April 2005

Brendan Boyle


Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short

Samantha Power’s indictment of American moral failure, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide runs to over six hundred pages. But as she marches through the various counts -- Bosnia, Rwanda -- of her charge, you got the sense that she could have gone on for six hundred pages about any one episode. There is simply too much to say -- too much arrogance, too few dollars, too many dead. But Power prefers not to linger. She sets the scene, inventories the destruction, apportions blame, and moves on. This doesn’t make her accusation less credible. It rather lends an air of exhausted immediacy to catastrophes beyond the earnest grasping of our living hands.

Philip Short’s Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare does what Power’s book can never bring itself to do -- calmly, patiently, document a single tragedy, start to finish. This story begins when Pol Pot was simply Saloth Sar, a worthless student who consoled himself with Rimbaud because Marx was too hard. By the time the story ends, Saloth Sar has changed his name ten times -- Pol Pot was only the most famous of a list that includes, amongst others, Pouk, Hey, Grand Uncle, Elder Brother, First Brother -- and one and a half million people are dead.

But Pol Pot himself features only incidentally in what is ostensibly his own biography. He is largely absent from the opening chapters, whose attention is given to the anti-French independence movement that emerged in Cambodia in the years after World War II. Pol Pot spent most of this time in Paris, not doing much of anything. He flirted a lot -- with women and left-wing politics, the former much more seriously than the latter. When he returns to Cambodia he stuck to his habit of refusing to do anything of distinction. Quite by accident, it seems, he found his way to a camp set up by Vietnamese communists to school their Cambodian neighbors in the finer points of starting a revolution. Rule one: Struggle all one’s life for communism; rule two: Put the interests of the Revolution before everything; rule three: Uphold party discipline; rule four: Carry out the Party’s will with an unshakeable will and never be downcast no matter how great the obstacle; rule five: Be a model for the masses; rule six: Study!

Perhaps because he was busy studying these rules, Pol had little to contribute to Cambodian politics of the 1960s. This decade makes up the brunt of Short’s story and it is documented in painstaking detail. The Cambodian Communist party was staking out its turf, the US was bombing everything in sight, China was leaping forward, and a hapless Cambodian monarch was crossing his fingers that the center would hold. When he ran out of fingers he hit the road. Someone worse took over and, in April 1975, someone worse still. It was then that Pol’s Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. Soldiers forced everyone out of the city and into reeducation camps in the country. Twenty thousand died before the first lesson began. Then, the story takes the familiar "revolutionary" turn: the peasants starve, Pol Pot gets fat, and his underlings flip furiously through Lenin’s collected works for a chapter called "How to Run a Country."

Short rightly refuses to consider the tragedy as the work of one man. He gives the story a rich background: Sino-Russian struggles for Asian dominance, Vietnamese meddling in Indochina, and, of course, the roar of American B-52s. The account is historically accurate but it takes a toll on the reader. The Cambodian communists are forever disbanding one group and forming another and we are hard-pressed to remember the difference between the two, save for the difficulty of the acronym (from FUNK to FGUNDPK to FUNCINPEC). Nothing that Short includes ever feels superfluous, but the added cargo weighs the book down. Just when it wants to take off, a geography lesson or some impromptu anthropology grounds it. Pol Pot himself never really emerges from the story either. He was something of a recluse, but Short fails to flush his quarry. Short is much better with the finger-crossing King Sihanouk, who was toppled and re-installed more times than I could count but who genuinely intrigues while Pol merely bores.

One thing that can be said about Power’s book is that it never bores. Short may have her beat on the details. In fact, he’s got everybody beat on the details. This will, without a doubt, become the authoritative biography of Pol and one of the definitive works on the period. But Power’s book sears. Short jars with the occasional dull poke, but the effect is short-lived. We are lost trying to remember whether China was double- or triple-crossing Thailand, whether Vietnam was supporting or sabotaging Cambodia one particular week, or whether Nixon’s war was wholly or just mostly illegal. These questions need answers, but not as urgently as we need to hear just what butchers were the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short
Henry Holt
ISBN: 0805066624
560 Pages