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The Killing Fields: A Worthy Addition to America’s National Memory

By Wendy Kuhn, with comments by Amy Burchard and Anne Rodriguez

"I know of no parallel to the conditions which have been experienced in Cambodia over the past decade to any other experience I have had. In the case of post-war Europe, there is the vast tragedy of the concentration camps . . . but thank God, the world had an immediate reaction and to this moment, there has been a sensitivity to events which happened forty years ago. But, in the case of Cambodia, for some extraordinary reason, I am left with the strong impression that the world wants to forget the tragedy in Cambodia -- they want to forget it!"
SIR ROBERT JACKSON, deputy Secretary-General, United Nations
January 1983 (qtd. in Schanberg 1984)

"The apparent ease with which children learn is their ruin."
(Rousseau, qtd. in Hirsh xiii)

"Pran says he was always most afraid of those Khmer Rouge soldiers who were between 12 and 15 years old, they seemed the most completely and savagely indoctrinated. 'They took them very young and taught them nothing but discipline. They do not believe any religion or tradition except Khmer Rouge orders. That's why they killed their own people, even babies, like we might kill a mosquito. I believe they did not have any feelings about human life because they were taught only discipline.'"
(Schanberg 1980, 44)

"If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance? --That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past. --That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity." (Kammen, Mystic 10)

The importance of a collective memory

[1] Collective, or group, memory can be a powerful tool. It can bind people, people who may have otherwise never connected, in firm and enduring ways. People who, for example, all attended the same rock concert, have a binding, collective memory of that concert. They all remember what the performer wore, which opening band played, and, of course, the songs played in the encore performance. Mothers, fathers, children, students, businessmen, guards, deadheads, drug dealers, escaped convicts, basically everyone who attended this concert, all share a memory. In other words, fundamentally different people can be joined and united under one collective memory. As I said, collective memory can be a powerful tool.

[2] History, and, in particular, American history, can function as a collective memory. Through history textbooks and similar teachings, Americans can share a "memory" of our nation's history. This memory can serve one important purpose -- it can instill pride and nationalism into the people of this country. Unfortunately, things may be "omitted" from the record of American history if they are considered to thwart this nationalistic objective. In this analysis of The Killing Fields, I plan to argue that the "secret history" of Cambodia is stricken from the American record for precisely the reason mentioned above -- its negative portrayal of America is believed to interfere with a "needed" nationalism. I plan to show that the controlling of this history is negative and unnecessary, for knowing the full facts behind the United States involvement in Cambodia does not interfere with nationalism. The film, The Killing Fields, is very important in this sense; it shows us that negative American events can enter our "collective memory" without disrupting someone's American pride. In fact, the inclusion of such American foibles can be quite positive for our nation as a whole.

America's nationalistic memory

[3] To understand why America's involvement in Cambodia is not included in our nation's "collective memory," first, we must have an understanding of what a "collective memory" is and how nationalism is embodied in that memory.

[4] Although people cannot live long enough or be in enough places to attend every historical event, we can, by studying history, remember such events. How is this so? How does one remember being at the Declaration of Independence, and watching John Hancock pen his enormous signature in defiance of the British? Or the chaos and confusion present on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? How do we feel the Pilgrim's desperation during their first winter? Or an immigrant's optimistic hopes and dreams when arriving in the United States, in search of the American dream? The answer to these and other questions concerning America's collective memory date back to elementary school, and those dreaded social studies textbooks. Here is where the seeds of nationalism are first implanted.

[5] Americans have been force-fed nationalism from day one of the first (or second) grade. Think back: After playing "the name game" and choosing your desks, it was time for class to officially begin. Everyone was instructed to sit as brand new textbooks were distributed to each student. Among the colorful readers and phonics books, the soft-cover math and science texts, was each child's very first history book. As we opened our "enormous" texts, complete with large print, tons of pictures, about 200 pages, and a giant bald eagle (nobly standing on the American flag) on the cover, we began our journey into the nationalistic memory of America that we possess today.

