Christmas in Cambodia

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“It’s a Holiday in Cambodia, it’s tough kid but it’s life/It’s a holiday in Cambodia, Don’t forget to pack a wife,” garbled the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra on the 1980 punk tune “Holiday in Cambodia.” As in the satirical and scathing “Kill the Poor,” Biafra and the DK’s used Cambodia as a symbol of decay and destruction, a region of the world subject to U.S. Christmas bombings and Khmer Rouge genocide.  Few places in the world represented the collapse of society  and civil law like the Southeast Asian nation in the late 1970s. Add to this the 1975 U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, replete with images of bedraggled helicopters escaping the American embassy in what was then Saigon and the economic embargo that ensued, and to Americans Southeast Asia seemed like a world apart.

Make no mistake, America’s illegal bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973 (which of course remains one of several reasons Henry Kissinger can’t travel abroad freely without worrying about arrests for war crimes) devastated the small nation. As noted by Samantha Power in her excellent account of 20th century genocide, A Problem from Hell, U.S. bombings paved the way for the genocidal leadership of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, as depicted in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields. Likewise, America’s intervention into and occupation of South Vietnam did much to destabilize Indochina generally.  The massive 1972 Christmas bombing campaign of North Vietnam, one could argue, represented the nadir of American efforts in Southeast Asia. Needless to say, America’s eventual withdrawal in 1975 might have stung national pride, but when compared to the carnage of the Vietnam War on the people of Southeast Asia, it could be suggested we got off lightly.

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So the irony is not lost on this historian when myself and my wife embarked on our belated honeymoon to the region. Yet, far from the bombed out, hollowed eyed, and depressing vistas that dominated popular culture representation of Cambodia and Vietnam, one finds a new reality based on tourism, capitalism, and new demographics. Indeed, we are spending Christmas in Cambodia, but minus the death and destruction implied by the DK’s and others of their formidable ilk.

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Came for the war crimes, stayed for the dictatorship

It Ain’t All Roses

Of course, one should not downplay the horror endured by Cambodians over the 1970s and 1980s, nor dispute the fact that political violence, corruption, and civil war stalked the country into the 1990s.  The Khmer Rouge remained a military and political threat throughout the 1990s.  Himself a product of the Khmer Rouge before escaping to Vietnam to avoid an internal purge, Hun Sen established his own authoritarian regime through various human rights violations. Sen brought stability but as usual at great human cost. Today, Cambodia may be at peace, but it’s hardly equitable. Similarly, when Communist North Vietnam unified the nation, it “reeducated,” tortured, and executed thousands of individuals and families connected to the US-backed regime in the South.  While Vietnam eventually intervened in Cambodia’s bloody genocide by deposing Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it had also helped to facilitate it.  Vietnam continued to insert itself into its neighbor’s political struggles afterward, most notably by helping to bring Sen to power in 1979. These facts should not be ignored.

With that said, visiting the two nations today reminds us that history requires a broad viewpoint that takes in numerous perspectives. Movies like Rambo, Platoon, and countless other 1980s Vietnam war films portray a nation besieged by  violence and an enemy obsessed with American invaders.  Even more critical films like Stanley Kubrick’s dark Full Metal Jacket gives one the idea that the Vietnamese sought to eradicate their American counterparts at all costs, though amidst the war this was no doubt true. Chuck Norris movies like Missing in Action and Sylvester Stallone’s already noted Rambo series poked at American sensibilities regarding POWs.  What all these movies fail to grasp is how batshit crazy American interventions into Southeast Asia appear today. For Generation Xers, it seems even more baffling; after all for much of our lives Vietnam was communist and not much happened.  When generational standbys like The Princess Bride throw in quips about “never getting into a land war in Asia,” it simply confirms the sheer absurdity of the war. The swift boating of John Kerry in the 2004 election, which occurred a decade after Bill Clinton ended the US embargo and normalized relations, brought to the fore how obsessed Americans are with the nation’s failure in Vietnam.

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Ho Chi Minh City at night

Go to Vietnam today and what you see isn’t tired communist architecture or drab “comrade”-inspired clothing and pop culture, but a nation awash in youth and motor scooters.   Much of its population clocks in at under 35 and vaguely remembers the conflict with the US, if at all. Don’t believe me? Take the Cu Chi Tunnel tour on the outskirts  of Ho Chi Minh city where you can spend the day with giddy Australians, Japanese, Malay, Kiwis, and countless other citizens of the world as you crawl though old VC tunnels or witness displays of military ingenuity, while a tour guide points out the various booby traps used against American forces.

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Ho Chi Minh City market

“The man in the black pajamas,” Walter Sobchak mutters repeatedly in The Big Lebowski.  Indeed, workers on the tour don the very outfit to which Sobchak refers and in some ways the uniform  serves as the centerpiece of the tour. You can even pay 10 dollars to shoot old VC rifles on the facility’s target range, an opportunity this writer passed up but several others quickly took advantage of. As our guide noted, “Today we welcome Americans as our friends.”  Two Australian tourists, a couple who had travelled through Asia before asked us, “Why did you guys invade again?”  To which we sheepishly replied, “Um, we thought it would lead to a world of communism.”  Unsurprisingly, that response elicits blank stares.

