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Evil Scholars? John Rucell's Final Rebuttal

by John Kenneth Rucell

Note: This is the sixth in a series of seven articles.

From: rucell@psu (John Kenneth Rucell)
Date: 18 Jun 1995 09:03:06 GMT

Sorry that my reply is so delayed. It will be my last post on the topic, so you can have the last word; I apologize in advance for any ignorance of the facts in Cambodia; almost all the books at my institution's library on Cambodia are out.

Regarding the Mayaguez affair, I think you should try to take a more detached point of view. Even on your summary of the affair, I think that incredible (if not insane) viciousness is an accurate description of the US response, to an incident of a sort which happens constantly and is hardly thought worthy of comment, all the time, all over the world. If one reads the entirety of newspapers like the New York Times, one often finds tiny wire service micro-items buried in the middle of the paper on similar incidents, none of which are responded to by bombing, even in the case of a lack of response for all of two days. How can such a response be justified, if as is quite obvious, doing nothing would have saved 41 American lives and countless Cambodians. I think your dislike of the Khmer Rouge colors your view here. The Khmer Rouge had a week earlier intercepted a Panamanian and a South Korean boat, and then released the crews and ships. Kissinger said that the US decided to use military force in order to avoid "a humiliating discussion," (Quoted in Chomsky, Towards A New Cold War) which was what was required by US law.

I do not believe you can make a case... Again with regards to the coverage, I believe I have much better reason to think that you are misled than you have to believe I am mistaken. You are trying to persuade me that I did not see things that I clearly remember seeing, whereas I am trying to get you to doubt the truthfulness of what you have read. In any case, the issue could easily be resolved by your going to a library and looking at old issues of newsmagazines, perhaps starting with the ones Chomsky quotes. To expand in boring detail on what I remember: I clearly remember a great deal of media coverage on the Khmer Rouge genocide for years previous to the Vietnamese invasion. I remember having the same feeling as was expressed in much of the later coverage, that the invasion was a good thing because it would take Cambodia out of the hands of the Khmer Rouge - something which, one should note, presupposes substantial prior exposure. In my subjective opinion, the later coverage was not as extensive as the earlier coverage, reflect the greatly increased access to Cambodia; Cambodia was an old and very well covered story and Note that what you originally said, quoted below, was not whether the coverage was appropriate to the size of the crimes, something which is imponderable, except by making comparisons to other situations (East Timor, post-invasion coverage,etc.) but that coverage was more or less absent (as Shawcross states). I call him a liar, because he knowingly states things he, and I know to be false. You may disagree with me as to the facts, but I hope you agree that, granted my version's accuracy, he is indeed a liar.

Bruce Sharp wrote:
>In addition to his initial skepticism regarding the reports of
>genocide, he has also misrepresented the nature of the media
>coverage during the years when the Khmer Rouge were in power.
> ... but to my recollection there was very little written about
>Khmer Rouge atrocities until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979,
>when war, famine and chaos sent hundreds of thousands of
>starving, brutalized refugees into Thailand. It was then... and only
>then... that Cambodia became a cover story in the mainstream media.
>William Shawcross, I think, summed up the sudden flurry of
>interest rather nicely, dryly observing that journalists
>could report on a holocaust after enduring nothing more trying than a
>three-hour ride from Bangkok in an air-conditioned taxi.

You also used Sophal's thesis to buttress the claim of relatively little media coverage, which he does (falsely) claim in chapter 4.

Chomsky and Herman comment p.344 of After the Cataclysm (ATC hereafter) "As one indication of the power of the US propaganda system, consider a study of the "Ten Best Censored Stories of 1977"... [done by a group which might be generally identified as being on the left - at least it's not AIM!] (which)... selected "Massacre in Cambodia and Vietnam" as one of the ten best censored stories. Putting aside any question as to the facts of the matter, this story does not even merit consideration in a study of "censorship," given the actual media coverage."

Bruce Sharp writes:
> Ben Kiernan, whom I consider to be the foremost authority on the
> Khmer Rouge reign, ...
> ...
> There are better works [than Vickery's] by Kiernan, David Chandler,
> Karl Jackson, and others.

