“Henry Kissinger would certainly be brought to trial for his role in the bombing, if the world were governed by justice, not forces”
PHILOSOPHER and linguist Noam Chomsky says the United States owes Cambodia not only an apology but massive reparations for the B-52 bombing campaign called Operation Menu that killed up to a million people.
The campaign lasted from March 18, 1969, to May 26, 1970, destroyed an estimated 1,000 towns and villages, displaced 2 million people and, Chomsky says, and helped bring the Khmer Rouge to power.
Chomsky’s comments come after the US last week ruled out a plea from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to forgive a US$317 million debt to the US accrued by the Lon Nol regime during the 1970s.
In the interview, Chomsky said: “Henry Kissinger would certainly be brought to trial for his role in the bombing, if the world were governed by justice, not forces.”
Considered a father of modern linguistics, Chomsky is the author of more than 100 books about language and international affairs.
He’s also one of the world’s most-quoted living scholars. Much of what he says in speeches, interviews and scholarly works is quickly translated into scores of languages.
As Chomsky approaches his 83rd year, he is still a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, considered one of the best technical universities in the world.
Chomsky has taught there for more than 50 years.
His work on how the brain deals with language changed how the world’s professors think about psychology, behaviour and a whole range of studies of the human mind. Chomsky has at least 36 honorary doctor’s degrees, two of the most recent of which were given by universities in China, where he travelled earlier this year to acknowledge the accolades.
The Chomsky approach to science and mind studies takes the view that humans are given remarkable genetic endowments by their parents – systems so complex they are impossible to duplicate even with a room full of computers – and that’s what makes people so precious.
Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar and generative grammar are now accepted by scholars around the world and encompass the idea that all human languages are based on underlying rules that every human baby is born with, which explains why children, wherever they are, quickly acquire the language that is spoken to them.
Chomsky says that if an alien visited Earth, he would observe that all humans speak the same language with only slight variation. Chomsky’s approach to understanding language at MIT has enabled computer scientists and researchers in many others fields to apply mathematical-style rules to language.
British professor Dr Niels Jerne won a Nobel Prize in 1964 by applying Chomskyan theories to the human body’s immune system with a paper called The Generative Grammar of the Immune System.
In addition to his linguistic and philosophical pioneering, Chomsky was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, dating back to France’s reappearance in Indochina following the conclusion of the second world war in 1945.
He was one of the intellectual forces behind the antiwar movement in the US during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Chomsky is also famous for his criticism of the foreign policies of states, especially the US, where he lives and has nationality.
He helps people practise what he calls “intellectual self-defence” by pointing out the difference between words spoken and deeds done by politicians, governments, religious or corporate officials – so that the average citizen can look at the world more accurately as it applies to him or her – rather than as part of the agenda of a state, a religion, a corporation or some other power centre, as Chomsky calls them.
Just as in his reasoning that the Vietnam War was not in the interest of the American people, so does Chomsky reason that Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza are not in the interest of the Israeli people.
Though Chomsky is a Jew and a Hebrew scholar, he nevertheless criticises Israel’s military actions, which he says are more dangerous to the population of Israel than they are helpful.
You could say Chomsky is an equal-opportunity critic of all groups with power, regardless of ethnicity and national origin – which is probably what makes him so popular and welcome in so many places – and so controversial.
Chomsky has been watching the events that have occurred in Cambodia since the end of the second world war.
He took time to answer some questions about significant events in the Kingdom’s history that have helped shape Cambodia today.
“The historic enmity between Vietnam and China goes back a millennium. In 1978-79, Cambodia was a Chinese ally and Vietnam was linked to the Russians….”
Q&A with Noam Chomsky
How is it that people got the idea you were soft on Khmer Rouge atrocities as a result of your 1988 book with Edward S Herman, Manufacturing Consent?
In our 1988 book, Herman and I reviewed the way the horrors in Cambodia had been treated through three distinct phases: the US war before the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975; the Khmer Rouge period; the period after Vietnam invaded and drove out the Khmer Rouge and the US and Britain turned at once to direct military and diplomatic support for the Khmer Rouge (“Democratic Kampuchea”). By the time we wrote, it was known that the pre-1975 US war was horrendous, but it is only in the past few years that more extensive documents have been released.
We now know that the most brutal phase began in 1970, when Henry Kissinger transmitted President Nixon’s orders for “massive bombing of Cambodia, anything that flies on anything that moves” (Kissinger’s words, to General Haig). It is hard to find a declaration with such clear genocidal intent in the archival record of any state. And the orders were carried out. Bombing of rural Cambodia was at the level of total Allied bombing in the Pacific theatre during World War II. The
Khmer Rouge, as we now know, expanded to about 200,000, largely recruited by the bombing.
