Reed Irvine - Editor
|March B, 1985|
LOST IN THE KILLING FIELDS
"The British film, 'The Killing Fields,' about an American reporter's real-life experiences in Cambodia, dominated the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards Tuesday, winning four trophies, including best picture of 1984."
UPI story of March 5, 1985
That description of this highly acclaimed film, which was also nominated for an Oscar in this country, is, like the film itself, inaccurate and misleading. "The Killing Fields" is not so much about the real-life experiences of an American reporter, Sydney H. Schanberg, in Cambodia as it is about the fate of his Cambodian interpreter, Dith Pran, and the Cambodian Communists who killed about a third of their countrymen in the three and a half years of their rule. The film has been justly praised for graphically portraying the suffering of the Cambodian people after they fell under Communist control.
The film is seriously flawed in three respects: (1) its portrayal of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge (the Cambodian Communists) toward their own people, horrifying as it is, falls far short of the reality; (2) it adopts an absurd and discredited explanation for the inhuman behavior of the Khmer Rouge and totally misses the true reason for their conduct: and (3) it fails to assess the role that Sydney Schanberg himself played in bringing about the suffering of Dith Pran and the entire Cambodian nation.
Sydney Schanberg covered Cambodia for The New York Times in the years preceding the Khmer Rouge takeover. He stayed in Phnom Penh along with a number of other Western journalists to witness the fall of the oily on April 17, 1975. Only four days earlier the Sunday New York Times had carried one of his articles under the headline: "Indochina Without Americans: For Most a Better Life." An attorney for Mr. Schanberg, Mr. Jonathan W. Lubbell, has written to Accuracy in Media saying: "A reading of that article would show that Mr. Schanberg was no more than reporting the view of many Cambodians of the situation then prevailing, in their country." Apparently Mr. Lubbell didn't read the article.
Mr. Schanberg wrote: "But these concepts mean nothing to the ordinary people of Indochina and it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone. For the American presence meant war to them, not paternal colonialism. The Americans brought them planes and Napalm and B-52 raids, not schools and roads and medical programs."
A reading of all the stories that appeared in The New York Times under Schanberg's by-line in 1973. 1974 and the early months of 1975 is a depressing exercise. If Sydney Schanberg did not set out to undermine American support for the anti-communist government of Cambodia under Lon Nol. he gave a very good imitation of doing so. He had the advantage of writing for a very influential newspaper, and his words were frequently echoed by editorial writers and columnists for The Times, magnifying his influence. The recurring themes in Schanberg's stories were: (1) corruption of the government: (2) corruption of the Cambodian military: (3) the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the government and the military; (4) the terrible impact of the war on the country and the people: (5) the inevitability of a Communist victory: (6) improper conduct on the part of Americans in Cambodia: (7} how military aid to the Cambodian government ends up strengthening the Khmer Rouge; and (8) how the American bombing was producing a "moonscape" and threatening to leave the entire country in ruins. Nearly every Schanberg story, even those about Cambodian victories, contained a sour, negative element.
Here are a few examples of Sydney Schanberg's contributions to American understanding of Cambodia, with the date of publication in The New York Times.
Jan. 7, 1973: Says corruption may not be more rampant in Cambodia than in Vietnam but that it is more visible and brazen.
Jan. 8, 1973: Again reports on corruption, detailing payment of "phantom" troops.
May 3, 1973: Quotes a waiter at a hotel as saying that "after three more years (making a swooping gesture with his hands to indicate planes diving and bombing} there will be no more Cambodia."
May 11, 1973: Long article on American bombing in Cambodia, suggesting it violates the Cooper-Church amendment.
May 24, 1973: Headline: "A Cambodian Landscape: Bomb Pits, Rubble, Ashes." Says "scores of villages have been blown away" and that 12-foot deep bomb craters pock the ruins. Livestock killed, harvested crops burned to ash.
May 27, 1973: "Cambodian war refugees, their numbers increasing by the day, are living in a bleak present and facing a deteriorating future." Says there are 575,000 registered refugees and an estimated 200,000 not registered just in government-controlled areas. Quotes a monk as saying the villagers don't understand what the fight is about and don't care who runs the government. In the same issue, "Week in Review" picks up Schanberg's May 24 article and discusses it under the headline, "Moonscape."
