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Evil Scholars? The Author's Final Response

by Bruce Sharp

Note: This is the final entry in the original seven articles. An epilogue written many years after the debate, contains a few final comments.

From: bsharp (Bruce Sharp)
Date: Sun, 25 Jun 1995 06:36:22 -0400

As Mr. Rucell has suggested that he will not be posting any more comments on this topic, I think it would be a good time for me to point out something that I did not mention earlier:

John Kenneth Rucell is a well-known freelance covert operative who works as a killer-for-hire for both the Mossad and the Japanese Red Army. In fact, he once shot a man in Tel Aviv JUST TO WATCH HIM DIE. Moreover, his car is a very ridiculous ugly color, he has ring-around-the-collar, and he has personally poked several holes in the ozone layer. I hadn't mentioned this earlier since I try to avoid personal attacks, but now that he's not gonna be here, hey, why not cut loose?

But in the event that the above description isn't enough to persuade readers that Mr. Rucell is off the mark on some points in his previous posts, let me address the issues he has raised one by one.

Chomsky... continues to maintain that he was right. With regard to the Mayaguez incident, the comment by Kissinger cited by Mr. Rucell does indeed make me think twice about my belief in the good intentions of the US in trying to free the hostages through force. But it certainly doesn't convince me, for several reasons. I don't think it is necessarily accurate to assume that the decision to attack was what KISSINGER said it was. The decision was Ford's. Kissinger may be accurately reflecting Ford's view, but I wouldn't count on it. Kissinger has always had his own agenda, and he promotes it wherever and whenever he can, through whatever means is available. But in any case, I still think this is beside the point. Mr. Rucell states that similar incidents of ships being seized occur worldwide, constantly. That is false, because it assumes that the seizure of a vessel is an incident of equal gravity regardless of who seizes it. To be blunt, it is ludicrous to pretend that the crew of a boat detained in, for example, Finland, is in the same amount of jeopardy as the crew of a vessel captured by the Khmer Rouge. Mr. Rucell notes that the Khmer Rouge had earlier released Panamanian and South Korean boats. But I think it is obvious that the Khmer Rouge might have regarded an American ship quite differently than one from any other nation. Am I being unduly distrustful of the Khmer Rouge? The lack of trust exhibited by the attempt to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez was clearly misguided in that incident. But that it was NOT misguided with respect to the general nature of the Khmer Rouge was borne out three years later. In three separate incidents in that year, the Khmer Rouge seized boats in the South China sea and captured and ultimately tortured to death those on board. The four Americans and two Australians on those boats have the distinction of being the only Westerners killed in the Tuol Sleng interrogation center in Phnom Penh.(Lest we forget who we are dealing with here, it is worth reminding everyone of a statistic from Tuol Sleng. There were, at the very least, 14,000 people incarcerated there. There are exactly SIX people who are known to have survived.) Mr. Rucell criticized the viciousness of the attack on the Khmer Rouge in the attempt to free the crew of the Mayaguez; of course it was vicious. There is no such thing as "gentle" combat. I still believe that the bombing, which was in support of soldiers engaged in battle, was justified; the fact that the consequences were disastrous for the Americans does not speak to the issue of whether or not attempting a rescue was just. Was it wise? Obviously not. But was it an evil act of "incredible" and "insane" savagery? That is an altogether different question. Mr. Rucell is possibly correct in noting that my dislike of the Khmer Rouge may affect my view here. But I would suggest that his dislike of the US government colors his just as surely. He notes, perhaps somewhat contemptuously, that the Khmer Rouge did not respond for "all of two days" after they seized the vessel. I wonder if he would be quite so dismissive of such a delay if one of his own loved ones had been on board.