It is illogical of you to both criticize Chomsky and to hold this view of Kiernan's work, since not only do a significant amount of the facts and "doubts" presented in ATC come from Kiernan (pp 226-229), but they also thank Kiernan (p.343) "for information and comments on an earlier draft of their work." They also quote extensively from Chandler pp.211-215, who seems as much a refugee-account denier as they are - that is not at all, but just rational people trying to look at all the evidence.

I quote C & H quoting and summarizing Kiernan:

"In several studies, Kiernan suggested a picture of early postwar events in Cambodia that is rather different from what has been featured by the press. Specifically, he took issue with horror stories published by TIME (26 April, 1976), which alleged that 500-600,000 people had died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge,..Like others, he notes that most of the atrocity stories come from areas of little Khmer Rouge strength, where orders to stop reprisals were disobeyed by soldiers wreaking vengeance.. He discusses the fake photographs, and gives examples of fabrications of atrocity stories by refugees "in order to persuade the Thai border police to admit them." He also deals with other fabrications that have appeared in the Western press. He questions the assumption that there was central direction for the 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. His conclusions are based in part on interviews with refugees in Thai camps, and like Vickery in Thailand and Fraser in Vietnam, he reports quite a range of refugee judgments on the nature of the regime."

Chomsky and Herman also detail on pp294-295 of Manufacturing Consent how the same Ben Kiernan caught Shawcross telling a rather pathetic fib, misrepresenting what he, Kiernan, had translated for Shawcross.

Still on the issue of Shawcross's veracity, note his statement, quoted in Chomsky's recent "World Orders, Old and New" "that he was so horrified by what the Khmer Rouge were doing from 1975 that 'I decided to write a book about it. It became Sideshow.' " (Quoted from New York Review of Books, 8/12/93) [Of course, this book is about US atrocities, not Khmer Rouge ones!]

Finally, if you read Kiernan's introduction to "Genocide & Democracy in Cambodia", it seems that he is clearly not in the camp of "those scholars, journalists, and human rights advocates who have spent years studying Cambodia" who have felt (justified?) anger toward him; he rather gingerly touches upon this controversy, but mentions "an egregious attack on Chomsky .." in the footnotes.

(Looking at this volume, one sees that at least part of the remaining dispute on the numbers is due to rather imponderable and scholastic disputes over the pre-Khmer Rouge population of Cambodia, the higher death numbers being in part due to a higher estimate of the previous population, with the differences over the percentage of deaths being therefore smaller; there does not seem to be as great a difference between Vickery's point of view and others as you seemed to imply.)

(Looking at the earlier volume, Revolution and its Aftermath in Kampuchea, one sees that Anthony Barnett, who argues for the central direction of all the massacres, against the tendency of Chomsky and Herman, defends them and shares their view of "the opportunist character of some of the most famous reports about post-1975 Cambodia.")

> I would point out that the worst massacres in Cambodia occured
> in 1975, immediately after the Khmer Rouge came to power.?

From what I can find, this does not appear to be the case, or is at least not clearly the truth. As Kiernan was, I believe, the first to point out, the early massacres were at their worst in the Northwest in areas of perhaps little Khmer Rouge strength, while the later and what he calls the "single worst atrocityones, were mainly in the east and were centrally directed by the Khmer Rouge, in the context of intraparty fighting and anti-non-Khmer racism. Note of course that they occurred after Chomsky's ONLY publication during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, the Nation book review of 1977, and were not covered in ATC (written by 2/79) because of the nonavailability of reports of these atrocities (which Kiernan date as occurring from May to November 1978) until after the Vietnamese invasion, and because the focus of the book is on the years 1976-77.

Much of the criticism of Chomsky perpetrated by Shawcross is insane in its presupposition, that one book review, agreeing that substantial atrocities ocurred, could have silenced the West or had any real effect.