Aug. 5, 1973: "Many foreign diplomats here believe that the last-minute American aid is money being poured down a drain. 'These weapons are just going to end up in the other side's hands, and they know it,' said one diplomat."
Aug. 12, 1973: "It is difficult to conceive of a scenario after Aug. 15 (when American bombing would end) in which the Phnom Penh Government would not fall. The question is how and when."
Sept. 24, 1973: Says government seems to have won monsoon-season campaign. Pessimists now fear war may last forever.
July 28, 1974: Reporting on the recapture by the government of the town of Oudong, Schanberg says: "The retaking of this town earlier this month has been called a major government victory. But the victorious troops preside over a wasteland. Oudong is in ruins." Says government troops executed many prisoners. Quotes a soldier as saying: "By the time we find out who is right and who is wrong everything in Cambodia will be broken into little pieces."
Sept. 8, 1974: Says more than 300 Cambodians are being killed or wounded daily and that refugees have increased by 200,000 since summer of 1973 to a total 2 million in government areas and one million in Communist areas. (Note that on May 27, 1973, he had reported the number in govt.-controlled areas at 775,000).
Nov. 28, 1974: Says life in Phnom Penh is so bad that refugees are eating rats and dogs, mothers are selling their babies, and middle-class wives are practicing prostitution. Quotes a middle-class Cambodian as saying: "I don't care what happens anymore. The two sides that are fighting are both ethnic Khmer. So who is the enemy?"
Feb. 7, 1975: Says that Pres. Ford's request for additional military aid for Cambodia appears inflated.
Feb. 10, 1975: Says "many diplomats and other Western observers here are wondering whether the Americans, despite the reality of the supply shortage, are not painting the picture darker than it really is, in the hope of winning more military aid for Cambodia from Congress"
Mar. 2, 1975: Says that Cambodians questioned by a congressional delegation about their fear of what would happen if the Communists took over "gave the answers they thought were expected of them" (Refugees had expressed fear of the Reds.)
Mar. 16, 1975: Quotes "Western diplomat" as saying: "This side has treated its people so badly and corruptly that it has forfeited all right to govern them."
In his April 13, 1975 article predicting that life for most residents of Indochina would be better once the Americans were gone. Sydney Schanberg noted that the "Communist-backed governments" that would take over would not necessarily be "benevolent." He said that in areas held by "communist-led insurgents" there is evidence "that life is hard and inflexible." He added: "The insurgents have committed several village massacres in their present offensive, and the Americans have predicted a 'bloodbath' when the rebels take over. On the other hand, Government troops who recently emerged from a besieged provincial town southwest of Phnom Penh reported matter-of-factly that they had cooked and eaten the bodies of dead insurgents when they ran short of food and that they had grown to enjoy it. Wars nourish brutality and sadism, and sometimes certain people are executed by the victors, but it would be tendentious to forecast such abnormal behavior as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over."
Schanberg who was quick to report any reprehensible practice on the part of anti-communist Cambodians had said very little in his dispatches about the evil deeds of the Khmer Rouge, and, as the above statement suggests, he was unwilling to believe that their past conduct should be considered any guide to how they would behave in the future, it was not that Schanberg lacked opportunities to find out how the Khmer Rouge treated the people in the large areas of Cambodia that were already under their control. Those who paid attention to what was going on in these communist-controlled areas had a preview of the holocaust that was to sweep Cambodia once the whole country came under their control.
In February 1974 thousands of Cambodians who had been held captive by the Khmer Rouge for four years managed to escape when their captors were preoccupied with their attack on Phnom Penh. The refugees reached the lines of the government forces at Kompon Thon. Donald Kirk, Far Eastern correspondent for the Chicago Tribune interviewed many of them, and the Chicago Tribune published his report on July 14, 1974. Kirk said: "You can hardly believe the depth of the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge--Cambodian Communists--until you talk to those who escaped from Khmer Rouge control.
