US Bombing of Cambodia — Still Counting the Dead
America’s 1969–75 “Sideshow” war in Cambodia is overshadowed by the horrors of the Pol Pot era that followed, but the human cost may have been greater than previously thought. From the cool comfort of his office in Phnom Penh in late 1999, Hun Sen cast his mind back to the early 1970s and his tough days as a Khmer Rouge officer battling the US-backed Lon Nol government. It is still not known how many Cambodians died then. The US began secretly bombing Cambodia in 1969 in a vain attempt to cut Vietcong supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from Laos. As the conflict escalated, the fighting and US bombing, which peaked in 1973, cut deep into the populated areas of central Cambodia [see map]. “If you ask me why I joined the Khmer Rouge, the main reason is because of the American invasion,” said Hun Sen. “If there was no invasion, by now, I would be a pilot or a professor.” He was wounded five times, most seriously on April 16, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge were closing a noose around the capital. It cost him his left eye and, as Sihanouk once said, left him with “a piratical look attractive to women.” But he survived. The number of Cambodians who died before Pol Pot took power has been less researched than the period following. At least 1.7 million are thought to have died from execution, starvation, overwork and medical neglect by January 1979 when Vietnamese and renegade Khmer Rouge forces “liberated” the country. Some genocide investigators believe the 1975–9 holocaust tally could rise to over two million as more mass graves are discovered and mapped. Inevitably, with the limited forensic work done so far, there will be questions about when some of those graves were actually filled. “Many of those killed in the bombing were just vaporized,” notes Craig Etcheson, a leading American researcher. “According to documents and research, the figures for people who died during that time [1969–75], would be around 700,000 to 800,000,” Hun Sen estimated. Some Western demographers and scholars have come up with similar estimates, placing “excess deaths” in the 6–800,000 range. But Etcheson cautions that this is a “terribly difficult question — one about which there is no scholarly consensus and not enough empirical data to resolve in any satisfactory way. “Most of them were not army but civilians,” said Hun Sen. “Some villages were totally destroyed.” He recalled a personal close call in early 1973 in a village near his base in Kompong Cham province where he had attended a wedding. In the early hours of the following morning, B52s struck. “Everybody died except for one small child who was still sucking the breast of its dead mother. That is the tragedy we suffered.” In Sideshow, author William Shawcross reports the story of a young air force captain, Donald Dawson, who was court-martialed for refusing to fly after learning that a Cambodian wedding party had been “boxed” by B52s. “It forced him, he said, to realize that Cambodians were human beings and to recognize that non-military targets were being hit,” wrote Shawcross. One US diplomat at the embassy in Phnom Penh in 1973, where the bombing was being orchestrated, was appalled to discover that the size of a B52 “box” made it almost impossible not to hit a village in central Cambodia. Records of early B52 raids along the Ho Chi Minh trail and along the border with South Vietnam were destroyed, but other declassified records from the US military indicate heavy bombing of more populous central and southwest Cambodia. Hun Sen’s estimates are nevertheless significantly higher than many. Pulitzer prize winner Neil Sheehan only hazards a guess, writing that “hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died.” A Cambodian who was an aid worker in 1975 puts the figure at less than 100,000. The US by contrast can offer much more detailed figures for the entire Vietnam War: 58,215 dead are listed on the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. Some 2,000 Americans remain unaccounted for as missing in action (MIA) — about five percent of the annual toll to handguns in the US. Together, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam count their dead in millions, not tens of thousands. “The Vietnamese have, in short, suffered more in one year of peace with honor than America experienced in a decade of war,” acknowledged one US Senate Refugee Subcommittee in the mid 1970s. The three countries, all now members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), met in Vientiane in 1999, primarily to discuss regional cooperation in communications, transport and power. Starved of infrastructure, Cambodia and Laos are both in need of eastern exits to Vietnam’s markets, ports and the world beyond. Cambodia is particularly keen on Qui Nhon port. But Hun Sen had another item on his agenda in Vientiane. “I could not fail to mention during the discussions tripartite cooperation on the question of [US] MIAs,” he said. “Cambodia leads on the question of MIAs.