>For Chomsky to have chosen to cast doubt on the stories of the
>refugees while the Khmer Rouge were in power was inopportune at best.
>If, through honest errors, Chomsky had supported the Khmer Rouge,

First, it is unjust to call him a supporter of the Khmer Rouge based on any of the statements you quoted.

Second, it is not just either to say that he was "casting doubt on the story of refugees," and he did not "feel compelled to call them liars." Much of ATC consists of descriptions of refugee reports, including ones of atrocities, but also including other ones, by refugees and others on the scene - e.g. a Vietnamese man who walked across Cambodia at the time, and who did not report the crimes that others did. From what I can gather, the scholarly consensus is now that the brutality varied from place to place and time to time, the highest death estimates being made by incorrectly generalizing what happened in the worst areas to the whole country, or were just made up out of thin air, by the less careful like Barron & Paul and Shawcross. This is pretty much what Chomsky and Herman guessed.

Part of their own summary on refugee reports is: (ATC p.147)

"To evaluate refugee reports it is necessary to take into account extreme bias both in selection of stories and treatment of them. The apparent uniformity of refugee testimony is in part at least an artifact reflecting media bias. "

Most of their statements on the need to exercise care in examining refugee reports is in the form of quotations from experts, some who would meretriciously later criticize them. e.g.:

(p.142, ATC) "Ponchaud, who is more serious, describes the treatment of the refugees in Thailand: ...(they quote from PONCHAUD):

'There is little hope for them. They live with their memories, constantly reliving the horrors they have witnessed. Each one recounts what he saw or heard, his imagination and homesickness tending to exaggerate and distort the facts' "

In light of this, it seems more probable that the animus and criticism implied in the statement of Ponchaud to Chomsky you quote "How many refugees have you interviewed, where, when and in what language?" was rather caused by Chomsky and Herman's detailing of Ponchaud's truly flaky behavior, or resentment due to their pointing out internal inconsistencies in his works (which they, however, deem minor e.g. he bluntly stated the thesis that there was central control of the (early) massacres and then gives evidence that they were not. (ATC pp.273-275).; these inconsistencies were the main criticisms of Ponchaud by Chomsky and Herman, and were, I believe, generally conceded by Ponchaud. They also felt his lack of care cast some amount of doubt on his less easily verifiable refugee testimony reports, but still felt that his book was "serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited" and feel that it was certainly in the "spectrum of specialist judgment and analysis." Chomsky and Herman also point out that few people had as many positive things to say about the Khmer Rouge as did Ponchaud (p.283, ATC) Of course, they mention that the Free Press did not play up this. On the issue of taking refugee interviews, they report how various scholars were prevented from interviewing refugees pp146-147, Michael Vickery being the only Khmer speaking scholar who made unsupervised visits to refugee camps, to their knowledge.(of course during the period they are examining)

The flaky behavior I refer to is that of Ponchaud praising Chomsky for:

"his responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him" in the American version of his book, and writing rather nasty and untrue criticism of him in the simultaneously published British version referring to the same events! :

"These two "experts" on Asia claim that I am mistakently trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last Amwerican diplomat. They say there have been no massacres... For them, refugees are not a valid source..."

A point that should be made is that Chomsky pointed out the need for care in handling refugee reports long before, in his "At War With Asia," referring to his own interviews with Laotian refugees in Laos, where he noted that after a young man "who almost certainly was a Pathet-Lao cadre" talked to his fellow refugees, they all gave Chomsky more or less the same story - that they loved being forced to live in caves due to American bombs and hated the crazy Pathet Lao.(I exaggerate a little) thus giving him what they thought he, Chomsky, obviously a CIA man, wanted to hear. Chomsky and Herman point out that many of the Cambodian refugee reports were taken under conditions where the powerless refugees might similarly try to tell the interviewer what the refugee thought he wanted to hear.

> It is cruelly ironic that it was precisely the lack of "diverse
> sources" that Chomsky cited in his contemptuous, dismissive
> review of "Murder of a Gentle Land,"[by Barron & Paul] one of the
> early accounts of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

C&H's criticism of this book is not based entirely on lack of diverse sources. They divide the sources of this book into uncheckable interviews, and checkable ones based on other accounts. The checkable ones show that Barron & Paul systematically distorted what they got from other sources, besides using a ridiculous source like the Khieu Sampan interview and completely ignoring the US culpability in the murder of a gentle land.