"'They killed people by beating them and shooting them,' said Meak Sam Hon, chief of a village whose inhabitants fled from the Khmer Rouge. 'They said people were enemy agents and led them to the woods and shot them.'... 'Sometimes they killed one member of a family as an example,' said a 50-year-old woman named Um Chum, 'or they killed whole families. They led people to the forests in chains for executions. They put five people at a time in graves. People had to dig their own graves.'"
Kirk said that people were cruelly punished for entertaining any doubts about the Khmer Rouge, but it wasn't only the killing that caused 45,000 peasants to trek to Kompong Thon to escape the Communists who had held them in bondage for four years. Other factors cited were the policy of making the peasants work without rest, making them surrender all their possessions, including their crops, forcing them to fight without pay, and burning down the Buddhist wats or pagodas, killing the monks and barring religious instruction. Kirk told of a Khmer Rouge defector named Sanguon Preap who fled after watching them saw off the head of a man with the sharp edge of sugar palm leaves. He said that they spent three days cutting off the man's head, forcing him to stand while they performed this gruesome act before hundreds of people. Kirk said this was no isolated case. He was told: "They want the victims to suffer more and to serve as examples for people." Another refugee said that people were taken away, saying they were being sent to "the high command." He said: "Whenever they did that, then we knew the man would be sent to his death in the forests. It was a secret why they killed people, and nobody dared ask why."
After they captured the town of Oudong, the old royal capital, in March 1974, they forced the populace of 20,000 into the jungle and killed some 200 school teachers and government officials. They deliberately razed the town. Kirk reported, setting the buildings on fire or tearing them down.
How did Sydney Schanberg report these stories? Reporting on the thousands who fled to Kompong Thon, he put the number at only 20,000, while Kirk said 45,000. He said that "by all accounts the people came over to the government side willingly" and that judging from interviews with many of them, they were happy to "be out of it--even though they know about the failings on the Government side, including widespread corruption and frequent indifference or ineptitude in dealing with the problems of war victims and refugees." Here is Schanberg's summary of what they reported: "Some say they saw people shot; others say they only saw people taken away, not to return. Some say their movements were narrowly restricted, while others say the rules were more flexible. Apparently it depended on the village and the degree of rigidity of the particular insurgent unit." Schanberg went on to describe his interview' with one refugee, Long Iem, who had said that what bothered him the most was the "rigid communal form of life, the mandatory sharing of property and money, the ban on private business, the forced labor on community projects, the persecution of Buddhist monks, the puritanical attitude toward relations between the sexes."
Schanberg quoted Long Iem as saying that the Khmer Rouge proclaimed: "Our system is clean and right. We must destroy everything of the old system." He said that if one refused to follow one of their rules they killed him. They gave them more work but less food. This was far less graphic than Kirk's account of life with the Khmer Rouge. Moreover Schanberg buried this information far down in his story, which was headlined: "Life Poor, but Cambodian Refugees are Glad to Be Free of Rebels." He apparently didn't give any serious thought to the proclaimed policy of destroying "everything of the old system." since he said in his April 13, 1975 article that "it would be tendentious to forecast such abnormal behavior as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over."
In reporting on the razing of Oudong, Schanberg mentioned that the inhabitants had been taken off into the jungle by the insurgents. He said nothing about the teachers and government officials being murdered. While emphasizing the devastation, Schanberg didn't mention that the Communists had deliberately razed the town until the 13th paragraph of his 19-paragraph story. He offset that by charging that Government troops had executed many of the prisoners they took.
In "The Killing Fields" Schanberg is shown blaming the Cambodian holocaust on the American bombing of the Khmer Rouge, and this is the line embraced by the movie. This was the theory propounded by William Shawcross in his book Sideshow. The idea was that our bombing so maddened the Khmer Rouge that they behaved like barbarians. This never made any sense, and it was a theory that ignored the ample evidence that the Khmer Rouge were from the beginning intent upon building a pure communist system by creating the perfect communist man. This is why they were so determined to exterminate the carriers of the traditional culture--the teachers, the monks anti all other educated persons. Even Shawcross seems to have largely abandoned his own theory that the bombing was to blame. His most recent book, The Quality of Mercy, recapitulates the sideshow thesis in a footnote, but Shawcross seems not to have found any support for his theory among the Cambodians. They kept telling him that Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, simply killed everyone that opposed him.
