Averaging Wrong Answers:
Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy
by Bruce Sharp
This article is divided into ten sections:
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I. Genocide and So On
"I mean the great act of genocide in the modern period is Pol Pot, 1975 through 1978 - that atrocity - I think it would be hard to find any example of a comparable outrage and outpouring of fury and so on and so forth." -- Noam Chomsky, in the documentary "Manufacturing Consent," 1993.(1)
How did a man who describes the Khmer Rouge regime as "the great act of genocide of the modern period" come to be vilified as a vocal supporter of Pol Pot?
In a long, illustrious career, Chomsky has amassed a formidable array of books, articles, and speeches. He has been a tireless advocate for the underdog, and has demonstrated admirable commitment to his principles.
The underdogs, however, are not always the good guys, a fact clearly illustrated by the Khmer Rouge. The question of whether or not Noam Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge is not as clear as either his critics or his defenders would like to pretend. His critics frequently extract a handful of quotes from "Distortions at Fourth Hand" or After the Cataclysm and suggest that Chomsky was an enthusiastic advocate for the Cambodian communists. His defenders, meanwhile, limit their collections of quotes to Chomsky's disclaimers and qualifiers, conveniently ignoring the underlying theme of his articles: that Khmer Rouge Cambodia was not nearly as bad as the regime's detractors claimed. Gathering all of Chomsky's fig leaves into a single pile, they exclaim: My, what a lot of greenery.(*)
There is something vaguely unsettling in Chomsky's words, even as he acknowledges the horrible toll of the Cambodian communists: There was an atrocity, people were outraged, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. The reaction is Chomsky's primary concern; genocide itself is a lesser point.
If Chomsky was initially skeptical of the reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities, he was certainly not alone. Given that he now acknowledges the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, is it fair to continue to criticize him?
A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky's work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics' positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than "neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists."(2) Consequently, his refusal to reconsider his words has led to continued misinterpretations of what really happened in Cambodia. Misconceptions, it seems, have a very long life.
II. The Right Villains
Any detailed examination of Chomksy's comments on Cambodia should begin with his comments in the wake of Lon Nol and Sirik Matak's 1970 coup, which overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and brought to power a staunchly pro-American regime. In Cambodia, prior to the coup, the war in neighboring Vietnam had been held largely in check. Fighting was limited mainly to the border areas, where large numbers of Vietnamese communists had set up sanctuaries inside Cambodian territory. After the coup, Sihanouk promptly allied himself with the rebels, and in June, 1970, Chomsky wrote a long article in the New York Review of Books, outlining the dire consequences of American involvement in Cambodia. Despite some misleading remarks, it is, on the balance, a very astute analysis. Chomsky accurately predicted the repercussions of Sihanouk's alliance with the rebels:
"Speculating a year ago about the prospects of the Cambodian rebels for success, Michael Leifer wrote that these prospects 'will depend (discounting external factors) not only on the exploitation of genuine grievances but also on an ability to identify with the nationalist cause for which Prince Sihanouk has been the most ardent and passionate advocate. This would seem unlikely.' Before March 18, this was a reasonable assessment. Now, however, Sihanouk, the 'most ardent and passionate advocate' of the national cause, the person whom one American expert described as being 'a significant expression of the Cambodian people's will,' has identified himself with the rebels. It is doubtful that the right-wing Lon Nol government, with its narrow urban base, can counter this popular force or win it over."(3)
His remarks on the U.S. invasion, too, were fairly accurate:
"It is a virtual certainty that great victories will be claimed in the Cambodian invasion, and that the military will release reports of arms caches and rice destroyed, military bases demolished, and much killing of 'North Vietnamese,' i.e., people who find themselves in the way of an American tank or in an area bombed or strafed. So many reputations and careers are at stake that glorious victories are guaranteed.
"Furthermore, some of these reports may even be correct. On probabilistic grounds alone, one would expect that American military intelligence can't always be wrong about everything. The headquarters of the Vietnamese resistance forces and the bases that they use for R-and-R must be somewhere, and they may well be found and destroyed during the American-Saigon sweep. Whether the invading troops will withdraw remains to be seen. That the countryside will be devastated and its population removed or destroyed is reasonably certain. Very probably, if these territories are abandoned by the invading forces, some, at least, will be joined to the area on the South Vietnamese side of the border as an extended free fire zone."(4)
Chomsky's article underscores an important point: With the coup, the delicate balance that had kept Cambodia out of a wider war collapsed. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces poured across the border, and the Vietnamese communists suddenly retreated deeper into Cambodia, mauling Lon Nol's forces along the way. War soon enveloped the entire country. These events confirmed Chomsky's 1970 predictions.
The ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge had dire consequences for the Cambodian people. This, however, was not a matter of critical importance for Chomsky. His writings follow a consistent pattern: Chomsky excels at illuminating crimes... but only the crimes of the right villains.
The first evidence of this is apparent in December 1972, in Chomksy's introduction for Cambodia in the Southeast Asia War by Malcolm Caldwell and Lek Tan. In the introduction, Chomsky writes, quite rightly, "The misery and destruction for which Nixon and Kissinger bear direct responsibility are crimes that can never be forgotten." He then continues:
"By the impulse it has given to the revolutionary forces, this vicious attack may have also prepared the ground, as some observers believe, not only for national liberation but also for a new era of economic development and social justice."(5)
It is a rather drastic jump to move from remembering the crimes of Nixon and Kissinger, to suggesting that the Khmer Rouge would be "liberators" who would usher in "economic development and social justice." By 1972, there was already disturbing evidence of the brutality of the Cambodian communists, and only a naive romantic would have seen them as just and noble freedom fighters. Caldwell, however, was a devout Marxist, and not surprisingly his book makes no mention of the reports of Khmer Rouge brutality.
This, in essence, was a sign of things to come. Unlike the crimes of the West, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge were not to be illuminated. They were to be obfuscated.
III. The Wrong Villains
Early reports of Khmer Rouge brutality could, to some extent, be attributed to the natural consequences of warfare. Once the Khmer Rouge seized power, however, such rationalizations were no longer possible. Draconian measures were instituted immediately. Within hours of their victory, they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, and all other cities as well. The Khmer Rouge flouted traditions of diplomatic immunity, political asylum, and extraterritoriality. High-ranking officials of the former regime were executed. Cambodians who had taken refuge in the French Embassy were forced out. Members of the press, for all practical purposes captives within the Embassy, witnessed macabre scenes of horror as the entire city of Phnom Penh, swollen with refugees, was evacuated. Even hospitals were emptied; witnesses saw patients pushed through the streets on hospital beds. An unprecedented atrocity had begun.
It is important to understand the nature of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime was, without question, one of the most disastrous social experiments of the last century. One could make a persuasive case that it was in fact the single worst government in the modern era, combining mind-numbing brutality with astonishing incompetence. History was to begin anew: the Khmer Rouge declared that henceforth Cambodia was to be known as Democratic Kampuchea, and the beginning of their reign was "Year Zero." Determined to convert Cambodia into an agrarian communist state, the Khmer Rouge upended every institution in Khmer society, exterminating millions in a frenzy of executions and criminal neglect for the welfare of its citizens. Enemies, both real and imagined, were executed. Families were split apart as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were sent to communal work groups in the countryside. Currency was abolished. Buddhism, the religion of roughly 95% of the population, was for all practical purposes banned. Angkar, "The Organization," assumed control over virtually all aspects of its subjects' lives.(6) (For an overview of Cambodia's history, see The Banyan Tree.)
Much of this was documented in a book by Francois Ponchaud, Cambodge Annee Zero ("Cambodia Year Zero"). Published in France in 1977, and later translated into English, Ponchaud's book was discussed in several major newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Review of Books.
It was at this point that Chomsky began to protest the supposed "bias" of the media's coverage of Cambodia. One of the earliest expressions of this was in an article Chomsky co-wrote, with Edward Herman, for The Nation, entitled "Distortions at Fourth Hand." (7)
Describing the media coverage of Southeast Asia as a "farce," Chomsky and Herman contrasted the grim reports on Vietnam by New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield with the with the much more favorable comments of the members of a handful of non-governmental groups. This, Chomsky and Herman asserted, was evidence of a campaign of disinformation:
"The drab view of contemporary Vietnam provided by Butterfield and the establishment press helps to sustain the desired rewriting of history, asserting as it does the sad results of Communist success and American failure. Well suited for these aims are tales of Communist atrocities, which not only prove the evils of communism but undermine the credibility of those who opposed the war and might interfere with future crusades for freedom."(8)
Seeking to bolster their point, Chomsky and Herman examined three books on Cambodia: Murder of a Gentle Land, by John Barron and Anthony Paul, Ponchaud's Cambodge Annee Zero, and Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter. Chomsky and Herman write:
"The response to the three books under review nicely illustrates this selection process. Hildebrand and Porter present a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources. Published last year, and well received by the journal of the Asia Society (Asia, March-April 1977), it has not been reviewed in the Times, New York Review or any mass-media publication, nor used as the basis for editorial comment, with one exception. The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an editorial entitled 'Cambodia Good Guys' (November 22, 1976), which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role, as well as the notion that the United States had a major hand in the destruction, death and turmoil of wartime and postwar Cambodia."(9)
Hildebrand and Porter's book deserves examination. One simple fact provides a clue to the authors' sympathies: The book does not contain even a single sentence critical of the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky and Herman make no note of this: Just as Hildebrand and Porter had nothing negative to say about the Khmer Rouge, Chomsky and Herman had nothing negative to say about Hildebrand and Porter.
At only 124 pages, Starvation and Revolution is a slim volume. Describing the reports of atrocities in Cambodia as "systematic process of mythmaking,"(10) Hildebrand and Porter present a glowing depiction of the Khmer Rouge. The authors assert that the charges of starvation in Cambodia are unfounded: "It is the officially inspired propaganda of starvation for which no proof has been produced... Thus the starvation myth has come full circle to haunt its authors."(11) The Khmer Rouge, according to Hildebrand and Porter, were rebuilding the country quite effectively, implementing a "coherent, well-developed plan for developing the economy."(12)
A few of the book's omissions should be noted. The book makes no mention of public executions. It makes no mention of the forcible separation of children from their families, no mention of the separation of husbands and wives, no mention of the repression of ethnic minorities, no mention of restrictions on travel, or the abolition of the mail system. Put simply, the book bears no earthly resemblance to the reality of communist Cambodia.
Hildebrand and Porter's claims regarding the evacuation of Phnom Penh are particularly galling:
"The evacuation of Phnom Penh undoubtedly saved the lives of many thousands of Cambodians... what was portrayed as a destructive, backward-looking policy motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia."(13)
The remark is surely one of the most sordid fabrications within Porter and Hildebrand's work. There are a number of points which need to be made. First, all major towns and cities were evacuated, not just Phnom Penh. And this was not a new policy: As Ponchaud pointed out in Cambodia: Year Zero, "ever since 1972 the guerrilla fighters had been sending all the inhabitants of the villages and towns they occupied into the forest to live, often burning their homes so that they would have nothing to come back to."(14) Clearly, if the policy had been in place since 1972, it had nothing to do with a shortage of food inside Phnom Penh in 1975. Although most sources suggest that there was enough food in the capital for only about a week, Ponchaud, who was there, believes it was more likely that there was enough for a month. Several voluntary agencies and foreign countries offered aid, but the Khmer Rouge refused. This refusal suggests that the Khmer Rouge believed that starvation was less important than maintaining the purity and self-sufficiency of their revolution.
Whatever the reason for the exodus, how can its brutal nature be justified? Ben Kiernan, arguably the West's foremost authority on the Khmer Rouge, estimates that 20,000 people died in the evacuation of Phnom Penh.(15) How could evacuating hospitals possibly have saved lives? To quote Ponchaud's eyewitness account: "I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm, or a weeping father carrying his ten-year old daughter wrapped in a sheet tied around his neck like a sling, or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing but skin."(16)
It is difficult to reconcile these words with descriptions of "a rationally conceived strategy."
Similarly, Hildebrand and Porter do not discuss the final siege of Phnom Penh, when the Khmer Rouge rained rockets and artillery down on the city every day. One would think that a description of the plight of civilians in the midst of a civil war might mention that they were being shelled on a daily basis.
By 1978, even Gareth Porter seemed to want to distance himself from the book. Interviewed by Ed Bradley for the CBS documentary "What Happened to Cambodia," Porter's eyes dart back and forth when Bradley questions him about the Khmer Rouge regime. He casts his eyes down and stutters slightly. "My... my only plea is for some degree of balance in assessing the human suffering that undoubtedly still exists in Cambodia."(17)
It is frustrating that Chomsky and Herman do not note the obvious omissions in Hildebrand and Porter's book. Equally frustrating is their claim that the book is "based on a wide range of sources."(18)
This is arguably true with regard to the opening chapter on conditions in Phnom Penh. Ironically, however, the sources for this chapter are primarily the very media outlets which Chomsky and Herman claim ignored the horrible effects of the war. The first chapter includes citations from the Washington Post, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The presence of these sources demonstrates that the media coverage -- which was, according to Chomsky and Herman, monolithic in its condemnation of the Khmer Rouge, and negligent in its coverage of the horrors of the Lon Nol period -- was neither as monolithic nor as negligent as Chomsky and Herman would like us to believe. The claim that the media ignored the role of the US in the Cambodian war is unfounded. Consider a few of the events that occurred when the invasion and bombing were taking place: The protests at Kent State and Jackson State. The Cooper-Church amendment, restricting the role of U.S. troops in Cambodia. The Congressional refusal to fund further bombing. These pivotal events, driven by public outcry, occurred when Americans were supposedly in the dark about the U.S. role in Cambodia.
But what about the sections of the book dealing specifically with the Khmer Rouge? The primary sources for these chapters: The Khmer Rouge. The book's last fifty footnotes, from the chapter on "Cambodia's Agricultural Revolution," provide an excellent case in point. Out of these 50 citations, there are 43 that pertain to the Khmer Rouge regime. Of these, 33 can be traced directly to the Khmer Rouge sources. Six more come from Hsinhua, the official news agency of Communist China, i.e., the Khmer Rouge's wealthiest patron. Two come from an unnamed source, described only as "a Cambodian economist." And the remaining two references? Both come from Le Monde: one is a dubious estimate of future rice production, and the other simply notes that, in the future, large rice paddies would be subdivided, "giving the country the appearance of an enormous checkerboard."(19)
The diversity of Hildebrand and Porter's sources, however, is a relatively unimportant point. By the time this book was written, the Khmer Rouge were already directly responsible for - at the very least - a hundred thousand deaths, and quite probably far more.(20) But let's accept for a moment the dubious claim that the nature of the Khmer Rouge was still unclear at the time of the book's publication. Wouldn't an unbiased account have described the situation as "unclear"? That is not what Hildebrand and Porter do. On the contrary, everything is clear to them: if the Khmer Rouge say that it is so, then it is so.
Bearing this in mind, let's examine Chomsky and Herman's reaction to the other two books, both of which described Khmer Rouge atrocities in detail.
With regard to Anthony Paul and John Barron's book Murder of a Gentle Land, Chomsky and Herman are completely dismissive, calling it a "third-rate propaganda tract."(21) They discount Barron and Paul's sources as unreliable, implying that connections to the US government, or the Thai government, or the Malaysian government make them inherently unreliable. (And yet the Khmer Rouge connections of Hildebrand and Porter's sources did not strike them as inappropriate.) With vintage Chomsky disdain, they attempt to discredit the book with the snide remark that Barron and Paul "claim" to have analyzed refugee reports. "Their scholarship," Chomsky and Herman write, "collapses under the barest scrutiny."(22)
Barron and Paul are justly criticized for sloppy and misleading citations of other press accounts. But they are also criticized for ignoring more benign accounts of the Khmer Rouge regime:
"They do not mention the Swedish journalist, Olle Tolgraven, or Richard Boyle of Pacific News Service, the last newsman to leave Cambodia, who denied the existence of wholesale executions; nor do they cite the testimony of Father Jacques Engelmann, a priest with nearly two decades of experience in Cambodia, who was evacuated at the same time and reported that evacuated priests 'were not witness to any cruelties' and that there were deaths, but 'not thousands, as certain newspapers have written' (cited by Hildebrand and Porter)."(23)
The validity of this criticism, however, rests on whether or not Barron and Paul's refugee testimony was accurate. If we wish to dispute the stories told by the refugees, the testimony of "witnesses" who did not see the events described is irrelevant. The accuracy of the refugee accounts, then, is of utmost importance when evaluating the merit of Barron and Paul's book. We will return to the question of the refugees' accuracy later.
Ponchaud fares slightly better than Barron and Paul. Chomsky's supporters often point out that he described Ponchaud's book as "serious and worth reading". They rarely mention his other comments about the book, such as the claim that the book "lacks the documentation provided in Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore difficult to assess," and that Ponchaud "plays fast and loose with quotes and with numbers." Chomsky and Herman asserted that the book had "an anti-Communist bias"and was "careless, sometimes in rather significant ways." They claimed that Ponchaud's refugee testimonies are "at best second-hand with many of the refugees reporting what they claim to have heard from others." And yet in spite of its supposed "anti-Communist bias," Chomsky and Herman claimed that Ponchaud's book "also gives a rather positive account of Khmer Rouge programs of social and economic development, while deploring much brutal practice in working for egalitarian goals and national independence."(24)
The grounds for the claim that Ponchaud "plays fast and loose with numbers" are absurdly trivial. According to Chomsky and Herman,
"Ponchaud cites a Cambodian report that 200,000 people were killed in American bombings from March 7 to August 15, 1973. No source is offered, but suspicions are aroused by the fact that Phnom Penh radio announced on May 9, 1975 that there were 200,000 casualties of the American bombing in 1973, including 'killed, wounded, and crippled for life' (Hildebrand and Porter). Ponchaud cites 'Cambodian authorities' who give the figures 800,000 killed and 240,000 wounded before liberation. The figures are implausible. By the usual rule of thumb, wounded amount to about three times killed; quite possibly he has the figures reversed."(25)
Apparently, Chomsky and Herman are suggesting that, in the first instance, Ponchaud cited a figure for all casualties as though it were an estimate of those killed. If this is so, then Ponchaud is overstating the number of victims of American actions... not Khmer Rouge actions. This is hardly support for Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model. In the second instance, it is Chomsky and Herman who have it wrong: The number of 240,000 is not given as the number of wounded. It is cited as the Khmer Rouge's own estimate of the number of those disabled as a result of the war ("invalides de guerre").(26)
The supposed "fast and loose" use of quotes is also inconsequential. Chomsky and Herman claim that two similar quotes from different sources are misrepresentations of the same quote: one is described as an unattributed Khmer Rouge slogan that "one or two million young people will be enough to build the new Cambodia" and the other is attributed to a Khmer Rouge military commander: "To rebuild the new Cambodia, a million people are enough." But the meaning of the quotes is not significantly different, and there is nothing to suggest that both quotes aren't perfectly accurate: It is not at all unlikely a Khmer Rouge military commander would indeed rephrase that slogan as quoted by Ponchaud.
