Daniel N. White
I recently came across a most worthwhile book at the library: The Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975, by Wilfred P. Deac, published in 1997. There’s no shortage of books out there about the Vietnam War, but our satellite wars in Cambodia and Laos have gotten almost no attention. No attention by scholarship—this book is one of two the Austin library has on the war in Cambodia, and no attention by readers—my copy had the unworn look of an unread book.
Deac writes a good short history of the troubled and problem-ridden country and society of Cambodia, and provides a clear and objective account of how the US war in Vietnam came to Cambodia and how the side in Cambodia’s part of it we sponsored lost.
As far as the war itself, its course and outcome represented a gross and terrible failure of America’s political and intellectual leadership. The military odds our Cambodian client state faced were from the beginning prima-facie insuperable and there could never have been any chance of their prevailing. The US always cynically regarded the Cambodian war as a useful sideshow that might distract enough North Vietnamese Army (NVA) effort to improve the chances of South Vietnam surviving. There is no more sordid and reprehensible action of state than starting a war that you know you will lose, and we and our Cambodian client state’s leaderships did this.* We have never faced up to this, then, or since, and we show no signs of ever doing so.
The Cambodians on our side were largely urban and town-dwellers, who threw their lot in with a corrupt military dictatorship out of an inflamed anti-Vietnamese patriotic fervor. They fought a losing war against superior numbers of their fellow (rural, mostly) Cambodians who were trained and supported by the NVA, which was happy to have the Khmer Rouge do what it handily could have and would have done at any time of its choosing, namely defeat and obliterate the US-Cambodian client state.
Allegedly on behalf of our Cambodian allies (but more probably because of a surplus of air assets in the theater ever since the end of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam) the US Air Force waged a secret and later a huge and unreported and enormously destructive bombing campaign in Cambodia. It failed miserably. From accounts of Cambodians living in Khmer Rouge-controlled countryside, the USAF apparently regarded any structure as a target and bombed every town and village in KR-controlled Cambodia, as the USAF also did in North Korea during that war. The failed air campaign against rural Cambodia has gotten even less attention than the USAF’s against North Korea.**
That is one valuable lesson from this book: that US airpower, as destructive as it was (and is), cannot win wars. A second lesson, even more vital for the US to learn (or relearn), is how corruption bred by American intervention dooms efforts at so-called nation building.
The Cambodia “nationalistic” government the US supported was terribly corrupt. The venality, the paramount desire for personal self-enrichment at society’s expense was, after the unfavorable military position on the ground, the key reason for nationalist Cambodia’s defeat by the Khmer Rouge. But the problem was not just Cambodian corruption; it was our government’s willingness to tolerate it, to ignore our responsibility for it, and to do nothing to correct it no matter how badly it hurt our war efforts.
From p. 142 of Deac:
“William Harben, chief of the U.S. Embassy’s political section in 1972, was convinced that ‘American toleration of military corruption led directly to defeat.'”
American economic aid was stolen by the Cambodian national ruling elites, military aid was stolen and trafficked to the Khmer Rouge, and nationalist Cambodian institutions failed to perform their functions and duties on account of graft-induced inefficiencies. Citizen loyalty to the government was killed by this. Endemic corruption caused societal and political failure. The US government enabled it in Cambodia and we equally continue to enable it today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and equally refuse to do anything about it even as it destroys any prospects for our policies succeeding in those countries.
Corruption in Cambodia remained paramount in the mid-1990s yet, as Deac tell us on p.241:
“Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng was quoted [approx. 1992, while the Khmer Rouge were still fighting the Cambodian government, courtesy in part of border sanctuaries in Thailand and Chinese and US CIA covert aid] as saying that the ‘Khmer Rouge is not the number one issue. It is corruption.’ He explained that the government’s two hundred thousand troops could not defeat five to six thousand K.R. because of the corruption problem ‘in our ranks–in our army ranks.‘ (Italics mine) In the civilian sector, investors found that accomplishing anything involved payoffs at virtually every level. The corruption gave rise to a level of crime that could exist only with high-level abetment. For example, Phnom Penh became a major money-laundering center….”
The parallels with Afghanistan are painfully obvious. Why is the US government so tolerant of our client states’ corruption when we know, from the historical record, that such corruption is fatal to their and our long-term objectives and interests? Does our tolerance for corruption in others working with us indicate an American appetite for the same? Is our unwillingness to fight corruption evidence that corruption is a problem beyond our (or perhaps anyone’s) ability to fix?
There were yet more obvious impossibilities we and our clients ignored. Cambodia’s population was perhaps seven million in the early 1970s, and it is doubtful that the Cambodian government ever controlled as much as half of that. The army (~7 divisions, plus a navy and air force) was therefore raised out of a population of perhaps three million at most. The US, then in Cambodia as now in Afghanistan and Iraq, put an impossibly large percentage of the population under arms, in a country that lacked the industrial and economic means to keep that many men under arms and provide for their maintenance and provisioning. Cambodia (and Iraq and Afghanistan) also lacked the technically trained personnel to maintain the American-styled armed forces’ our aid policies gave them, especially the high-tech weaponry. Cambodia then attempted to fight a war without coherent strategic objective and without any reasonable outcome of success, a war that we gave (or forced on) them, one against their own countrymen.***
The obvious impossibilities of this, the main US political-military policy in Cambodia and presently in the Middle East today, remained as unremarked upon then as they are now today. It is a truly a stupendous intellectual and moral failure by all the parties concerned, then and now.
