More on Chomsky and Cambodia

Following on from my earlier posts that can be seen here and here, Professor Sophal Ear of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California has a letter in the Observer today. This is an important letter and I believe it should be read it full. Ear is rightfully annoyed with Noam Chomsky’s response to Andrew Anthony’s article on Malcolm Caldwell that appeared in the 10 January issue.

Ear provides a brief background of his family’s escape from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in this six minute video clip. As he notes, his own father was not so lucky as to be able to escape. Like many Cambodians who lived under this genocidal communist regime, his father died “in a mite-infested Khmer Rouge ‘hospital.’” It is therefore not surprising that Ear has taken an interest in the history of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1995 he wrote a superb university thesis, The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979 (PDF). This thesis deals with the way academics such as Malcolm Caldwell and Noam Chomsky had portrayed the Khmer Rouge.   Ear accuses Chomsky and his co-author Herman, in relation to their writings about Cambodia, of “seething biases,” of writing “nothing short of a farce,” of straying into “reductio ad absurdia,” of boundless “hypocrisy,” and of coating their arguments in “slippery language.” These charges  are with some justification.

I noted in my earlier article that Chomsky and Herman defended Hildebrand and Porter’s disgraceful book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. They referred to this book as a “carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it . . . based on a wide range of sources.” At the same time they attacked Barron and Paul’s Murder of a Gentle Land, a book that highlighted the horrors of the regime, by arguing that “their scholarship collapses under the barest scrutiny.” Another book that highlighted the horrific life for Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, was Ponchaud’s Cambodge anée zero (Cambodia: Year Zero). Chomsky and Herman admitted that this book was “serious and worth reading,” but asserted that it “lacks the documentation provided in Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore difficult to assess.” Moreover, “the serious reader will find much to make him somewhat wary.”

A key point that Chomsky and Herman made in their review article was as follows:

highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available … concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing. These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false.

Despite substantial information provided by refugee testimonies, as is clear from this extract, Chomsky and Herman attempted to minimise the amount of executions that the Khmer Rouge carried out and apportion part of the blame for the executions that did occur on America. This claim fits in with Chomsky and Herman’s world view. This view can be seen by a claim that they made in their book,The Washington connection and Third World fascism, published two years later (viewable via Google books):

Washington has become the torture and political murder capital of the world. [Emphasis in original]

A reason why Chomsky and Herman’s 1977 review is particularly revolting is precisely because it was written in 1977. At that time the Khmer Rouge was still in power and they were still killing Cambodians. These are facts. The Khmer Rouge were not actually in power that long: April 1975 through January 1979, a period of less than four years. In this short period of time, according to an estimate provided by Craig Etcheson in his book After the Killing Fields, (viewable via Google Books) and calculated by Patrick Heuveline, approximately 2.2 million Cambodians died of which about half of them were via execution. While this was going on, Chomsky and Herman were trying to argue, “executions have numbered at most in the thousands.”