The War Nobody Won 20

The only alternative for Vietnam now was to seek a rapprochement with the United States, which promised trade, aid and investment. “The war is past; let us be friends,” a Vietnamese official in Hanoi said at the time as he showed me a handsome French villa that had been chosen as the U.S. embassy. Its rats, he added, had been exterminated. Other offi¬cials suggested that American ships might again use the base at Camranh Bay.
But a reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam was im¬peded by the fate of the GIs missing in action and the situation in adja¬cent Cambodia.
American officials alleged that Vietnam was withholding the remains of roughly two thousand missing U.S. servicemen as a device to bargain for recognition. The charge was not entirely false. Often the Vietnamese cooperated only when it suited their purposes. In one case, researchers found, the purported bones of Americans were those of Asians. But many U.S. politicians and pressure groups also exploited the issue, and they could do so because the Vietnam conflict, in contrast to other wars, tormented the American psyche.
Of the nearly three hundred thousand GIs killed in World War II, more than 20 percent were missing, and the same proportion applied to Korea. But, by 1996, the bodies of only a tiny fraction of those who died in Vietnam had not been recovered, mainly because of the tech¬nology employed to trace them. The technology also identified every American lost in the war. Pentagon officials, ordered to designate the ritual unknown soldier for Vietnam, arbitrarily selected the coffin of one whose identity was in fact known.
Finding all the missing GIs was impossible. Cadavers decay quickly in the tropics, and regions of the country are so rugged that even the Vietnamese would never locate many of their two or three hundred thousand soldiers who vanished during the French and American wars.
But instead of acknowledging that reality, numbers of U.S. politi¬cians, presidents included, deliberately inflamed the issue for their own aims. They also refused to state openly what most of them believed privately—that no live Americans were being held in Vietnam. Their duplicity spawned a cottage industry in spurious “sightings.” Under¬standably reluctant to give up hope, many families of the missing men trusted lobbies that perpetuated the cruel hoax—and, in the process, duped the public. Surveys further showed that the majority of Americans—veterans among them—believed that Hanoi was detaining U.S. captives against their will.
Attempts to cement a relationship between the United States and Vietnam were also hobbled by Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia on Christmas of 1978—an event that conjured up memories of Southeast Asia’s complicated past.
Again and again over the centuries, Cambodia had fallen prey to its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. Its chief of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, often confided to me that he was haunted by the nightmare that his nation would someday become extinct and be remembered only by the magnificent temples at Angkor. Constantly maneuvering to pre¬vent the war in Vietnam from spilling into Cambodia, he acquiesced to the Vietcong sanctuaries inside his country but denied their existence lest the Americans attack his territory. Later, anticipating a Communist victory, he authorized the U.S. forces to cross the border and secretly yielded to U.S. air raids against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong bases. In March 1970, he was overthrown while in France on his annual cure for obesity. His ouster furnished Nixon with a pretext to send troops into Cambodia—which now turned into a new battlefield.
Sihanouk’s successor, the inept and ailing General Lon Nol, shrank into the security of Phnompenh, the capital, as American aircraft bombed the Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge, their Cambodian comrades, tightened their grip on the rural regions. On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge overran Phnompenh, just as North Vietnamese divisions were sweeping south toward Saigon. In five years, a half-million Cambodians had been killed and wounded, mostly by American bombs. Worse was yet to come.
Organized and trained in North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge forces had been growing since the 1970s. Like most Cambodians, they hated the Vietnamese, which earned them the support of China, which by then was squabbling with Vietnam. They were influenced by Mao’s gospel of permanent revolution, but they also evolved their own doc¬trines. Their leader, Saloth Sar, the son of a minor official, had studied in Paris, where he toyed with the idea of harnessing peasants in an agrar¬ian paradise—the kind of reverie that Lenin had dismissed as “infantile leftism.” Back home, he adopted a mellifluous but meaningless nom de guerre—Pol Pot. The U.S. incursion into Cambodia in 1970 gave an im¬petus to his movement and five years later, triumphant, he transformed his concepts into reality.
As they evacuated Phnompenh and other towns, Pol Pot’s legions ap¬peared to be reducing the pressures on the cities swollen by refugees from the bombing. But the mass graves, piles of skulls, meticulous records and survivor accounts later told a different and gruesome story. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered some two million Cambodians—a quar¬ter of the population. Herded into slave-labor projects, most perished from starvation, disease, beatings and exhaustion, and there were even instances of cannibalism. Branded parasitical intellectuals because they spoke a foreign language or wore spectacles, thousands were liquidated. Schools and public buildings were converted into torture chambers equipped with electrical devices and similar instruments. At Tuol Sleng, a Phnompenh lycée, the killings averaged one hundred a day during the first half of 1977, men, women and children alike—the victims phocographed before and after their murders. The Khmer Rouge termed the start of its regime Year Zero, the beginning of a “new community” expunged of “depraved cultures and social blemishes.”

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