The State Department paid greater attention to what the refugees were saying about the Khmer Rouge than did the reporters. Kenneth Quinn, a Department employee, conducted extensive interviews with the refugees from 1972 to 1974. He found that the better the communists consolidated their position, the more they pressed their radical programs of social engineering. Some embassy personnel in Phnom Penh tried to tell the reporters this, but the reporters tended to dismiss these as "hard- liners." Martin Woollacott, who covered Cambodia for The Guardian (England), said in a column in the paper on September 6, 1977 that "most journalists preferred to listen to the embassy 'liberals,' the men who wanted the war to stop and who, seeing an eventual Khmer Rouge victory as inevitable, urged that immediate surrender was the best way to save lives." Woollacott said the reporters ridiculed the "hardliners," who proved to be right.
Woollacott wrote: "Concentrating on the corruption and incompetence of the Lon Nol government and on the many deceits and stupidities of the Americans in Cambodia, few journalists had tried to find out what was happening in the Khmer Rouge areas. We had noted the bravery of the Khmer Rouge soldiers without asking ourselves what kind of utterly brutal discipline was necessary to produce such feats and what that might portend for the organization of society after victory. We knew something of the harshness of Khmer Rouge rule in the zones they controlled but we put that down to the terrible exigencies of the war."
Sydney Schanberg was less candid in a talk he gave to the Overseas Press Club-Deadline Club on August 13, 1975. He said that American intelligence about the Khmer Rouge was "pedestrian." He explained: "Nothing prepared us for these hardline, ideological peasant revolutionaries... There was no connection between these people and the peasants we had normally been accustomed to conversing with. They were wooden, sometimes smiled, but were a determined people, very impressive in their organization, and frightening at the same time because they could just as soon turn angry as polite."
In "The Killing Fields" Schanberg is shown feeling guilty about having left his faithful interpreter Dith Pran behind in Cambodia. Dith was lucky. He endured great hardship, but he survived and managed to finally escape from the Khmer Rouge. But Schanberg has a heavier load of guilt to bear than just the suffering of Dith Pran. The Khmer Rouge, whether they knew it or not, owed a debt to Schanherg. His incessant hammering away at the Cambodian government, its military and the U.S. policy of support for them were probably influential in Washington in bringing about the policy changes that sealed the fate of Cambodia.
"The Killing Fields" would have been truer to reality if it had dared to use the word "communist" in describing those who were doing the killing. It would have been more educational if it had explained why these communists felt it desirable to kill so many people, especially the "carriers" of learning and culture. It would have better portrayed the horrors of what these monsters did if it had shown not simply bones oozing out of the mud, but some of the ways in which these people were killed. It could have shown 40 young women, buried up to their necks and then knifed in the throat: civil servants being bayonetted to death before their wives and children, and then the mothers bayonetted in front of the children, and finally the children themselves being dispatched: or perhaps some eight and ten-year old children, heaving on a rope with a noose around the necks of their teacher, yelling "Unfit teacher, unfit teacher." It might have shown the Khmer Rouge sawing off a man's head with sugar palm leaves.
But most important of all, the film ought to have shown the hero, Schanberg, in a less heroic light. It would help avert similar tragedies in the future if journalists who got the story wrong were not lionized, not given Pulitzer prizes, but were held responsible for the disasters and tragedies that their mistakes helped bring about.
It wouldn't have taken much to do this. The film could have included a scene where one of those embassy hardliners tried to tell Sydney Schanberg that there was evidence that the Khmer Rouge were a different breed who would usher in a dark age for Cambodia if they were allowed to take the country. Schanberg could have responded with raucous laughter, swinging into the ditty that Martin Woollacott says the reporters in Phnom Penh used to sing to the tune of "She Was Poor But She Was Honest." It goes like this: "Oh will there be a dreadful bloodbath When the Khmer Rouge come to town? Aye, there'll be a dreadful bloodbath When the Khmer Rouge come to town."