With regard to the amount of news coverage given to Cambodia, Mr. Rucell contends that I am wrong to suggest that there was "very little written about Khmer Rouge atrocities until the Vietnamese invasion" and suggests that I am changing my argument when, in a later post, I question whether the amount of coverage was appropriate to the magnitude of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. Those are most definitely not different statements. How many stories would constitute "few"? How many would constitute "many"? Would two hundred be "many"? (I'm using two hundred just as an example, quite arbitrarily.) Two hundred sounds like alot to me... and it would certainly sound like a lot, an avalanche, even, if all were cited in a single volume. But that is precisely what is misleading about Noam Chomsky's anecdotal evidence. By selectively choosing stories that support his claim, and ignoring the stories that don't, he can create whatever illusion he chooses. But consider that arbitrary, made-up number in a different context. Would two hundred articles be "many" in a nationwide market of thousands of magazines, with hundreds of thousands of articles? If, in 1975, (I'm making this example up, by the way, just to illustrate the point... again, I don't know actual numbers) there were 200 articles about Cambodia... and 500 articles about the movie "Jaws"... Does two hundred still look like an avalanche of coverage? Mr. Rucell suggests that whether or not the coverage was appropriate to the size of the crimes is "imponderable." But personally, I do not find it difficult to ponder whether or not the genocide in Cambodia, or in East Timor, should have received more or less coverage than Mood Rings or Pet Rocks whatever the hell other garbage cluttered the media during those same years.

William Shawcross again comes in for criticism in Mr. Rucell's latest post. Mr. Rucell states that "I call him a liar, because he knowingly states things he, and I know to be false." Even granting that Rucell is right and Shawcross is wrong... and frankly, I think it is more likely the other way around... how does Mr. Rucell know that Shawcross is lying, as opposed to simply being mistaken? Again, the item at issue... the amount of news coverage given to Cambodia... is subjective as to whether it was enough, too much, or too little. But Mr. Rucell is not willing to grant that Shawcross may simply have a different interpretation of the same facts. When the subject of Shawcross first came up, I posed the question: Why would Shawcross deliberately lie? Mr. Rucell responded, quite correctly, that discerning one's motivation for lying is no substitute for checking the facts in contention. However, I would suggest that determining a reason for lying IS important in determining whether or not the statements are lies, or simply honest mistakes. Inasmuch as Mr. Rucell has not presented a credible reason for why Shawcross would lie, I think it is quite inappropriate of him to attack Shawcross' character. Yet that is exactly what Mr. Rucell is doing when he labels an incorrect description of a translation in one of Shawcross' works as a "pathetic fib." Rucell goes on to cite a quote from Shawcross as evidence of his lying: "I decided to write a book about [what the Khmer Rouge were doing]. It became 'Sideshow.'" Mr. Rucell writes, "Of course, this book is about US atrocities, not Khmer Rouge ones!" I would urge Mr. Rucell to reread what Shawcross had said: He does not say that Sideshow is about the Khmer Rouge. He says the work BECAME 'Sideshow.' He addresses that point quite clearly in the Foreward in the original edition of the book, published in early 1979: "In April 1975, I covered the end of the American effort, from Saigon and then from Washington. Soon after that, reports of brutal behavior by the communist victors in Cambodia began to reach the West. I wanted to find out whether they were true and, if so, why; I started the research that ended in this book." That, you will note, touches on the central thesis of the book: That the intensity of the American bombing is what incited the brutality of the Cambodian communists.

On the issue of personal attacks, in addition to describing Shawcross' criticism of Chomsky as "insane," Mr. Rucell also descibes Francois Ponchaud as "flaky." As an example of Ponchaud's "flaky behavior" Mr. Rucell notes the criticism that Ponchaud directed at Chomsky in the British version of his book, while noting that in the American edition of the book, Ponchaud praises Chomsky for his "responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him." By having removed that quotation from its context, Mr. Rucell has quite clearly missed the point that Ponchaud was making. Providing a bit more of the surrounding material makes this clear:

"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 Sivers, Editor of NYR, and Jean Lacouture...Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence that I had offered... 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 were now living should be mainly attributed to the American bombings."

Ponchaud continues:

"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."

