The Starving Season: One Person’s Story – by Seang M. Seng, M.D.

In Cambodia there are two seasons: the rainy season for planting and the dry season for harvesting. The title of Dr. Seng’s book refers to the manmade catastrophe of Cambodia’s Holocaust when educated, civilized people were made to live like hungry animals and the weak were left to die.

The world was appalled in April 1975 when the Khmer Rouge unleashed a reign of barbarism against their own people, emptying cities and towns, driving the population deep into the jungle to live by the work of their bare hands, without permanent shelter and without adequate food to sustain such a harsh life.

Seang Seng was a 24-year-old, fourth-year medical student in Phnom Penh when the Cambodian Holocaust began. Nearly four years later, he alone of his 24 family members walked out of Cambodia’s Killing Fields. His story describes in excruciating detail every step of the way. Dr. Seng’s narrative dovetails with the equally absorbing and inspiring story told in the 2017 movie First They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017.”

I’m pleased to report that in Dr. Seng’s story, there are American heroes, but — spoiler alert — they don’t show up until the last chapter.

In the mid-1960s, Cambodians were grateful to Norodom Sihanouk, their sometime-King, sometime-Prime Minister for keeping them out of the American War that was consuming Vietnam and Laos. However, Dr. Seng’s footnotes remind us that in 1969, President Nixon ordered the clandestine carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia, and later propped up the rightist coup leader General Lon Nol, plunging Cambodia deeper into civil war. When his Khmer Rouge overseers order Dr. Seng  to collect human feces for fertilizer, he uses a scoop fashioned from a tree branch and a U.S. Army helmet. The Khmer Rouge seek to erase history; even so the scoop is named after Lon Nol.

The Good Americans show up on November 22, 1979, when Dr. Seng, and his bride enter Khao I Dang refugee camp inside Thailand, just one day after it opened. On his second day in camp, a curious Dr. Seng stumbled across the field hospital set up by the American Refugee Committee. The first Americans he met were volunteer doctors and nurses from Minnesota.

It buoyed me to see them care for their Cambodian patients the way all humans are supposed to be treated. These Westerners also took time to train our Khmer staff … They built an atmosphere of camaraderie with us.

Other Americans Dr. Seng met at Khao I Dang played a supporting role in assisting him and his wife Srey. There was a female med student who organized an impromptu wedding ceremony for them; an ARC worker who helped them contact Srey’s relatives to sponsor them in America; and a male R.N. from Iowa who offered advice and friendship.

But it was a tall, angular American from Hawaii who would set his future course. Dr. Daniel Susott, who became the camp’s medical director, encouraged Seng to apply to the University of Hawaii medical school, and Susott himself began the exhaustive trail of paperwork to make the magic happen. Even Susott’s parents got into the act, meeting the Sengs upon their arrival in Honolulu in August 1980.

The sight of coconut trees behind my apartment along the Ala Wai canal made me feel at home. My first impression of America was positive. … What’s good about America is that the majority of people respect the law.  

The newcomer marveled that American motorists moved aside to let ambulances pass, and yielded to pedestrians — even when pedestrians jaywalked.

Living in Hawaii wasn’t easy for Dr. Seng and his pregnant wife. The hardships med student Seng faced in Hawaii as a penniless immigrant — paying rent, finding part-time jobs, struggling with a language he didn’t speak well — were many but nothing like the hardships he’d endured in Cambodia.

Eventually with the support of Dr. Susott and the assistant dean of the medical school, University rules were bent to enroll a Cambodian med student under an affirmative action program for Pacific Islanders.

I joined Dr. Seng on March 6, 2019, at an event in his honor at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. There were some teary eyes when the silver-haired 68-year-old survivor of the Killing Fields thanked the University of Hawaii for making his dream of becoming a medical doctor in America a reality.

In his book, he thanks Dr. Susott for giving a lifelong gift to him, his wife, and their three children — all three of whom remarkably became doctors in California.

