesn't own a time machine:

"To discredit a passage from a book published in October of 1979, for example, [Sharp] quotes a book published in 1985 describing the situation William Shawcross saw in 1979 - after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that ended on January 7th of that year. To further illustrate their "dubious spin on reality" Sharp cites a book on classified KR documents that was published in 1989 to disprove the material in a book published in October of 1979. This pattern is repeated again with respect to Shane Tarr and throughout much of the rest of the work when describing facts and research that C&H would have been unaware of from 1975 to 1979.

"This isn't the 'selective editing' that Sharp accuses Chomksy of, this is living in a timewarp."

Mr. Buermann's argument is that it is unreasonble to refute what Chomsky wrote in the late Seventies on the basis of what is known today: "We would expect that the point of Sharp's discussion is what was known at the time the work was written."

In essence, Buermann is suggesting that the nature of the Khmer Rouge was unknown at the time: that while there may have been some evidence suggesting that they were brutal murderers, there was an equal amount of evidence that they were merciful liberators. What I find odd about this contention is that it is refuted not only by Chomsky's critics: it is also refuted by the very premise of Chomsky's work.

Chomsky and Herman's 1977 Nation article ("Distortions at Fourth Hand") and their 1979 book After the Cataclysm are predicated on the idea that there was a massive amount of negative media coverage directed at the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky's detractors claim that he was supporting the Khmer Rouge; his defenders claim that he was simply saying there was no way of knowing the truth. Both of these claims, however, accept the same underlying supposition: that is, the Khmer Rouge were being widely described as murderous, vile monsters. Chomsky and Herman state as much explicitly in After the Cataclysm:

"While all of the countries of Indochina have been subjected to endless denunciations in the West for their 'loathsome' qualities and unaccountable failure to find humane solutions to their problems, Cambodia was a particular target of abuse. In fact, it became virtually a matter of dogma in the West that the regime was the very incarnation of evil with no redeeming qualities, and that the handful of demonic creatures who had somehow taken over the country were systematically massacring and starving the population."

It seems odd, then, that Mr. Buermann criticizes my article for a lack of contemporary news articles, given that Chomsky himself claims that the media's denunciations of the Khmer Rouge were "endless."

Chomsky's argument is that these accounts should not be trusted, and he cites a handful of conflicting accounts as evidence that the situation in Cambodia was somehow unclear. The question to be settled, then, is simple: were the denunciations of the Khmer Rouge accurate, or not?

Mr. Buermann, like Chomsky, seeks to convince his readers that the nature of the Khmer Rouge was entirely unclear. To bolster his case, Mr. Buermann he notes that Sophal Ear "says flat out that 'incontrovertible evidence' had not 'surfaced' until 'after the Vietnamese invasion' and 'after the publication of Chomsky and Herman's After the Cataclysm."

In Mr. Buermann's argument, the distinction between evidence and incontrovertible evidence becomes lost. If a hundred refugees tell you that they have heard about massacres, that is evidence. If a thousand refugees tell you that they have witnessed massacres firsthand, and they show you fields littered with human skulls, that is incontrovertible evidence. In the case of Cambodia, it was after the Vietnamese invasion that the evidence became irrefutable.

Why do I cite books, articles, and interviews that took place after the publication of After the Cataclysm? The answer should be obvious: Because they are definitive.

If Shane Tarr tells us that the evacuation of Phnom Penh was a well-organized mission of mercy, and Francois Ponchaud tells us that it was a brutal forced march, all we have are two conflicting accounts. Examining additional evidence will enable us to determine which witness was truthful.

An open question, however, is this: exactly how much evidence was available in 1977? Or in 1979? Exactly how many observers claimed that Cambodia was locked in the throes of disaster, and how many claimed that the country was being heroicly rebuilt by brave revolutionaries? Was Chomsky accurately reflecting the different perceptions of the revolution?

To answer that, let's look at a few of the names Mr. Buermann cites specifically. We'll begin with Serge Thion, who, in the passage from Chomsky and Herman Mr. Buermann quotes, is described as one of the observers "long familiar with Cambodia." What did Thion have to say about the Khmer Rouge?

In an article which is available on the web ( * ), which was originally published in the Paris daily Libération, on March 7, 1977, Thion wrote:

"We know that the country is in the hands of a revolutionary anonymous organization (Angkar), that the economy seems to be based on total collectivization, that more than half of the population has been chased from the cities and is treated like a slavish mass, exploited without limits, hungry and terrorized, that the Organization is systematically destroying all those who, one way or the other, had anything to do with the former regime."

