The big issue: Malcolm Caldwell,
A carefully redesigned version of history

Noam Chomsky

The Observer, January 17, 2010

Andrew Anthony’s reason for his bitter denunciation of Malcolm Caldwell over 30 years after he was murdered in Cambodia, he explains, is to ensure “that we don’t forget history”. (“Lost in Cambodia”, Magazine) A certain version of history, that is: one carefully redesigned in the interests of power.

Caldwell’s fate, Anthony suggests, may have resulted from his failure to read Francois Ponchaud’s “Cambodia Year Zero” because of my review of the book (Chomsky and Edward Herman, June 1977) — which recommended it as “serious and worth reading.” An odd reaction. Anthony also omits Ponchaud’s reaction to the review. In the preface to the English translation a year later, Ponchaud opens by referring to my praise for his book, and praises me in turn for “the responsible attitude and precision of thought” in everything I had written about the topic, including this review and extensive personal correspondence, which led to the discovery of many serious errors in his book, corrected in the translation.

Note that I am referring to the American edition. Ponchaud’s preface to the British edition, dated the same day, is identical except that he replaces these passages with the charge that I denounced his book and rejected its conclusions. And he left the errors uncorrected. Evidently, Ponchaud believed that in England he could get away with anything, as Anthony is keen to demonstrate.

Anthony claims further that we denied the refugee testimony on which Ponchaud relied — in our words, his “grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge”. We raised no question at all about his sources, though elsewhere we did reiterate Ponchaud’s position that “the accounts of refugees are indeed to be used with great care” and showed that others had violated this familiar truism.

Anthony charges that I “compared Ponchaud’s work unfavourably with another book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, written by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, which cravenly rehashed the Khmer Rouge’s most outlandish lies to produce a picture of a kind of radical bucolic idyll.” We did, indeed, draw one (and only one) comparison between the two books. Ponchaud claimed that 200,000 people were killed in American bombings from March to August 1973, mentioning an unidentified Cambodian report. Hildebrand and Porter’s study cites such a report, which refers however to killed and wounded. Anthony raises no objection to this: apparently it is legitimate to cite sources to refute undocumented charges against the US.

The Hildebrand-Porter book was concerned almost entirely with the period before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and was written much too early for more than a few words about the aftermath. A serious commentary on their work is provided by George Kahin, the leading US Southeast Asian scholar, in his introduction to it. As he observes, they “provide what is undoubtedly the best informed and clearest picture yet to emerge of the desperate economic problems” resulting largely from the American bombing, with Phnom Penh and other urban centers overflowing with peasant refugees and facing starvation as much of the countryside had been destroyed. Almost the entire book is devoted to detailed documentation of this shocking tragedy, which explains US intelligence predictions after the fall of Phnom Penh “that 1 million Cambodians will die in the next twelve months” (Far Eastern Economic Review, 25 July 1975).

None of this is granted entry into Anthony’s version of “history.” Nor is the revelation by Cambodia scholars Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan three years ago that the US bombing of rural Cambodia was actually at five times the horrendous level previously reported, greater than all allied bombing in all theaters in World War II, and “drove an enraged populace into the arms” of the previously marginal Khmer Rouge, setting the stage for the horrors that followed.

Had he chosen, Anthony could have found accounts of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge that provide at least minimal support for his farcical rant about Hildebrand-Porter. For example, a description of the “genuine egalitarian revolution” with a new “spirit of responsibility” and “inventiveness” that “represents a revolution in the traditional mentality” as “the people of Kampuchea are now making a thousand-year old dream come true” and taking new pride in their constructive work. But these observations by Francois Ponchaud would not conform to his agenda.

The rest proceeds in much the same vein. The only reason to waste even a moment on such a performance is that it encapsulates so well the common technique of apologetics for the crimes for which one shares responsibility. It would not do to deny the crimes outright; that exposes them to view and undermines pretensions of liberal ideals. The first and most crucial principle is therefore to evade our own crimes. Next, vilify the messenger, to ensure that unwanted history is forgotten. And finally, vilify those who dare to refute charges against official enemies, thus preserving the right to posture heroically about their real or alleged crimes without concern for such impediments as fact and uncertainty. Add a few appropriate rhetorical touches and the concoction is ready to serve, a tasty morsel in some circles.

Noam Chomsky
Lexington, MA