Philip Short's Pol Pot is a controversial book. The New York Times review and (even more strongly) the Washington Post's review both praise Short's writing and style (from the WP: "His text sparkles with shrewdly plausible inferences mortared into a compelling narrative."), but both reviewers are squeamish about Short's thesis: that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge are to a large degree products of Cambodian culture and history, not just evil monsters (from the WP review):
Moreover, Short does not really explain the mental processes driving Pol Pot and his colleagues to order mass murders. Instead he offers examples of how this was simply the thing to do in Cambodia. He writes that Khmer Rouge atrocities were rooted in the country's history and tradition -- in "pre-existing Khmer cultural models." He even calls Buddhism (whose most basic precept forbids the taking of any life) a factor because its "impersonal fatalism . . . erects fewer barriers against evil than the anthropomorphic God of Christianity or Islam who sits in judgement and threatens sinners with hell-fire." Among other exotic explanations, he implies that Pol Pot's hatred of cities had deep roots: "In Khmer thought, the fundamental dichotomy is not between good and evil, as it is in Judaeo-Christian societies, but between srok and brai, village and forest." By going to the maquis, the Khmer Rouge had moved to "to the jungles, the wild places, where dark, unknown forces roamed."
In other words, the horrific brutality of Pol Pot (he was responsible for the deaths of somewhere between a million and 1.7 million Cambodians, something between 20 - 40% of the population of the country) was not the result of a unique individual seizing a unique historical time to create a dictatorship to pursue his goals of killing millions, but is instead the result of cultural and historical factors that allowed any driven individual to end up being a murderous dictator - Cambodia has always suffered to a lesser degree under despotic murderous rulers, and Pol Pot was just a more active example of a type. Short argues that Cambodian culture created Pol Pot, and thus Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge do not bear all of the guilt for the killing fields of Cambodia. This, as you might imagine, isn't a very popular conclusion:
From the WP:
Philip Short's 537-page book goes a long way toward telling us who Pol Pot was; unfortunately, it is marred by superficial generalizations about Cambodian culture and a bizarre attempt to exonerate the Khmer Rouge of genocide.
From the NYT (more positive, but still squeamish):
No doubt some people will be offended by this book, not only for its indiscretions, but also for its restraint. Wasn't Pol Pot a monster pure and simple? How dare Short imply otherwise! This attitude, understandable though it is, hinders our apprehension of reality. The truth is that even now you can find poor people in Cambodia who -- no matter that they lost relatives in the Pol Pot time -- wish for the return of the Khmer Rouge.
I, too, am squeamish about these "essentialist" arguments (that whatever historical event - genocide, failed state, lack of economic growth, massive economic growth, whatever - is explained by unique cultural and historical circumstances that can't be replicated elsewhere). Writing off any historical event as unique removes it from academic or intellectual study (why both researching what happened if it can't happen again?). While, of course, history never exactly repeats itself, there are clearly times where parallels at least partially exist (Hitler didn't learn from Napolean not to invade Russia in the winter; the US thought it learned from Europe in the 1930s to oppose rising dictators and not to appease them in Vietnam; etc.). Hence, I am reluctant to write off Pol Pot and the entire era as unique to that time and place.
That being said, Short's book may not be the place to turn. I am not a student of this time, place, or movement, so I have no other histories to point people to if they have an interest in this subject. Short's book is not bad (very nicely written, very well sourced: he had interviews with many surviving Khmer Rouge officials who are still alive - and free - and in some cases still active in Cambodian government), and is full of detail. It is, however, devoid of the detail that makes Pol Pot one of the worst murderers of this century. The section of the book that describes the time when the Khmer Rouge were in power (1975 to 1979) was a time when somewhere around 1.5 million people died. Yet, this book lacks any sense of gravity when describing the conditions around the country at this time (most people starved to death). There could be two explanations for this lack: first, the awfulness of the spectacle has been described in other places, and Short felt no need to add yet another description; second, by minimizing the descriptions of Cambodia's worst era, it makes it easier for Short to make his case that Pol Pot is not acting to far from standard Cambodian culture and previous despotic dictators (who also killed, but not on Pol Pot's scale). Which of these is accurate, I don't know (and it could be the first, or both, or another). To the degree the explanation lies in the second argument, that is a violation of the idea that historians are supposed to let facts lead to conclusions, not the other way around.
An interesting, but disturbing book (on many levels). Not Recommended.Posted by baltar at March 15, 2005 12:05 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Books