The claim that Ponchaud gives "a rather positive account" of Khmer Rouge social and economic programs is baffling. Reading Ponchaud's book, it is difficult to determine exactly what Ponchaud said that could be construed as "rather positive." Certainly the Khmer Rouge were disciplined, and relatively free of corruption in comparison to other regional governments, but it is difficult to see these traits as "positive" when they are in the employ of a government which regards genocide as a viable tool for restructuring society. Chomsky and Herman, however, insist that there were many sources presenting a more favorable view of the Khmer Rouge than that presented by Barron and Paul and Ponchaud. These sources, they argued,
"...have not been brought to the attention of the American reading public. Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing. These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. They also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution, a fact that we and others have discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia, on the problems of interpreting reports of refugees from American bombing in Laos)."(27)
Chomsky's defenders suggest that Chomsky and Herman were not attempting to cast doubt on the refugee accounts, but were merely stressing the need evaluate their testimony objectively. Chomsky's earlier insistence on evaluating refugee testimony with "great caution," however, came in the context of another case where the refugees were telling him what he did not want to hear: that they hated the Pathet Lao. It would be far easier to accept Chomsky's objectivity if he voiced the same concerns in relying on the reports of refugees fleeing U.S.-sponsored regimes, such as Salvadorans or Guatemalans.
Hildebrand and Porter's refusal to consider refugee testimonies ensured that their book would provide a markedly different assessment than that of Barron and Paul or Ponchaud. Which assessment was correct? Of the three books under review, Chomsky and Herman claimed that the book based largely on reports from Khmer Rouge and communist sources, a book which presented "a very favorable picture" of the Khmer Rouge regime, was "a carefully documented study." The other two books relied heavily on those troublesome refugee reports, which are by nature characterized by "extreme unreliability." Those books were "third-rate propaganda," or marred by "an anti-Communist bias;" they were "careless," and "fast and loose" with facts. Wary that their sophistry might come back to haunt them, however, Chomsky and Herman concluded their review with a disclaimer:
"We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered."(28)
In later years, many of Chomsky's supporters have argued that the point of his comments on Cambodia was to contrast the media response to events in Cambodia with what were (according to Chomsky) atrocities of similar scale in other countries, such as East Timor. This, however, is not the argument advanced by Chomsky and Herman in 1977; there is no mention of East Timor, or any other comparable country, in "Distortions." The premise of the article is straightforward: the media was distorting the truth.
History has provided a very different judgment. Ponchaud's book has withstood the test of time. The testimony of the refugees, and Ponchaud's analysis of Khmer Rouge policy, were entirely accurate. Even Barron and Paul's flawed, right-wing account depicts Khmer Rouge Cambodia far more accurately than did Hildebrand and Porter. Barron and Paul presented Khmer Rouge Cambodia as a land of slavery, fear, violence, and tyranny. That is accurate.
Nonetheless, Chomsky's quest to reveal the allegedly flawed coverage of Cambodia continued. Chomsky raised some of his objections in personal correspondence with Ponchaud, and when Cambodge Annee Zero was translated into English, in 1977, Ponchaud alluded to Chomsky's criticisms. In an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the American edition, commenting on Chomsky's reaction to Jean Lacouture's review of the book, he writes:
"Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and, considering my book to be 'serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,' he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977, in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by antirevolutionary propagandists. He has made it my duty to 'stem the flood of lies' about Cambodia -- particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in 'Murder of a Gentle Land.'"(29)
Chomsky's words, quoted by Ponchaud, seem at odds with his publicly stated position: One wonders why a man who claims that he does not know the truth would describe the reports of atrocities as a "flood of lies."
Still, while professing to be uncertain about the nature of the Khmer Rouge, Chomsky and Herman deemed Cambodia a suitable case study for demonstrating the propaganda mechanisms of the free press. They outlined their position in a book, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology. The book went to press in 1979, shortly after the Khmer Rouge regime had collapsed under the onslaught of a Vietnamese invasion.
With the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the "bamboo curtain" of secrecy surrounding Cambodia was thrown open. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, freed at last from one of the most totalitarian regimes in history, suddenly poured across the border into Thailand. They brought with them irrefutable proof of the misery of the previous three years. The Vietnamese invasion not only put an end to Pol Pot's regime: it also put an end to attempts to deny the horrors wrought by Cambodia's Communists.
Or, more accurately, it put an end to most attempts. In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman advanced a lengthier argument of the same charges they had made in The Nation two years earlier.
IV. Eyes Wide Shut
After the Cataclysm is, according to Chomsky and Herman, concerned primarily with "U.S. global policy and propaganda, and the filtering and distorting effect of Western ideology."(30) Consequently, many of Chomsky's supporters claim that it is unfair to criticize the book on the basis of the impressions it might convey about Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. The book includes a disclaimer to that effect: "[W]e have not developed or expressed our views here on the nature of the Indochinese regimes."(31)
This disclaimer, however, comes after nearly 300 pages of arguments that seem to be expressing a very clear set of views. This is surely inevitable: if one is to contend that a particular viewpoint is "filtered" or "distorted," one must have some opinion of what constitutes an unfiltered or undistorted view.
Near the beginning of the chapter on Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman note that "it is surely worthwhile, if one is going to discuss Cambodia at all, to try to comprehend what has in fact taken place there, which is quite impossible if critical standards are abandoned and 'facts' are contrived even out of honest anger or distress."(32) Given that Chomsky and Herman spend the next 150 pages discussing Cambodia, one can assume that the authors are indeed trying to comprehend what had taken place under the Khmer Rouge. Their claim -- that the media was distorting the truth about the Khmer Rouge -- necessarily implies that the image painted by the media was inaccurate.
Falsehoods and misrepresentation abound, according to Chomsky and Herman, and "evidence about Cambodia has a way of crumbling when one begins to look at it closely, a fact that should raise some questions about the examples that have not been investigated because of their lesser prominence in the international campaign."(33)
This theme is consistent throughout the book: the widely accepted view of the Khmer Rouge was based on dubious evidence. Chomsky and Herman begin painting their alternative picture in the book's Preface:
"The ferocious U.S. attack on Indochina left the countries [of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia] devastated, facing almost insuperable problems. The agricultural systems of these peasant societies were seriously damaged or destroyed... With the economies in ruins, the foreign aid that kept much of the population alive terminated, and the artificial colonial implantations no longer functioning, it was a condition of survival to turn (or return) the populations to productive work. The victors in Cambodia undertook drastic and often brutal measures to accomplish this task, simply forcing the urban population into the countryside where they were compelled to live the lives of poor peasants, now organized in a decentralized system of communes. At heavy cost, these measures appear to have overcome the dire and destructive consequences of the U.S. war by 1978."(34)
The reference to "brutal measures" suggests that Chomsky and Herman were beginning to back away from the stance in their Nation article, which had implied that Hildebrand and Porter's "very favorable picture" of the Khmer Rouge was more accurate than Barron and Paul's and Ponchaud's negative views. Nonetheless, Chomsky and Herman still seemed unaware -- or unwilling to admit -- that the regime had been an unmitigated disaster. Moreover, they seemed determined to deflect blame away from the Khmer Rouge. Thus, they imply that the Khmer Rouge were forced to implement these "drastic" measures in part because foreign aid had been terminated. They neglect to mention that the foreign aid was terminated by the Khmer Rouge. Francois Ponchaud pointed this out in Year Zero, noting that the Khmer Rouge even refused a transport plane which had been previously loaded with urgently needed medical supplies.(35)
There is similar sophistry in the claim that the urban population was "forced to live the lives of poor peasants." Peasants in years prior to the Khmer Rouge did not suffer the repression imposed upon the evacuees (the "new people") by Angkar. The population was not forced to live the lives of peasants: they were forced to live the lives of slaves.
The claim that the policies implemented by the Khmer Rouge managed to "overcome" the difficulties of the damaged economy is contradicted by the evidence. Khmer Rouge economic policies, if they can even be called that, were brutal, naive, inefficient, and often downright destructive.
In The Quality of Mercy, describing his visit to Cambodia in 1979, William Shawcross noted that there was no way to evaluate the rice production during the Khmer Rouge years:
"Rather astonishingly, rice was being exported again, but the Cambodian people themselves were being deprived of adequate rations throughout much of the country. Afterward, peasants claimed that the vast new fields, dams, and canals that they had been ordered to build rarely worked. Instead they upset the ecological balance of the countryside.
"Once, I was in a boat steaming up a narrow river, just off the Great Lake. I was being taken to see a fishery in one of the richest of the fishing areas. Along with rice, fish is a staple food in Cambodia and the most important source of protein. Long before our old boat came around the bend of the river, an extraordinary smell came wafting out to greet us. The river was jammed with hundreds of thousands of dead fish, packed tight as ice floes. What had happened? I asked. 'Pol Pot' came the reply.
"It turned out that the Khmer Rouge had built a huge dam just upstream from here and the water in this ancient fishing village was now far shallower than it had ever been before. In the heat of the dry-season sun the fish had, quite simply, cooked."(36)
The Cambodian communists' economic plans were, at times, utterly surreal. Scholar David Chandler notes that, in a Democratic Kampuchea report on General Political Tasks of 1976, there are three lines devoted to education, and six devoted to urine. The document states that, regarding human urine, "We collect thirty per cent. That leaves a surplus of 70%."(37). These were indicative of the types of policies that Chomsky and Herman claimed had lifted Cambodia out of the ashes of war.
The Preface of After the Cataclysm sets the tone for the entire book: again and again, Chomsky and Herman apply dubious spin to reality. Commenting on the flow of boat people out of Vietnam, for example, Chomsky and Herman claim that "In a sense, the refugee flow from Vietnam in 1978 is comparable to the forced resettlement of the urban population of Cambodia in 1975."(38) How is an exodus of refugees, voluntarily risking their lives to escape a communist regime, in any way comparable to the deadly forced march into the Cambodian countryside?
Rather than expressing concerns about the fate of the Khmer people, Chomsky and Herman seem primarily concerned with the "abuse" directed at the Khmer Rouge regime:
"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."(39)
Whether or not this was a matter of "dogma" hardly seems important in the context of the larger question: was the regime really systematically murdering and starving its people? From time to time, Chomsky and Herman acknowledge that there were, perhaps, some bad things happening in Cambodia, but they quickly shift focus back to their propaganda model. After arguing that, in Vietnam, the treatment of "collaborators" has been "relatively mild,"(40) the authors allowed that the situation in Cambodia was different:
"But in the case of Cambodia, there is no difficulty in documenting major atrocities and oppression, primarily from the reports of refugees, since Cambodia has been almost entirely closed to the West since the war's end... The record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome, but it has by no means satisfied the requirements of Western propagandists, who must labor to shift the blame for the torment of Indochina to the victims of France and the United States. Consequently, there has been extensive fabrication of evidence, a tide that is not stemmed even by repeated exposure."(41)
Despite the occasional acknowledgements of brutality, the tone of After the Cataclysm is essentially the same as their 1977 article. Commenting in retrospect on that article, Chomsky and Herman reprise their comment that "'we do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments,' all of which, incidentally, assume substantial atrocities and thousands or more killed."(42) The second part of this statement, however, is blatantly false: Porter and Hildebrand did not "assume substantial atrocities," nor "thousands or more killed." On the contrary, recall that Hildebrand and Porter had described the reports of atrocities as "a systematic process of mythmaking."
There is relatively little discussion of Porter and Hildebrand's book, though Chomsky and Herman do mount a brief, oblique defense, noting that it was "well received by the journal of the Asia Society," and that the magazine Choice described the book as "'A rare combination of humanitarianism and scholarly research.'"(43)
John Barron and Anthony Paul, meanwhile, again come in for harsh criticism. Chomsky and Herman claim that "Very little in the Barron-Paul book is subject to possible verification. Therefore an assessment of the credibility of their primary evidence (refugee reports) rests very largely on the accuracy of their brief historical remarks."(44) (p. 245) This is not an appropriate claim in 1979; with the massive buildup of refugees on the Thai border, one could easily have verified the credibility of their refugee testimony simply be talking to other refugees. Rather than speak to refugees, however, Chomsky and Herman simply pretend that the refugees existed only in some other, inaccessible dimension, and even imply that Barron and Paul hadn't spoken with them either: their evidence is "unverifiable documentation: alleged interviews with Cambodians."(45)
In disparaging Barron and Paul, Chomsky and Herman write that their sources are "in toto: specialists at the State and Defense Departments, the National Security Council, and three unnamed foreign embassies in Washington."(46) This remark is worth remembering, for Chomsky would later make a very different claim regarding these same specialists.
Dismissing Barron's claim that Murder of a Gentle Land was based on "'diverse sources,'" Chomsky and Herman ask rhetorically, "Can anyone imagine a researcher limiting himself to comparable sources on the other side of the fence for a critical study of U.S. imperial violence, then to be lauded for his meticulous and exhaustive scholarship?"(47)
It is impossible to ignore the hypocrisy here: Hildebrand and Porter based their work on comparably limited sources, and Chomsky and Herman lauded them for their meticulous and exhaustive scholarship.
Francois Ponchaud, too, is again criticized, even more harshly than in the Nation article. If Ponchaud actually cared about Cambodian peasants, Chomsky and Herman claim, "he never publicly expressed this sympathy... Furthermore, he describes nothing that he did that might have been to the benefit of the peasants of Cambodia."(48)
Having thus insinuated that Father Ponchaud was callous and indifferent to the Khmer people, they continue:
"It apparently has not been noticed by the many commentators who have cited Ponchaud's alleged sympathy with the Khmer peasants and the revolutionary forces that if authentic, it is a remarkable self-condemnation. What are we to think of a person who is quite capable of reaching an international audience, at least with atrocity stories, and who could see with his own eyes what was happening to the Khmer peasants subjected to daily massacres as the war ground on, but kept totally silent at a time when a voice of protest might have helped to mitigate their torture? It would be more charitable to assume that Ponchaud is simply not telling the truth when he speaks of his sympathy for the Khmer peasant sand for the revolution, having added these touches for the benefit of a gullible Western audience..."(49)
Naturally, it would not fit Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model to suggest that Ponchaud was able to reach a large audience when describing Khmer Rouge atrocities simply because he was one of the few people who had gathered exhaustive information on the subject.
Consistent with their comments in "Distortions", they again describe Ponchaud's refugee testimony as "unverifiable material."(50) Never mind the thousands of other refugees who could have corroborated this "unverifiable material": Chomsky and Herman boldly assert that "The fact is that Ponchaud's book is highly unreliable where an independent check is possible."(51) If it was worthy of consideration, it was just barely worthy:
"A fair review of informed opinion about postwar Cambodia would, in our opinion, include this book as a serious though also seriously flawed and obviously unreliable contribution, in some (but not all) respects, to be placed at the more extreme critical end of the spectrum of specialist judgment and analysis... It is noteworthy that not only the media but also governments appear to have relied uncritically on Ponchaud, despite his evident unreliability."(52)
Again returning to the claims that Phnom Penh was evacuated for humanitarian reasons, Chomsky and Herman note that Ponchaud suggested the shortage was not nearly as dire as some sources claimed, and that there may have been adequate supplies to last as much as two months. Chomsky and Herman dispute this, and add that "Even if Ponchaud's possibly 'excessive' two month-estimate were correct, it remains unclear how famine could have been averted after two months had the cities not been evacuated..."(53) Apparently, the idea that rice could have been brought into the city is too difficult for Chomsky and Herman to grasp.
In the wake of Chomsky and Herman's Nation article, Ponchaud's failure to denounce the media treatment of Cambodia seems to have incurred Chomsky and Herman's wrath. In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman devote several pages to the subtle differences between the American and British translations of Cambodia Year Zero, noting in particular differences in the introductions of the two books. The manner in which Chomsky and Herman present these differences provides an excellent example of their highly selective editing. First, they provide an excerpt from the American edition:
"On March 31, 1977, the New York Review of books published an account of my book by Jean Lacouture, which provoked considerable reaction in all circles concerned about Asia and the future of socialism. With the responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him, Noam Chomsky then embarked on a polemical exchange with Robert Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and Jean Lacouture, leading to the publication by the latter of a rectification of his initial account. Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and, considering my book to be 'serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,' he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977, in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by antirevolutionary propagandists..."(54)
Chomsky and Herman then contrast this excerpt with the British version of the introduction, from which they provide the following excerpts:
"Even before this book was translated it was sharply criticized by Mr Noam Chomsky and Mr Gareth Porter. These two 'experts' on Asia claim that I am mistakenly trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. They say there have been no massacres, and they lay the blame for the tragedy of the Khmer people on the American bombings. They accuse me of being insufficiently critical in my approach to the refugee's accounts. For them, refugees are not a valid source...
"After an investigation of this kind, it is surprising to see that 'experts' who have spoken to few if any refugees should reject their very significant place in any study of modern Cambodia. These experts would rather base their arguments on reasoning: if something seems impossible to their personal logic, then it doesn't exist. Their only sources for evaluation are deliberately chosen official statements. Where is that critical approach which they accuse others of not having?"(55)
Describing these differences as "quite striking," Chomsky and Herman write that "Our favorable reference to Ponchaud's book in the American version becomes a sharp attack in the British version. The 'responsible attitude and precision of thought' that receive such fulsome praise in the American version become complete irrationality, refusal to consider evidence, blind dogmatism, lack of any critical approach, and faked 'expertise' in the simultaneous British version."(56)
Note that Chomsky and Herman's quote from the American edition is the very same passage cited earlier in this article. But Chomsky and Herman excerpt slightly less of the passage: They stop immediately before the sentence in which Ponchaud quotes Chomsky's description of the coverage of Cambodia as a "flood of lies."
The truncated excerpt suggests that Ponchaud was effectively agreeing with Chomsky's claim that the book was being "misused" by antirevolutionary propagandists. But let's pick up where Chomsky and Herman left off. Referring to Chomsky, Ponchaud writes:
"He has made it my duty to 'stem the flood of lies' about Cambodia -- particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in 'Murder of a Gentle Land.'"
"Mr. Gareth Porter also criticized my book very sharply during a congressional hearing on the subject of human rights in Cambodia, and argued that I was trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. He denied that a general policy of purge was put into effect and considered that the tragedy through which the Khmer people are now living should mainly be attributed to the American bombings. He censured me for lacking a critical approach in my use of the refugee accounts, on the ground that they were not credible because the refugees were deliberately trying to blacken the regime they had fled."(57)
"In the beginning, I was not opposed to the Khmer revolution... I welcomed the revolutionaries' victory as the only possible means of bringing Cambodia out of its misery. But after making a careful and full study... I was compelled to conclude, against my will, that the Khmer revolution is irrefutably the bloodiest of our century. A year after the publication of my book I can find no reason to alter my judgement."(58)
The longer excerpts make it clear that the two introductions are not nearly as different as Chomsky and Herman pretend. Ponchaud notes that Porter was also criticizing his position on Cambodia; that is, Porter was taking the same position as Chomsky. Cambodia was awash in a flood of lies, drowning in a sea of nonexistent blood.