The performance of Sydney Schanberg and other journalists of the same stripe in Cambodia is but one more example of the contribution that the media of the Free World have made to the shrinkage of freedom. The same old tricks of ideological warfare and disinformation have worked on clever journalists in Eastern Europe. China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and now in Central America. The New York Times has contributed more than its share of reporters who have misled its readers about the true nature and intentions of freedom's worst enemies. Some of the names that come readily to mind are Herbert Matthews in Cuba, Seymour Topping, the present managing editor of The Times who only a dozen years ago was singing the praises of Man Tse-tung, Alan Riding, who helped bring the Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua, and Raymond Bonner, who tried to do the same for the communist rebels in El Salvador. Many, including Schanberg, were rewarded with promotions.
In his excellent new book. How Democracies Perish, Jean Francois Revel laments the fact that the ideological war is being fought in one direction only. With the help of our mass media, communism has all to often succeeded in associating itself with progress, defense of the poor. the struggle for peace. The enemies of communism are identified as reactionaries and rightists. Revel says this is disinformation's greatest success.
The New York Times is facing a changing of the editorial guard in the near future. Will control pass to those who have consistently over the years helped destroy democracy by attacking the enemies of communism? Or will it pass to those who understand that this great bellwether of American journalism must side with freedom in the struggle against totalitarianism. The man who has the power to make that decision is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the chairman and president. Write and tell him what you think. The address: The New York Times, 229 West 43rd St., New York, N.Y. 10036.
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GOOD NEWS! THE PUBLIC BROADCASTING SERVICE TELLS US THAT THEY WILL ANNOUNCE in a day or two the date on which they will air AIM's documentary critique of the PBS series, "Vietnam: A Television History." The word is that they will air a two- hour program in June, the first hour being AIM's film, "Television's Vietnam: The Real Story." The second hour will include a roundtable discussion of the film and related issues, plus some "produced" material. This will all be done as part of the PBS series, "Inside Story," which is devoted to media criticism. This is a landmark development in television, since it will be the first time that a major television documentary has been criticized by a second documentary and aired on the same group of stations. (PBS is not supposed to be called a "network.") Media critic Edwin Diamond took note of this in his column in New York magazine of March 11, 1985. Diamond, a liberal, is not overly enthusiastic about our film, which, as he points out was produced at a cost of less than $100,000 in contrast to the $5.6 million lavished on the 13-part series produced by WGBH which we are critiquing.
MR. DIAMOND SAYS: "AND YET THE PBS HIERARCHY HAS HAD THE SENSE TO OFFER IRVINE and company prime airtime in late spring for their program." He points out that Peter McGhee of WGBH (Boston) the executive who oversaw their Vietnam series had declined to participate in the roundtable discussion being planned by Inside Story. He said, "McGhee would have been right at home at CBS," a reference to the initial reluctance at CBS to air a rebuttal to the documentary about Gen. Westmoreland. McGhee's excuse was: "Our television history was the product of a prolonged careful process. I simply wouldn't want to be judged on the basis of what some amateur TV performers were able to muster in a panel show."
WGBH MAY YET CHANGE ITS MIND ABOUT THAT. RICHARD ELLISON, THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER of the WGBH series, told the National Endowment for the Humanities, an organization that had financed his program to the tune of $1.3 million, that he was reluctant to participate in a program produced by AIM. He said, reportedly, that if the panel discussion was being done by PBS, that would be a different story. We shall see.
I UNDERSTAND THE DATE FOR THIS BREAKTHROUGH WILL BE WEDNESDAY, JUNE 26, BUT WATCH the papers for confirmation. As Ed Diamond said, "A mechanism for response has been found, 31 years after Murrow."
THE MOVIE, "THE KILLING FIELDS," HAS ATTRACTED A LOT OF ATTENTION, AND MOST OF THE reviews have been laudatory. Anything that helps bring to the attention of the public the horrible fate that befell the Cambodian people after we so needlessly abandoned them and turned them over to the maniacal communist, Pol Pot, deserves praise. Our media contributed to Cambodia's fate by failing to adequately report the abundant evidence that the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, were a brutal, bloodthirsty sect who were bent upon the wholesale restructuring of Cambodian society with no concern for the cost in human lives. Having reassured us that life would be better for most Cambodians if only we would quit supporting the resistance to the Khmer Rouge and let them have their way, our media were singularly reticent about reporting the ensuing bloodbath. At the height of Pol Pot's murderous reign, a well-educated young lady who wanted to study in a French-speaking country asked me if Cambodia might not be a nice place to go. That brought home to me how little our media were doing to keep the American public informed about the holocaust that was taking place in that once gentle land.
