The quality of mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and modern conscience.
Even before Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, the government had introduced politics of a dark variety beneath the banner of famine relief. During Jimmy Carter's Presidency, aid for Cambodia's starving population was cruelly subordinated to the government's anti-Vietnam card. Those geopolitical priorities placed the importance of supplies for the surviving cardres of Pol Pot's army ahead of famine relief for civilian victims, prolonging a devastating and senseless civil war in Cambodia.
Had William Shawcross chosen to tell that sordid story in full detail, The Quality of Mercy would have been a fitting sequel to Sideshow, his fine expose of American policy toward Cambodia in the Nixon-Kissinger years. He does narrate, in a muted way, aspects of this further "sideshow" of emergency relief, but this larger design for The Quality of Mercy is much more elaborate and less well realized.
At first glance, The Quality of Mercy is a critical narrative of the world's response to food shortages in Cambodia since 1979. Somewhat too harshly, I feel, Shawcross castigates the principal relief organizations for their opportunism and incompetence, and for promoting an array of nonhumanitarian goals of which he disapproves.
Of course, any attentive student of international politics should not be shocked by the relative weakness of altruism as a motive, even under the best circustances. We should know that governments are not alone in manipulating sympathy and that relief agencies, self-righteously proclaiming their moral superiority to standard statecraft, also play on the emotions of their donors by exaggerating the dimensions of potential disaster, and often serve ends that are more political than humanitarian.
In addressing these issues, at least, Shawcross confirms his reputation as a diligent and intelligent investigative journalist. He portrays the organizational and human actors vividly and analyzes well the relationship of relief operations to the overall circumstances in Cambodia. Here is a fascinatingly complex tale of intrigue, inefficiency, organizational jealousy and political manipulation.
But Shawcross's more ambitious intention for his book is conveyed by its subtitle, Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience. The Quality of Mercy is a far-reaching indictment of modern conscience. The book begins with an analysis of the way relief agencies, journalists and others were induced to describe the consequences of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia as comparable to the Nazi Holocaust. For Shawcross this invocation of the Holocaust was a gross distortion of reality and a deliberate manipulation of Western guilt about the inadequate response to Hitler's crimes. In effect, Shawcross accuses the relief agencies of playing on that lingering guilt to secure bigger budgets for their operations.
It should be stressed that Shawcross does not question the criminality of Pol Pot's policies or their catastrophic consequences; he merely contends that several of the relief organizations inflated the numbers. Behind those distortions lie others which have, in Shawcross's view, more serious implications. He insists that Pol Pot's crimes were distinctively and unambiguously Marxist-Leninist in character, and that it was misleading to associate them with the quite different criminality of the Hitler period:
The constant invocations of Nazism helped to obscure the fact that the Khmer Rouge were a Marxist-Leninist organization and that Tuol Sleng a Cambodian prison called "An Asian Auschwitz" in which Pol Pot's people tortured and murdered resembled much more a Stalinist prison than a Nazi concentration camp.
He notes that those killed at Tuol Sleng, aside from being far fewer than those sent to their death at Auschwitz (about 16,000 compared with as many as 4 million), were mainly former comrades "on whom the organization had turned in its revolutionary and chauvinistic ferocity." In other words, they were not a category of humanity like the Jews, declared unfit to live merely as a consequence of their identity. Further, the victims of the Khmer Rouge were tortured, in Stalinist fashion, into "confessing" before being executed by the party they had once served and then allegedly betrayed.
Shawcross insists that this confusion of two types of state criminality was not innocent, and he is particularly careful to charge the left with complicity in it. His indictment recalls Susan Sontag's insistence three years ago that she learned more of Stalin's crimes from Reader's Digest than from The Nation. In the case of Cambodia, intellectuals on the left were initially reluctant to acknowledge the gory realities of Communist rule and tended to dismiss them as C.I.A. plots to discredit the political leadership that followed the collapse of the American presence. According to Shawcross, when the evidence of atrocities became too strong to deny, leftist ideologues attempted to put the moral onus on right-wing fanaticism by associating Cambodia's plight with Hitler's Holocaust. He also charges that those pro-Marxist interpreters sought to restrict all blame to the demented Pol Pot and his entourage and thereby avoid indicting the ideology itself. Shawcross never really gives any hard evidence for these grave charges. As a result, he seems to be carrying on a form of ideological warfare that has the unfortunate effect of shifting attention away from the real victims and the main culprits of the Cambodian tragedy.
Shawcross is exceedingly critical of the Vietnamese, possibly as a consequence of his hostility to the left. He repeatedly accuses them of being more interested in obstructing the Khmer Rouge than in allowing food to reach the hungry. He also contends that after a short period of gratitude to their Vietnamese liberators, the Cambodian people began to resent the foreign presence in their country. He charges that the Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh, almost always referred to by the pejorative term "regime," was staffed by former Khmer Rouge militants, while decent middle-class bureaucrats who had never joined the Communist cause were excluded.
By contrast the U.S. government is treated rather kindly in the book. True, Washington is criticized for using the relief operation to sustain in Khmer Rouge, and for employing its funds and materials to fight the Vietnamese. Nevertheless, Shawcross makes amends for his devastating critique of America in Sideshow by suggesting that the United States is now acting out of genuine moral concern and that its political program is legitimate because it accords with the regional consensus in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in its resolve to get the Vietnamese out of Cambodia by any means.