The Jean Lacouture affair, discussed briefly in Distortions, is examined in greater detail in After the Cataclysm. Lacouture's review of Cambodge, Annee Zero included an incorrect reference to the Ponchaud's estimate deaths in Cambodia. Ponchaud had cited an estimate of 1.2 million deaths, and Lacouture apparently added to this an estimate of deaths during the civil war, claiming a total of 2 million deaths. Lacouture also incorrectly attributed a quote from a Thai reporter to a Khmer Rouge official. Chomsky immediately alerted Lacouture to these errors, and Lacouture issued a correction, which was then published by the New York Review of Books.
Chomsky's corrections, Lacouture noted, "have caused me great distress. By pointing out serious errors in citation, he calls into question not only my respect for texts and the truth, but also the cause I was trying to defend." Nonetheless, Lacouture argued, Chomsky's points were not of great significance. "Faced with an enterprise as monstrous as the new Cambodian government, should we see the main problem as one of deciding exactly which person uttered an inhuman phrase, and whether the regime has murdered thousands or hundreds of thousands of wretched people? Is it of crucial historical importance to know whether the victims of Dachau numbered 100,000 or 500,000? Or if Stalin had 1,000 or 10,000 Poles shot at Katyn?"(59)
Chomsky and Herman, in response, argue that if "a factor of 100 is relatively insignificant... then why bother to present alleged facts at all?" However, they continue,
"If, indeed, the Cambodian regime was, as Lacouture believes, as monstrous as the Nazis at their worst, then his comment might be comprehensible, though it is worth noting that he has produced no evidence to support this judgment. But if a more appropriate comparison is, say, to France after liberation, where a minimum of 30-40,000 people were massacred within a few months with far less motive for revenge and under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the U.S. war in Cambodia, then perhaps a different judgment is in order."(60)
Even in 1979 it was obvious that Khmer Rouge Cambodia was in no way similar to "France after liberation." The implication is a profound insult to the victims of the Khmer Rouge: one cannot equate Cambodian civil servants with Nazi collaborators. Now, years later, it is beyond dispute that the Khmer Rouge regime was indeed "as monstrous as the Nazis at their worst." One would think, then, that Chomsky would have conceded Lacouture's point. But quite the contrary: in recent years Chomsky has implied that the exaggeration of the death toll was even greater, perhaps by a factor of 1000. In an article in the Z Magazine forum Chomsky claims that "Ed Herman and I responded to his challenge to me by saying that we thought that a factor of 1000 did matter."(61) Lest we assume that he simply misspoke, it is worth noting that he made the same claim in a 1999 discussion on Cambodia: "in short, a factor of 1000 matters in estimating deaths, and we should try to keep to the truth, whether considering our own crimes or those of official enemies."(62) Since Lacouture had cited a figure of two million deaths, it would appear that Chomsky is implying that the real toll at that point was on the order of two thousand.
And, just as they question Ponchaud's sympathy for the peasants, Chomsky and Herman dispute Lacouture's own admission that he had at one time supported the Khmer Rouge: "His previous writings indicate that he was a supporter of Sihanouk, who was a bitter enemy of the Khmer Rouge until they joined forces against Lon Nol in 1970 and whose subsequent relations with the Khmer Rouge were not at all clear. In fact, it is difficult to see how a Westerner could have supported the cause of the Khmer Rouge, since virtually nothing was known about it."(63) By this logic, of course, one could also claim that the Cambodian peasants who flocked to the Khmer Rouge in the wake of Sihanouk's overthrow also did not actually support the cause of the Communists... though as we shall see, Chomsky and Herman make the opposite argument with regard to the peasants. Lacouture, however, was simply following "the herd":
"When the herd stampedes in a different direction for one reason or another, and service to some favored foreign state no longer has its appeal, we entered the 'God that Failed' phase, which at one time had a certain validity and integrity, but now has become, all too often, a pose for those who adopt the more typical stance of the intelligentsia, namely, service to the propaganda system of their state. To this end, it is often convenient to manufacture past allegiance to the current enemies against which recriminations are directed."(64)
Lacouture was hardly alone in his support for the Communists in Southeast Asia. Many in the West accepted the idea that the Communists would be "liberators" freeing the masses from the servitude of imperialism. (Chomsky and Herman themselves on several occasions refer to the Khmer Rouge victory as "liberation."(65)) Many years later, when Lacouture did change his views, he would write that "... it is not only because I once argued for the victory of this very regime, and feel myself partially guilty for what is happening under it, that I believe I can say: there is a time, when a great crime is taking place, when it is better to speak out, in whatever company, than to remain silent."(66)
Disparaging these sentiments, Chomsky and Herman and describe Lacouture's mea culpa as "deeply wrong."(67) They suggest that "Future victims of imperial savagery will not thank us for assisting in the campaign to restore the public to apathy and conformism so that the subjugation of the weak can continue without annoying domestic impediments."(68)
Apparently, contemporary victims of Communist savagery were less important than the hypothetical future victims of imperialism.
Or were the Khmer really "victims" at all? Chomsky and Herman advance a number of arguments that imply that they weren't. "...how can it be that that a population so oppressed by a handful of fanatics does not rise up and overthrow them?"(69) It is not unlikely, in Chomsky and Herman's view, that "the regime has a modicum of support among the peasants."(70) Noting that the Khmer Rouge attacked both Thailand and Vietnam, Chomsky and Herman suggest that a regime with no popular support would surely find its army unwilling to fight on behalf of their country.(71) Examining the comments of several "specialists" on the willingness of Cambodians to resist the Vietnamese during outbreaks of fighting in 1977, Chomsky and Herman again raise the same point: "It is noteworthy that in the varied attempts to find a solution to this most difficult question, one conceivable hypothesis does not seem to have been considered, even to be rejected: that there was a significant degree of peasant support for the Khmer Rouge and the measures that they had instituted in the countryside."(72)
These arguments are infuriatingly wrong-headed. Consider the implications of the first question: why didn't the population overthrow their oppressors? If the lack of a successful revolt indicates that a government was not oppressive, we must concede that Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Mao's China were actually benign. After all, their subjects did not rise up and overthrow them.
Chomsky and Herman do not bother to explain exactly how unarmed peasants living under the most totalitarian regime in modern history were supposed to achieve this spontaneous rebellion.
The idea that Khmer Rouge attacks on Thailand and Vietnam indicate that the Khmer Rouge had popular support is bewildering. This presents a rather unique yardstick for measuring a regime's popularity: apparently, according to this logic, any country that attacks its neighbors must surely be endowed with the support of its populace.
Moreover, Chomsky and Herman's arguments ignore a very basic fact: the military was a privileged class in the Khmer Rouge regime. Khmer Rouge soldiers were not part of the suffering masses. They were part of the apparatus of control.
Finally, it is should be remembered that the book went to press after the Vietnamese invasion of December 1978. The earlier strikes that Vietnam had launched in response to the Khmer Rouge border raids had been limited, and, given that Vietnam quickly withdrew, one could claim that the attacks had been repelled. The December 1978 invasion, however, was the real thing. The result? The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed like a house of cards, in part because of a complete lack of support from the population they had enslaved.(73)
The lack of support was rooted in many things. One in particular bears comment here: the forcible removal of residents from their homes. The evacuation of Phnom Penh in particular surely ranks as one of the regime's most epic violations of basic human rights, and deserves additional discussion.
Chomsky and Herman echo the arguments advanced by Hildebrand and Porter, suggesting that, because of unsanitary conditions and food shortages in the city, the evacuation "may actually have saved lives."(74) As noted above, this claim is contradicted by the evidence. In any case, according to Chomsky and Herman, "The horrendous situation in Phnom Penh (as elsewhere in Cambodia) as the war drew to an end was a direct and immediate consequence of the U.S. assault..."(75)
A reminder is in order here: the U.S. bombing had ended a year and half earlier. And yet the situation in Phnom Penh is still a "direct and immediate consequence" of the U.S. attack... not, apparently, a consequence of the Communist encirclement, or the blockade of the Mekong, or the daily rocket and artillery attacks launched by the Khmer Rouge. The book's underlying theme surfaces again: whatever happens, the U.S. is entirely to blame.
Regardless of who was to blame for conditions inside the city, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that the evacuation was done for humanitarian reasons. William Shawcross, commenting on a five-hour speech by Pol Pot, broadcast on Phnom Penh radio, and in a subsequent press conference in Beijing, noted that:
"Pol Pot made no mention of food shortages or famine as the motive for evacuating Phnom Penh -- his explanation is in fact closer to that of Barron and Paul than to that of Hildebrand and Porter. He said the decision to clear the city was made 'before the victory was won, that is in February 1975, because we knew that before the smashing of all sorts of enemy spy organizations, our strength was not enough to defend the revolutionary regime.' In light of this, arguments about the precise quantities of food available in the city in April 1975 become somewhat academic."(76)
It is impossible to ignore Chomsky and Herman's double standards on the issue of the evacuation. Consider their reaction to another forced relocation: the U.S. government's "strategic hamlet" program in South Vietnam. Was the Saigon regime lauded for "saving lives" by removing people from combat zones? Of course not: Chomsky and Herman quite rightly labeled the strategic hamlets as "virtual concentration camps," and described the program as "savage."(77) The irony here is that Chomsky and Herman do indeed detect a double standard with the forced relocations instigated by the U.S., and the forced relocations instigated by the Communists... but they detect it only with regard to the West's criticisms of communist Vietnam's relocation of the Montagnards. This, they claim, "exemplifies once again the typical hypocrisy of the media."(78) They do not, however, detect any hypocrisy in their own defense of the far more brutal and far more extensive forced relocations conducted by the Khmer Rouge.
Regarding the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Chomsky and Herman devote several pages to an account written by Shane Tarr, a New Zealander, and Chou Meng, his Khmer wife. The Tarrs originally left Phnom Penh in the evacuation, then returned to Phnom Penh and were confined to the French embassy along with the other foreigners. Devout communists, the Tarrs claimed to have seen "'no organised executions, massacres, or the results of such like.'" The evacuation, they claim, was "'slow and well-organized,'" and "'The aged and the ill were not expected to join in the march. We saw very few who were old or sick on the road; those that we met elsewhere told us that the revolutionary organisation catered for their needs.'"(79)
"Again, we may ask 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?"(80) Chomsky and Herman allude to the fact that journalists in the Embassy despised Tarr, but do not bother to consider that perhaps their dislike was entirely warranted. Years later, in his outstanding memoir River of Time, journalist Jon Swain describes Tarr in no uncertain terms:
"There are also those with whom we, who had abandoned our Cambodian friends, did not wish to pass the time of day. One was Shane Tarr, a twenty-four-year-old New Zealander and his Cambodian wife (who, if she was lucky, would be able to stay). He was full of self-righteous and nauseating revolutionary rhetoric and extolled the deeds of the 'liberation forces'. That the Khmer Rouge had kicked two million people out into the countryside without making adequate provision to feed them; looted the city; ripped off watches, radios, cars; and executed people, did not trouble his conscience. 'They are not looting. They are expropriating private property,' he said. 'The people give up their things willingly.'
"But when it came down to it he was as bourgeois and in need of creature comforts as the rest of us. Nearly always the first in line for the food we ate at 3p.m. -- a soggy mixture of rice sprinkled with fragments of meat or vegetable -- he complained bitterly when the air-conditioning stopped. And he did little work. He and his wife, Chou Meng, fraternised with the Khmer Rouge guards over the walls. The more paranoid among us worried that they might be passing on our little secrets. He had a low opinion of the capitalist press; as we had of his hypocrisy. He was shunned." (81)
One may compare the Tarr's account of the evacuation with any of the many memoirs of Cambodia written by those forced out of Phnom Penh, and judge which is warranted: Chomsky and Herman's suggestion that Tarr was a reputable source, or Swain's contempt.
In addition to suggesting that the evacuation saved lives, Chomsky and Herman also suggest that it wasn't really very important to the Cambodians themselves: they quote one of the men who accompanied a Swedish delegation to Cambodia in 1976, Jan Lundvik, who claims that the evacuation of the cities was not "'as noteworthy for the Kampuchean people as had been represented in the West' because Cambodia is an agricultural country."(82)
One wonders whether or not Lundvik himself would have found it "noteworthy" if he had been forcibly evicted from his home and deposited in the middle of a malaria-infested jungle, with the instructions to convert the forest into a rice paddy.
Richard Boyle, another source whom Chomsky and Herman cite in attempting to discredit the common perception of the evacuation as a brutal exercise, claims that the evacuation was "'justified by horrendous conditions in Phnom Penh.'"(83) Among Boyle's other claims: Phnom Penh's water filtration plants and power lines had been destroyed by "'secret police agents'", and "'not one of the 1100 foreign nationals, including about 20 journalists, who left on the two convoys provided by the Khmer Rouge ever witnesses any bodies abandoned on the roadside.'"(84) It is peculiar that Chomsky and Herman cite this last claim, since their own book contradicts it: on page 251, they write that Sydney Schanberg in fact did see bodies on the road leading out of Phnom Penh. (Strictly speaking, however, their reference is not quite correct; Schanberg wrote that he spoke with others who saw bodies along the road. He does not say that he himself saw bodies.)
Chomsky and Herman also cite a report by Patrice de Beer of Le Monde:
"De Beer urges caution with refugee or secret service reports ('how badly mistaken they were is only too well known'). He is skeptical about the reports of executions. 'One instance cited is that of Oudong, which we went through on April 30, and where we saw nothing of the sort.' He is also skeptical of monitored radio messages, 'when you recall that the day after Phnom Penh fell a clandestine transmitter on the Thai border announced that a score of journalists had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, when in fact they were all alive.'"(85)
There are several points worth raising here. Chomsky and Herman's recurring theme - the unreliability of refugee testimony - is once again put forward. But the specifics here are particularly noteworthy. First, de Beer's comment regarding the executions in Oudong is simply absurd: are we expected to believe that, after confining all foreigners to the French embassy for weeks, the Khmer Rouge would conveniently drive a convoy of journalists past the corpses of those they had murdered? Moreover, there were executions at Oudong. From Ben Kiernan's The Pol Pot Regime:
"In March 1974, CPK forces captured Cambodia's nineteenth-century capital, Oudong. On Mok's orders, it was immediately evacuated. A participant recalls: 'Forty thousand people were sent in all directions. The Khmer Rouge burnt houses everywhere... Uniformed Lon Nol soldiers were executed along the way.'"(86)
Aside from the confirmation of executions, the passage from Kiernan also reinforces the point made by Ponchaud with regard to the evacuation of Phnom Penh: evacuating towns and cities under their control was standard practice for the Khmer Rouge. The evacuation was not a response to starvation: it was established policy.
It is also worth commenting on de Beer's claim that there were false reports of journalists being killed. Perhaps de Beer is correct; perhaps there was such a report. But Chomsky and Herman fail to note a significant fact: in 1970, Communist forces murdered a total of twenty-five journalists in Cambodia.(87) The consequences of this omission are predictable: readers whose only knowledge of Cambodia comes from Chomsky and Herman will confidently proclaim that the stories of the Khmer Rouge murdering reporters is an outright lie.
The inclusion of comments like those of Lundvik and de Beer again suggests that Chomsky and Herman were trying to convey the impression that conditions in Cambodia were not as dire as critics claimed. Why else would Chomsky and Herman cite the accounts of Swedish, Finnish, and Danish Ambassadors, noting that they did not see any sign of "oppression or cruelty," nor signs of starvation?(88) Are we to believe that the fact that the Khmer Rouge did not murder their victims in front of visiting foreign dignitaries is evidence that they did not murder or starve them at all? Why include Swedish Ambassador's comment that Khmer Rouge ideologue Khieu Samphan "gives the impression of being an intellectual of quality"?(89)
Continuing in this same vein, Chomsky and Herman attempt to downplay the significance of child labor by claiming that "vocational training" for twelve-year-old children is "not generally regarded as an atrocity in a poor peasant society."(90) The argument is a waste of ink. No amount of scholarly doublespeak can conceal the fact that child slavery is not "vocational training."
Nonetheless, this argument pales in comparison with some of After the Cataclysm's other misrepresentations. For example, Chomsky and Herman devote three pages to the remarks of Francois Rigaux, a member of a delegation from "the Association Belgique-Kampuchea" in Mid-1978. Supposedly a specialist in "the area of family life," Rigaux claimed that conditions he saw in Cambodia were (in Chomsky and Herman's words) "not unlike that of Western European villages before the industrial revolution, with a strong emphasis on family life. Children over a year of age had collective care during the work day, and he reports efforts to arrange for married couples and families to share related occupations where possible. With the extreme decentralization and local arrangements for personal affairs, bureaucracy appeared to be reduced to a minimum." Chomsky and Herman describe Rigaux's impression of health care in Democratic Kampuchea: "Similarly, medical care is not concentrated in the cities and reserved for the elite but is distributed through the most backward regions with an emphasis on preventative medicine and hygiene."(91)
"'The best propaganda for the new regime,' Rigaux writes, was the attitudes and behavior of the older peasants whom he came upon by chance in his travels. To Rigaux, they appeared to have acquired dignity, serenity, and security after a lifetime of oppression and violence."(92)
Chomsky and Herman also say that:
"Rigaux believes that 'relative to what it was before liberation, or compared to that of the peasants of Bangladesh, India, or Iran..., the condition of the Khmer peasant has improved notably.' For urban or Western elites, the results are 'shocking,' in part because of the deliberate insistence on equality, which requires that all share in 'the conditions of work to which the immense majority of the world's population have been subjected for millennia.' Now everyone faces 'the exalting task of cooperating in the progressive improvement of the conditions of life of the entire population.'"(93)
Rigaux's comments are obscene. A "strong emphasis on family life"? The Khmer Rouge implemented policies deliberately designed to break the allegiance of children to their parents, siblings, other relatives. Among the many ludicrous claims advanced in After the Cataclysm, this is surely one of the most disgraceful, particularly as it was being propagated in 1979, when the camps of the Thai border were rapidly filling with thousands of refugees capable of refuting the claim.
"Medical care"? The Khmer Rouge murdered doctors as a matter of policy. The claim is that medical care was not reserved for the elites is completely wrong. It is a safe guess that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan were not treated with the same "medicine" as the rest of the population: the grainy dark pellets that refugees commonly described as "rabbit shit."
A "deliberate insistence on equality"? For all of the Khmer Rouge rhetoric about a classless society, their regime was defined by rigid, inflexible classes: the Khmer Rouge themselves, the "old people," and, at the bottom, the "new people."
The "best propaganda for the new regime?" No, that would have been the likes of Rigaux himself. Or, one is tempted to add, Chomsky and Herman.
Other accounts relayed by Chomsky and Herman include the reports of a team of Yugoslav journalists who were given a guided tour of the country in March 1978. Chomsky and Herman seem to accept many of their claims at face value: that the work day was only 9 hours, for example, or the completely wrong claim that there was an "absence, even in mild form, of political indoctrination."(94)
Had they bothered to speak with any of the refugees pouring into Thailand, they could have found ample evidence to the contrary: In most areas, nightly political meetings and "self-criticism" sessions were common, and few Cambodians worked nine-hour days; many, if not most, were often forced to rise before dawn, and worked until well after sundown.
