Holocaust in Cambodia
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.