In short, Ponchaud is expressing sadness and frustration that the "experts" on Asia chose to apply their abilities for the purpose of "polemical exchange" and in so doing completely lost sight of the larger issue of what was truly happening in Cambodia. I think Ponchaud, like Lacouture, expected better from Chomsky.

Mr. Rucell raises two other issues with respect to Ponchaud's work. First, he states that, according Chomsky and Herman, "few people had as many positive things to say about the Khmer Rouge as did Ponchaud (p. 283, ATC)." I do not know what Chomsky and Herman are referring to, as I do not have a copy of After the Cataclysm, nor do I have access to a university library... I am limited to whatever books and notes happen to be cluttering the shelves here at home. But frankly, looking at Ponchaud's book, I really have no idea what those "positive things" might be. Certainly the Khmer Rouge were disciplined, and relatively free of corruption by comparison to other regional governments, certainly they were skilled guerrillas... but I have a very difficult time seeing those traits as "positive" when they are in the employ of a government which regards genocide as a viable tool for restructuring society. Clearly, any "virtues" that the Khmer Rouge had were quite irrelevant within the larger context of their overall policies. So why on earth do Chomsky and Herman feel those traits SHOULD have been "play[ed] up" by the press?

Mr. Rucell goes on to note that Chomsky's critique of Ponchaud's work was not the first instance in which Chomsky had pointed out that refugee reports may be unreliable. Chomsky had raised this issue in his 1970 book, "At War With Asia." But I would emphasize that in the instance Mr. Rucell cites, Chomsky was voicing his skepticism in yet another case where the refugees were telling him what he did not want to hear: that they hated the Pathet Lao. I would be much more persuaded of Chomsky's objectivity if he voiced the same concerns in relying on the reports of Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugees. Perhaps somewhere in his enormous body of work he has done this; but I have not seen him do so within what I have read, nor when I have heard him speak. Again, it seems to me that he applies a dual standard to stories which support his theories and stories which do not.

Mr. Rucell suggests that it is not just to say that Chomsky was "casting doubt on the story of refugees." I disagree. Chomsky begins his "Distortions at Fourth Hand" by alluding to harsh refugee reports from Vietnam related by a man with "ideological blinders," and contrasts his account with an AFSC delegation who reported "impressive social and economic progress. "It was inevitable with the failure of the American effort..." write Chomsky and Herman, "... to crush the mass movements elsewhere in Indochina, that there would be a campaign to reconstruct the history of these years... Well suited for these aims are tales of Communist atrocities... It is in this context that we must view the recent spate of newspaper reports, editorials, and books on Cambodia..." He goes on to note a handful of accounts from foreginers who witnessed the evacuation of Phnom Penh, but did not witness killings. With regard to Ponchaud's book, "its veracity is difficult to assess... Ponchaud relies overwhelmingly on refugee reports. Thus his account is at best second-hand with many of the refugees reporting what they claim to have heard from others." The article goes on to cite "... 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... They also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution... while [refugee] reports must be considered seriously, care and caution are necessary. Specifically, refugees questioned by Westerners or Thais have a vested interest in reporting atrocities on the part of Cambodian revolutionaries, an obvious fact that no serious reporter will fail to take into account." In light of those statements, I find it rather unconvincing to contend that Chomsky was not casting doubt on the refugees simply because "After the Cataclysm" included a reference to a Vietnamese man who crossed Cambodia and did not see atrocities.

In a separate post I had criticized Chomsky for disregarding the work of Kenneth Quinn regarding Khmer Rouge policies in the areas they controlled in 1973. Mr. Rucell points out that Chomsky did in fact discuss Quinn's work in "After the Cataclysm." As ATC was published in 1979, and I was referring to Chomsky's writings about Cambodia in 1977, I may or may not have been wrong on that point. But in any case, if Chomsky was familiar with Quinn's work, and still felt that the refugee accounts were not accurately reflecting the Khmer Rouge policies, then Chomsky's skepticism is all the more difficult to understand. That Quinn was one of several people who treated the fabricated 1977 Khieu Samphan interview as genuine is, I think, hardly relevant to the analysis that he had done in Cambodia prior to the Khmer Rouge victory.