[6] This history textbook taught us many things. We learned about Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and George Washington. We learned about the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere, Betsy Ross, and Patrick Henry. We learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. We were fed one story after the next of this great American person and that great American event; we heard only of American heroism and American triumph. We became little "baby nationalists," beginning each day with a "pledge of allegiance" and the song that proclaims "God shed his grace" on our country.

[7] Our elementary school social studies textbooks and teachers, in effect, gave us our "collective memory" of American history. This is how we remember such historical moments as the first Thanksgiving and the signing of the American Constitution as though we were there; these pivotal incidents in American history were drilled into our impressionable minds to such a degree that we actually have a memory of these events.

What does our "national memory" exclude?

[8] The most interesting thing, in my opinion, about a collective American memory is not what we learn, but what we don't learn. What is NOT a part of our country's collective memory? And how do these omissions differ from what is included?

[9] Basically, if one assumes that American history is told to create "baby nationalists," as I argue above, then anything not included in this history must be something the almighty textbook authors feel would thwart this intention. For example, we learn that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. (Actually, he discovered the Bahamas, but close enough.) This first fact serves a nationalistic purpose -- being "discovered" sets us apart from all other nations as special. We are not taught, however, that when Columbus and other European explorers landed on our shores, they carried many European diseases that plagued the Native Americans, killing 90 percent of their population. Although such consequences were not intentional, the fact that the "discovery" of our country led to millions of deaths does not look "good" and certainly doesn't foster nationalism. We can't really be proud of this fact, and therefore it is omitted from our collective history.

[10] One could argue that the reason these occurrences are not a part of the official American history is because young children, the "baby nationalists," should not know about such disturbing American facts -- it may upset them. Without even getting into the fact that children are exposed to much more violence on television than they could ever find in a history book, I will say that I agree -- children aren't ready for this kind of realism.

[11] But then, why aren't American students taught this information in high school, when they are deemed "old enough" to learn about other disturbing occurrences, like the Nazi Holocaust? Why is the American Revolution embedded into our minds while the Vietnam War is barely touched upon? The answer, plain and simple, is that some American figurehead (who? -- that's a mystery) does not want our students to learn any negative American history. History books essentially become promotional literature and not the sources of factual information one assumes them to be.

History of America's involvement in Cambodia

[12] American involvement in 1970's Cambodia is one of the events stricken from our history books. To understand why America's foreign involvement in Cambodia is overlooked, one must first understand (a) what the history of American involvement in Cambodia is, and (b) why this type of history is believed to thwart the purpose of instilling American nationalism into readers of our history.

[13] America "invaded" Cambodia in April of 1970. Richard Nixon sent American troops into this neutral country to aid Lon Nol in his cause of ridding Cambodia of Vietnamese sanctuaries. Many purport that Nixon staged this invasion for more selfish reasons, such as "looking tough and dangerous to the North Vietnamese" (1:47:18). The incursion lasted for sixty days, and, when the bombing ceased, 11,000 enemy Vietnamese lay dead.

[14] Many claim that this incursion did far more damage to Cambodia than repair. The communist Vietnamese sanctuaries that Nixon and Nol were trying to eliminate are believed to have actually expanded. During this invasion, the Vietnamese were even said to have aided the Khmer Rouge, an extremist Cambodian communist group, in their deadly cause, helping them to mobilize and recruit new members.

[15] America remained in Cambodia for the next five years, trying to help the country we inadvertently (or not) dragged into war, with food and protection. Things began to look dim, as the Khmer Rouge closed in on Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, in 1975. On April 12, 1975, after reaching the conclusion that our aid was basically ineffectual, America evacuated Cambodia. Five days later, April 17, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and began their four-year torturous rule. In 1979, when the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, 3 million Cambodians, over 40 percent of the population, lay dead, victims of starvation and systematic elimination.

Omission of Cambodia from America's collective memory

[16] Why is the above occurrence "omitted" from the average American's collective memory of our nation's history? The most obvious, and probable, answer is that this history negatively reflects on America. America bombed a peaceful nation, dragged them into a war they wished to avoid, and left when Cambodia needed us most. This tale differs drastically from the "rosy" American picture painted in such celebrated stories as the "Boston Tea Party." Instead of fighting oppression, we are allowing it to prevail. Instead of triumphantly defeating the "evil" British, we are cowardly retreating from a dangerous situation we created. This is not the kind of story we tell children to teach them national pride; this story is one of national embarrassment.