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Cu Chi tunnel

Granted, the Cu Chi Tunnel tour seemed surreal to this American observer as a tourist contingent of Malaysians stood for a group photograph in front of a confiscated American tank, but for the Vietnamese, the Cu Chi tunnels represent a sort of Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, and Battle of Yorktown all in one. With the American defeat, it had shrugged off French and American occupiers through no small amount of sacrifice. They don’t visit the tunnels to be bitter; they visit to celebrate a hard won victory.  Michael Moore’s shortly lived TV Nation once asked how we should think about war reenactments. Reliving Civil War battles might seem harmless, but what if we reenacted the 1975 “Fall of Saigon” (which our tour guide referred to as liberation but graciously acknowledged to Americans earned the “Fall” moniker)?  When Moore did such in one episode he was met with bewilderment and sometimes hostility and anger, yet how different is it? Moreover, would Americans be so gracious with a nation that essentially invaded, occupied, and forcefully prevented unification for seven years? I doubt it. I still have students who get riled up about the Japanese and Pearl Harbor, and that was a military target.

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Malay contingent at Cu Chi

Between the indiscriminate bombings, American backed coups, and Agent Orange that collectively resulted in over 2 million civilian deaths, one could argue we have a lot for which to atone. We visited the tunnels before going to the War Remnants Museum—formerly titled “American War Crimes Museum” and later changed to simply “War Crimes Museum,” before settling on the aforementioned title today.  Is it one sided? Yes, it never really interrogates the abuses of the Communist regime after reunification, but at the same time, when you visit the second floor and witness the atrocities that occurred toward civilians, notably women, children, and yes, infants, one doesn’t walk away confident about American motives or interests. Did the North Vietnamese regime torture POWs, yes, but unfortunately so did the US.

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War Remnants Museum

To be clear, while soldiers are responsible for their behavior and some committed horrible atrocities, contempt for American political leaders – JFK, LBJ, Nixon, and Kissinger – really comes to the fore. American political leaders, as documented by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, put soldiers in an untenable, morally ambiguous position.  David Marinas captured the tragedy of the war for American soldiers in heart wrenching detail in his 2004 work They Marched into Sunlight. American veterans who walked away from the war were left with real questions over what exactly their purpose was; in contrast, Vietnamese veterans of the conflict can look back assured their sacrifices not only meant something but contributed to their nation’s independence. Over 50,000 American soldiers tragically lost their lives, but nearly 3 million Vietnamese, the lion’s share of that number civilians, died in the process. When you see pictures of Agent Orange’s long term impact such as indescribable birth defects and the like, the carnage of Cold War containment forces one to readjust their perspective. Tony Judt and others have suggested the problematic nature of historical tropes about America’s Cold War “victory” and the righteousness of containment as a foreign policy. The museum drives this point home in brutal fashion.  Yet, when you go the museum, it’s not dominated by nationalistic Vietnamese but Western tourists.

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Angkor Wat ruins

Here’s the other thing: if the Vietnamese are communists they really suck at it.  Entrepreneurship runs deep in this country.  Cambodians too seem far more attuned to small business and the grind of daily trade than state-run economies.  Siem Reap, Cambodia, the nearest town to  the majestic Angkor Wat ruins, fifteen years ago had few hotels and was buffeted by rice fields and rural huts.  The road wasn’t even paved. Today, it has over 100 hotels, western food chains like KFC, and tourists, from Europe, the US, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere, pouring in daily. Undoubtedly, western investment and tourist economies have their own evils, but does anyone believe that Cambodians are worse off today than 30, 20, or even 10 years ago? Western hippies with wrist tattoos or dread locks can be seen everywhere.  Admittedly, there are some unseemly aspects to things. European and American men “of a certain age” cavort with Cambodian women half their age and who knows about labor standards in the area. Still, with the Christmas sun rising, it’s hard not to look at the two nations today and feel appreciative that their people have, on the surface at least, moved on, even if as Americans we still cling to the vestiges of the past.

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Le Bourgeois, where you eat like the middle class

This past January marked the 40th anniversary of the treaty that put into motion U.S. withdrawal. In a little over a year from now the “Fall of Saigon” too will turn 40.  In an era of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s worth thinking about how the legacies of these conflicts will spill out across the Middle East and how we’ll remember them.  Perhaps more importantly, how will Afghanis and Iraqis recall American intervention?  What kind of governments will be left in the wake of US withdrawals? Undoubtedly, the two regions differ mightily and the political conditions that created them stand as very different forces, yet the War on Terror might one day be seen as folly on the level of U.S policy in the former Indochina. In this regard, maybe spending some U.S. dollars here can serve as the smallest of apologies for an era that hardly seems in line with the very holiday we celebrate. Then again maybe that just facilitates Sen’s corrupt regime.  Hard to say, but the people of Cambodia deserve better, here’s to hoping spending US dollars brings some small level of comfort to a people victimized by US foreign policies and their own leaders.  A happy belated Merry Christmas from Cambodia everyone.