The Case for Cambodian Gratitude: A Modest Proposal

Debt Holiday in Cambodia

Politics Features William Heidt
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The Case for Cambodian Gratitude: A Modest Proposal

I have recently read that Cambodia is furious at America for demanding repayment of a loan we made to them many years ago, $500 million dollars. Of course, critics—such cynics!—pointed out that we spent eight years bombing the unspeakable hell out of a tiny, peaceful Southeast Asian country that had never done us the least bit of harm, but only had to the misfortune to be in the neighborhood of another Southeast Asian country we were trying to subdue—Vietnam.

I read this in Common Dreams:

Cambodians are responding with outrage to the U.S. government’s demand that the country repay a nearly 50-year-old loan to Cambodia’s brutal Lon Nol government, which came to power through a U.S.-backed coup and spent much of its foreign funds purchasing arms to kill its own citizens, according to Cambodia’s current prime minister Hun Sen.

According to Branko Marcetic, writing in Jacobin magazine,

The debt was incurred by the government of Lon Nol, which was only in power for five years, and only thanks to a coup against its previous leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk. During that time, as even a prominent State Department official arguing for the repayment of the debt in 2008 admitted, the ‘Lon Nol regime never consolidated its hold on the country.’ Two years after coming to power, Lon Nol rigged an election to keep his unpopular regime in place. If an illegitimate, unpopular, short-lived, and despotic government runs up a massive debt, is it fair to continue punishing its citizens for it decades later?

Our country has been asking for payment on the debt for several decades. This is not a new, Trumpian innovation.

Let me put aside my mask of disinterest and state that, as a patriotic American and believer in the blessings of launching liberty upon all lands, I was bamboozled by this reaction. As I silenced the mix tape of country-pop that is my audio lifeblood, I had to ponder what Cambodia could be thinking. After bitter tears of huge tragedy stopped falling, I loaded up the ol’ MySpace and wrote several dozen poems about this rejection, which I then posted online. I admit, the rejection hurts. Why, Cambodia, why? It’s like my matching back and chest tattoos say, “SOME DAYS YOU’RE THE BEER.” Makes you think.

Of course, I then remembered a great genius of historical, plague-ridden times, Jonathan Swift, who I have referenced before in these pages. The late Dean Swift, who must have died from an excess of happiness, once made helpful suggestions concerning overpopulation and diet. Putting aside my lifetime goal—baking one million patriotic cakes—I decided to lift pen to paper and try to make sense of it all.

As Grabar at the Atlantic Monthly reminds us:

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives — more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea. The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia’s urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country’s delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.

In whole, the total bombing for eight years was 113,716 sites, 330,516 sorties. We’d been bombing that part of the world for some time. During the Vietnam War, the NLF (Viet Cong) and PAVN (the North Vietnamese army) operated by moving in supplies and out of borders of the nations surrounding Vietnam, notably Laos and Cambodia. By perfect logic, we decided the way to defeat the Vietnamese was to bomb the neutral countries. In 1969, the show really began. Nixon, as healthy and balanced an emperor as ever opened an oyster, decided the best way to unlock the peace achievement was to carpet bomb Cambodia with B-52s from bases in Guam.

According to Owen and Kiernan in The Walrus:

Kissinger called General Alexander Haig to relay the new orders from the president: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?” The response from Haig, barely audible on tape, sounds like laughter.

“Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history,” they continue.

How could the Cambodians be angry at us at all? Do they not understand how long it took for us to develop and built gigantic heavier-than-air machinery? It was the result of many years, friends—countless victories of toil and sweat. Cutting edge research. Fervid men smoking chains of cigarettes staring at slide rules: that’s what it took. And much the same can be said of our innovations in aerial bombardment, in munitions, in ordinance, of great strides made in firebombing and napalm. That was money we might have spent on hospitals and education, on peace and housing, bread and roses, but we spent it on this difficult science. We are nothing if not philanthropists. Our noble spirit of self-sacrifice ought to be appreciated, and it has been. Our citizens went without so others may go with—specifically with bombs.