Noting my comments on Gareth Porter and George Hildebrand's book, "Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution," Mr. Rucell once again suggests that I am taking things out of context, in spite of the fact that he did not read the book. I can assure him that I am not. In all of the scholarly works I have read on Cambodia, Porter and Hildebrand's book stands out as the most extreme example of pro-Khmer Rouge propaganda. The only work I have seen which I would deem to be more outrageous is "Kampuchea" by Robert Brown and David Kline, and that book at least did not pretend to be anything other than the Maoist propaganda that it was. Mr. Rucell finds it unconvincing to criticize Porter and Hildebrand for their reliance on Khmer Rouge sources, noting that Chomsky often relies on US government documents. But it is one thing to use official sources to illuminate hypocrisy and deceit, and quite another to rely on official statements as factual information about conditions inside a country closed to outsiders. That is precisely what Porter and Hildebrand did. If Mr. Rucell continues to believe that I am misrepresenting the book, I can only suggest that he should read it for himself... and frankly, I would hate to recommend to anyone that they partake in such a colossal waste of time.

Mr. Rucell also suggests that perhaps the murder of Malcolm Caldwell was not the work of the Khmer Rouge. I would point out several things: First, that the murder took place in Phnom Penh, which had been evacuated of all but a handful of Khmer Rouge cadres and rank-and-file Khmer Rouge who had been assigned to work in the few factories maintained by the Khmer Rouge regime. Travel in the country was allowed only with official permission. To suggest that Caldwell was killed by anyone other than the Khmer Rouge is to suggest that some unknown assailant somehow learned of Caldwell's presence, obtained a weapon, infiltrated Phom Penh, snuck into the compound where Caldwell was staying, and murdered him. After the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, two confessions were recovered from Tuol Sleng in two Khmer Rouge confessed to killing Caldwell. Tuol Sleng confessions are often wild, absurd fabrications, resulting from the victims' desire to tell the torturer whatever outrageous conspiracy theory Pol Pot favored at the moment. Elizabeth Becker, who was with Caldwell at the time of the murder, believes that the confessions are probably accurate: That Caldwell was killed by dissidents within the inner circle of the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to embarrass Pol Pot. That the attack could have been the work of anyone other than a member of the Khmer Rouge is inconceivable.

Mr. Rucell also questions whether the report about murdered journalists was actually true. Actually, this is the first time I have ever heard it suggested that that is not accurate. Perhaps it isn't... I have to confess that I'm not certain in this instance. But I'm also not certain that it isn't, and I think we might be referring to different incidents. The figure that I have previously seen cited is, if I remember right, 26. I lowered that figure to about twenty, because of conflicting reports on one incident. I can assure Mr. Rucell in that case that the men in question are most definitely not still alive! Their bodies were just recovered two or three years ago. (I thought there had been five men; there were eight.) Two TV crews, one from CBS and one from NBC, had taken off for one of the eastern provinces on what turned out to be a false rumor. They were captured and executed. A bit of trivia... one of the men was Sean Flynn, the son of actor Errol Flynn. At any rate, while this is generally attributed to the Khmer Rouge, a friend who was at that time a translator (and a friend of one victim) has told me that there were few Khmer Rouge in the area, and that it was more likely the work of Vietnamese communists. The only other killing of which I have specific knowledge was the case of a Japanese photographer who was killed trying to travel through Khmer Rouge territory to reach Angkor Wat. These cases suggest to me that the reported killings were not a "complete fabrication," but I cannot rule out the possibility that the number of deaths was inflated.

This brings me to what I consider to be the most crucial point that Mr. Rucell brought up: That it is somehow illogical of me to profess admiration for Ben Kiernan, while criticizing Chomsky... when Chomsky relied heavily on Kiernan's work in preparing his own. A contradiction? Hardly. Consider this:

Kiernan and Chomsky were saying the same things about Cambodia before 1979. Kiernan has subsequently stated, quite bluntly, that he was wrong. Chomsky, meanwhile, continues to maintain that he was right!

