Book Review – Beyond the Killing Fields, War Writing, by Sydney Schanberg

By R.V. Lee
9/15/2010 • Richard Nixon, Vietnam Book Reviews

Reporter Sydney Schanberg’s 1980 New York Times Magazine article “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” was one of many crowning achievements for the longtime war correspondent who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his reporting on the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge. The magazine piece described the struggle for survival of his Cambodian assistant trapped inside the genocidal hell into which Cambodia was transformed under Pol Pot. Schanberg’s story of Dith Pran was made into the 1984 film The Killing Fields, which garnered two Academy Awards and dramatically thrust the grisly reality of Pol Pot’s Cambodia in front of the world.

In a first-ever compilation of Schanberg’s war reporting, Beyond the Killing Fields, readers have the opportunity to revel in Schanberg’s crisp and cogent writing as he reported on the gradual descent of Cambodia from a staging ground and sideshow in the greater Indochina conflict to its own internal self destruction. Even though we all know the outcome, reading the reporter’s dispatches as the Khmer Rouge closes in on Phnom Penh puts us back in the place and allows us to share the sense many felt that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. At the same time, knowing the outcome, you can’t help but feel a sense of dread and horror as Schanberg describes individuals who do not know that they are doomed. With that chilling record of events and the complete 1980 New York Times Magazine piece alone, the book is worth its price.

But, while there is little question of what transpired in Cambodia after the Vietnam War, there remain many “black holes” when it comes to the truth about American prisoners of war and missing in action who are believed to have survived the war but were left behind. Here, for those who believe and for those who doubt, Schanberg lays out the evidence and the theory behind what would be, if true, one of the darkest and shameful decisions in American history. During the 2008 presidential election campaign and the candidacy of the world’s most famous POW, Sen. John McCain, Schanberg saw an opportunity to bring his reporting and hard evidence on a sustained coverup that began with President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in 1973, to light. His minutely detailed and documented investigative report got little attention in the glare of the presidential horserace and tidal wave of news in 2008, but perhaps its publication in this compilation will capture more attention.

Beyond the Killing Fields is not simply an anthology of great reporting, but in our strange era of being “almost comfortable with regular wars,” Schanberg suggests, “We Americans are notoriously deficient about taking lessons from our own history.” He adds, “Armed with this knowledge, the next time a politician says we must invade and destroy evildoers who are being well contained by other means, maybe we’ll think twice.”

Potomac Books, 2010

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