[17] Ironically, the historical facts in and of themselves, although not flattering to our country, certainly do not indicate that America is "evil" or essentially "bad." We may have been selfish by using Cambodia as a pawn in a game called Vietnam, but we certainly didn't desire or expect the massacre that ensued to result from our negligent actions. Any intelligent person could look at these events, realize that America made a mistake (hey, we all do) and move on. Their nationalism would not be affected as a result of learning this "secret" history; mine hasn't.

[18] And yet, these events are considered "bad" enough to have been a "secret history" in the first place. But, why? If this history isn't so negative that my nationalism has been modified, why isn't it included in America's "collective memory"? What would happen if it were?

The Killing Fields: America's nationalism remains despite knowledge of "bad" history

[19] The film, The Killing Fields, functions to answer these questions. By bringing the "secret history" of Cambodia into our collective memory, The Killing Fields shows us that learning about Cambodia does not negatively affect our national pride; it just gives us a more realistic impression of the American government, an entity with both strengths and weaknesses.

[20] America's faults are exposed left and right in this film. The very first scene we encounter supports this contention. We are introduced to Dith Pran, waiting in an airport for his friend Sydney Schanberg, whose flight is late. Pran runs off as he notices an ambulance rushing through Phnom Penh. Later, we discover that this ambulance came from Neak Luong, a small city that an American pilot had accidentally bombed earlier that day.

[21] Once Schanberg and Pran learn of this bombing, they approach our "military attaché." He denies the occurrence, ignoring Schanberg's request to report this mishap with a perpetual "no comment" (9:18). Later, when Schanberg approaches another American official, one he is friendly with, we learn that the death toll in Neak Luong is "in the hundreds" and that it occurred due to "pilot error" and "computer malfunction" (12:03). We are not offered the information either; Schanberg has to wrestle these facts out of his friend.

[22] Later, Schanberg and Pran devise a way to enter Neak Luong, against the wishes of our American government. After arriving, they witness the devastation that the military attaché denied existed. Hundreds of Cambodians lay dead and wounded, amongst the rubble that used to be their village, that used to be their lives. They speak to Schanberg and Pran, relaying their sad stories. For the first time, the American public, those viewing the film anyway, became truly aware of Cambodia's struggle and our role in that struggle.

[23] The United States government, tipped into Schanberg and Pran's presence in Neak Luong, send the entire press corps to the site to, according to Schanberg, "sanitize the story." The military attaché is quite hostile toward Schanberg for allowing this story to be uncovered.

American nationalism endangered by "cover-up"

[24] This scene alone reveals a great deal about The Killing Fields' ability to show a "dirty" American history without affecting nationalism. This scene doesn't affect nationalism? Well, it may, but not because of the historical facts. Our national pride is compromised here because of America's attempted cover-up of these facts.

[25] Let's mull over this one: suppose the United States military was open about this bombing from the start. Schanberg, Pran, the entire press corps, and the American public would be informed of the incident from the get-go. How would they react? Would they condemn America? I don't think so. According to the facts of the incident, the bombing, however negligent and unfortunate, was indeed an accident. No one would be truly angry with America because one soldier "screwed up the coordinates" and dropped bombs on a town whose "homing beacon" read as a military target on a jet's computer. One would probably assume that the soldier was riddled with guilt over this unfortunate incident, and that America would have much preferred it had never taken place. The anger at America, and threat to nationalism, therefore, lay not in the bombing itself, but in the cover-up of that bombing. The anger lay in the "secrecy."

Including The Killing Fields in America's memory does not affect nationalism

[26] As this portion of The Killing Fields shows, American nationalism is thwarted less by the knowledge of "bad" American history, and more by the withholding of this knowledge. In this sense, we can look at The Killing Fields as a whole to see why its inclusion in our national history would not affect our nationalism; only its omission will.