Chomsky and Herman also note the account of a Vietnamese man who supposedly crossed Cambodia on foot without seeing any evidence of massacres. Of course, the ability of one man to walk through the countryside without witnessing murder does not make particularly compelling evidence for the existence of a new era of social justice. Chomsky and Herman did not, however, dismiss all accounts of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Instead, they argue that the existence of relatively benign accounts shows that there were local variations inside the country. On this point, they are correct. However, the conclusions they draw from this are wrong. They argue that these variations provide evidence against the existence of state-directed violence.(95) Regarding responsibility for the massacres, Chomsky and Herman discuss the work of Ben Kiernan, and suggest that Kiernan's interpretation of events in Cambodia "is rather different from what has been featured by the press. Specifically, he took issue with the horror stories published in Time (April 26, 1976), which alleged that 500,000 - 600,000 people had died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge... like others, he notes that most of the most of the atrocity stories come from areas of little Khmer Rouge strength, where orders to stop reprisals were disobeyed by soldiers wreaking vengeance, often drawn from the poorest sections of the peasantry... He questions the assumption that there was central direction for atrocities as well as the assumption that the stories from specific areas where, in fact, the Khmer Rouge had little control, can be freely extrapolated to the country as a whole."(96)
The presence of local variations, however, most certainly does not argue against the presence of central direction; in fact, many of the worst massacres in Democratic Kampuchea occurred as the result of centrally-directed purges of specific geographic areas.
Moreover, one wonders if Chomsky and Herman would exempt the Salvadoran government from culpability, if, for example, the murderous right-wing death squads had been organized by local commanders, and were not the result of "central direction."
At the time After the Cataclysm was written, several scholars did suggest that the Khmer Rouge never really exercised complete control throughout the country; according to this view, directives provided by the central authority in Phnom Penh were perverted by local commanders bent on settling old scores. Ben Kiernan was originally one of the proponents of this theory.
Kiernan, however, reconsidered his position shortly after the publication of After the Cataclysm. In the Bulletin of Concerned Asia Scholars, October-December 1979, the editors of that publication asked him why he had "changed his mind" and had become critical of the Khmer Rouge regime. "I was late in realizing the extent of the tragedy in Kampuchea," he wrote. He continued: "I was wrong about an important aspect of Kampuchean communism: the brutal authoritarian trend within the revolutionary movement after 1973 was not simply a grassroots reaction, and expression of popular outrage at the killing and destruction of the countryside by US bombs, although that helped it along decisively."(97) He echoes this statement in Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942 - 1981. "In analysing the reasons for continuing violence after the war, I failed to identify the deliberate, if hampered, activities of the Pol Pot group."(98)
In The Pol Pot Regime, written in 1996, Kiernan goes even farther in refuting the claims that Khmer Rouge atrocities were the work of overzealous local authorities:
"We are also in a position to resolve a number of other contentious issues about the Pol Pot regime. Its racialist preoccupations and discourse were of primary importance, but so were totalitarian ambitions and achievements. Along with Vickery's theory of a 'peasant revolution' (see Chapter 5), we can now dismiss Thion's assertion that in Democratic Kampuchea, 'The state never stood on its feet.' Despite its underdeveloped economy, the regime probably exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history. It controlled and directed their public lives more closely than government had ever done."(99)
In the wake of Kiernan's reversal, it is maddening that Chomsky continues to insist that the positions he outlines in After the Cataclysm were correct. Cataclysm is accurate in the sense that Chomsky faithfully records the remarks of Kiernan and others; but Kiernan and many others subsequently admitted that those remarks were wrong. One would expect a serious scholar to acknowledge the implications of those admissions.
With regard to the overall "propaganda" picture, however, Chomsky and Herman do make some concessions, noting that some reporters' work did not conform to their model. These reporters did not accept the idea that the Khmer Rouge were monsters. Chomsky and Herman note, for example, a Washington Post article by Lewis Simons, in which Simons quotes Gareth Porter's claim that "The fact is that the evacuation and the regime's concentration on rice production have averted mass starvation. If you look at the three Indochinese countries today, you'll find that Cambodia undoubtedly is in the best food position." Simons' article also says that this claim "is more or less supported by State Department officials" and notes that there are reports of rice exports. "It is particularly worthy of note," Chomsky and Herman write, "that visitors in late 1978 found food supplies to be more than adequate... it seems that the extensive development of dikes and dams in the postwar period, which has consistently impressed visitors, sufficed, despite some damage, to overcome the worst effects and to afford the population an ample supply of food, even including a surplus for export, according to the regime..."(100)
But despite Chomsky and Herman's claim, there is no evidence that the dams which "consistently impressed visitors" had any positive effect at all on the production of rice. Comments such as these seem to be based on nothing more than the (supposed) ability of the Khmer Rouge to avoid starvation among the population. Cambodia, however, had historically been an exporter of rice, and it did this without evacuating cities and building massive canals and dams. Many of the dams and dikes never worked at all. In her book When the War Was Over, Elizabeth Becker described the typical effects of these projects. Her comments echo the judgment of the peasants, noted by Shawcross earlier:
"The plans were drawn up by cadre with no engineering experience and without advice from peasants familiar with the area. The construction of the First January Dam is a good example of the awful results.
"That dam was built in the northwest in 1977. The Center ordered it to be completely dug and constructed between the January harvest and the May planting season. It was to irrigate 20,000 hectares of land. There was practically no mechanical equipment available -- no bulldozers for digging and few trucks for hauling The cooperatives in the general vicinity had to 'donate' labor teams of thousands of people with no training. They worked like ants, digging the earth with crude picks and shovels, carrying back-breaking loads of dirt and rocks in bamboo baskets balanced on poles across their shoulders. They worked around the clock with the moon and lanterns lighting the area at night. But they finished on time. And in the 1978 rainy season the dam burst. It had been constructed without a spillway, a shortcut that halved construction time but made it certain that the dam would not hold up under heavy rains and swelling rivers during the monsoon season.
"Nearly every dam in Democratic Kampuchea was built that way. One engineer who later surveyed the irrigation projects of the Khmer Rouge described the criminal neglect of these construction schemes. 'Without a spillway there is no effective way to control the water and it broke through the dam. When the dam broke there was little protection for the people who lived downstream and they were flooded. The rest of the irrigation system was usable but many canals were either out of alignment or in need of basic repairs that would have been unnecessary if the canals had been built correctly in the first place.'
"But such care and consideration were impossible in the regime's schemes for a great leap forward and in its basic political philosophy that the political character of the workers was more important than engineering skills."(101)
Chomsky and Herman, however, seem to take it for granted that rice production was increased by the Khmer Rouge: "Recall the widespread acknowledgement that the new regime had considerable, perhaps 'spectacular' success in overcoming the food crisis caused by U.S. bombing, considerably more so than the other countries of Indochina.'"(102) They fail to note, however, the simple fact that the end of combat would inevitably have provided an impetus to recovery. To the limited extent that the food crisis abated, it was in spite of Khmer Rouge policy... not because of it.
There is another crucial point here as well: large segments of the population in fact did suffer from severe malnutrition and starvation in 1975 and 1976. Not surprisingly, Chomsky and Herman fail to understand what this says about the Khmer Rouge regime: ensuring that the population had adequate food was simply not a priority.
Finally, it should be noted that the claims of spectacular agricultural "success" are somewhat at odds with another of Chomsky's contentions, that being that the U.S. was to blame for many of the deaths which occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime. If the Khmer Rouge quickly overcame the damage done by the U.S. bombing, that damage cannot be responsible for significant numbers of deaths.
Just as Chomsky and Herman's interpretation of evidence about conditions inside Cambodia is dubious, their interpretation of how the media responded to the reports is also questionable. A good example can be seen in Chomsky's comments on the reports of three Westerners who were allowed to make a guided tour of the country. In December 1978, the three -- Becker, of the Washington Post, Richard Dudman, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and scholar Malcolm Caldwell -- were briefly permitted to enter Cambodia. The goal, presumably, was to reverse the world's negative view of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Caldwell, co-author of the book in which Chomsky made his "new era of economic development and social justice" comment, did not survive to write his impressions. He was murdered in Phnom Penh on the final night of their visit, apparently by a Khmer Rouge faction determined to embarrass Pol Pot.(103)
Both Dudman and Becker wrote long articles on their visit. Chomsky and Herman claim that the media ignored these accounts, noting that "The New York Times dismissed their visit in a line. Bernard Weinraub, in the 11th paragraph of a 13 paragraph story on the reported purges in Cambodia, remarked that their visit 'produced no substantial surprises since the visitors only saw what the government wanted them to see.'"(104) Never mind that Weinraub's summary was quite accurate. And never mind that Dudman and Becker's own papers ran extended articles detailing their reports: the fact that a competing newspaper did not devote lengthy space to reports written by someone else's reporter is, in the "propaganda model" of Chomsky and Herman, evidence of a campaign of distortion and disinformation.
Of course, if the media is governed by Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model, one wonders why Barron and Paul's book was described as "'a Cold War propaganda piece" in the Washington Post.(105)
Chomsky and Herman's faith in their model, however, remained unshakeable. Thus the authors confidently asserted that "It is a fair generalization that the more extreme the condemnation of Cambodia, the more confident the claim that 'Communism' lies at the roots of its present travail, the more diminished the U.S. share and responsibility -- then the greater the exposure."(106)
That assertion, however, has not been borne out. Barron and Paul's book -- which ignores the U.S. role in Cambodia's agony -- is long forgotten, while William Shawcross' Sideshow -- which lays the blame for the destruction of Cambodia at the feet of Nixon and Kissinger -- is still in print more than 20 years after its original publication.
After the Cataclysm can be evaluated by two separate measures: the validity of its propaganda model, and the accuracy of its alternative picture of the Khmer Rouge reign. The evidence for the existence of what the authors describe as a "system of brainwashing"(107) is unconvincing at best. The value of their observations on the nature of the Khmer Rouge regime are completely without merit. How bad was Democratic Kampuchea? Chomsky and Herman do not at any point provide their own estimates of the death toll. They do, however, quote Laura Summer's contention that it is "not surprising that the revolution was violent for in addition to the human destruction heaped upon the community by intensive American bombing, there were profound social grievances and scores to be settled," and note that Summers goes on to suggest that the postwar death toll from "exhaustion, disease, and execution" was "in the range of two hundred thousand."(108) Of course, Chomsky and Herman have also suggested that some sources predicted that "a million people were certain to die of starvation" in postwar Cambodia, a situation that was "squarely the responsibility of the United States."(109) Combine these estimations with their claim that actions such as the evacuation of Phnom Penh "may actually have saved lives," and consider the implications: If we accept Chomsky and Herman's most extreme arguments, we would arrive at the conclusion that the Khmer Rouge "liberation" actually saved roughly 800,000 people.
But in case some readers were not persuaded by the arguments that the Khmer Rouge were actually not all that bad, Chomsky and Herman are ready with a second argument: if the Khmer Rouge were bad, it was because the U.S. deliberately made them that way. Thus, they repeat Michael Vickery's claims that US policy in Cambodia was driven by a desire to "'insure that the post-war revolutionary government be extremely brutal, doctrinaire, and frightening to its neighbors, rather than a moderate socialism to which the Thai, for example, might look with envy.'" "Then," Chomsky and Herman write, "the aggressors would at least be able to reap a propaganda victory from the misery they had sown."(110)
This theme is reiterated near the end book:
"If a serious study of the impact of Western imperialism on Cambodian peasant life is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered that the violence lurking behind the Khmer smile, on which Meyer and others have commented, is not a reflection of obscure traits in peasant culture and psychology, but is the direct and understandable response to the violence of the imperial system, and that its current manifestations are a no less direct and understandable response to the still more concentrated and extreme savagery of a U.S. assault that may in part have been designed to evoke this very response, as we have noted. Such a study may also show that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response from some sectors of the Cambodian peasantry because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system with its final outburst of uncontrolled barbarism."(111)
Among all of Chomsky and Herman's troubling comments on Cambodia, this stands out. It is difficult to see this paragraph as anything other than blatant apologetics. If the Khmer Rouge were brutal, it was "understandable," since the policies of the United States were "designed to evoke this very response." Never mind that the scenes of warfare, death, and dismemberment carved into the stones of Angkor demonstrate that the "violence lurking behind the Khmer smile" has been around for at least 800 years: the "imperial system" is to blame. Evidence be damned.
V. Apples, Oranges, and Myopia
Chomsky's comments regarding the Khmer Rouge have changed somewhat in the years following the Vietnamese invasion. With the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime a matter of historical record, references to "liberation" and the "constructive role" of the communists disappeared.
This shift was readily apparent by 1988, when Chomsky and Herman published Manufacturing Consent. Manufacturing Consent is a more palatable book than After the Cataclysm, and makes a far more compelling case for bias in the media, particularly with regard to Central America. Nonetheless, there are again a number of distortions regarding events in Cambodia, and misrepresentations regarding the media coverage of those events.
At times these inaccuracies are subtle. Discussing events in 1967, for example, Chomsky and Herman write that "Vietnamese peasants and guerrillas fled for refuge to border areas in Cambodia," creating the impression that Cambodia was overrun with frightened refugees. (112) In reality, the problem for Cambodia was not an influx of terrified peasants. The problem was a massive infiltration by North Vietnamese Army regulars.
One might argue that this is nothing more than creative use of the language: a bit of poetic license. At other times, however, Chomsky and Herman are clearly misreprenting their sources. Consider, for example, their claim regarding conditions in Phnom Penh in 1975: "As the war ended, deaths from starvation alone were running at about 100,000 a year, and the U.S. airlift that kept the population alive was immediately terminated." (113)
As their source, Chomsky an Herman cite Starvation and Revolution. Presumably Chomsky and Herman are basing this "rate" on Hildebrand and Porter's claim that "if a conservative estimate of 250 deaths per day from starvation is used the total for March  alone comes to nearly 8000 people." Extrapolating an annual rate from this, of course, is a dubious proposition; one might similarly argue that, based on the death toll from September 2001, terrorists were murdering Americans at a rate of 30,000 a year. Nonetheless, if we assume that there truly were 250 people dying each day, we would arrive at an annual rate of 91,250. If this were the full extent of Chomsky and Herman's exaggeration, perhaps it would be within an acceptable margin of error. But Hildebrand and Porter's very next sentence notes that "the total number [of deaths by starvation] for the last five months of the war must have been at least 15,000 and possibly far more." Conditions in the capital worsened as the siege of Phnom Penh dragged on, and consequently the final months of the siege were the most deadly. Even if we ignore this, and base our estimate of the death toll for the entire year on the last months, we arrive at a figure of 36,000 deaths. This is a horrible toll, but it is vastly lower than Chomsky and Herman's claim of 100,000 a year. And yet we are still not done: what happens when we examine Hildebrand and Porter's numbers in greater detail? The supposedly "conservative" estimate of 250 deaths a day is based solely on a remark by Dr. Gay Alexander of Catholic Relief Services. Yet Hildebrand and Porter admit that "no effort was made to estimate how many people were dying each day from starvation." Were there any hard statistics on deaths from starvation and malnutrition? In fact, there were. Hildebrand and Porter note figures from the Toul Kauk nutrition center, the Catholic Relief Services children's clinic, and the Red Cross children's clinic. At the Toul Kauk clinic, there were 49 deaths in January 1975, or slightly less than 2 per day. Dr. Alexander's report, according to Hildebrand and Porter, cites an average of 3 deaths per day at the CRS clinic. At the Red Cross clinic, there were 65 deaths in the last week of February, or roughly 10 per day. The combined total from these three facilities, then, was around 15 deaths per day. There is no question that there were many individuals who died beyond the reach of the relief agencies, and Hildebrand and Porter's assertion that the clinic deaths were "the tip of the iceberg" may have been correct. Nonetheless, in the face of Hildebrand and Porter's admission that no one was actually keeping track, the supposed death rate of 100,000 per year is, at best, a misuse of statistics, and at worst a flagrant exaggeration.(114)
The precise numbers, however, are less important than the larger question: Who is responsible for these deaths? The Americans, who had ceased direct involvement in combat more than a year and a half earlier? Or the Communists, who had encircled the city and cut off all supplies? A realistic assessment would note that the Khmer Rouge, the Americans, and the Vietnamese were all partly to blame. Chomsky and Herman, however, are not in the business of providing realistic assessments. Thus, the toll can be inflated arbitrarily, and laid entirely at the feet of the Americans.
As with After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman again selectively omit relevant facts, and apply different standards when doing so will bolster their case. Discussing articles by Sydney Schanberg which appeared in the New York Times on the tenth anniversary of the Khmer Rouge takeover, for example, Chomsky and Herman quote Schanberg's observation that "the Khmer Rouge were a meaningless force when the war was brought to Cambodia in 1970.... In order to flourish and grow, they needed a war to feed on. And the superpowers -- including this country, with the Nixon incursion of 1970 and the massive bombing that followed -- provided the war and that nurturing material." Commenting on this quote, Chomsky and Herman complain that Schanberg "does not, however, inform us about which superpower, apart from 'this country,' invaded Cambodia and subjected it to massive bombing." (115)
The implication of this remark is that among the superpowers, the United States alone was responsible for the devastation of Cambodia. The role of the Chinese is completely ignored: and yet it was the Chinese who provided arms and munitions to the Khmer Rouge during the civil war, during the repression of the Pol Pot years, and during the subsequent war against the Vietnamese. China was also the only foreign country to provide a significant amount of aid to the Pol Pot regime, including roughly 15,000 advisors. (116) The double standard employed throughout Chomsky and Herman's work is again apparent: while the United States is deemed wholly responsible for the actions of its client states, as in Central America, no such culpability is assigned to the Chinese for the actions of the Khmer Rouge, nor for the USSR with regard to the actions of the Vietnamese. (117)
Some of what appears in Manufacturing Consent is a rehash of After the Cataclysm; Francois Ponchaud, for example, is again a target. He is "known to be unreliable" (118), "highly dubious" (119) and guilty of "remarkable deception" (120). William Shawcross, too, comes in for harsh criticism. In particular, Chomsky and Herman complain that Shawcross falsely characterized their stance on Cambodia. (121) The basis of this complaint is a footnote in The Quality of Mercy, in which Shawcross extracted three separate paragraphs from The Political Economy of Human Rights as a summary of Chomsky's position.
