The Dead Speak

Paul Greenberg

4/9/2008 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

There are some names in the obituary columns that say more than the voices of the living.

Such is the name of Dith Pran, who died in New Brunswick, N.J., last Sunday at the age of 65. He was the Cambodian photographer who somehow survived the collection of killing fields that his country became after the Americans abandoned it. And who somehow made his way to the United States to tell the world about it.

Millions of his countrymen would lose their lives after the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh and began rounding up unreliable types - i.e., just about anybody who could read and write. Literacy is dangerous. It gives people ideas, and the only ideas allowed in the Khmer Rouge's new Cambodia were the Party's. Holding any others could prove a capital offense.

The toll of the Khmer Rouge's brief but fatal reign of terror in Cambodia (1975-78) is uncertain - a million, two? Maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the country's pre-Communist population. The numbers can only be estimated, but the pictures of pyramids of skulls are well known. They've become emblematic of that bloody time.

Cambodia not only got a new name (Democratic Kampuchea) but a new calendar, beginning with the Year Zero. Not just hundreds of thousands of people were to be wiped out but the past itself. The Marxist dream of creating the New Man never got so close to awful reality.

It wasn't supposed to happen that way, not according to the sophisticates who were advocating an American withdrawal from Indochina in the 1970s. They blithely dismissed all the warnings that a bloodbath would follow once the United States abandoned its allies in Southeast Asia:

"Some will find the whole bloodbath debate unreal. What future possibility could be more terrible than the reality of what is happening in Cambodia now?" -Anthony Lewis in the New York Times, March 17, 1975.

"The greatest gift our country can give to the Cambodian people is not guns but peace. And the best way to accomplish that goal is by ending military aid now." -U.S. Rep. (now Sen.) Chris Dodd of Connecticut, March 12, 1975.

"The evidence is that in Cambodia the much heralded bloodbath that was supposed to follow the fall of Phnom Penh has not taken place." -The Nation, June 14, 1975, even as the bloodbath was taking place.

"Indochina Without Americans/For Most, A Better Life," -headline in the New York Times, April 13, 1975.

The Times' correspondent in Phnom Penh, Sydney H. Schanberg, may have been the most blithe of all about Cambodia's better future once the Americans left. In a report four days before Phnom Penh fell, he wrote that for "ordinary people of Indochina Š it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone."

Mr. Schanberg's limited imagination would soon enough be demonstrated by the unspeakable realities to follow.

If he was not the most optimistic of the learned naifs writing about a post-American Cambodia, surely he was the most influential, writing as he did for the widely read New York Times.

He was still sending optimistic dispatches even as the holocaust was proceeding. He was so monstrously wrong about what would happen in Cambodia after the Communist victory there that he won a Pulitzer Prize for it. The name of his Cambodian photographer, translator, guide and friend? Dith Pran.

The fast-talking Cambodian managed to save Mr. Schanberg and other Western journalists from the Khmer Rouge, but was unable to make it out of the country with them. In the swirling chaos of the Communist takeover, all was terror and confusion. The Khmer Rouge were emptying schools and hospitals and whole cities in their hunt for class enemies. (Anybody who wore glasses - the surest sign of a bourgeois intellectual - was in danger.)

At first Dith Pran pretended he had no education and passed himself off as a taxi driver. Then he threw away his money and posed as a peasant. Nothing was heard of him for more than four years, though there was a rumor that he'd been fed to the alligators, like his brother. He would lose some 50 members of his family altogether.

Dith Pran somehow managed to survive the ceaseless labor, the brutal beatings and the starvation diet (a tablespoon of rice a day), and eventually snuck across the Thai border. Reunited with Mr. Schanberg, he would go on to become a renowned photographer for the Times.

Now, once again, the sophisticates are urging Americans to abandon an ally, this time beleaguered Iraq. The leading Democratic presidential candidates speak glibly of pulling out of that country as if there would be no ill effects. As in Cambodia?

This week the American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is testifying once again before Congress, and once again he'll be met by a chorus of cynicism, no matter how much real progress his strategy, aka The Surge, has made.

Last time he testified, Hillary Clinton told the general it would take "a willing suspension of disbelief" to credit what he said. The critics of the war have their script and are sticking to it. Just as Sydney Schanberg knew all would be better once the Americans had left Cambodia.

It was Edmund Burke who said that a society is not only a contract between the living but between the living, the dead and those yet to be born. It is through the present generation that the past transmits the fruits of its experience to the future. (The process is known as History.) Yes, the dead still speak, and few of their experiences are as relevant today as events in Cambodia decades ago.

What would an American withdrawal now mean for the Iraqis? It is now too late to ask Dith Pran. But his life and trials speak eloquently enough.