And in the Preface to his very personal story, Dr. Seng writes:

In the refugee camp, I was offered a chance to resettle in France but I was willing to wait for America. I picked America and became a citizen as soon as I could. I made the right choice. Thank you, America.

America brought unexpected prominence to another humble holocaust survivor Dr. Seng befriended at the Khao I Dang refugee camp. Dr. Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian medical doctor who worked with ARC, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his 1984 role in “The Killing Fields”. In 1996, Dr. Ngor was shot to death at his Los Angeles home.

The Ambassador – by Morris West, 1965

Mass-market paperback cover

Like The Ugly American, The Ambassador begins with a prefatory note: “This is a work of fiction, built by the time-honored literary method of peopling an historic situation with characters construed out of the imagination of the author.”

In the novel, an embattled Prime Minister of South Vietnam, under intense political pressure from the United States to resign, grants an interview to a visiting Australian novelist. In real life, Morris West was Australia’s best-selling novelist (The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman) when he interviewed South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in October 1963. West felt compelled to report Diem’s views to Australia’s ambassador and notes of the interview were passed along to the American ambassador. A month later, on November 2, 1963, Diem was ousted by his Army generals and assassinated after attending morning Mass. A fellow Catholic like Diem and West, President John F. Kennedy approved the C.I.A.’s decision to support the generals over Diem.

In the year following the assassination, West plumbed his imagination to create American characters and portray inside-the-Embassy conversations and gut-wrenching rationalizations. The characters peel away layers of religious, spiritual, pragmatic and patriotic reasoning as they explore the morality, practicality and military options of dealing with a despotic but democratically elected South Vietnamese leader.

A guilt-ridden West delves into what right America and its anti-Communist allies, including Australia, had to interfere in the politics of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What right did Westerners have to choose sides, employing massive economic and military might – and ultimately resorting to war – to stand in the way of self-determination in Southeast Asia?

Though the author has construed a dozen American characters in the Saigon embassy and the halls of power in Washington, three well-drawn, highly complex characters stand in the crux of the morality play.

The ambassador of the title, Maxwell Gordon Amberley, is the newly arrived U.S. envoy in Saigon. Modest, mature, elegantly mannered, and measured in his approach to his awesome responsibility, the erudite Amberley appears to be the embodiment of what a U.S. ambassador should be.

Like Amberley, the dapper CIA Director Harry Yaffa is a true professional. But as the top CIA agent for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Yaffa is amoral. Without moral scruples, he takes on the Agency’s most sordid chores with efficiency and a near-sexual excitement. On Amberley’s first day on the job, Yaffa hands him an automatic pistol and warns, “This is an assassin’s town.”

The embassy’s First Secretary, Melville Adams, is intended as a study in contrast, reserving to himself the right to question and even refuse his Government’s bidding when it runs counter to his own beliefs. Like Amberley, Mel Adams must make difficult decisions in a morass of multicultural and morally ambivalent situations.

Reflecting West’s fervid Catholicism and intellectual interest in Buddhist philosophy, Amberley veers between the yin and yang of Yaffa and Adams. He cannot function in Saigon without Yaffa. He cannot live in a diplomatic bubble without Adams, the cloying conscience of well-meaning Americans.

In the end, Amberley acts as he must, as the instrument of United States policy.. “…(W)hat else was left to me?” the ambassador asks himself. “My small inheritance of good manners, polite custom and traditional morality had been laid waste by the processional march of history. My action, any action, was a futile gesture against the trampling might of elephants.”

The CIA-backed coup that led to Diem’s assassination continues to haunt U.S. policy around the world and the lessons, artfully illustrated by West in a beautifully written novel, go unheeded. As I write this, The New York Times reports that the United States is being accused of plotting with Army generals who oppose embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

FIrst They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017

Unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, this is a Cambodian feature film with an all-Cambodian cast who speak Khmer. Naturally the $24 million it took to make the Netflix movie came from Americans. Principal among the filmmakers – credited as director and cowriter – is the American actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, a citizen of Cambodia.