Thion could, I think, be fairly described as a radical leftist. He did not, however, dispute what was happening in Cambodia: he wrote that "doubts are unfortunately not possible" about whether or not the Khmer Rouge were responsible for a "blind massacre" with a death toll "in the tens, or possibly hundreds, of thousands."

This, it should be noted, is in an article that was published more than three months before "Distortions at Fourth Hand."

What about Olle Tolgraven? In the Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1975, we find a brief mention of Tolgraven:

"A Swedish journalist, Olle Tolgraven of Swedish Broadcasting, said he did not believe there had been wholesale executions. But he said there was evidence the Khmer Rouge had shot people who refused to leave their homes in a mass evacuation ordered the first day of the takeover. This was corroborated by others. One Cambodian woman said many old people died on the trek out of the City 'because it was too hard for them to walk.'" (This citation comes from James Donald, who despises Chomsky. I disagree with Donald far more often than I agree, and he has repeatedly called me a liar and suggested that I share ideas with Pol Pot. But what the hell... credit where credit is due.)

What about Richard Boyle? As I noted in Averaging Wrong Answers, at least one of Boyle's claims can be refuted simply by reading Chomsky and Herman's own footnotes: Boyle claimed that none of the 1100 people evacuated from the French Embassy ever witnessed any bodies abandoned on the roadside. Yet Chomsky and Herman note that Sydney Schanberg in fact did report seeing bodies on the road leading out of Phnom Penh.(*)

And what about Shane Tarr? Here again Mr. Buermann suggests that I'm being unfair to Chomsky, dismissing Tarr's 1975 remarks on the basis of the description of Tarr in Jon Swain's 1995 memoir. Perhaps Mr. Buermann should have read After the Cataclysm: if he had, he would have noticed (as I pointed out in my article) that Chomsky and Herman themselves told us that journalists in the Embassy despised Tarr. In fact, they cited Swain specifically:

"He writes that Shane Tarr is so contemptible that 'we -- who had abandoned our Cambodian friends -- do not wish to pass the time of day' with him. 'He is full of nauseating revolutionary rhetoric' and he and his wife 'fraternise with the Khmer Rouge guards over the walls.'" (After the Cataclysm, p. 236).

But Chomsky and Herman still cannot fathom "why the eyewitness report of Chou Meng and Shane Tarr does not enter the record, as shaped by the selective hand of the media and mainstream scholarship." They lament the fact that "Swain and Schanberg present their view in the London Sunday Times and New York Times; the Tarrs and Boyle give their conflicting account in News From Kampuchea (international circulation 500) and the left wing New York Guardian, also with a tiny reading public." (p. 239).

Since the passage Chomsky and Herman cite (apparently from the London Sunday Times, May 11, 1975) is word-for-word identical to the passage I cited from Swain's memoir, it would seem that Mr. Buermann's "Timewarp Gun by Milton Bradley" metaphor is a bit overwrought.

In any case, there is little to be gained by examining the partisan rants of "observers" like Tarr. It would be more worthwhile to examine the comments of another, more objective commentator mentioned by Buermann: specifically, William Shawcross. What did Shawcross have to say about the Khmer Rouge? Writing in the April 6, 1978 issue of the New York Review of Books, he noted that:

"With a few exceptions the stories which have emerged from Cambodia in the past two years have confirmed the impression, given by the early refugees, of a vast and somber work camp where toil is unending, rewards are nonexistent, families are separated, and murder is a constantly used tool of social discipline. Well before Hanoi published similar assessments, Democratic Kampuchea seemed to many in the West a uniquely atrocious experiment in human engineering conducted, in Hanoi's words, by 'infantile communists' who pursued 'a consistent policy of national hatred' and were 'deliberately turning young Kampucheans into medieval butchers' to indulge in 'savage repressions' and 'bloody massacres.'"

Shawcross ended the article by relaying the observations of some of the few foreigners who were allowed inside Cambodia:

"When three Scandinavian ambassadors to Peking returned from a visit to Kampuchea last month they said it was only the young they saw in the empty capital, only young people working the fields outside. They refused 'to draw any conclusions on what has happened to the old,' but one of them said of Kampuchea today, 'It was like an absurd film. It was like a nightmare. It is difficult to believe that it is true.' [25] But even more difficult to deny."