Shawcross deserves to be criticized for not indicating that the paragraphs he cited were not contiguous. The fact remains, however, that the excerpts Shawcross cites accurately summarize Chomsky and Herman's arguments. But what happens when the roles are reversed: do Chomsky and Herman accurately summarize Shawcross' position? They do not. Chomsky and Herman imply, for example, that Shawcross claims that Sihanouk did not object to the bombing of Cambodia: they quote Shawcross as saying that "'Sihanouk did not protest,'" and imply that Shawcross' criticizes the bombing only because it was "careless": "In retrospect, the harshest critics within the mainstream attribute 'the destruction of Cambodian society' during Phase I to 'years of warfare' and 'careless policies of the White House,' nothing more." (122)
This is a misrepresentation of Shawcross' position. Discussing the "careless policies of the White House" in The Quality of Mercy -- which, Shawcross notes, "were in good part responsible for the disasters that befell Cambodia in the 1970s," Shawcross writes that "I attempted to document this process in my previous book; although it is not repeated in detail here, it should not be forgotten." (123) The "previous book" Shawcross is referring to Sideshow. There, Shawcross makes Sihanouk's position - and his own - very clear. Shawcross quotes Sihanouk as saying that "'I did not know about the B-52 bombing in 1969. In 1968, I had told Chester Bowles, en passant, that the United States could bomb Vietnamese sanctuaries, but the question of a big B-52 campaign was never raised.'" (124)) Shawcross adds, "Bowles talked with Sihanouk and his officials about 'hot pursuit,' not about B-52 bombing at all. Even if Sihanouk had authorized 'hot pursuit' of Vietnamese communists into Cambodia this could in no way be taken as authorizing a massive B-52 campaign against the sanctuaries." (125) Shawcross is unambiguous on the morality of the American air campaign. Chomsky's implied argument is that Shawcross has altered his views between the original publication of Sideshow in 1979 and The Quality of Mercy in 1984. This is clearly not the case: in the introduction to the revised edition of Sideshow, published in 1987, Shawcross writes: "I ended the first edition of Sideshow by saying that Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime. That remains true today." (126)
Nor is this the only occasion when Herman and Chomsky distort Shawcross' arguments. Discussing the extent of famine in Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion, Chomsky and Herman seek to convince their readers that Shawcross was determined to expose "Vietnamese villany," and they quote Ben Kiernan in what would appear to be a refutation of Shawcross' position: "'There was a threat of famine, as the Heng Samrin government proclaimed in mid-1979. But it was offset by the small but crucial December-January harvest, which Shawcross hardly mentions, and by the massive international aid program, which he regularly denigrates.'" (127)
The position that Chomsky and Herman are refuting, however, bears no resemblence to Shawcross' actual argument. In The Quality of Mercy he summarizes the role of the Heng Samrin regime, and international aid, in averting a humanitarian disaster:
"The fact that millions of Cambodians managed to survive without directly receiving large amounts of international aid from the Phnom Penh regime does not mean that aid was unnecessary. It undoubtably helped save thousands of vulnerable people, including children and the sick. Moreover, after the mayhem and the brutality of the last ten years -- a period for which many powers including the United States, China and Vietnam bore great responsibility -- Cambodia desperately required a relatively stable government. This the Vietnamese, with the help of international aid, provided. Indeed, one can say that the help of Western donors was crucial in this regard.
"The aid that was sent to Phnom Penh not only allowed the creation of an administration. It also meant that the peasants were allowed to keep whatever they had been able to grow." (128)
Shawcross is making precisely the argument that Chomsky and Herman attribute to Kiernan: starvation was averted by massive aid, and by the fact that the peasants were allowed to keep the fruits of the December-January harvest. (129)
The manner in which Chomsky and Herman distort Shawcross' positions, however, pales in comparison to their treatment of Sydney Schanberg. The authors spend several pages outlining Schanberg's sins. Discussing Schanberg's articles during the 1973 American bombing, they write:
"From the outset, Schanberg reports 'refugees pouring into the city,' but there are no interviews with refugees who relate the circumstances of life under the bombs.... As in Laos a few years earlier, the refugees simply had the wrong tale to tell, and the kinds of stories that readily flow if one is sufficiently interested to inquire are lacking here." (130)
Noting that one of Schanberg's articles stated that the "Cambodian commanders" who directed the bombing did not always have accurate information about civilians in target areas, Chomsky and Herman append their own sarcastic analysis: "The Cambodians, then," Chomsky and Herman write, "are to blame for the civilian casualties that must result..." (131)
Chomsky and Herman then quote Schanberg's remark that "'There is no doubt that the Seventh Air Force is making a marked effort to avoid civilian casualties -- at least outside the eastern third of the country, which is solidly held by the enemy.'" (132) They also quote Schanberg's remark that "'The frightened villagers uprooted by the bombing have a great deal to say,'" -- but, Chomsky and Herman add dismissively, "we do not read it here." Those reading Schanberg's reports "could no doubt ascertain that terrible things were happening in the Cambodian countryside," Chomsky and Herman write, "but what they were remains obscure, and the Americans are explictly exonerated, apart from the error of bombing the wrong village." (133)
If we accept Chomsky and Herman's summary, then, we would conclude that Schanberg was unconcerned about what was happening in the areas being bombed by the Americans, that the Americans were exercising great care to avoid civilian casualties, and that any casualties which did occur were actually the fault of the Cambodians. Does this accurately reflect what Schanberg wrote? Let's examine, in detail, one of the articles Chomsky and Herman cite: "A Cambodian Landscape: Bomb Pits, Rubble, Ashes," from the New York Times, May 24, 1973.
Recall the passage cited by Chomsky and Herman: "There is no doubt that the Seventh Air Force is making a marked effort to avoid civilian casualties -- at least outside the eastern third of the country, which is solidly held by the enemy." Describing the bombing in the areas held by the Lon Nol government, Schanberg writes that refugees in those areas "report only a relatively small number of casualties in their own groups. They say they do not know about possible casualties among the considerable number of fellow villagers who went away, willingly or unwillingly, with the guerrilla forces."
If we stopped reading at this point, perhaps we could conclude that Chomsky and Herman's summary is correct. But the very next paragraph continues:
"However, there is a different category of American bombing, in a different part of Cambodia, and information about this area is even scarcer than what is known about the area hit by the recently escalated air attacks. This is the bombing in 'Freedom Deal' - the name Americans have given to the area east of the Mekong River that has never been ventured into by Government troops and has been used by the Communists for moving troops and suppplies from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.
"The Americans have been bombing heavily in 'Freedom Deal' ever since the war began in Cambodia in 1970. It is essentially a free-fire zone, where the Seventh Air Force, now based in Thailand, can hit virtually what it wants to. The Nixon Administration has divulged almost nothing about this bombardment. Questions about the tonnage of bombs dropped, the number of sorties, the specific targets hit, the amount of enemy supplies destroyed and the number of enemy killed are not answered. The number of Cambodian civilians killed is also either not known or not revealed.
"But every once in a while, some civilians make their way into Government territory from 'Freedom Deal' and tell stories of bombing that has wiped out entire groups of villages and sizable numbers of the people who were living there under Communist administration. (134)
And, contrary to Chomsky and Herman's claim that we do not get to read what the refugees have to say, this very article tells us exactly what the refugees had to say:
"Ouk Nourm, a 28-year-old woodcutter, acted as their spokesman. Speaking in Cambodian through an interpreter, Mr. Ouk Nourm said that his own village, Kompon-Rau, and seven nearby villages had been destroyed, bit by bit, during the three years of American bombing. He gave the names of these villages as Prey Ronong, Prey Trom, Prey Chamna, Wat Saray, Set, Prey Thom and Phnom Srao. He said that the Vietcong were in these villages and controlled the area.
"Mr. Ouk Nourm said that his sister-in-law was killed in a bombing raid on his village seven months ago. He also told of witnessing another, much more devastating air raid - one that killed 30 of his friends, who, he said, were among more than 100 men, including himself, taken prisoner by the Vietcong.(135)
Schanberg also quotes other refugees: "'Why does Nixon send airplanes to bomb our village and destroy our houses?' asks a refugee from a largely destroyed village, Plow Trei, about 16 miles southeast of Phnom Penh." Other refugees describe their anger at the Cambodian government, or the rebels, or both: "'Both sides destroyed my village.'"(136)
Schanberg notes that U.S. officials claimed civilian casualties were light. He points out, however, that the evidence suggested otherwise: in a half-hour visit to a hospital in Phnom Penh, "three civilian casualties from the bombing were found, including a 15-year-old boy from Kompong Chhnang Province named Sok Sam An."(137)
The claim that Schanberg "explicitly exonerated" the Americans is plainly false. Schanberg states quite the opposite: "The destruction in Cambodia has multiplied greatly since the escalation of the American bombing began here in February. Scores of villages have been blown away."(138)
One of the criticisms leveled at Schanberg -- that he was unconcerned about events in the countryside -- is issued as a blanket condemnation of journalists in Cambodia in general. Chomsky and Herman assert that "there was little effort to determine what was happening in the areas held by the enemy of the U.S. government -- hence the enemy of the U.S. press..." (139)
To understand just how unfair this criticism is, one needs to reminded of the danger facing correspondents in Cambodia. Attempts to report from Khmer Rouge-held areas were frequently fatal. In the first eight months after the war engulfed Cambodia, 25 journalists were killed. Still, in spite of the danger, a few journalists made an effort to learn more about the communists. Since the Khmer Rouge did not permit access to the territory under their control, it was difficult for reporters to gather firsthand information. In 1973, seeking to shed light on conditions in the rebel areas, journalists Elizabeth Becker and Ishiyama Koki paid to translate a book by Ith Sarin, a former schoolteacher who had spent nine months with the Khmer Rouge. Koki subsequently became determined to report on the conflict from Khmer Rouge territory. He traveled into the rebel areas north of Phnom Penh and, like so many of his colleagues, vanished.(140) Roughly one month later, another Japanese photographer, Taizo Ichinose, ventured into the Khmer Rouge zone in an attempt to reach Angkor Wat. He, too, was captured, and was executed. (141) By claiming that "little effort" was being made to determine conditions outside Phnom Penh, Chomsky and Herman are essentially criticizing journalists for being reluctant to die. This is a particularly hollow criticism when it is issued from the safety of a university campus, nearly 15 years after the end of the war.
This brings us to the broader question of the accuracy of Chomsky and Herman's characterization of the media coverage of Cambodia, both during the war, and after the Khmer Rouge victory.
When Chomsky does discuss the Pol Pot years, it is generally to contrast media coverage of Cambodia with other atrocities. East Timor is Chomsky's favorite example. Chomsky's premise is that the disparity between media coverage of Cambodia and coverage of East Timor has ideological roots.
This position requires addressing the scale of the disaster in Cambodia. In a posting in the Z Magazine Internet forums, Chomsky writes:
"The CIA, in its demographic study in 1980, claims that Pol Pot killed 50-100,000 people and attributes most deaths to the Vietnamese invasion, also denying flatly the atrocities of 1978, which were by far the worst (that's the source of the famous piles of skulls, etc.; these became known after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, and were certainly known to the CIA). Michael Vickery has written about the CIA study, suggesting that it was tailored to fit the fact that the US was tacitly supporting Pol Pot in '78 and later... Vickery estimates about 700,000 deaths 'above the normal' in the Pol Pot years -- which, if accurate, would be about the same as deaths during the US war (the first phase of the 'Decade of Genocide,' as 1969-79 is called by the one independent government analysis, Finland). For that period, the CIA estimates 600,000 deaths. The Yale Genocide project (Ben Kiernan and others) gives higher estimates, about 1.5 million. In fact, no one knows. No one ever knows in such cases, within quite a broad range. When numbers are put forth with any confidence, and without a big plus-or-minus, you can be sure that there is an ideological agenda, in any such case. Demographic analyses are very weak."(142)
Chomsky seems to be implying that the CIA's estimate of the death toll was lower than Vickery's. However, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. The CIA's figure refers specifically to deaths by execution, whereas Vickery's number refers to excess deaths from all causes: executions, starvation, malnutrition, disease. Moreover, Chomsky's other claims about the report are false. The report absolutely does not "attribute most deaths to the Vietnamese invasion." A charitable assessment of this claim is that it is an error based on a careless reading of the report; a less charitable interpretation is that it is simply a lie. The report estimates a severe population decrease in 1979, but shows that this is due to the exodus of refugees, and not to deaths.(143) Similarly, the claim that the report was "denying flatly the atrocities of 1978" is also false. The report does not discuss the purges of 1978, and that is without question the report's most serious shortcoming. However, there is nothing to indicate that the authors of the report were aware of the internecine conflict which gave rise to the purge, and certainly no flat denial that it occurred. There is a very clear difference between not discussing an event, and denying that it happened.
In a 1997 interview with Tom Morello, guitarist for the band Rage Against the Machine, Chomsky was similarly misleading with regard to the CIA's estimates:
"In the Nixon years, for example, the bombing of inner Cambodia in 1973 was a monstrous crime. It was just massacring peasants in inner Cambodia. It isn't much reported here because nobody paid attention, but it was quite a part in helping create the basis for the Khmer Rouge. Well, the CIA estimate is that 600,000 people were killed in the course of those US actions, either directed or actually carried out by the United States."(144)
Once again, Chomsky's reference is wrong: the report estimates 600,000 - 700,000 war-related deaths, on both sides, over the course of the entire civil war. It is not an estimate of those "killed in the course of US actions." In Chomsky's interpretation, however, only the US is to blame: the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese, apparently, didn't kill anyone.
The goal of this, one suspects, is to demonstrate some sort of moral equivalence between the Khmer Rouge and the Americans: 600,000 dead at the hands of the U.S., compared to Vickery's estimated 700,000 "excess deaths" during the Pol Pot regime. It's all "about the same."
Of course, Chomsky does admit the possibility of higher tolls, citing the Cambodian Genocide Project's estimate of 1.5 million deaths, but, he reminds us, "no one knows."
It is worth discussing for a moment what is known about the human cost of the Khmer Rouge reign.
In recent years, figures of 1.5 to 1.7 million excess deaths are commonly attributed to the Khmer Rouge regime. Forensic evidence uncovered in the last decade suggests that the actual toll could be even higher. Craig Etcheson, formerly the head of Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Project, notes that as of 1999, the Documentation Center of Cambodia had mapped the locations of more than 20,000 mass graves, containing 1,112,829 remains described as "victims of execution." This is worth remembering in the face of Chomsky's claim that "the famous piles of skulls" were from massacres that had not yet taken place when Ponchaud and others began to publicize Khmer Rouge atrocities. With 20,000 different graves to pick from, the accuracy of Chomsky's claim depends on precisely which pile of skulls one wishes to discuss. In any case, Etcheson estimates excess deaths from all causes (execution, starvation, overwork, and so on) to be between 2.0 and 2.5 million, with a most-likely figure of roughly 2.2 million deaths.(145) (A detailed discussion of various estimates of the death toll can be found in the article "Counting Hell," on this site at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/deaths.htm.)
Michael Vickery's estimate, based on his research in the early 1980s, was by far the lowest estimate of any serious Cambodia scholar. In light of recent evidence, why would Chomsky continue to suggest that Vickery's figure is plausible? The answer, one suspects, is that a lower estimate is more in keeping with Chomsky's predetermined idea of what the "truth" should be.
One might argue that it is unfair to judge Chomsky's earlier comments by the standard of currently available evidence. It should be noted, however, that some of the earlier, higher estimates of the death toll were based primarily on inferences from refugee accounts: the very accounts that Chomsky and Herman claimed were characterized by "extreme unreliability."
Other dubious claims surface in Chomsky's comments in the Z forums. In another posting in the forum posting in March 2002, Chomsky again refers to the "Demographic Catastrophe" report, branding it a "whitewash of the Khmer Rouge by US government scholars and the CIA."(146) A whitewash? The report's section on the Khmer Rouge begins: "The almost four years of brutal rule by the Pol Pot regime drastically accelerated the disintegration of Kampuchean society."(147) This is a whitewash?
How well did the media cover the atrocities in Cambodia? Chomsky and Herman dispute the assertion (made by Shawcross and others) that the genocide of the Khmer Rouge was virtually ignored in the media. According to Chomsky and Herman, the charge that the media ignored what was happening in Cambodia was "distinctly applicable" during the American bombing, but not at all applicable for the period of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Describing the American bombing as "Phase I" of the genocide, Chomsky and Herman claim that "Phase I elicited no calls for international intervention or trials for crimes against humanity, and it has since been largely expunged from the record."(148) The contention that the American bombing has been "expunged from the record" is patently absurd. But what about the claim that there were no calls for intervention or trials?
In the New York Review of Books, March 28, 1971, New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan reviewed 33 books and reports which argued that American actions in Indochina constituted war crimes. Moreover, Sheehan argued that the reports were, overall, persuasive:
"If you credit as factual only a fraction of the information assembled here about what happened in Vietnam, and if you apply the laws of war to American conduct there, then the leaders of the United States for the past six years at least, including the incumbent President, Richard Milhous Nixon, may well be guilty of war crimes."(149)
Continuing, Sheehan wrote:
"The more perspective we gain on our behavior, the uglier our conduct appears. At first it seemed unfortunate and sad; we were caught in the quicksand of Indochina. Then our conduct appeared brutal and stupid... Now we're finding out that we may have taken life, not merely as cruel and stubborn warriors, but as criminals."(150)
Discussing the trial and conviction of Japanese general Tomoyuki Tamashita in 1946, Sheehan asks,
"Can a moral and legal distinction be drawn between those killings in World War II, for which General Yamashita paid with his life, and the civilian deaths ordered or condoned by American leaders during the Vietnam war? Again... the probable answer is, No. And President Nixon has spread this unrestricted bombing through Laos and Cambodia, killing and wounding unknown tens of thousands of civilians in those countries."(151)
The existence of roughly 30 books arguing that the US role in Indochina was a war crime, and the fact that these works were reviewed in NYRB, would seem to refute Chomsky and Herman's claim that were "no calls for international intervention or trials for crimes against humanity." Were Chomsky and Herman unaware of these books, and of Sheehan's article? Considering that one of the books Sheehan discussed was Chomsky's At War with Asia, it seems unlikely.
As the war progressed, the media did not shy away from an examination of the American role in Southeast Asia. Chomsky and Herman, however, assert that the devastation caused by the bombing of Cambodia was passed over in "silence."(152) Qualifying this claim later on, they acknowledge that there was "extensive media coverage" of Cambodia in 1973, but brush this aside by claiming that the "standard U.S. media picture" ignored the suffering of Cambodians and the damage inflicted on the country.(153)
It seems reasonable to assume that most readers will understand that massive bombing is likely to cause massive damage. More to the point, Schanberg's article, cited above, shows that Chomsky and Herman's characterization of the coverage is not necessarily accurate.