During the first and third period there was quite a lot that Americans – more generally Westerners – could do. During the second period no one even had a suggestion as to what to do. The coverage is exactly the opposite of what elementary moral considerations would dictate. During the first period, there was some protest, but coverage was slight and it was quickly forgotten. The new revelations have been almost entirely suppressed. During the third period, coverage again was very slight and the history has also been almost entirely forgotten.
Our accurate review of these facts did lead to considerable outrage, and massive lies, such as what you mention. That was even more true of our 1979 two-volume study, Political Economy of Human Rights, which provides extensive documentation to show that this pattern was (and is) quite generally, extending all over the world. Most of the study concerned US crimes, so it was therefore unreviewed and unread, confirming our thesis.
One chapter was about Cambodia. In it, we harshly condemned Pol Pot’s crimes, and also revealed extraordinary fabrication and deceit. We wrote that the crimes were horrible enough, but commentators ought to keep to the truth, and to the most reliable sources, like State Department intelligence, by all accounts the most knowledgeable source at the time – and also largely suppressed, apart from our review, because it did not conform to the image that was manufactured. That image was important.
It was exploited quite explicitly to whitewash past US crimes in Indochina, and to lay the groundwork for new and quite awful crimes in Central America, justified on grounds that the US had to stop the “Pol Pot left”, We compared Cambodia to East Timor, accurately: two huge atrocities in the same time period and same area of the world, differing in one crucial respect: in East Timor the US and its allies had primary responsibility for the atrocities, and could have easily brought them to an end; in Cambodia they could do little or nothing – as noted, there was scarcely even a suggestion – and the enemy’s atrocities could be and were exploited to justify our own.
We showed that in both cases there was massive deceit in the US and the West, but in opposite directions: In the case of East Timor, where the crimes could have easily been terminated, they were suppressed or denied; in the case of Cambodia, where nothing could be done, the fabrication and lies would, literally, have impressed Stalin.
What we wrote about East Timor was entirely ignored (except in Australia), along with the rest of what we wrote about US crimes and how they were covered up.
What we wrote about Cambodia, in contrast, elicited huge outrage and a new flood of lies, as we discussed in our 1988 book. And it continues. In general, it is extremely important to suppress our own crimes and to defend the right to lie at will about the crimes of enemies. Those are major tasks of the educated classes, as we documented at length, in these books and elsewhere.
It is a rare study that does not contain errors, but our chapter on Cambodia seems to be an exception. Despite massive effort, no one has found even a misplaced comma, let alone any substantive error. We would be more than happy to concede and correct any error, but despite Herculean efforts, none have been found. Please don’t take my word for it, of course. Check and see for yourself.
When you look at the genocide under the Khmer Rouge that occurred in Cambodia, do you put the blame on the American bombing of Cambodia for creating the conditions that brought Pol Pot to power, or is it more complex than that?
Two leading Cambodia scholars, Owen Taylor and Ben Kiernan, point out that when the intense US bombing of rural Cambodia began, the Khmer Rouge were a small group of perhaps 10,000. Within a few years, the KR had grown to a huge army of some 200,000, deeply embittered and seeking revenge. Their recruitment propaganda successfully highlighted the US bombing. Pentagon records reveal that the tonnage of bombs released on rural Cambodia was about the same as total US bombing in the Pacific during World War II, and of course far more intense. But that was surely not the only factor.
In your reading of history, why do leaders of states go so terribly wrong as to slaughter anyone who had ever been to school or who wore glasses? Can you imagine the intellectual or emotional basis for how perpetrators of mass killings are able to blithely live with themselves as instruments of mass killing?
It’s a good question. We can also ask similar questions about our own society, which we should be able to understand better. Just keep to Cambodia. The intense bombing began under President Nixon’s orders, which Kissinger loyally transmitted to the US military with these words: “Massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” That’s the kind of call for genocide that one rarely finds in the archival record of any state. The statement was published in The New York Times, and there was no reaction among its mostly liberal intellectual readers, few of whom even remember it.
Should the perpetrators of genocide in Cambodia be tried and executed or imprisoned? Why?
I am opposed to the death penalty, but I think they should receive fair trials and imprisonment. No one asks that question about Nixon and Kissinger, or about the rich and powerful generally.