[27] Anyone who saw The Killing Fields was disturbed by the role America played in Cambodia's fate. Witnessing America's abandonment of Cambodia, in a chilling evacuation sequence, was admittedly disquieting. But, the film as a whole does not condemn America for all the troubles that Cambodia experiences. The viewer becomes painfully aware that America, while contributing somewhat to Cambodia's situation, and certainly not helping things, was not to blame for the massacre that ensued. In fact, our abandoning of Cambodia was not uncalled for, and was even necessary, as the powerful Khmer Rouge closed in on Phnom Penh.

[28] The evidence for the exoneration of America in Cambodia's fate in The Killing Fields lies in the second half of this film, as we witness Pran's awful experiences in the Khmer Rouge's "Kampuchea." The cruelty and brutality of the Khmer Rouge is revealed here in grotesque accuracy. As the viewer becomes aware of the Khmer Rouge's powerful hand in the Cambodian Holocaust, one can forgive America for its unintentional and indirect influence.

[29] Pran describes the actions and beliefs of the Khmer Rouge through his inner monologue. After witnessing Khmer Rouge members murder a few Cambodians who "confessed" their guilt in "soft-living" (i.e. capitalism) Pran thought this:

The wind whispers of fear and hate. The war has killed love, Sydney. And those who confess to the Angka vanish, and no one dares ask where they go. Here, only the silent survive. (1:35:40) (see comment by Amy Burchard)
Pran's words reflect the great fear the Cambodians had of their Khmer Rouge leaders. This fear resulted from the knowledge that anyone who resisted Khmer Rouge ideals was murdered.

[30] The Cambodians were forced to attend re-education classes, where any pre-Revolutionary Cambodia thoughts and beliefs were to be erased from the culture. Those who "confessed" to intelligence, to wealth, to supporting capitalism, were all eliminated. The Khmer Rouge saw these people as threats to their goal: a new communist society based on equality and obedience, where all knowledge and memory of pre-Revolutionary Cambodia was erased. To them, it was now "Year Zero and everything [was] to start anew" (1:34:41).

The dangerous Khmer Rouge children

[31] The Khmer Rouge was cruelly determined to accomplish this goal. Throughout the film we see Cambodians chosen at random by Khmer Rouge for death. The Khmer Rouge children were ruthless, in this respect. According to Pran, the children "seemed the most completely and savagely indoctrinated" (Schanberg 1980, 44). At one point, we see a young girl seizing a man old enough to be her grandfather, and leading him off to murder, simply because his fingers were not callused enough for her liking.

[32] Although the children lacked compassion, the adults were even more culpable in the atrocities that occurred, for they were responsible for teaching such immorality to young, malleable minds. The film supports this culpability. At one point, we see Pran looking on with disgust, as he witnesses the Khmer Rouge training children to reject a fundamental institution, the family. The children, so pathetically impressionable, accept this lesson without question. One child approaches the board and, without an inkling of the significance behind her action, draws a giant "X" through the picture of a family.

[33] This second section of The Killing Fields has many implications for American history. In one respect, it establishes that the history of Cambodia should be made a (larger) part of our collective memory, as it does not thwart our nationalistic goal. In another respect, this section of The Killing Fields raises another question, is the goal of teaching nationalism good?

[34] First, the culpability of the Khmer Rouge, over and above America's responsibility, in the Cambodian massacre is undeniable. America did not cause the deaths of these people; a strong, radical group called the Khmer Rouge did.

[35] This fact alone is very important. If American viewers of The Killing Fields can recognize that America, while playing some role in Cambodia's fate, was not solely responsible for the atrocity that happened, then they can definitely forgive America for this "mistake." If one can recognize that America is fallible (we should not have gotten involved in Cambodia), but generally good (we show remorse for the atrocities that took place), then people can retain their sense of nationalism. In this sense, the teaching of America's involvement in Cambodia, while not a "rosy" nationalistic story, doesn't negatively affect the American student's national pride. It simply teaches us that no one, not even America, is perfect, and that mistakes, no matter how detrimental, are useful as learning experiences. (see comment by Anne Rodriguez)

America's similarities to the Khmer Rouge

[36] The second important aspect of this section of The Killing Fields, this one in respect to the valuing of American nationalism, lies in this quote: "The apparent ease with which children learn is their ruin" (Rousseau, qtd. in Hirsh xiii). As evidenced by the children under Khmer Rouge instruction, kids are very, very impressionable. Even the most innocent, harmless child can be taught that murder is acceptable, even appropriate.