There are other indications, as well, that Chomsky and Herman are not accurately representing the nature of the media coverage. Discussing the effects of the bombing on civilians, for example, the authors refer to a General Accounting Office report stating that American and South Vietnamese bombing was "a very significant cause of refugees and civilian casualties." The interesting thing about this reference is that Chomsky and Herman do not actually cite the GAO report directly. Instead, their footnote refers to two articles from the New York Times, three days apart. In other words, their source is the media that they claim ignored the effects of the bombing.(154)
Were these articles an anomaly? A cursory review of the online archives of the New York Times suggests that they were not. For 1973 alone, a search for articles containing "Cambodia" in the article heading and "bombing" within the article body returns over 150 matches. Some sample headlines:
Heavy Bombing by U.S. Continues in Cambodia (Mar 24, 1973)
Nonetheless, Chomsky and Herman bemoan the coverage of the bombing, both during the war, and in subsequent years. Discussing the 1985 Times editorials on Cambodia, they complain that the devastation of the bombing campaign "passed into oblivion with no concern." (156) The authors refer to these editorials as evidence of their propaganda model:
"As for the United States, 'When Vietcong guerrillas used a neutral Cambodia as a sanctuary, it was pounded by American bombs and drawn into a war it hoped to avoid,' but that is all. In a later comment, the editors concede that 'murderous aerial bombing followed by brutal revolution, famine and civil war' brought Cambodia to ruin, but of all this, 'what cannot be sponged away are the Khmer Rouge's butcheries,' and the actions of Hanoi, which has 'subjugated and impoverished' Cambodia..."(157)
The items in single quotes, above, are direct excerpts from the articles in question. And yet these articles -- which describe Cambodia as having been "pounded by American bombs and drawn into a war," and which describe that bombing as "murderous" -- are cited as evidence that the American role in Cambodia's destruction is being overlooked.
One way to evaluate Chomsky's propaganda model might be to review the media coverage of Cambodia at different periods in the country's history. How did the coverage of Cambodia during the bombing compare to coverage of the Khmer Rouge regime?
According to Chomsky and Herman, the "flood of rage and anger directed against the Khmer Rouge" was "instant and overwhelming" and "peaked in early 1977."(158) Assessing the accuracy of this claim is an intimdating task. Fortunately, someone has done the work for us: Jamie Frederic Metzl, a Lecturer at the Harvard Law School, compiled an extensive catalog of media coverage of Cambodia for his study Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975-80. Metzl tallied articles in eight major newspapers: the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New Orleans Times Picayune, and Le Figaro.
There was indeed extensive coverage of Khmer Rouge regime in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Phnom Penh. Metzl's statistics, however, show a markedly different story than what Chomsky and Herman claim. Metzl noted 503 articles in April 1975, and then 554 articles in May, when the journalists who had been isolated in the French embassy finally made it to the Thai border and filed their reports on the evacutation, and when the freighter Mayaguez was seized in Cambodian waters. After these initial reports, however, Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge slowly faded from view, as the table below demonstrates.
At the beginning of 1977 -- the period when, according to Chomsky and Herman, coverage of the Khmer Rouge peaked -- Cambodia had in fact all but disappeared. In January 1977, there were 9 articles; then 13 in February, 29 in March, 16 in April, 20 in May, and 14 in June, when Chomsky and Herman's Nation article decried the "didacticism" of the media.
Metzl's analysis demonstrates that coverage of Cambodia typically spiked when there were events with an international angle: the Mayaguez affair, the brief visits by Scandinavian diplomats, the border fighting between Cambodian and Vietnam.(159) Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model, on the other hand, suggests that the crimes of official enemies will be highlighted, and crimes of the West will be downplayed. If this were true, one would expect that the number of articles discussing the crimes of the Khmer Rouge would exceed the number discussing the American bombing. Again, however, the Times archive shows otherwise: for 1977, for example, a search for articles containing "Cambodia" in the heading yields only 28 matches, far short of the 150+ articles that discussed the bombing in 1973.(160)
While the Khmer Rouge were in power, the predominant view in the editorial pages was that a terrible human rights tragedy was taking place... which, of course, it was. Nonetheless, the Khmer Rouge still had their defenders. Or did they? Chomsky and Herman argue that they didn't: citing a Time essay by David Aikman in July 1978, they quote Aikman's comment that "'there are intellectuals in the West so committed to the twin Molochs of our day - "liberation" and "revolution" - that they can actually defend what has happened in Cambodia.'" But, Chomsky and Herman continue, "No one was mentioned, for the simple reason that no one could be found to fit the bill, although Time did vainly attempt to elicit positive statements about the Pol Pot regime from antiwar activists to buttress this useful thesis."(161)
Regardless of whether or not Chomsky and Herman themselves intended to defend the Khmer Rouge regime, their claim that no intellectuals supported Pol Pot is plainly false. One prominent example - Malcolm Caldwell - was clearly known to Chomsky.
Did Caldwell's position on the Khmer Rouge change as more became known about the movement? Elizabeth Becker, who was with Caldwell in Cambodia on the night he was killed, does not seem to think so. On that night, Becker writes, "...Caldwell and I stayed at the table to have our last argument about Cambodia. Caldwell took what he considered the longer view and said the revolution was worthy." Following Caldwell's private meeting with Pol Pot, "[Caldwell] returned delighted with his time with Cambodia's leader... Pol Pot had personally invited Caldwell to return the following year to measure how the revolution had prospered."(162) "Malcolm Caldwell's death," Becker writes, "was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired."(163)
Similar blind spots appear when the media coverage runs counter to the dictates of the "propaganda model." Consider, for example, the following:
"Everyone knows about the war waged by the United States in Cambodia from 1970 to 1975. But very few people know about or understand the war that it is waging today against that country, which now calls itself Democratic Kampuchea. The was is being fought on many fronts. But it is mainly a propaganda war, a consciously organized, well-financed campaign to spread lies and misinformation about Kampuchea since the victory of its revolution in 1975.
"I was the first American to visit Kampuchea since April 17, 1975. What I saw has little in common with the stories told by so many journalists and other 'authorities' who have never been there...."
"The most slanderous of all charges leveled against Kampuchea is that of 'mass genocide,' with figures often cited running into the millions of people. I believe this is a lie, which certain opinion-makers in this country believe can be turned into a 'fact' by repeating it often enough."(164)
The passages above are from an editorial printed in the New York Times, November 21, 1978. The article was written by Daniel Burstein, an American communist who visited Cambodia for the newspaper The Call in 1978. The fact that a devoted Maoist was allowed to publish an op-ed piece in the Times is unmentioned in Chomsky and Herman's analysis. Examples of this selective amnesia abound, and at times they appear in articles which Chomsky and Herman cite in other contexts. Discussing the U.S. support for the recognition of the Pol Pot government, for example, Chomsky and Herman cite an article from the Washington Post by Elizabeth Becker. The title of the article? "U.S. Backs Mass Murderer." (165) One wonders how such headlines fit the propaganda model.
VI. Rewriting the History of Dissent
In spite of these omissions, Chomsky's faith in his propaganda model remains intact. Assessing their own work in hindsight, Chomsky and Herman claim that their Nation article was entirely accurate. "The conclusions drawn there remain valid. To our knowledge, no error or even misleading statement or omission has been found." They go on to describe that article as a "study that denounced Khmer Rouge atrocities," a description that will surely seem surreal to anyone who actually read it.(166) Discussing criticisms of the piece, Chomsky and Herman write that:
"In that article we were clear and explicit, as also subsequently, that refugee reports left no doubt that the record of Khmer Rouge atrocities was 'substantial and often gruesome,' and that 'in the case of Cambodia, there is no difficulty in documenting major atrocities and oppression, primarily from the reports of refugees.'"(167)
The Nation article, however, says no such thing. The quotes Chomsky and Herman cite are not from that article. They are from After the Cataclysm, which was published after the fall of the Pol Pot regime. There is no "clear and explicit" acknowledgement of "major atrocities and oppression" in the 1977 article, and Chomsky and Herman's later attempts to persuade readers otherwise seem deliberately dishonest.
Seeking to have their cake and eat it, too, Chomsky and Herman downplay their skepticism regarding the atrocities, but also insist that their doubts were entirely justified: "These skeptical assessments, almost entirely suppressed in the media, proved fairly accurate for the period in question."(168) Setting aside the question of whether or not their article was accurate, it is difficult to understand the basis for the claim that these "skeptical assessments" were "suppressed" when the The New York Times was printing op-ed articles by avowed communists.
On the subject of skepticism, Chomsky's willingness to rewrite history is at times startling. In the Z Magazine forum posting, cited earlier, Chomsky makes a number of claims which merit rebuttal:
"US intelligence and Ponchaud, as we quoted, took a much more skeptical position than we did on refugee reports, but anyone who is even marginally serious about the matter understands all this -- of course, not those who don't give a damn about the suffering that refugees report, but are merely using it as an ideological weapon, specifically, as a justification for brutal atrocities. Recall that that was exactly the crucial issue at the time, as charges about the KR and the Vietnamese, many of them fabrications at a level that would have impressed Stalin (as we demonstrated), were being used as a justification for US atrocities in Central America and elsewhere. But credible evidence of atrocities existed then, which is why we condemned the brutality and crimes of the Khmer Rouge, and a lot more evidence came to light after we wrote, and after the reports of Ponchaud and State Department intelligence that we cited..."(169)
Chomsky's claim that Ponchaud and the State Department took a more skeptical position with regard to refugee reports is sheer nonsense; it was Chomsky and Herman who claimed again and again that the refugee's claims were "unverifiable." And where was Chomsky's supposed condemnation of the brutality and crimes of the Khmer Rouge? There are offhand references to "major atrocities"(170) which were "substantial and often gruesome"(171) but no condemnation of that; instead, Chomsky suggests that the US is to blame for whatever the Khmer Rouge did.
Chomsky goes on to make another claim that is even more surprising:
"You might recall, perhaps, that we were probably the only commentators to rely on the most knowledgeable source, State Department intelligence. Our conclusion at the time was that it was probably the most reliable as well as by far the best informed, and subsequent revelations support that tentative judgment. They were avoided in the mainstream commentary because their conclusions didn't fit the propaganda line that was required to exploit the misery of the Cambodians to justify subjecting millions of other people to comparable misery, in Central America and elsewhere. Presumably that is also why the CIA demographic study of 1980, regarded as authoritative by US government specialists, is totally ignored..."(172)
The only commentators to rely on State Department intelligence? This is a revision worthy of Orwell's 1984. Attentive readers will recall exactly the opposite of what Chomsky claims: In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman blasted Barron and Paul's reliance on "specialists at the State and Defense Departments."
And what of the other claims regarding the CIA's demographic analysis? Exactly who regarded the 1980 study as "authoritative"? And exactly who ignored it?
Aside from the peculiar reversal regarding the State Department sources, Chomsky's criticism of Barron and Paul and Ponchaud has remained consistent over the years. His comments with regard to Hildebrand and Porter's book, however, have subtly changed. Unfortunately, his new position is no more accurate than his old one. In "Distortions at Fourth Hand," Chomsky had implied that Hildebrand and Porter's favorable picture of the Khmer Rouge was more accurate than Barron and Paul and Ponchaud. More recently, however, rather than defending the book, Chomsky simply misrepresents its content. In the earlier posting from the Z Magazine forums, Chomsky describes the book as "a heavily documented study of US atrocities,"(173) which is absurd. Starvation and Revolution is transparent propaganda, and very little of it is even concerned with the US role in Cambodia; it primarily a collection of absurd claims and fabricated statistics, largely provided by the Khmer Rouge themselves, on their marvelous progress in rebuilding Cambodia. The entire portion of the book concerned with US policy takes up less than 30 pages. Contrast this with William Shawcross's excellent book Sideshow, which, at nearly 500 pages, truly is a heavily documented study of US atrocities.
In recent years, however, Chomsky's attempts to downplay the atrocities committed during Pol Pot's reign have become more rare. Instead, Chomsky tends to shift focus to address other periods of Cambodian history. An article in The Scotsman in April 2002, illustrates this point nicely. The (supposed) subject of the article was the fact that Cambodian textbooks do not discuss the Pol Pot regime. The author, Matt Warren, seems to have predicated his story on the premise that the Khmer Rouge are not discussed in the books because Cambodia is "still reliant on western aid."(174) The premise is completely wrong (Discussions of the Khmer Rouge era are absent because many members of the current government were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge), but no matter: Chomsky is an ideal "expert" to support Warren's theory, and the Professor dutifully supplies remarks tailor-made for the occasion:
"The accepted view is that Cambodia was a gentle country of smiling Buddhists until the Khmer Rouge swept to power in April 1975. This is a fabrication," said Professor Noam Chomsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Manufacturing Consent, a book examining media misrepresentation of world affairs. "There were countless atrocities before 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and after 1979, when the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge, that are simply not mentioned. Why? Because the West was involved."
Chomsky goes on to add that:
"There is a Cambodian Genocide Act in [the US] Congress and it refers to crimes from 17 April, 1975, to 9 January, 1979," said Prof. Chomsky. "That is, it excludes the period when the US was supporting atrocities before and after Pol Pot."(175)
Thus, in an article which is supposedly about the Khmer Rouge regime not being discussed in Cambodian textbooks, we have Professor Chomsky studiously avoiding any discussion of the Khmer Rouge regime.
When Chomsky does discuss the Pol Pot years, it is generally to contrast media coverage of Cambodia with other atrocities. East Timor is Chomsky's favorite example; Chomsky attributes the appalling paucity of news coverage of massacres in East Timor to Indonesian government's status as a U.S. ally.
Meaningful comparisons between East Timor and Cambodia, however, are difficult to make for several reasons. The first difference is that the deaths in East Timor occurred during a war; the Timorese were slaughtered by an invading army. The deaths in Cambodia, however, occurred during peace: the Khmer were massacred by their own government as a matter of policy.
Moreover, the United States had been actively engaged in Cambodia for years. Hundreds of American lives were lost in Cambodia, and billions of dollars had been spent in a futile attempt to prop up Lon Nol.(176) The greater coverage of Cambodia in the American media is a direct consequence of the U.S. involvement in Indochina. This simple explanation, however, is ignored by Chomsky, presumably because it contradicts his propaganda model.
Reuters correspondent Bernard Melunsky noted another extremely simple explanation that influenced the amount of coverage given to Cambodia: in Cambodia, there was a clear frontier where the effects of the disaster were visible, and getting there required only a few hours in an air-conditioned taxi from Bangkok.(177)
Finally, there are other examples which demonstrate the shortcomings of Chomsky's propaganda model. In his thesis "The Khmer Rouge Canon," Sophal Ear argues that concurrent coverage of human rights violations in right-wing regimes in Chile and South Korea exceeded the coverage given to Cambodia.(178) Coverage of Cambodia peaked only after the Vietnamese invasion made the scale of the disaster undeniable.(179)
A quick review of the listings in the New York Times archives seems to support the claim that Chile received more coverage than Cambodia throughout most of the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1975, as Phnom Penh fell and the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, coverage of Cambodia overshadowed coverage of Chile. Cambodia found its way into Times headlines 200 times; Chile was in the headlines 107 times. In 1976, 1977, and 1978, however, Chile consistently drew more headlines than Cambodia. In 1976, there were 77 headlines concerning Chile, versus 35 for Cambodia. In 1977, Chile appeared in 71 headlines, and Cambodia appeared in 28; in 1978, there were 63 for Chile, and 52 for Cambodia. It was not until 1979, after Pol Pot was overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion, that coverage of Cambodia again eclipsed coverage of Chile: in that year, Cambodia appeared in 126 headlines, and Chile appeared in 51.(180)
It should also be understood that the magnitude of the repression in Cambodia is probably unrivalled in modern history. The horrendous death toll alone does not tell the whole story. Was the amount of coverage excessive? That is subjective; after all, there are no hard and fast rules governing just how much press one should devote to a government which kills upwards of 15% of its population in three and a half years, and enslaves virtually all of the survivors. To claim that press coverage of the atrocities in Cambodia was exaggerated, it's necessary to take one of two positions: either the atrocities were not widespread, or the atrocities were not newsworthy.
While Chomsky's comments on Cambodia are misleading and inaccurate, one important point must be borne in mind: The actions of the United States were largely responsible for the growth of the Khmer Rouge. But again, Chomsky cannot leave well enough alone: he pushes every theory too far, and paints every stroke with a brush that is too wide. Thus, he is not content to demonstrate that U.S. actions drove thousands (or even tens of thousands) of peasants to join the Khmer Rouge: the violent nature of the regime must also blamed on the Americans.
Chomsky is not alone in this respect. Several mainstream scholars and journalists, for example Kiernan and Shawcross, also accept this view. It is not, however, a position that stands up to examination. The essence of this argument is that the brutality of Khmer Rouge is a direct result of the violence of the U.S. bombing. A number of factors, however, demonstrate that there is no correlation between the two. Damage from air and artillery bombardment in Vietnam far exceeded that in Cambodia, but the Vietnamese communists never resorted to the level of violence of the Khmer Rouge. Laos, too, was subjected to bombing similar to that in Cambodia, and yet the Pathet Lao did not commit genocide.(181)
Meanwhile, genocide has occurred in several countries that were never carpet-bombed by B52s (Rwanda, for example). Moreover, extensive killing has occurred in countries which shared the Communist ideology of the Khmer Rouge (for instance, China during the Cultural Revolution). If we want to understand why governments kill -- regardless of whether that killing is perpetrated by the Right or the Left -- it is necessary to move beyond the simple-minded acceptance of whatever explanation conforms to our own biases. If the supposed cause (bombing) is sometimes present without the supposed effect (genocide)... and the supposed effect (genocide) is sometimes present without the supposed cause (bombing)... then we need to re-evaluate whether or not a cause-and-effect relationship exists.
The Khmer Rouge demonstrated their brutality long before the heaviest U.S. bombing; as early as 1971, captives were being tortured and murdered in a jungle prison known as M-13.(182) M-13 was, in essence, the forerunner of the infamous S-21 prison, more commonly known as Tuol Sleng. For those not familiar with Tuol Sleng, a statistic is in order: of roughly 20,000 persons incarcerated at the facility, there were seven survivors.(183) Tuol Sleng's existence was revealed in January, 1979.(184) Not surprisingly, there is no mention of Tuol Sleng in After the Cataclysm.
VII. You Are Either With Me...
One might expect that Chomsky would be willing to accept that his comments on Cambodia were inaccurate, or, at the very least, misinterpreted. If Chomsky would admit that his skepticism was misplaced, if he would admit that his deliberately one-sided account of Khmer Rouge Cambodia created a false impression of the regime, his actions would be easier to understand, and easier to forgive.
Yet he will not do this. Instead, he continues to insist that his work was completely accurate:
"I am very pleased that there has been such a hysterical reaction to these writings. They've been analyzed with a fine tooth comb to try to find some error, and to my knowledge, the end result is that not even a misplaced comma has been found. True, a lot of errors have been found in fabricated material attributed to me, but that's a sign of the desperation of the apologists for state violence. If you know of an exception, I'd appreciate it if you'd inform me. I haven't yet seen one."(185)
It is difficult to determine what Chomsky means when he refers to "fabricated material" that was attributed to him. Exactly what was fabricated, by whom, and when was it attributed to Chomsky?
The claim that his critics have unjustly vilified Chomsky is a mantra repeated again and again by Chomsky's supporters. Yet if Chomsky's critics have misrepresented his position, they are not alone: Chomsky himself seems quite willing to rewrite his own comments. During the question-and-answer period following a 1998 speech in New Zealand, for example, an audience member raised the question of Cambodia: "Do you think it was appropriate for Jean Lacouture to apologise in 1978 for having once disbelieved the reports indicating genocide by the Khmer Rouge. The same reports you once disbelieved, and for having once believed, like you, that the Khmer Rouge could in your words, play a constructive role in Cambodia?"