Consider this apogee of technology. I remind you, this is in the Sixties and Seventies, before drones made it all so much easier:

A single B-52 “Big Belly” payload consists of up to 108 225-kilogram or 42 340-kilogram bombs, which are dropped on a target area of approximately 500 by 1,500 metres. In many cases, Cambodian villages were hit with dozens of payloads over the course of several hours. The result was near-total destruction.

The heaviest bombing was “Operation Breakfast,” which ran for four years. As PBS Frontline reminds us, “the raids exacted an enormous cost from the Cambodian people: the US dropped 540,000 tons of bombs, killing anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 civilians.”

Richard Dudman, who wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was, in fact, detained later by the Khmer Rouge, said that “the bombing and shooting was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the countryside into a massive, and dedicated revolutionary base.” The researcher Craig Etcheson said that “Many of those killed in the bombing were just vaporized.”

Why, any fool surgeon can remove a limb, cleanly, neatly, but slowly, one at a time. That’s old hat. Been done for centuries now. But it took American manufacturing to figure out how to remove hundreds or thousands of them at once. Our thoughtful disposition could not allow a world where such benefits were given only to one.

Let them call us maudlin and self-serving. Who has our many god-like accomplishments? Who taught them what war was, when we didn’t have to? They did not come to us; we brought our weapons and planes to them. Why, we did all of the work. We flew to them. Not just once, but again and again and again.

And who helped give the Cambodians that far-lasting work, the Khmer Rouge? We did.

“The people were angry with the US, and that is why so many of them joined the Khmer Communists,” one peasant said, according to Owen and Kiernan. Which allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power. Chhit Do, one of the Communist regime’s officials, noted that

“Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told… That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over… It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them… sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”

Did they not see our kindness, in this, the best of all possible worlds, when we dropped our saintly gifts to the good people of Cambodia, unloading those flying fortresses as we have opened our hearts? And as our altruistic explosives rained down on civilians and noncombatants, as they turned living people into slurry-meat and cinders, why could they not see we meant it for the best, that this was a friendliness, and that we so loved the blameless Cambodians that our bombs would continue to fall for eight years? Could they not see that we were the humanitarians?

Why, this is the same sage-like courteousness we are now bringing to the people of Yemen, with the help of the Saudis.

The Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University estimates the number of Khmer Rouge deaths at approximately 1.7 million (21% of the population of the country). According to PBS Frontline, “In less than four years, between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people died, out of a population of 8 million. Many succumbed to starvation or exhaustion. Tens of thousands were tortured and executed in places like Phnom Penh’s infamous Tuol Sleng prison.”

Even today, our generosity continues to bless Cambodia. Just the other morning, I read that Tonle Sap Lake in Kampong Chhnang province rendered up a hidden bounty: two five-hundred pound MK82 bombs were found by fishermen. Are there no bounds to our splendid beneficence?

Mines Advisory Group writes that:

Cambodia is one of the most heavily landmine and unexploded ordnance (UXO) affected countries in the world, with a mix of landmine contamination in the north-west of the country, and extensive cluster munition contamination across the north-east. Mines and UXO kill and injure two people every week here, exacerbating poverty, restricting land use and hindering development. More than 80 per cent of people live in rural areas and depend on the land for their survival. Malnutrition remains widespread and one in five rural inhabitants are often unable to secure enough food for themselves or their families. The presence of landmines, cluster munitions and other items of UXO compounds this issue, as they trap people in poverty by restricting access to productive land and limiting investment in key infrastructure.

The entire GDP of Cambodia is $15.24 billion. According to Forbes, my hometown of Lubbock, Texas has a gross metro product of $15.6 billion. Cambodia is slightly smaller than Oklahoma; we are half the size of Russia. A fifth of their country is below the poverty line, our GDP is $15.68 trillion. They have a population the size of Utah and Ohio combined; we have the third largest population in the world. Clearly, this is a contest between equals, and the Cambodians have us in their deadly, oppressive grip. We must struggle to breathe free.

Friends, we are the richest and most powerful country upon which the sun has ever shone. It is sensible, rational, and just that we ask an impoverished, brutalized, suffering country to pay us. When we ask for reimbursement, it is most certainly not an obscene blasphemy performed on the altar of brute Darwinian strength.

Where is the gratitude? I ask you. Paying us for our trouble is the least they can do.