You mention in your reply to Michael Carley on another thread three writers on Cambodia that Chomsky should have "bothered to look at". Two of these, it is true, do not appear in any of his books' indexes. However, he and Herman comment extensively on the third, Kenneth Quinn, in ATC. They agree on the one hand with his claim that Khmer Rouge programs became extremely harsh in 1973, but criticize him for sedulously avoiding the possible role of the US bombing in causing this, and later for relying on the preposterous Khieu Sampan "interview" as serious. (To those who never heard of this interview, it was one of the most extreme propaganda fabrications of the time, in which the Premier of Khmer Rouge Cambodia supposedly granted a self-damning interview to an unknown Italian catholic church publication, which was then played up by the major media outlets, including Barron & Paul.) I believed it at the time. (To give them their due, Ponchaud and Shawcross both treat this "interview" as a piece of nonsense. Ponchaud and Shawcross are more serious and in a different category from propagandists). I do not believe you can make a case that Chomsky and Herman were unaware ot the character of the Khmer Rouge. Their arguments are entirely different from "support."

There are some other minor points, for instance the Porter-Hildebrand book, not having read it (and not having the time to), it seemed to be that what you were criticizing sounded like you were taking things out of context, and in regard to Chomsky's review, well, a bit peevish. Criticizing H & P for relying on Khmer Rouge sources is not entirely convincing. After all, much of Chomsky's sources are US Government documents, and no-one accuses him of supporting THAT crew of terrorist commanders. In addition, what they say about it in ATC (pp284-286) is in the context of "To complete a review of books about postwar Cambodia, we should briefly mention a third.." If I recall correctly, the "new era of economic development and social justice" quote was preceded by a "may" not a "would". You write of some things, such as the murder of Malcolm Caldwell, as if they are established fact, whereas at least according to the sources I've read this was (at least at one point) an issue in dispute; the same for the 20 journalists murdered by the Khmer Rouge, who, according to P. de Beer, quoted on pp.251-252 of ATC were all still alive, this being a complete fabrication.

As for the burning building metaphor, as noted above, the only thing it is relevant to is the Nation book review that supported much of what Ponchaud was saying, and which as far as I am aware contains no inaccuracies, and some of which's contentions have been accepted by such as Ponchaud. That it had any effect on the termination of innocent lives is implausible to say the least. What do you suggest it prevented being done? (accepting the preposterous idea that Chomsky delivers his orders to the US government by this channel) Did anyone e.g. Shawcross suggest anything which ought to have been done? The only thing I can think of is US military intervention. Do I really have to make an argument against this, which would be like, say, urging the Nazis to intervene to break up a massacre of Sephardic Jews by Ashkenazi Jews. If the only thing to be done is to try to make sure people speak truly, and thereby perhaps mitigating the power over innocent lives of an important part of the US death machine, that is, the Free Press, why, I think that is laudable.

Finally, I would like to make one criticism of Chomsky and Herman. In my opinion, they and their editors at South End Press, who perhaps hold them in the wrong sort of excessive esteem, completely failed in their duty to the reader to make their work (ATC) readable. The "chapter" on Cambodia is, together with the footnotes, 200 pages long. There are no subdivisions and it reads like a 100,000 word run-on sentence. It is not surprising that many people have gotten a mistaken impression of what they are saying from a less than obsessive reading. Before I replied to your post, I hadn't read it in 5 years, and made several errors about what they said, and it took several rereadings to get it straight again just recently. A trivial effort of a few hours on their part could have eliminated the part of the controversy surrounding their work which is due to honest confusion and misunderstanding.

For a reply to this article, click here.
This is the sixth in a series of seven articles on this topic.

A more complete discussion of the Chomsky Cambodia controversy can be found in the article Averaging Wrong Answers, at

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