As it turns out, Chomsky and Herman allude to the accounts of the Scandinavian diplomats. But they do not tell us that the diplomats described what they saw as "absurd" or "like a nightmare." Instead, they tell us only that "A Reuters report from Peking on their trip appeared in the Washington Post and in the New York Times, with a second-hand account of what they are said to have told 'Nordic correspondents' on their return to Peking. There seems to have been no effort to pursue the matter further. This single second-hand report is uninformative. The Danish Ambassador is quoted as saying that Phnom Penh resembled a 'ghost town' (a comment since widely circulated) and the Swedish Ambassador as having said that more land was under cultivation than in 1976 and that 'traces of the 1970-1975 war were still considerable' though they have decreased. 'There were no signs of starvation.' Little else was reported."

If one wishes to discuss the delegation's observations, surely the Ambassador's comment that "It was like a nightmare" is at least as worthy of mention as his remark that "There were no signs of starvation."

I'm not sure what it would take to dispel Mr. Buermann's notion that the nature of the Khmer Rouge was unclear. Again, the premise of Chomsky and Herman's work was that there was an overwhelming amount of negative media coverage of the Khmer Rouge. They seem to suggest that we should focus more of our attention on the handful of accounts which were not negative. The evidence which has come to light since the overthrow of the regime, however, shows unequivocably which accounts were accurate.

Mr. Buermann also criticizes what he claims is an "inaccurate allegation" for my remark that that Chomksy, in 1977 correspondance to Francois Ponchaud, described reports of atrocities as a "flood of lies." "Chomsky's statement obviously, from the quote Sharp includes, refers to documented fabrications in the press and what Sharp himself describes as the 'flawed, right-wing account' of Barron and Paul, and clearly not the reports from refugees, which C&H say are 'serious and worth reading'."

It is certainly not obvious to me that this is what Chomsky meant, and given Ponchaud's response, it clearly wasn't obvious to Ponchaud, either. The claim that Chomsky was referring to the "lies" of Barron and Paul ignores the fact that Barron and Paul's book was based primarily on the reports of the refugees. Exactly what "lies" are we talking about? The greatest flaw of Barron and Paul's book is that it ignores the US role in Cambodia's downfall. That's an appalling omission, but it isn't a lie. As I noted in the article, although I think Barron and Paul's book is far from perfect, its description of the general conditions under the Khmer Rouge is in fact reasonably accurate.

Mr. Buermann also states that Chomsky and Herman "...describe, in a passage from After the Cataclysm, the 'record of atrocities in Cambodia' committed by the KR as 'substantial and often gruesome'. "Sharp quotes this passage and finds it distressing because of the 'tone'."

I did not say anything about finding this passage "distressing." I simply noted that the tone of the book is the same as the tone of "Distortions at Fourth Hand." Mr. Buermann seem to be implying that I'm "distressing" over nothing but style; but there are more substantive matters at stake here. For instance, as I pointed out in the paragraph immediately following the one quoted above, Chomsky and Herman made a blatantly false claim about what Porter and Hildebrand had actually written: They stated that Hildebrand and Porter's book "assume[d] substantial atrocities and thousands or more killed." Porter and Hildebrand said no such thing.

Similarly, Mr. Buermann ignores a few other items that have nothing to do with "tone," such as Chomsky's complete reversal on the point of the reliability of State Department sources. (First C&H denigrated Barron and Paul's reliance on these sources; later, Chomsky claimed that these sources were in fact the "most knowledgeable source," and that he and Herman were the only commentators to rely on these sources. Nor does he comment on Chomsky's ridiculous claim that Ponchaud was more skeptical of the refugee reports than Chomsky and Herman. Nor does Mr. Buermann comment on Chomsky's demonstrably false claims regarding the CIA's "Demographic Catastrophe" study.

Perhaps I should also point out that Mr. Buermann does not inform his readers that there are some of Chomsky's observations with which I am in complete agreement: specifically, the consequences of the 1970 coup and the U.S. invasion. Instead, Mr. Buermann simply lumps my article together with one by someone named Keith Windshuttle, and declares that we are "tripping over each other's footnotes."

Mr. Buermann seems confused that I described some of Chomsky and Herman's sophistry as "dubious," and suggests that I "never actually return" to exactly what it is that I find dubious. I thought it would be apparent from my article, but since it evidently wasn't, a few of the "dubious" notions in After the Cataclysm would include the claim that the evacuation of Phnom Penh was undertaken for humanitarian reasons, the claim that the evacuation actually saved lives, the claim that Khmer Rouge Cambodia was similar to France after liberation, the claim that the Khmer Rouge placed a strong emphasis on family life, the claim that the Khmer Rouge were concerned about equality... do I really need to go on?