MANY OF YOU WHO HAVE READ BENJAMIN C. BRADLEE'S DESCRIPTION OF ME AS "A MISERABLE, carping, retromingent vigilante" are probably unaware of the fact that this accolade was bestowed on me as a result of my having had the temerity to criticize Mr. Bradlee's paper, The Washington Post, and one of his editors, Laurence Stern, for having deliberately kept stories about the slaughter of two or three million Cambodians from their readers. I angered Mr. Bradlee and Mrs. Katharine Graham, the chairman of the board of The Washing- ton Post Co., by suggesting that an editor who refuses to run stories exposing communist crimes against humanity for ideological reasons serves the communist cause just as surely as if he were getting paid for his services. That was aimed at Laurence Stern, who was then national news editor of The Post. Stern had decided against running the story of Pin Yathay, a refugee from Cambodia who had come to Washington to try to tell the American people what was happening in his homeland. Stern had told me that he rejected the idea of telling this story because The Post had run many similar stories. That was false. They had run no similar stories. That young lady who thought Cambodia might be a nice place to study was a reader of The Post, and it was no accident that she had no idea of the terrible situation that prevailed there. The Post was not informing her.
AT THE TIME, MAY 1978, I DIDN'T KNOW A GREAT DEAL ABOUT MR. STERN. I COULD ONLY judge him from his actions. When he suddenly died a year later I discovered that my suspicions of his motives were confirmed by the eulogies of his friends. One of them was Teofilo Acosta, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section and Castro's top intelligence agent in Washington. Alexander Cockburn of The Village Voice praised Stern as one whose "heart and head lay on the left side of the political bed." Cockburn added that Stern was not one of those "who feel incapable of making up his mind 'until all the facts are in.'" He said: "Larry knew what the facts were going to tell him long before he discovered what they actually were." It is little wonder that The Washing- ton Post set up a memorial fund in his honor. Stern was a prophet, not a mere editor.
"THE KILLING FIELDS" WAS FIRST BROUGHT TO MY ATTENTION BY DENNIS CAMERON, A NEWS photographer who was in Phnom Penh in its dying days and who, like Sydney Schanberg, The Times reporter in the movie, stayed on until the bitter end. Cameron, along with Schanberg and other newsmen, took refuge in the French embassy when the Reds took over.
CAMERON BELIEVES THAT "THE KILLING FIELDS" IS FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED IN ITS PORTRAYAL of Sydney Schanberg and his relationship with his interpreter, Dith Pran. He submitted an article to AIM in which he recounted conversations he said he had had with Schanberg, Dith Pran, Mrs. Dith Pran and others which portrayed Schanberg in an unflattering light. I sent a copy of the article to Schanberg inviting his comments, and I got back a long letter from his lawyer, Jonathan Lubbell, who denied everything and warned me against publishing Cameron's charges. I thought it was interesting at a time when there was much comment in the press about the "chilling" effect of the Sharon and Westmoreland libel cases that Schanberg used his lawyer to "chill" me. I confess that it worked.
I COULDN'T PROVE THAT THE CONVERSATIONS DESCRIBED BY CAMERON HAD ACTUALLY TAKEN place as he recalled. Dith Pran has said that he stayed behind in Cambodia of his own free will after getting his wife safely out of the country. Dith Pran is now employed by The New York Times as a photographer. But one thing I could do was check the accuracy of Lubbell's claim that an examination of Schanberg's articles published in The Times would show that he had done nothing to earn the gratitude of the Khmer Rouge. Those articles were readily available, and we checked them out. I don't know if the Khmer Rouge were grateful to Schanberg or not. They probably weren't, since they didn't subscribe to The Times. They came very close to killing him and two other foreign journalists, finally being dissuaded from doing so by Dith Pran. But in my view Schanberg's reporting was very helpful to the Khmer Rouge cause, and I have explained why in the article in this issue. Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of what the Khmer Rouge did when they took Phnom Penh, but the public is entitled to know how he contributed to bringing on that disaster.