Holo­caust in Cam­bo­dia

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Fa­tal war news from Phnom Penh came 32 years ago. The Kh­mer Rouge was tak­ing power and con­trol of Cam­bo­dia, and U.S. per­son­nel were be­ing evac­u­ated in Op­er­a­tion Ea­gle Pull.

On a soc­cer field near the U.S. em­bassy, steely-eyed Marines stood guard while long lines of per­son­nel loaded he­li­copters headed for safer ground. Only a mat­ter of time sep­a­rated de­par­ture from roar­ing trucks car­ry­ing bru­tal Kh­mer Rouge killers — fir­ing guns into the air — rolling into city square. Theirs would be an epi­taph of evil as a warm dust wind warned of a new lib­er­a­tion, Com­mu­nist-style.

For five long years, the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment promised free­dom and democ­racy to farm­ers, car­pen­ters, ditch dig­gers and re­li­gious monks. It promised ed­u­ca­tion, new homes and a bet­ter way of life.

For 300 days be­fore the fall, I was a Navy lieu­tenant and SEAL, one of the first charged with high­level diplo­matic pol­i­tics inside a war zone. I watched the steady de­cline of Kh­mer gov­ern­ment op­ti­mism, sag­ging spir­its of Cambo- dian troops and the shut­down of vi­tal war stocks, caused by pol­i­tics inside cold Se­nate walls.

Congress whit­tled down the em­bassy pres­ence to just 200. Be­sieged by rocket fire day and night, mil­i­tary at­taches en­tered bul­let­sat­u­rated com­bat zones to ad­vise and en­cour­age Cam­bo­dian forces. With­out the Amer­i­can pres­ence, in­dige­nous forces would have im­ploded much sooner.

Congress found cru­elty to U.S. per­son­nel by cut­ting daily ra­tion funds. Bug-filled bread was a daily con­sum­able and tainted veg­eta­bles re­quired soak­ing in Clorox. Fresh meats or poul­try were nearly nonex­is­tent. No other food was avail­able.

Inside the lo­cal Ho­tel Phnom, how­ever, re­porters, writ­ers from the na­tional press corps, en­joyed del­i­ca­cies un­der glass served by young boys in for­mal at­tire. Cigars and whiskies made their ex­is­tence pos­si­ble. They hunted and scoured the coun­try­side for the op­por­tu­nity to snap any Amer­i­can speak­ing in ad­vi­sory tones.

Then-Pres­i­dent Ford pleaded with an un­for­giv­ing Congress that more time was needed to sta­bi­lize Cam­bo­dia and that cut­ting off mil­i­tary fund­ing would send the wrong sig­nal to the Kh­mer Rouge and the North Viet­namese. Ac­cord­ing to records, CIA intelligence es­ti­mates meant first for the eyes of the pres­i­dent and Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger in­stead found their way to Se­nate com­mit­tees, dis­tract­ing and un­der­min­ing in­ten­tions of the White House.

Not un­like Iraq to­day, Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in Cam­bo­dia brought home the ug­li­ness of war, as­so­ci­ated rav­ages, re­venge, in­no­cents dy­ing, crime, cor­rup­tion and un­told death. I ob­served the mis­guided B-52 strike on Neak Loung prov­ince, where Route One meets the Mekong River. Here, dev­as­ta­tion left be­hind by mis­taken se­cret bomb­ing, in­tended to thwart North Viet­namese border move­ments, ce­mented dis­dain for Amer­i­can in­volve­ment and prom­ises bro­ken.

Ab­sent from the Kh­mer land­scape were the roads, schools and key in­fra­struc­ture promised by the Amer­i­can-in­stalled gov­ern­ment.

The Cam­bo­dian peo­ple them­selves were gen­tle if not undis­ci­plined in many ways. They were re­li­gious and faith­ful to their fami- lies. The Kh­mer Rouge had no pa­tience with th­ese ways. In­stead, it turned Asian val­ues into forced la­bor and ex­e­cu­tion.

In Fe­bru­ary 1975, the CIA’s Na­tional Intelligence Es­ti­mate painted a dis­mal pic­ture of hope and sur­viv­abil­ity for the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple. With­out fur­ther sup­plies of 600 tons a day on the Mekong, or a mil­i­tary break­through against the Kh­mer Rouge, the Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment would col­lapse be­fore June, it con­cluded. The Pen­tagon dis­agreed.

The CIA re­port served warmly the U.S. fail­ure is­sue to the elected doves and cold-hearted mar­tyrs of the Congress on a plat­ter suit­able for de­feat.

To­day, lessons for deal­ing with the quag­mire in Iraq can be sifted from Cam­bo­dia’s ashes. Not un­like the fond­est wishes of the me­dia in 1975, which pre­dicted the fall, and that Pol Pot would be less cruel and more na­tion­al­ist than thought, so too are the pre­dic­tions of Se­nate voices to­day, in sug­gest­ing that U.S. troops be ex­tracted be­fore they should be. If that should hap­pen, Iraq may well be­come vul­ner­a­ble to the ill winds and jack­als of Mus­lim ex­trem­ism. A newly shaped Iraqi gov­ern­ment may just as well find its way to im­ple­ment star­va­tion, ex­e­cu­tions, im­pris­on­ment and tor­ture, sim­i­lar to that of Sad­dam Hus­sein.

Congress should un­der­stand that Iraqi na­tion-build­ing has cre­ated in­her­ent risks, costs and moral obli­ga­tions for our coun­try, and de­sired re­sults can­not be dic­tated in months or half-years.

Two weeks ago marked the an­niver­sary of shame in U.S. for­eign pol­icy, as Congress cut off mil­i­tary fund­ing to Cam­bo­dia, be­gin­ning a geno­ci­dal blood bath of nearly 3 mil­lion in­no­cents. The Com­mu­nists brought their style of re­forms and “so­cial jus­tice” to the peo­ple.

Does Amer­ica re­ally want an­other “Killing Fields,” this time on the Fer­tile Cres­cent of the Mid­dle East and inside the Cra­dle of Learn­ing? If so, we have not learned well the lessons that his­tory teaches us so clearly [. . .] or its dire con­se­quences if we so choose to ig­nore.

David M. Fitzger­ald is a re­tired Navy cap­tain, SEAL and intelligence of­fi­cer, and a for­mer staff mem­ber with the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee.

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