In the first two minutes of the movie, we see a sorry pair of Americans: President Nixon and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger. They appear in archival news footage, mouthing off lies about their policy of noninterference while hiding the truth about the war they are prosecuting in Cambodia.

The Pinocchio-nosed Nixon says: “Cambodia, a small country of 7 million people, has been a neutral nation since the Geneva agreement of 1954. American policy since then has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.” Interspersed with footage of U.S. Air Force bombing runs, Nixon explains, “What we are doing is to help the Cambodians help themselves… This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

And in Hitleresque prose, Kissinger adds that “civilian casualties are occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution “

Well, Dr. K., your policy of dropping tons of bombs on Cambodian civilians was not the solution – just as it did not work against the Pathet Lao movement in neighboring Laos.

Carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia began in March 1969. Over four years, the United States dropped nearly 3 million bombs, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians annually. And that was only the beginning of Cambodia’s agony.

According to war historians, the United States escalated its bombing campaign in January 1973 trying to halt the advance of the Khmer Rouge. The stepped up bombing destroyed large swaths of land around Phnom Penh but only delayed the take-over and in fact assisted recruitment into Pol Pot’s murderous ranks. Official sources indicate the United States spent more than $1 billion on military assistance and half a billion more on economic assistance to support Lon Nol’s government. In mid-1973, Congress halted the Pentagon’s illegal U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. Lon Nol fought the K.R. for two more years before fleeing to the United States

Jolie’s film is based on the autobiography of Loung Ung, who was five years old in April 1975 when the Khmer Rough consolidated its control over Cambodia. The horror of genocide is seen through Loung’s unblinking unbelieving eyes. When Pol Pot orders the evacuation of Phnom Penh, her family is forced to leave their comfortable home in the city. They were not alone as the Khmer Rouge ordered all 2 million residents of Phnom Penh to leave the city.

Wide-eyed, never understanding why this is happening, Loung is marched deeper and deeper into the jungle. Because all private property is banned, she and her family must surrender all of their possessions. Loung watches as her father is taken to be killed, calling out, “Come back, Pa.” It is heartbreaking to watch her – and scores of other children – doing hard labor in the Khmer Rouge work camps, experiencing sickness, starvation and  separation from family members.As a seven-year old, Loung is taught hand-to-hand combat, how to use a bayonet, how simple it is to fire an AK-47 and how tricky it is to set land mines. She is brainwashed and programmed to kill Vietnamese soldiers who entered Cambodia in December 1978.

Like little Loung, we watch wordlessly as Pol Pot’s lieutenants take Cambodia backward and begin filling the Killing Fields with corpses, as many as 3 million in all. A history student, I found myself reflecting on a time 40 years earlier when Hitler embarked on a ruthlessly inhumane campaign of extermination in Europe. The handiwork of the Khmer Rouge was equally insane and the civilized world was equally or even more aware of what was going on. Surely Kissinger knew. Surely the genocide was known at the United Nations, where the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat.

In war movies Americans watch, Vietnamese soldiers in their olive-green uniforms and pith hats are the bad guys. In this story, they’re the good guys. But the Vietnamese saviors were eventually seen as invaders. Cambodia was Vietnam’s Vietnam. Bogged down for a decade, Vietnam suffered 30,000 casualties in its battle to break the Khmer Rouge and pacify the countryside for its own ideological reasons. Vietnam finally pulled out of Cambodia in 1989.

Loung Ung was 10 when she left her homeland. She now lives in Ohio.

VIetnam War films: Platoon (1986) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

 

Platoon – written and directed by Oliver Stone

Apocalypse Now – directed by Francis Ford Coppola

No organized human activity is uglier than war. In Southeast Asia, Americans were fighting for an abstract political concept while Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were defending their homeland against foreign invaders. As the conservative politician Barry Goldwater famously said: “Extremism in defense of Liberty is no vice.” But who defines Liberty and who defines Vice? Defending someone else’s definition of Liberty is not the moral equivalent of defending your city, your village or your home against foreign invaders.