"Not my words," Chomsky replied. "...those are not my words. You're quoting from a review that Edward Herman and I wrote of several books on Cambodia and one of them, which was written in 1976 after a few months in which the Khmer Rouge had been in power, described them as playing a constructive role and we referred to that, just as we referred to what was reported in the other books."(186)
First, it should be noted that Hildebrand and Porter's book includes footnotes dated May 1976, so at the very least the Khmer Rouge had been in power for more than a year when the book was completed -- not "a few months." But more to the point, what about the words that Chomsky disowns? As noted earlier, this is a direct quote from "Distortions at Fourth Hand." ("The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an editorial entitled "Cambodia Good Guys" (November 22, 1976), which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role, as well as the notion that the United States had a major hand in the destruction, death and turmoil of wartime and postwar Cambodia.") The phrase "constructive role" does not appear in Hildebrand and Porter, nor does the it appear in Journal article.(187) So whose words are they? They were either Chomsky's, or Herman's. Perhaps what Chomsky meant was that they were not his sentiments. Readers of "Distortions" and After the Cataclysm, however, are likely to conclude otherwise.
Similar revisionism is apparent in a letter Chomsky wrote to the Wall Street Journal in September 1984: "I recommended Francois Ponchaud's study based on refugee testimony, praise which he acknowledges and reciprocates in the American edition of his book."(188)
Chomsky is alluding to Ponchaud's comments in the book's introduction, noted above. Putting aside the fact that Chomsky criticized Ponchaud far more than he praised him, one has to ask: Are Ponchaud's comments really reciprocated praise? On the contrary: Ponchaud's disappointment in Chomsky is palpable. It would seem that Ponchaud, like Lacouture, expected better from Chomsky.
Unable to accept criticism in any form, Chomsky adopts the same mindset as the policymakers he condemns: "You are either with me, or you are an enemy of everything that is good and decent." This attitude is in evidence in Chomsky's Znet forum message, noted earlier, in response to a question about Indochina. The questioner, apparently, had alluded to some Internet sites about Cambodia.(189) After claiming that the stories about communist atrocities "were being used as a justification for US atrocities in Central America and elsewhere,"(190) Chomsky continues:
"I should add that I don't pay attention to what appears on the internet sites that you are referring to... But if you do find this interesting, I'd suggest that you switch to sites that are at a similar intellectual level but a much higher moral level: I have in mind neo-Nazi and neo-Stalinist sites, which I presume exist. There I suppose you'll find very similar arguments: denunciations of those who condemned Nazi and Stalinist crimes on the basis of the terror and atrocities of resistance forces and the horrible aftermath of the defeat of fascism and the collapse of the USSR... But the neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists are on a far higher moral level, for the obvious reason: fortunately, they are in no position to exploit the terror of the resistance and the horrendous aftermath in order to justify, and carry out, terrible crimes. That is, they were unable to sink to the depravity of those whose sites you are reading, who exploit the suffering for which they share considerable responsibility in order to impose misery on others, to protect them from 'the Pol Pot left' in El Salvador (priests organizing peasants, for example), or from the 'Communists' elsewhere -- exactly as we wrote in the 70s, and as has been happening since."(191)
This, apparently, summarizes Chomsky's view of those who have criticized his stance on Cambodia: They are depraved. They are morally lower than neo-Nazis and Stalinists. They seek to justify and carry out terrible crimes. They are exploiting suffering, in order to impose misery on Central Americans. And, on top of everything else, Chomsky is making these allegations about people whose work he admits he does not read.
In Chomsky's condescending view, if the media was right about the Khmer Rouge, it was only because their "lies" happened to match the truth by pure coincidence. Considering the fact that the majority of reporters who were in Southeast Asia in the Seventies were opposed to US policy, this is not a very persuasive argument.(192)
There is enormous hypocrisy in Chomsky's accusation that his critics "don't give a damn about the suffering that refugees report" and "are merely using it as an ideological weapon." For twenty-five years, Chomsky's only interest in Cambodia has been his quest to represent the media coverage of genocide as manufactured propaganda. In other words, he has spent twenty-five years using it as an ideological weapon.
Rather than attempting to clarify his beliefs, Chomsky dismisses the accusations of support for the Khmer Rouge with typical sarcasm: "You've probably read it on the internet: the inventor of this amusing tale was David Horowitz."(193) Ad hominem attacks are fair game: Horowitz is labeled a "Stalinist."(194) Times reporter Sydney Schanberg is "a person of utter depravity." (195) Alan Dershowitz, who debated Chomsky on the Middle East, is described as "basically a clown."(196) New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who suggested that Chomsky did not believe the reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities, is "a coward" who chose to "hide under Mommy's skirt after he threw some shit at one of his enemies."(197) Chomsky's critics are, in his view, "commissars," intent on stifling dissent.(198)
Arrogance and self-righteousness undermine meaningful debate. Wouldn't Chomsky's message be more favorably received if he stated it diplomatically? Or if not diplomatically, at least objectively?
VIII. The Ministry of Counter-Propaganda
How did Chomsky wind up so consistently saying wrong things about Cambodia? One possible explanation is that Chomsky did not truly understand the nature of the Khmer Rouge until the massive exodus of refugees in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion made it impossible to ignore. In this view, Chomsky's errors are rooted in naivete, gullibility, and poor scholarship.
Chomsky is not an expert on Cambodia. He does, however, know enough about Cambodia to sound knowledgeable to people who know nothing at all. Still, how could he have so seriously misjudged the nature of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps it is a natural consequence of being a generalist. Chomsky writes about events all over the world. Can one person really understand all of the intricacies of the politics and history of any one country? Probably. But can one person understand the intricacies of ten countries? One hundred countries? Two hundred? No. There are conflicting accounts of the history of any country and any event. How can anyone without specialized knowledge of a given region evaluate which of those accounts is accurate? In Chomsky's case, he does not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather, he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be. He does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers "evidence" which supports his theories and ignores the rest. Furthermore, he does not subject sources he regards sympathetically to the same rigorous critical scrutiny that he applies to conflicting accounts.
Some have suggested that Chomsky's changing stance on Cambodia reflected his reaction to gradually accumulating evidence. That interpretation implies an objectivity that is absent in Chomsky's work. His writing reflects precisely the same sort of unthinking bias that he derides in the mainstream press. Consider, for example, his comments in October 2001, on the bombing of Afghanistan: Chomsky brazenly asserted that "what's happening is some sort of silent genocide... plans are being made and programs implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death several million people."(199) Why is he willing to predict (wrongly) a death toll in the millions before the fact in one instance, and unwilling to acknowledge a similar death toll after the fact in another instance?
It is also possible, however, that Chomsky did fully understand the nature of the Khmer Rouge... but acknowledging the magnitude of their crimes would have undermined the effectiveness of the example he needed to illustrate his theories of media bias. Faced with what he believed to be an onslaught of propaganda, Chomsky responded with his own barrage of counter-propaganda.
Propaganda is, by its nature, advocacy. The American Heritage dictionary defines propaganda as "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause." Chomsky often describes the Western media as propaganda. Yet Chomsky himself is no more objective than the media he criticizes; he merely gives us different propaganda.
Chomsky's supporters frequently point out that he is trying to present the side of the story that is less often seen. But there is no guarantee that these "opposing" viewpoints have any factual merit; Porter and Hildebrand's book is a fine example. The value of a theory lies in how it relates to the truth, not in how it relates to other theories. By habitually parroting only the contrarian view, Chomsky creates a skewed, inaccurate version of events. This is a fundamentally flawed approach: It is an approach that is concerned with persuasiveness, and not with the truth. It's the tactic of a lawyer, not a scientist. Chomsky seems to be saying: if the media is wrong, I'll present a view which is diametrically opposed. Imagine a mathematician adopting Chomsky's method: Rather than insuring the accuracy of the calculations, problems would be "solved" by averaging different wrong answers.
Describing the difference between good science and bad, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman stressed the importance of including all available evidence:
"Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it... In summary, the idea is to give ALL of the information to help others judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another."(200)
By contrast, consider the tactics employed by a devoted partisan. The partisan has already decided where her or his sympathies lie; the goal is to convince others to adopt the same position. Toward that end, a partisan will not concede anything, and will not encourage the examination of conflicting points of view. Seen in this light, the first step is to discredit conflicting accounts of any event. Arguments advanced for this purpose need not be consistent. If one reader decides that Barron and Paul are unreliable because they relied on government sources, fine; if another reader decides that Chomsky and Herman are reliable because they relied on government sources, that's fine, too. If one reader believes that the Khmer Rouge averted widespread starvation thanks to their ingenious irrigation projects, that's fine; if another reader believes that there was widespread starvation, but that it was due to the US bombing two years earlier, that's also fine.
Why are so many people persuaded by Chomsky's arguments? In large measure, this is because Chomsky is undeniably brilliant. As propagandists go, he is skillful and persuasive... or at least, persuasive to people whose only knowledge of the topic at hand comes from Chomsky himself.
Chomsky understands a critical axiom of sophistry: it's far better to mislead than to lie. Obfuscation is the propagandist's best friend. A skilled propagandist will not say, "Hildebrand and Porter's book shows that conditions under the Khmer Rouge were fairly good." Better to say that the book presents a "very favorable picture," to praise it as "carefully documented," and let the readers draw their own conclusions. Don't say, "Ponchaud's book presents a false picture of atrocities under the Khmer Rouge." Instead, simply say that this "grisly account" is "careless," and that "its veracity is therefore difficult to assess." And never forget the value of a good disclaimer: "We do not pretend to know where the truth lies..."
Naturally, Chomsky himself has spent a great deal of time considering the nature of propaganda. In an article entitled "Propaganda, American-style," he outlines his theory on how propaganda functions in a democracy:
"In totalitarian societies where there's a Ministry of Truth, propaganda doesn't really try to control your thoughts. It just gives you the party line. It says, 'Here's the official doctrine; don't disobey and you won't get in trouble. What you think is not of great importance to anyone. If you get out of line we'll do something to you because we have force.' Democratic societies can't work like that, because the state is much more limited in its capacity to control behavior by force. Since the voice of the people is allowed to speak out, those in power better control what that voice says -- in other words, control what people think. One of the ways to do this is to create political debate that appears to embrace many opinions, but actually stays within very narrow margins. You have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions -- and that those assumptions are the basis of the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, the debate is permissible."(201)
Now consider Chomsky's reaction to Christopher Hitchens, after Hitchens argued against any attempt to rationalize the September 11 attacks. Chomsky responded by claiming that "Hitchens cannot mean what he writes... We can therefore disregard it... Since Hitchens evidently does not take what he is writing seriously, there is no reason for anyone else to do so. The fair and sensible reaction is to treat all of this as some aberration..."(202)
In other words, Hitchens was not accepting the necessary assumptions; debate, therefore was not permissible, and Hitchens' remarks could be dismissed as an "aberration."
This is one of Chomsky's frequent tactics when confronted with a reasonable person who is saying things that Chomsky would rather not acknowledge: they are simply saying something that they don't mean, or don't believe. In After the Cataclysm, for example, commenting on Ponchaud's suggestion that the death toll in Cambodia might run into the millions, Chomsky and Herman suggest that "we wonder, frankly, whether Ponchaud really believes such figures."(203) The same strategy is apparent in their claims that Lacouture had never actually supported the Khmer Rouge, even though Lacouture himself stated quite unambiguously that he had.
Chomsky's attempts to limit the grounds of debate are also apparent when, in "Propaganda, American-style" he discusses the opposition to the Vietnam War:
"Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism... The device of feigned dissent (as practiced by the Vietnam-era 'doves,' who criticized the war on the grounds of effectiveness and not principle) is one of the more subtle means, though simple lying and suppressing fact and other crude techniques are also highly effective."(204)
What exactly does he mean by "feigned dissent"? Feigned by whom? The argument is absurd: It implies that those who were opposed to the Vietnam War were not really opposed to it if the grounds of their opposition was not the same as Chomsky's. Here again, Chomsky is trying to keep the debate within his own accepted assumptions: Dissent is allowed only if it falls within the narrow spectrum of the Party Line.
In this sense, Chomsky's strategy echoes the rigid dogmaticism of devout communists. Chomsky's detractors, in fact, often label the professor a communist. He isn't, but it should come as no surprise that his comments are interpreted that way. Adam Fifield, in his memoir about growing up with a Cambodian foster brother (A Blessing Over Ashes), noted that socialists on his college campus lured potential recruits with a copy of Chomsky's What Uncle Sam Really Wants. His own flirtation with socialism ended in the middle of a demonstration in 1991. Carrying the gold-and-red hammer and sickle banner, "... I realized that the bastards who had brutalized my brother had worshipped this flag." He deserted the march, leaving the flag on the curb.(205) One could argue that this is not Chomsky's fault. It does, however, demonstrate a flaw in the "counter-propaganda" model that Chomsky pursues. A one-sided criticism of an existing system lends itself to misuse by any opposing system, regardless of whether or not the opposing system is better or worse than what it seeks to replace.
His defenders often justify Chomsky's failure to criticize the "official" enemies on the grounds that these enemies are outside our sphere of influence. Certainly, we can exert more pressure on our own government than on the governments like the Khmer Rouge. And yet, the idea that we can do nothing about these abuses shows a poor understanding of international relations. In the case of Cambodia, many of Chomsky's supporters insist that nothing Chomsky said would have mattered anyway. "After all," the argument goes, "What could have been done to stop the Khmer Rouge? They were already diplomatically isolated. Nothing short of an invasion would have removed them from power, and the US never would have committed troops to Southeast Asia after the debacle in Vietnam."
Chomsky and Herman themselves make this argument in After the Cataclysm: "We stress again that in the case of Cambodia, as all observers of even moderate seriousness agree, what happened in the 1975-78 period under review, whatever it may have been, lay beyond our control..."(206)
Beyond our control? Yes. But beyond our influence? No. The Khmer Rouge could not have been removed peacefully, but this misses a crucial point: it is possible to affect the world without overthrowing governments. The consequences of world opinion extend beyond borders. Consider the situation of Khmer refugees in Thailand: Until the overwhelming volume of refugees made it impossible, the Thais simply jailed or repatriated the vast majority of refugees who managed to escape. Thousands died in these repatriations.(207) That policy was made possible in part by the world's refusal to accept the enormity of what was happening within Cambodia. Moreover, it was not only Cambodia that was affected by the outside world's perception of the Khmer Rouge. How many people were seduced by Maoism when that ideology was portrayed as the key to a tiny country's triumph over imperialism? Silence in the face of atrocities carries a price. To borrow Chomsky's own rhetoric, future victims of totalitarian savagery will not thank us for assisting in the campaign to maintain the public apathy.
Certainly there is merit to the idea that we should be more concerned with our own morality, rather than that of our enemies. But the wider implications of this seem to be lost on many of Chomsky's supporters: If we admire Chomsky -- if his viewpoint is "our" viewpoint -- then we should be deeply concerned with ensuring that it is fair and accurate. To influence policy, one has to be willing to speak up. But before speaking up, it is important to know something about the subject at hand.
Belief is a powerful force. It lets us see what we want to see. In A Cambodian Odyssey, the late Haing Ngor provides a glimpse of the illusion that drew in gullible Westerners:
"Sometimes, as I stood by the canal, hoe in hand, I had to admit that Angka, the Organization, had indeed reorganized the countryside. Before the takeover, nobody could have thought that the land would look as it did now, with thousands of people marching to work in orderly single-file lines. And Angka did more than set the tasks. It had provided a complete philosophy, parts of which were obviously true (the corruption under Lon Nol had indeed been terrible), and other parts of which appealed to patriotism (we needed to rebuild the country after the civil war). With loudspeakers attached to poles near the common kitchens, our new leaders blared a new music that carried far across the rice fields. And when I listened to that music, with its strong and vigorous beat, and when I saw the huge red flags flapping in the breeze and didn't look too closely at the lines of people, I found myself believing, for a least a few moments at a time, that the Khmer Rouge had done it. They had succeeded in remaking the country to their bold plan. They had erased the individual, except as a unit in a group. They had given us a new religion to devote ourselves to, and that religion was Angka.
"But when I looked more closely, the illusion fell apart. The people working in the canal were tired and malnourished and their clothes were torn. Just like me. Their hoes rose and fell slowly, without energy, and their faces expressed a terrible futility and sorrow.
"That's all it took, a moment's glance, to know that the country had turned in the wrong direction."(208)
Apologists, propagandists, and true believers rarely look twice. The lesson driven home by Chomsky's comments on Cambodia should be clear: Propagandists make poor teachers. Which teaches us more: sophistry, or history?
IX. Acknowledgements, Links, and End Notes
The opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone, and I would like to stress that the people listed here do not necessarily agree with my opinions. Some, in fact, strongly disagree with my conclusions. However, they have all provided thoughtful criticisms and valuable information, and they all deserve thanks: Steve Denney, Sophal Ear, Nathan Folkert, Dan Clore, John Kenneth Rucell, Brian Turner, Timothy Tantivithiwate, Rich Holdren, James Donald, and Charles Kalina. Thanks also to Aaron Swartz for pointing out an error in the original posting of this document. And special thanks to my sister Maureen for retrieving several ancient articles from the Purdue University library.
On the subject of general scholarly perceptions of the Khmer Rouge, Sophal Ear's thesis, The Khmer Rouge Canon, provides a very detailed analysis. The subject of Chomsky and Cambodia is a frequent topic in Internet newsgroups, particularly in alt.fan.noam-chomsky. (Messages from that group are available in the Google archives. There are several other Internet sites that discuss Chomsky's work on Cambodia. I do not necessarily agree with the viewpoints expressed on the sites linked here, but they do provide a glimpse of the nature of the debate on Chomsky's work. At the two extremes are articles by Dan Clore and James Donald, both of whom are frequent participants in Chomsky newsgroup. Donald's site is entitled Chomsky Lies. Clore's rebuttal is Contortions at First Hand: James Donald on Noam Chomsky. A less acrimonious debate, between John Kenneth Rucell and myself, is archived on this site; there are a total of seven articles, beginning with Evil Scholars? Cambodia and the Media. As noted in the Final Thoughts article, written years after the debate took place, some of my own opinions have changed over time.
Many of the criticisms available on the Internet are little more than conservative rants. There are, however, some thoughtful critiques as well. Bradford DeLong's short essay My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky summarizes the problems with Chomsky's approach to history. Russil Wvong's excellent Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review discusses some of these shortcomings in greater detail. Mick Hartley's blog includes an interesting essay on Chomsky, drawing parallels between Chomsky's work in linguistics and his political theories. Paul Bogdanor's The Chomsky Hoax includes links to a few of Bogdanor's critical articles, and links to many other critiques, as well.