Their suggestion that the dams and canals built by the Khmer Rouge were aiding in the production of rice would be another example. Here again, Mr. Buermann seems to think that it is unfair to criticize Chomsky and Herman for accepting at face value the claims made by the regime's supporters. Is it fair to cite Shawcross and Becker's descriptions of the disasters brought about by these projects, when Becker and Shawcross could see, firsthand, evidence that was unavailable to Chomsky? Maybe a better question is this: if "a primitivist, luddite revolution" (to use Mr. Buermann's own description) executes its teachers, engineers, and technicians, what is the likelihood that its dams and canals will not be disasters?

There is, of course, no question at this point that the entire regime was a disaster. But how bad of a disaster? Mr. Buermann provides a wide range, suggesting a toll of "somewhere between 750,000 and 2,000,000 Cambodian deaths." Current evidence, however, demonstrates that the figure of 750,000 is implausibly low. Craig Etcheson, formerly the head of Yale's Cambodia Genocide Project, estimates the death toll as roughly 2.2 million; and as of 1999, the Documentation Center of Cambodia had located more than 20,000 mass graves, containing more than 1.18 million remains described as "victims of execution."

On the broader topic of the US role in Indochina, Mr. Buermann notes that I do not spend any time discussing whether or not the US opposition the war should have been reconsidered in the wake of the disasters of the Khmer Rouge. He is right: I don't spend any time discussing this, because I find the question completely absurd. In case it is not obvious from what I have written (both in the Chomsky article and elsewhere), I will spell it out quite clearly: I think the US involvement in Southeast Asia was stupid, brutal, and disastrous. (I fear that this will be the case with regard to Iraq; last March, I wrote a brief essay on this (, and I have still seen nothing to lead me to alter my opinion.)

Regarding East Timor: I agree that the coverage of events in East Timor was horribly inadequate. (I referred specifically to the "appalling paucity" of media attention.) I've also noted that Chomsky deserves great credit for publicizing events there. But let's remember one thing: Chomsky's primary concern is "propaganda." If we are going to praise him when his comments have the altogether unintentional effect of publicizing atrocities in East Timor, then we should also blame when his comments have the unintentional effect of denigrating atrocities in Cambodia.

To claim that East Timor would naturally have been of equal interest to the American public, one must also claim that the US role in Indochina -- the direct involvment of hundreds of thousands of American troops, over fifty thousand American deaths, billions of dollars of direct expenditures, and a painful national debate that lasted roughly 15 years -- should not have had any effect on the level of interest among US readers.

If we want to determine whether or not Chomsky's propaganda theories are valid, we should examine not only cases where it seems superfically true (i.e, Cambodia and East Timor) but also cases where it seems superficially false (i.e., Mozambique and East Timor) (Charles Kalina provides a quick overview at

On another point, Mr. Buermann criticizes my suggestion that Chomsky promotes, in effect, the "Party Line," and that he attempts to restrict the grounds of a debate to his own terms. As an example, I cited Chomsky's contention that Vietnam-era "doves" could only be called "doves" if they opposed the war for precisely the same reasons as Chomsky. Mr. Buermann rejects my comment outright: "[T]he obvious problem with Sharp's argument is that the 'doves' were not opposed to the war, but believed it should have been waged in a different manner. They cannot be described as opposed to the war if they were, in fact, for it. This is 'trying to keep the debate within... accepted assumptions' only if we think being pro-war precludes one from being anti-war."

I can't figure out what Mr. Buermann means at all, so I'll simply try to explain again what I mean. When I say "dove," I mean someone who is opposed to war. And when someone is pro-war, they cannot, by definition, be anti-war. And when someone is anti-war, they cannot, by definition, be pro-war. It's very simple: you are either for a war, or you are against it. And if you are against it, the reason you are against it is irrelevant.

Finally, to address Mr. Buermann's final point, am I a propagandist? Of course I have an opinion on this topic, and I do not hesitate to make that known. But does merely having an opinion make one a propagandist? I try to present facts that I believe are relevant, and I try to present opposing viewpoints accurately. Do I succeed? I'm sure there are times when I fail. So if I criticize someone else for a lack of objectivity, is it just a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Readers can decide for themselves.


* Note: I do not provide a hypertext link to the Serge Thion article because it is on an anti-semitic site. I do not believe, however, that Thion himself has anything whatsoever to do with the content elsewhere on the site.

(*) Update: Since writing this article, I've learned that although Chomsky and Herman wrote that Schanberg saw bodies on the road, their reference is not quite correct. Schanberg reported that he spoke to witnesses who saw bodies; he did not say that he had seen the bodies himself.


For more details:
Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy

W3C Validation