High school social studies: was it just me, or did every year start with the Revolutionary War and end just before World War II? That's how I feel, and it means I was never properly exposed to the war in Vietnam. My high school health teacher once showed us a slideshow, set to music, that was perhaps about his experiences in Vietnam (he never explained it, so I don't know for sure). And, in my house, I felt like the Vietnam War was one of those taboo subjects because it struck close to home.
All this is to say that my ignorance of the Vietnam War, and "Indochina" in general, is fairly staggering. But this biography of Pol Pot, which I picked up used years ago, had been intimidating me from my bookshelves for too long.
Having tackled lots of heavy 20th century history over the past couple of years, especially about Communism in its various guises, I figured it was high time to learn about the architect of the Cambodian version; the version that decided to skip all the intermediate steps and get right to full-blown Communism.
My assessment of this book is quite simple - it has one major strength and one major flaw, and they are somewhat flip sides of one another.
The strength: this book is an almost encyclopedic recounting of Cambodian history from the 1950s through the early 1990s. I learned an immense amount by reading it, and while it wasn't Vietnam-centric (obviously, based on the title) I feel like I understand that whole period of history - and the destructive role that the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union played in waging proxy war through these smaller states, at great cost of lives and resources - much much better than I did before.
The book starts with President Eisenhower and ends with President Bush (Sr.) - indeed, the period of Khmer Rouge rule is but a small portion of the book - and certainly makes me think harder about U.S. foreign policy under all of these administrations.
The book also, I think, does a great job of explaining Khmer Rouge ideology: where it converged with and diverged from traditional Marxist-Leninist thought, and how it incorporated Cambodia's culture, history, and religion (Theravada Buddhism) into a very distinctive and dangerous (though ultimately incoherent) ideology that was certainly more (or at least quite different) than full-blown Communism as it might have developed in China, the USSR, or elsewhere.
The weakness? Well, have I mentioned Pol Pot yet? A biography of Mao and a history of Chinese Communism would be different books...this book, though labeled a biography of Pol Pot (one of many names he adopted over his lifetime), doesn't live up to its billing in that regard. Maybe this is because Pol Pot was the antithesis of so many of his fellow dictators who developed cults of personality and made themselves the state. Pol hid in the shadows. Maybe it is the culture (which, among other things, deemphasizes the individual), or poor recordkeeping, or lack of witnesses, or all of those and more, that have led to a hopeless dearth of information.
But there is a point in the book where Pol (or Sar, his birthname) finally announces he is the leader of the Khmer Rouge. His old schoolmates can't believe it, and wonder how an easygoing young man like Sar became the head of this bloodthirsty movement.
The greatest failure of this book is: after all those pages of history, the reader wonders, too! I acknowledge the challenges, but the book simply fails to explain how Pol became Pol, or what truly motivated him.
That being said, my recommendation is this: if you are looking for a biography of Pol Pot, look elsewhere. If you want to understand Cambodian history and the basis for the Khmer Rouge "experiment," it is hard to fathom that you would do better than this book.