I don't at all fault Shawcross for raising crucial moral and political questions. But it is deeply disturbing that he does so by overstatement and without convincing evidence for his most controversial conclusions. True, the tragedy of Cambodia was misleadingly associated with Hitler's crimes, but was the association really made with deception in mind? I think not. The deliberate mass executions in Cambodia did recall the Nazi antecedent, as did the apparent magnitude of the slaughter. From what we know, Stalin's crimes, while on an immense scale, were different in nature. They are better represented by the remorseless agonies of the gulag, or the cruel displacement and destruction of the kulaks.
Furthermore, the motives and performance of the Vietnamese are not as transparently sinister as Shawcross purports. They did enter Cambodia and free the society from the yoke of Pol Pot; even Shawcross admits that they performed a liberating role. Many informed witnesses, including John Pilger of the New Statesman, credit the Vietnamese with great efficiency in food distribution in the early stages of their occupation and support their claim that they diverted food from their own people, who were also in need. In addition, the Vietnamese had every reason to be suspicious of relief operations and to insist on maintaining their sovereignty over food distribution: in the past, relief operations have had close connections with Western intelligence. The massive American aid effort in Cambodia was deliberately concentrated at the Thai border, in part to keep the civil war going.
Shawcross also argues that the Vietnamese-oriented leadership in Phnom Penh has shown little interest in "a compromise" which would involve exchanging Vietnamese withdrawal for a disarming of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent free elections, but the possibility of such a compromise is never shown. The Vietnamese, and the leaders in Phnom Penh, insist that that is not a serious offer and that Pol Pot's surviving remnant cannot possibly be accepted as a legitimate participant in Cambodia's political life. To condemn the Vietnamese for their long stay may be premature as long as Pol Pot forces are actively fighting to regain power in Cambodia--a course still receiving assistance from such formidable adversaries of Vietnam as China and the United States.
What I find disturbing is that Shawcross seems to be unremittingly harsh, simplistic and one-sided in his assessments. The Vietnamese have suffered for decades at the hands of outsiders. Their insistence on securing a compliant Cambodia, especially after Pol Pot played his own China/U.S.A. cards, seems at the very least understandable in geopolitical terms. Their ultimate intentions have yet to be tested, or revealed. It must be remembered that the United Sates, China and Thailand continue to exert great diplomatic pressure to uphold the fictional legitimacy of the Khmer Rouge's credentials in the United Nations.
Pol Pot may not have been Hitler, but his regime is surely guilty of terror against its own people, killing at least 2 million--about 30 percent of the population. To defend the legitimacy of such a political force must be considered a cruel and immoral perversion. Somehow this perversion is obscured in The Quality of Mercy because Shawcross is so keen to settle historical accounts with the left. Or is there something even deeper and more personal at work here? Shawcross begins The Quality of Mercy with an extended account of his father's role as Nuremberg prosecutor. True, memory and conscience are linked in the political imagination. But surely the bureaucratic foibles of the relief agencies, which take up the bulk of this long narrative, are not to be confused with the crimes of the outsiders (mainly the United States) and the insiders (mainly the Khmer Rouge) that gave rise to the Cambodian people's ghastly ordeal. Shawcross ended Sideshow by concluding that the American role in Cambodia was one that had to be considered under the rubric of criminality. He insisted there that it is woefully insufficient to limit U.S. responsibility to mistakes of judgement or failures of competence. But in The Quality of Mercy the misshaping of Cambodian destiny as a consequence of the Vietnam War is not granted the relevance it deserves.
If Shawcross had set out to prove that mixed motives underlie missions of mercy in a world of sovereign states, we could have readily accepted this case as a confirmation of what we already know, or at least suspect. But he implies something more insidious--that the moral ype surrounding relief operations has the general effect of prolonging civil strife and extending the orbit of suffering. He cites emergency aid to Biafra during the Nigerian civil war as further evidence of this "pattern"; yet there is no evidence that the pattern exists. We should not become so "sophisticated" that we prefer to watch famine take its toll rather than risk the political impurities that inevitably infect relief operations. Most important, we must remember that some political impurities are far worse than others. Unlike Shawcross, I am more critical of the U.S. and Thai governments for their use of relief as a cover for their support of the Khmer Rouge than I am of the Vietnamese and their leaders in Phnom Penh for their efforts to obstruct such support, even if it meant denying food to some of the Cambodian population. Shawcross bitterly criticizes Oxfam for accepting Phnom Penh's terms on relief operations, denying aid to Cambodians living at the Thai border in regions controlled by the Khmer Rouge. Brian Walker, director general of Oxfam during that period, persuasively points out in a memorandum to me that Shawcross never clarifies what "at the border" meant. In fact Oxfam helped Cambodian refused to send aid across the border to Cambodians in areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge. It seems to me that this is a proper distinction for a relief ageief agency to draw, and it is incredible that Shawcross ignores it. Perhaps such oversights become inevitable when the quality of mercy is strained.
Reading The Quality of Mercy left me with the impression that Shawcross is guilty of the moral failing for which he indicts others, namely, a willful exploitation of human suffering for undisclosed ends. He seems so much to want to settle scores with the left that he largely overlooks the overriding and antecedent responsibilities of the United States for prducing the horrible devastation in Cambodia. As a result, he has written an unreliable and unbalanced book.