There are dozens of films about what Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War. I’m only looking at two that have indelibly etched the American war experience in my mind, in microcosm and macrocosm.

A friend with a connection to Hollywood slipped me a copy of Oliver Stone’s original script, which Stone called “The Platoon” and MGM called simply Platoon.

Released in 1986, the film was then, and still is, hard to sit through without wincing. It’s not just the stress of joining a patrol in a jungle battle zone, uncertain as to whether the men of the platoon are about to kill or be killed. It’s not just the violence the men of the platoon commit against fellow human beings who happen to be Vietnamese. It’s not just the futility of their every action that taxes them mentally, physically and morally.

Why, Jesus and LBJ, were these men dispatched to a place they don’t want to be, doing a job they don’t want to do, fighting against an enemy they don’t know, for a cause they don’t believe in? They’re embroiled in multiple conflicts: against an enemy with a home-field advantage, against their brethren divided into warring factions in the platoon, and against military discipline and morality itself.

As the newest member of the platoon, the Charlie Sheen character Chris Taylor observes: “Somebody once wrote, ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Even watching Platoon is hell. Kudos to a gritty story and stellar performances.

Filmed years earlier, Apocalypse Now is set in 1969, two years after the events of Platoon. It’s no wonder that every character in this bizarre 147-minute drama is demoralized and the whole worn-out war effort seems out of whack with reality. Thank Joseph Conrad and filmmakers John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola for giving us the mad U.S. Army Colonel Walter Kurtz. Like his namesake ivory trader in the darkest heart of the Congo, the latter-day Kurtz has set himself up as a demigod in a godforsaken corner of Cambodia.

When the Pentagon decides to terminate Kurtz “with extreme prejudice,” which means assassinate him, the assignment falls to Marine Capt. Benjamin Willard played by Martin Sheen (Charlie’s dad). Having re-upped after failing to readjust to life back in the U.S.A. Willard is beset by his own devils, including alcohol abuse, divorce, drugs and self-loathing.

Tagging along with Willard on his Top Secret mission, we get a kaleidoscopic view of war in Vietnam. There are helicopters buzzing around ad nauseum. There’s a shocking scene where G.I.s interview a Vietnamese family on a sampan then execute them. There’s unforgettable, almost lyrical, footage of U.S. bombs and Napalm obliterating an enemy village along the mouth of the Nung River, so that G.I. surfers can catch some awesome waves. We also get an unflattering close-up of what goes on at a U.S.O. show starring a troupe of deflated Playboy bunnies. There’s an encounter with a tiger, a fearsome symbol of Nature in the wild. After all, it’s a jungle out there.

Film critics have viewed Capt. Willard’s quest to a kill as an Odyssey and a Descent into Hell. In the 2001 Redux version of the film (50 minutes longer than the original cut) we take refuge from war by dallying in the putrefying milieu of French planters. The plantation scene can be interpreted as Willard’s Purgatory, or a Conradian opportunity for an American to confront Colonialism in Indochina.

While Conrad’s Kurtz was a skeleton of a man, Coppola’s Kurtz is a bloated Marlon Brando. Once inside Kurtz’s compound, Capt, Willard is sometimes the hunter, sometimes the hunted. He becomes a prisoner and acolyte of Brando’s Kurtz, who rambles on in unscripted improvisations, and reads from TIME magazine.

The film critic Roger Ebert has suggested that Willard discovers more than a rogue American war hero. Ebert wrote,“The whole movie is a journey toward Willard’s understanding of how Kurtz, one of the Army’s best soldiers, penetrated the reality of war to such a depth that he could not look any longer without madness and despair.”

Through Kurtz, Willard comes to understand that civilization is a veneer laid upon the natural inclinations of man. According to Ebert, Kurtz has found “that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.

 Here’s how I view the dualism behind the film’s apocalyptic vision: Man is an intellectual ape who can put on a military uniform, surf a wave or dance to a disco beat, and yet, man is still an ape.