Naturally, Chomsky has many defenders. In 1985, Christopher Hitchens wrote an impassioned defense of Chomsky's work, entitled "The Chorus and the Cassandra". (My response to Hitchen's article is available on this site, at www.mekong.net/cambodia/hitchens.htm.) Josh Buermann's site, Flagrancy to Reason has a fairly lengthy article about Chomsky, with an impressive array of links to other resources. Buermann is highly critical of my own article about Chomsky and Herman; he discusses "Averaging Wrong Answers" and other critiques of Chomsky's Cambodia writings in an article entitled The Hollow Khmer-Chomsky. (Buermann's article was written in reply to an earlier version of this article, which did not include the section "Apples, Oranges, and Myopia," dealing primarily with Manufacturing Consent. That version of this article is archived at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/archive/chomsky.htm.) My response to Buermann's complaints is at www.mekong.net/cambodia/buermann.htm.
More generally, there are several sites that offer good selections of Chomsky's work. The official Noam Chomsky site is at www.chomsky.info. Many of Chomsky's articles are archived on the Z Magazine website, in The Noam Chomsky Archive. Additionally, Patrick Jennings has gathered a good collection of material on Chomsky at the eJournal Noam Chomsky Resources site.
Lastly, a not-quite-related note: anyone who believes the misrepresenting the truth is the sole province of the Left might want to take a look at an analysis of Michelle Malkin's writings.
In an exchange on his blog in December 2006, Chomsky commented on a very brief excerpt from the above article; although the article is now available only to users who have set up an account at ZMag, the original version is still accessible in the Wayback Machine archive at http://web.archive.org/web/20070108021102/http://blog.zmag.org/node/2890. My response is posted on this site, in the article entitled (what else?) My Response to Noam Chomsky.
(*) This paragraph has been amended. Originally, the fourth sentence read: "...conveniently ignoring the overall theme of his articles." A reader criticized this statement on the basis that Chomsky's primary theme concerns media bias, and not conditions inside Cambodia. This is, I believe, a fair criticism, and I've amended the text to reflect this. The discussion which sparked this change began in a thread on the blog Deltoid, and continued in a second thread.
(2) Chomsky's comments from a March 2002 Znet forum posting; available in the Google archive at http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(5) Caldwell, Malcolm and Lek Tan: Cambodia in the Southeast Asian War, p. xi.
(6) Angka and Angkar are different transliterations of the same Khmer term.
(7) Chomsky, Noam, and Herman, Edward: "Distortions at Fourth Hand," The Nation, June 25, 1977.
(10) Hildebrand, George, and Porter, Gareth: Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, Monthly Review Press, 1976, p. 97.
(11) ibid., p.86
(12) ibid., p. 88
(13) ibid., p. 56
(14) Ponchaud, Francois: Cambodia Year Zero, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978, p. 21.
(15) Kiernan, Ben: The Pol Pot Regime, pp. 48-49
(16) Ponchaud, pp. 6-7.
(17) "What Happened to Cambodia?" CBS, 1978. I'm uncertain of the exact air date of this program. I'm grateful to Ronnie Yimsut for providing a copy of the tape.
(18) Chomsky and Herman, "Distortions"
(19) Hildebrand and Porter, pp. 122-124
(20) Few sources provide a year-by-year estimate of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime. It seems certain, however, that the toll had, at the very least, exceeded 100,000 by the end of the first year of the regime. Combining Kiernan's estimate of 20,000 deaths during the evacuation of Phnom Penh with the CIA's estimate of 80,000 executions for the period from April 1975 to January 1976, we arrive at a figure of 100,000, without even considering the toll from starvation and disease. Although statistics provided by the Khmer Rouge are naturally suspect, two of the regime's estimates merit examination: in The Pol Pot Regime, Kiernan notes that, in March 1976, Phnom Penh radio estimated the population at about 7.74 million, a decrease of more than 160,000 from the generally-accepted 1975 figure of 7.9 million. This decrease would presumably include losses due to both deaths and refugees. By August 1976, the regime's own estimate had declined to roughly 7.33 million, a decrease of nearly 570,000 (p. 457). The estimate of 1.2 million deaths, cited by Ponchaud, dates from 1977.
(21) Chomsky and Herman, "Distortions"
(26) Regarding the term "invalides de guerre": I have not seen the French version of the book, but Lacouture cites this French phrase specifically in his review. The English translation of Ponchaud's book states, quite unambiguously, "On the first anniversary of the liberation, April 17, 1976, the authorities of Kampuchea declared 800,000 dead and 240,000 disabled as a result of the war." (Ponchaud, p. 71)
(27) Chomsky and Herman, "Distortions"
(29) Ponchaud, Year Zero, p. xiii
(30) Chomsky, Noam, and Herman, Edward: The Political Economy of Human Rights - Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, p. 299
(31) ibid., p. 299
(32) ibid., pp. 150-151
(33) ibid., p. 260
(34) ibid., p. viii
(35) Ponchaud, p. 35
(36) Shawcross, William: The Quality of Mercy, p. 283
(37) Chandler, David: "Introduction: 'Report of Activities of the Party Center According to the General Political Tasks of 1976,'" in Pol Pot Plans the Future, p. 198
(38) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. ix
(39) ibid., p. xi
(40) ibid., p. 135
(41) ibid., p. 136
(42) ibid., p. 279
(43) ibid., p. 285
(44) ibid., p. 245
(45) ibid., p. 251
(46) ibid., p. 243
(47) ibid., p. 243
(48) ibid., p. 257
(49) ibid., p. 257
(50) ibid., p. 267
(51) ibid., p. 282
(52) ibid., p.284
(53) ibid., p. 273
(54) ibid., p. 278
(55) ibid., pp. 278-279
(56) ibid., p. 279
(57) Ponchaud, pp. xii-xiv
(58) ibid., p. xiv
(59) Lacouture, Jean: "Cambodia: Corrections," New York Review of Books, May 26, 1977.
(60) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 149
(61) This quotation comes from one of Chomsky's posts in the Z Magazine ZNet ChomskyChat Forum. The precise date of the post is not given, but the forums first appeared online in 1995. The article is available in the site's achive, at http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm
(62) This quotation also appeared in the ZNet Forum. A transcript of Chomsky's reply was posted to the alt.fan.noam-chomsky newsgroup: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=36ACFC7A.3565%40columbia-center.org&rnum=2
(63) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 256
(64) ibid., p. 24
(65) Aside from Chomsky's allusion to "liberation" in his introduction to Caldwell's book, he uses the term again in "Distortions" and also in Cataclysm (For example, see pages 198 and 293). It should be noted that Ponchaud also uses this term, a fact which hints at his sympathy for the revolutionaries... sympathy which Chomsky and Herman deny that he had.
(66) Lacouture, Jean: "Cambodia: Corrections"
(67) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 151
(68) ibid., p. 150
(69) ibid., p. 152
(70) ibid., p. 156
(71) ibid., p. 156
(72) ibid., p. 158
(73) The Vietnamese launched their invasion on December 25, and captured Phnom Penh by January 7. See Nayan Chanda's Brother Enemy, pp. 341-346.
(74) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 160
(75) ibid., p.162
(76) Shawcross, William: "The Third Indochina War," New York Review of Books, April 6, 1978
(77) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 65
(78) ibid., p. 66
(79) ibid., p.237
(80) ibid., p. 237
(81) Swain, Jon: River of Time, pp. 159-160
(82) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p.188
(83) ibid., p. 371
(84) ibid., p. 371
(85) ibid., pp. 251-252
(86) Kiernan, Ben: The Pol Pot Regime, p. 80
(88) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, pp. 187-190
(89) ibid., p. 188
(90) ibid., p. 195
(91) ibid., p. 197
(92) ibid., p. 197
(93) ibid., p. 198
(94) ibid., p. 195
(95) ibid., pp. 144-5
(96) ibid., pp. 226-227
(97) I have not seen the entire text of the BCAS article; Sophal Ear was kind enough to provide this and other quotes from the article in personal communication.
(98) Kiernan, Ben: Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1941 - 1982, p. 314
(99) Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p. 464
(100) ibid., p. 167-8
(101) Becker, Elizabeth: When the War Was Over, pp. 250-251
(102) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 287
(103) Becker, pp. 433-436, pp. 447
(104) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 207
(105) I have not seen this article, but the reference comes from Chomsky and Herman themselves: "Elizabeth Becker objects that they 'pepper their book with facile polemics,' turning it 'into a Cold War propaganda piece.' (p. 242) Their source for the quote is the Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 30, 1978, but they note that the article was "reprinted from the Washington Post." (p. 373)
(106) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 292
(107) ibid., p. 300
(108) ibid., p. 225
(109) ibid., p. 161-162
(110) ibid., pp. 218-219
(111) ibid., p. 291
(112) Chomsky and Herman, Manufacturing Consent, p. 268
(113) ibid., pp. 263-264
(114) Porter and Hildebrand, pp. 28-29
(115) Manufacturing Consent, p. 279
(116) Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p. 450
(117) See, for example, Chomsky's comments on Columbia (http://www.colombiasupport.net/200004/znet-chomsky-0424.html) and Turkey (http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=40&ItemID=2938), where human rights violations are described as "US-backed state terror."
(118) Manufacturing Consent, p. 262
(119) ibid., p. 383, note 26
(120) ibid., p. 388 note 104
(121) ibid., p. 290
(122) ibid., pp. 262, 271
(123) Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy, p. 49
(124) Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 390
(125) ibid., p. 434
(126) ibid., p. 14
(127) Manufacturing Consent, p.262
(128) The Quality of Mercy, p. 376
(129) It is worth noting that Kiernan himself is far more hostile than Shawcross in describing the relief effort; Kiernan, in fact, called the aid "support" for "Pol Pot." In an article entitled "Denying Peace in Cambodia," Kiernan quotes authors Linda Mason and Roger Brown: "The US Government, which funded the bulk of the relief operation on the border, insisted that the Khmer Rouge be fed.'" They add, 'When World Relief started to push its proposal for aid to the Khmer Rouge, the US was supportive, though behind the scenes... the US preferred that the Khmer Rouge operation benefit from the credibility of an internationally-known relief organisation.'" ("Denying Peace," p. 8. My copy of the article is undated, but it appears to be from late 1990.)
(130) Manufacturing Consent, p. 276
(131) ibid., pp. 276-277
(132) ibid., p. 277
(133) ibid., p. 278
(134) Schanberg, Sydney, "A Cambodian Landscape: Bomb Pits, Rubble, Ashes," New York Times, May 24, 1973
(139) Manufacturing Consent, p. 278
(140) Power, Samantha: A Problem From Hell, Perennial Books, New York, 2002, pp. 98-99
(141) http://www.prixbayeux.org/liste_pays.php3?pays=Cambodia . This site's account of Koki's disappearance (http://www.prixbayeux.org/fiche.php3?ref=965) says that he was captured in a guerrilla-held area north of Phnom Penh in October 1973, and that he died in captivity on January 20, 1974, of a stomach disorder.
(143) Central Intelligence Agency (National Foreign Assessment Center): "Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe," 1980. This report is available online at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/demcat.htm. Nathan Folkert addresses some of Chomsky's claims about this report in a separate article on this site: Noam Chomsky on the CIA Demographic Catastrophe Report. In addition to the errors Folkert notes, it's also worth mentioning that Chomsky claims that "the CIA study was completely suppressed" (http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm). Suppressed? Anyone who wanted a copy could purchase the report from the CIA.
(145) Etcheson, Craig: "The Number: Quantifying Crimes Against Humanity in Cambodia," available online at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/toll.htm. Etcheson's own estimates of the death toll were provided in personal communication.
(146) Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(147) Central Intelligence Agency: "Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe"
(148) Manufacturing Consent, p. 262
(149) Sheehan, Neil, "Should We Have War Crime Trials?" New York Review of Books, March 28, 1971
(152) Manufacturing Consent, p. 262
(153) ibid., p. 274
(154) ibid., pp. 272, 385
(155) New York Times article archive, online at http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/nytimes/advancedsearch.html. The headlines listed here were returned as matches to a query for articles including "Cambodia" in the article heading, and "bombing" in the article body, for the year 1973. A complete list of the Times articles for 1973 can be seen on this site at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/nyt73.htm.
(156) Manufacturing Consent, p. 280
(157) ibid., p. 280
(158) ibid., pp. 280-281
(159) Metzl, p.193
(160) Article title counts from the Times archive should be regarded as approximate. Articles frequently appear more than once, and occasionally the same article will appear listed under two different titles. Nonetheless, although the totals are imprecise, they do accurately demonstrate the relative amount of coverage for various events. In this instance, the figure cited for 1973 - more than 150 articles - represents the results of the search after duplicate results have been discarded.
(161) Manufacturing Consent, p. 289
(162) Becker, When the War was Over, p. 426-427
(163) ibid., p. 430
(164) Burstein, Daniel, "On Cambodia: But, Yet," New York Times, November 21, 1978
(165) Manufacturing Consent, p. 387. Becker's article appeared in the Post on May 22, 1983.
(166) Manufacturing Consent, pp. 281-282
(167) ibid., p. 293
(168) ibid., p. 281
(169) Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(170) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p.135
(171) ibid., p. 136
(172) Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(174) Warren, Matt: "Cambodia Finally Bringing Past to Book," The Scotsman, April 16, 2002. Article is available online at http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=a9p95j%24475%241%40pencil.math.missouri.edu&rnum=1
(177) Cited in Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy, p. 169. Regarding comparisons with East Timor, Charles Kalina has noted that there are other examples that fail to conform to Chomsky's propaganda model; for an overview, see http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=6jik9m%24lm1%241%40nnrp1.dejanews.com&rnum=1
(179) In his undergraduate thesis, discussing media coverage of the Khmer Rouge, Timothy Tantivithiwate uses the Chicago Tribune to demonstrate the trends in media coverage of Cambodia. In 1975, there were 167 articles about Cambodia. By contrast, in 1976, there were only 13. In 1977 (the year that Chomsky began claiming that Cambodia was the subject of a massive propaganda blitz), there were only 20 articles. In 1978 and 1979, however, coverage increased drastically. Tantivithiwate does not cite a precise figure for 1978, but he notes that Cambodia "became a popular topic" in the paper, and that articles "appeared numerous times a month during all twelve months of the year." He does not provide an exact count, but does state that the following year (1979) was "an even busier year for the printing presses," with a total of 131 articles.
(180)The Times archives are available online (http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/nytimes/advancedsearch.html), and they can be searched by headline, author, or topic. The figures cited from the New York Times are indicative of general tendencies, but they should certainly not be interpreted as definitive. The number of headlines in the cited totals include all references to the countries in question, and not only articles discussing human rights. Attributing the amount of coverage entirely to ideological concerns ignores the numerous other factors that affect coverage of any given event. Concurrent events would be one example; an article about a faraway country is unlikely to merit much space if a major domestic news story is unfolding at the same time. Logistics is another example; in the case of Cambodia, one could argue that the inability of journalists to actually enter the country contributed to the diminished coverage in 1976 and 1977, when the number of NYT headlines on South Korea exceeded the number on Cambodia. These examples highlight the questionable methodology of Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model, as well as the partisan media analysis of groups such as FAIR and AIM.
(181) About two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, and about 2.7 million tons were dropped Cambodia. The tonnage dropped on North and South Vietnam would be on the order of five or six million tons. (Source: http://home.earthlink.net/~aircommando1/Vietnam.htm, citing The Vietnam War Day by Day by John S. Bowman.) (Note: an earlier version of this article stated that more bombs were dropped on Laos. Recent research indicates that the bombing of Cambodia was heavier than previously believed, and may have exceeded the bombing in Laos; for details, see http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2006.10-history-bombing-cambodia/.
(183) Kiernan, Ben: The Pol Pot Regime, p. 464
(184) Tuol Sleng known to the outside world in January 1979: Chandler, David, Voices from S-21, p. viii
(185) Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(186) Transcript of Chomsky's remarks at the Opera House, Wellington, New Zealand, 10 November 1998; available online at http://www.geocities.com/ubinz/IR/items/19981110ChomskyNZ.html
(187) As a side note, Chomsky's claim that this article "dismissed contemptuously the very idea" that the U.S. had a hand in the destruction of Cambodia is, again, untrue. The article's sole reference to the U.S. role is to summarize Porter and Hildebrand's assertion that press coverage of the evacuation was "distorted by the U.S. government... to draw attention away from its own crimes in bombing the rural population." The article summarizes Porter's arguments quite accurately: "[T]he Khmer Rouge are just a bunch of misunderstood Cambodian good guys, international boy scouts who do good deeds not by helping little old ladies cross the street, but by compassionately helping a while population across a country." Source: "Cambodian Good Guys," Wall Street Journal, November 22, 1976.
(188) Chomsky's letter to the Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1984, quoted online at www.abbc.com/totus/CGCF/file14chomsky.html. (I prefer not to link directly to the site in question, as it appears to be an anti-semitic site. It should be stressed, however, that the article in question is entirely unrelated to the overall content of the site.)
(189) Chomsky's response was posted to the alt.fan.noam-chomsky Internet newsgroup. The full text of the original question, however, was not posted. The question apparently concerned the testimony of refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam.
(190) Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(192) This is based on anecdotal evidence; I'm unaware of the existence of any formal surveys of the correspondents in question. Among the memoirs supporting this view: Robert Sam Anson's War News, John Laurence's The Cat From Hue, Tim Page's Page After Page, Jon Swain's River of Time. That correspondents referred to the official U.S. daily briefing from Saigon as "The Five O'Clock Follies" indicates that the government's credibility was extremely low. This skepticism apparently began fairly early in the war. In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Bitter Heritage, published in 1967, Schlesinger notes that reporters rarely believed the Diem government's official claims: "They stopped believing Diem's communiques; and, when Harkins and Nolting kept insisting they were true, they stopped believing Harkins and Nolting. Their picture of South Vietnam differed from the official reports by about 180 degrees." (p. 42).
(193) Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1
(197) "Unfit to print: Noam Chomsky and the New York Times," Chicago Media Watch Newsletter, August 1997, http://web.archive.org/web/19981202225344/http://www.mediawatch.org/chicago/chomsky.html
(200) Feynman, Richard: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, p. 341
(201) Chomsky, Noam: "Propaganda, American-style," available online at http://www.zpub.com/un/chomsky.html
(202) Chomsky, Noam: "Reply to Hitchens," The Nation, posted to the Nation website on October 1, 2001. Available online at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20011015&s=chomsky20011001. Hitchens, incidentally, was one of Chomsky's ardent defenders on the issue of Cambodia. His article "The Chorus and the Cassandra" is available on the Z Magazine website. A response to Hitchen's "Cassandra" article is available on this site.
(203) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 290
(204) Chomsky, Noam: "Propaganda, American-style"
(205) Fifield, Adam: A Blessing Over Ashes
(206) Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 293
(207) For an overview of Thai policy and the repatriations, see William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy, pp. 82-93; for a harrowing, firsthand account of one such repatriation, see JoAn Criddle and Teeda (Thida) Mam: To Destroy You Is No Loss, pp. 246-263.
(208) Ngor and Warner, A Cambodian Odyssey, pp. 200-201.
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