War: The Afterparty

America has been almost continuously41ji+HhnucL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg at war since Pearl Harbor. This is in defiance of America’s founding fathers, who believed that the army should be kept small and that the country should not get involved in the affairs of other nations, for war is expensive, expense justifies taxes, and taxes create tyranny.

Since 1942 a quite different ideology has taken over, which Brian Gruber summarises thus:

  • War is cheap;
  • War is perpetual;
  • War is entertainment.

War is not, of course, an entertainment for those involved, but since Vietnam most Americans are not involved. But if not for entertainment, then what have all these wars been for?

America’s bombing of Cambodia began in 1967. America bombed Cambodia into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, then backed the KR in the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia. So America played a role (not the exclusive role) in bringing ordinary Cambodians over two decades of misery. This was one of the little wars.

Gruber’s chapter on Cambodia, like the rest of the book, is a mix of history (accurate so far as I can judge), travelogue (a description of a visit to Tuol Sleng, the KR torture centre), and interviews. I found the interviews the most interesting part. They include Youk Chhang, founder and head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (D-CAM for short), three Western newspaper editors, and Elizabeth Becker, who covered Cambodia before it fell to the Khmer Rouge and interviewed Pol Pot in late 1978. The interviews are partly about personal experience, and partly about the role the American bombing played in driving the rise of to the Khmer Rouge. This is still a controversial matter, but the balance of opinion seems to be that the bombing helped the KR by allowing them to depict the war as one against foreign aggressors in the heavens and their lackeys in Phnom Penh. I found the interview with Becker interesting, and that with Youk Chhang enthralling.

Did America accomplish in Cambodia what it set out to do? The first part of the bombing campaign was aimed at denying supplies to the Communist forces in South Vietnam, and it failed. The second and shortest part was to help prop up the Lon Nol government, and that also failed. The third part, the diplomatic war (if war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, then the converse is also true) supporting the Khmer Rouge in the UN, was largely to pique the Russians and the Vietnamese, and succeeded. A great deal of misery for nothing.

And what was the cost? In the early 1950s and 1960s Cambodia was doing very well in comparison to other Southeast Asian nations. By 1992 it was in ruins, more like Africa than Asia. Only now is the economy getting back to where it once was.

I can highly recommend this book.


Brian Gruber and friends in Kabul