[37] How does this apply to America's collective memory? If America's goal is to teach children nationalism, and history which obstructs this goal is omitted from our collective memory, then America may be trying to control history in the same way the Khmer Rouge tried to control society. If the Khmer Rouge "eliminated" anything (or, more accurately, anyone), who threatened their "communist-society" goal, and America "eliminates" any "bad history" that threatens our nationalistic goal, then maybe America and the Khmer Rouge are not as different as we would like to believe. So, on a much, much smaller scale, America's control of history is comparable to the Khmer Rouge's control of society. The real question raised by comparing Khmer Rouge teaching techniques to our own is this: Do we do our nation a disservice by not allowing all history, good or bad, to be taught?

Should all history be taught?

[38] These questions are difficult ones to answer, especially with respect to children and their impressionability. Since children are so easily influenced, controlling the information they are taught is a very controversial issue. This control can be, as it was in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a bad thing. In America, the end result of this control may not be so bad (national pride can hardly be compared to murdering people). But, our methods of reaching that goal, namely by only allowing what serves our nationalistic purpose to be taught, are upsetting and may call for change.

[39] On the other hand, maybe, children need a sense of nationalism. Maybe pride in one's nation is essential for unity and order, and that temporarily omitting negative American history is the most effective way to instill this pride. We could teach children nationalism early in life so that learning "negative" American history later would not affect their essential American pride. (As I said, The Killing Fields did not change my affection for America, but I grew up on the "First Thanksgiving" and "Give me liberty or give me death" versions of American history.) This pride could be important, in that it unifies us a nation.

[40] Although these questions may never be answered, they do remind us of one important fact: collective memory can be a powerful tool. Our collective memories of America, and American history shape who we are today. Without an original sense of nationalism, I may not feel so strongly about the importance of American history. I may not care what is included and what is omitted from our national memory. For good or for bad, I am who I am because of what I have been taught. This is why what we are taught is so essential to our personal, and national, growth.


Amy Burchard (Feb. 2003)

It is interesting to think about Pran's words, "Here, only the silent survive," in another context. How does this relate to Wendy's point about secrecy and cover-ups? Maybe in some ways, this secrecy, or silence, is a means for survival. We know that government agencies exist that are designed to deal with top secret information, and we accept that that is necessary; all Americans do not need this information and should not have access to it. If this information was common knowledge, our survival as a prosperous nation would be negatively impacted, since we would become vulnerable. So let's apply this to the government's sharing of "bad" or "secret" history. Suppose they do. They tell everyone all the mistakes they have made and continue to make. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel vulnerable. Who knows, if they shared everything, how much information there could be? While I can't condone the actions of the American government in the covering-up of the bombings in Cambodia, I'm sure there are some things we don't need, or really want, to know.

Anne Rodriguez (Feb. 2009)

I agree with you that teaching the faults of America will not ruin American nationalism. It's wrong that so many people have this distorted view that America is all good (the best) and everyone else is wrong (or at least worse). America has made many poor decisions and is the cause of hurt and suffering. It is important to know that, to learn our real history. We need to know the realities of the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, the Japanese internment camps during World War II, the casualties of Vietnam, the secret bombing of Cambodia, and the real reason why we're in Iraq. These are not just mistakes; they are faults, problems that we have caused. One important thing to remember is that not all Americans caused these faults. We need to hold certain people responsible for these problems, like we did Nixon for Cambodia (and Watergate), but that does not mean that our nationalism dies. I am not proud of America for these things, but I am proud to be an American, and that distinction needs to be made clear. America isn't perfect or the be-all-end-all, but it is a good country that is founded on ideals that we need to strive for, even if that means admitting faults to those we hurt and to our citizens.