As far as what the Cambodian war cost the US taxpayer, Deac suggests: “The republic’s five year war cost the United States about a million dollars a day–a total of $1.85 billion, $1.18 billion of it military aid–plus another $7 billion for air bombardment.”
Adjusting these dollar figures for inflation requires multiplying by five, or perhaps six, to get current 2015 dollars. Looking at our Afghanistan adventure, we are spending at least, near as I can tell, seven to eight times in real dollar terms on an Afghan army that is ostensibly 50% larger. I do not have the current Order of Battle numbers for Afghanistan**** but the question needs answering as to why it costs in constant dollars near an order of magnitude more to establish a client state light infantry army now than it did in 1973. It certainly isn’t because the Afghan or Iraqi armies are more capable. Bad as the Cambodian army was, it was, from Deac’s account, apparently a much better fighting force than our Afghan client state’s army ever will be. And certainly better than our Iraqi client state’s now mostly defunct army ever was or will be again, assuming we manage somehow to reconstitute it.
Why do our client-state armies nowadays cost so damned much more now than then and why are they worse? Why is so much US foreign policy geared toward creating client-state armies as the key institution of our state-creation and support policies abroad, when we have such a miserable track record at it? And how is it we lack the intellectual and moral grip to examine this issue with any rigor?
And let’s not overlook the blood costs to Cambodia. Deac gives no figures for civilian casualties from the war, which, assuming equivalent civilian losses from equivalent bombing tonnages in Cambodia as occurred in Vietnam, had to have amounted to 100,000, or more; far more than army battlefield casualties. Sadly and horribly, whatever the blood costs of the war were, they were dwarfed by the Khmer Rouge postwar atrocities. We here in the US mourn the 50,000+ Americans killed in the Vietnam War; we continually overlook how much worse the casualties were for our allies, and we are blind to how much material destruction the wars caused those countries.
People need to read Deac’s book instead of sweeping the war we gave Cambodia under the rug. When we as a country choose not to learn, well, we make the same mistakes, cluelessly again and again, as we’re doing right now in Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’re obviously failing there again too, just as we did in Cambodia. Deac’s book, for all its flaws, leads any perceptive reader to asking hard questions about us as a people and society and perhaps that’s why nobody reads it. But we all ought to. We all need to be asking these questions, or we’ll never get answers and solutions to them.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*The only thing more cynical and evil might be our (and the Chinese) militarily and financially supporting the Khmer Rouge as we did after the Vietnamese threw them out of power in 1978. Deac makes no discussion of this policy of ours, a gross failing of the book. This utterly vile US policy has to date managed to escape the attention of anyone in US brain trades, journalism, or politics.
**One interesting side-effect of the USAF’s destruction of North Korea was that George Blake, the British traitor/spy second only to Philby for the damage done, saw all this destruction and civilian killing while a NKPA prisoner during the war, and his decision to spy for Moscow came from his revulsion at seeing it.
***Another major failure of this book is its not using Sam Adam’s truly excellent piece “A Cambodian Interlude,” both the 1975 Harper’s article and Adams’ posthumous 1994 memoirs. Sam Adams was the great CIA Order of Battle analyst who fought unsuccessfully against deliberate MACV (the US military command in Vietnam) OB fakery—Adams’ OB numbers were twice or more than MACV’s were on VC strength. It was a huge scandal of the Vietnam War that never got the attention it deserved. It later led to the biggest libel trial in US history—Westmoreland vs CBS, 1983. Westy lost, badly. Adams’ article/chapter told how the Pentagon deliberately faked Khmer Rouge numbers starting in 1971 the same way they had faked VC numbers from 1965 to Tet in 1968. The CIA went along with it this time from the git-go, and Adams quit the CIA because of this dishonesty repeating itself. The Pentagon probably did this fakery for the same reasons of institutional and individual moral dishonesty as before, but Adams couldn’t say for sure. It led to the same result of battlefield failure, too. As far as current war OB issues, well, the military has decided to ignore OB. No kidding. See my story HERE. The truth might hurt, but lies kill you.
**** From all accounts the Afghan and Iraqi armies have the identical set of problems of ‘potted soldiers’ that America’s proxy armies in Vietnam and Cambodia had throughout their existence, so any Order of Battle numbers have to be regarded with great suspicion. ‘Potted soldiers’—soldiers officially on the unit payrolls who aren’t ever there, but who still get paid every payday. Unit commanding officers collect most of the money; the would-be soldier gets a cut and doesn’t get inconvenienced by being in the army and getting shot at. Win-Win for everyone, right?