Mr. Rucell seems to imply in his last post that I had suggested that Kiernan was one of those scholars who regarded Chomsky with animosity. I did not. In fact, I noted that "There were many prominent scholars who openly supported the Khmer Rouge.; most have had the decency to subsequently admit their error. It is, moreover, important to remember the context in which the Khmer Rouge came to power. Given the haphazard manner of the US bombardment of the country, given the violence and stupidity with which Lon Nol had ruled Cambodia, I believe that it wasn't all that unreasonable to think that conditions were bound to improve with the end of the war."

Ben Kiernan clearly fits into this category. He has admitted his errors in a number or publications, most notably in an article from 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." He echoes this statement in "Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942 - 1981" (P. 314). "In analysing the reasons for continuing violence after the war, I failed to identify the deliberate, if hampered, activities of the Pol Pot group." (That particular statement, you will note, speaks directly to the passage from Kiernan's earlier work cited in Chomsky and Herman.) Moreover, although I don't have a copy of the book and cannot verify this, I believe that he touched on the issue of disbelieving the refugee accounts in a chapter he wrote in a biography of Wilfred Burchett. He noted that he, like Burchett, had in effect missed one of the most dramatic stories to come out of Indochina because of his skepticism. I have great respect for Kiernan because of his expertise on the Khmer Rouge period. Although I do not always agree with his analyses, I still regard him as the foremost authority on that period. I do not in any way begrudge him for what he wrote when he was an undergraduate in the mid-Seventies, as he realized his mistake, and admitted it. It is hardly surprising that he does not criticize Chomsky, however... Kiernan is living in something of a glass house. Oh, and case anyone imagines that Kiernan regards William Shawcross as a "liar" who purveys "pathetic fibs," it is worth noting that Kiernan cites Shawcross in the acknowledgements of "Peasants and Politics," and Shawcross likewise acknowledges Kiernan in "The Quality of Mercy."

I should note here while talking about Kiernan that he does, in fact, support one of Mr. Rucell's contentions: that there were probably more killings in 1977 than in 1975. However, I would note that the victims in 1975 were overwhelmingly former soldiers, civil servants, and minorities, and members of their families. That, in my view, distinguishes them from the bulk of the deaths in 1977 and 1978, which resulted primarily from factional infighting within the Khmer Rouge.

As a final note, Mr. Rucell suggested that it was wrong to criticize Chomsky, on the grounds that it is implausible that anything could have been done: "The only thing I can think of is US military intervention." That argument does not cary weight, and I think it does a disservice to Chomsky himself... it suggests that the only way to change anything is through the use of force. That is to argue that Ghandi and King were deluding themselves, that Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch are powerless because they have no guns...

Would anything other than military intervention have affected events in Cambodia? Possibly not. But this much is beyond debate: no one can know what constitutes justice unless they know what constitutes the truth.

I would suggest that the accounts of the Khmer Rouge that Chomsky criticized (Ponchaud, Barron and Paul, etc.) were infinitely closer to the truth than the account he praised (Starvation and Revolution.) I still believe that Chomsky should have had the humility that Kiernan had. Rather than hiding behind his token qualifiers and disclaimers ("We do not pretend to know where the truth lies with respect to these sharply conflicting assessments."), he should have admitted that his skepticism was misguided.

As I noted in my original post, I consider Chomsky to be "a man of honor and great integrity." But with respect to Cambodia, his work left alot to be desired. And that was my point in making the original post; I hoped to remind everyone that he is susceptible to the same failings as the rest of us. I am very grateful for Mr. Rucell's comments on this topic, as he very clearly went to great lengths to be accurate. His posts have forced me to question some of my own opinions, just as I question the opinions of others.

Having said that, I guess I should confess that I just made up that thing about his poking holes in the ozone layer. The rest of that stuff was true, though, I swear...

For a few final thoughts on this discussion, click here.

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

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