What the U.S. Bombing of Cambodia Tells Us About Obama's Drone Campaign

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A look back at another instance in which the U.S. undertook a secretive and widespread bombing campaign.

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A Cambodian man prays at a Buddhist ceremony as around 300 skulls that formed a giant map of Cambodia are dismantled at a genocide museum in Phnom Penh on March 10, 2002(Chor Sokunthea/Reuters)

Halfway through the Justice Department white paper [PDF] defending the lawfulness of government-ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens, there is a curious reference to a dark chapter of American history.

The memo, making the legal case for covertly expanding military operations across international borders, directs readers to an address by State Department legal adviser John R. Stevenson, "United States Military Action in Cambodia: Questions of International Law," delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970.

The comparison is fitting in ways the Justice Department surely did not intend.

Like the current conflict, the military action in neutral Cambodia was so secretive that information about the first four years of bombing, from 1965 to 1969, was not made public until 2000. And like the current conflict, the operation in Cambodia stood on questionable legal ground. The revelation of its existence, beginning in 1969, was entangled with enough illegal activity in this country -- wiretaps, perjury, falsification of records and a general determination to deceive -- to throw significant doubt on its use as a precedent in court.

The most important parallel, though, isn't legal or moral: it's strategic. As critics wonder what kind of backlash might ensue from drone attacks that kill civilians and terrorize communities, Cambodia provides a telling historical precedent.

Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of explosives -- more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II -- on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City's. Estimates of the number of people killed begin in the low hundreds of thousands and range up from there, but the truth is that no one has any idea.

The bombing had two primary effects on survivors. First, hundreds of thousands of villagers fled towards the safety of the capital Phnom Penh, de-stabilizing Cambodia's urban-rural balance. By the end of the war, the country's delicate food supply system was upended, and the capital was so overcrowded that residents were eating bark off of trees.

Secondly, the attacks radicalized a population that had previously been neutral in the country's politics. The severity of the advanced air campaign -- "I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them," then-U.S. President Richard Nixon told National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger -- fomented immense anger in the Cambodian countryside. Charles Meyer, an aide to the deposed Prince Sihanouk, said that it was "difficult to imagine the intensity of [the peasants'] hatred towards those who are destroying their villages and property." Journalist Richard Dudman was more precise. "The bombing and the shooting," he wrote after a period in captivity in the Cambodian jungle, "was radicalizing the people of rural Cambodia and was turning the country into a massive, dedicated, and effective rural base."

Nevertheless, many historians continued to deny the causal link between the violence and the political upheavals in the country. Cambodia's embrace of radicalism instead fit neatly into the Cold War-era "domino theory" paradigm, de-emphasizing the role of local conditions in driving the country's history.

William Shawcross, in 1979's Sideshow: Kissenger. Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia , was the first to advance the theory that the meteoric rise of the Khmer Rouge was not in spite of the U.S. bombing campaign but because of it. Taylor Owen, the research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, and Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, have concluded that the full war archives, released by President Clinton in 2000, confirm this version of history.

"The impact of this bombing... is clearer than ever," they write. "Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d'etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide."

In tactical terms, contemporary drone attacks are far more precise than the pell-mell Cambodia-era bombs. One comparison, though, remains apt: in both cases, the American government has been less than forthcoming about the effect of these weapons on local populations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that between 2,500 and 3,500 people have been killed by drone strikes, including -- contrary to the recent statements of CIA nominee John Brennan -- between 473 and 893 civilians, and 176 children. (The classification of civilians has been called into question as well. The Obama administration reportedly "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants," unless posthumously proved innocent.)

Owen and Kiernan saw the parallel to current anti-terror operations before the Department of Justice did. In 2010, they published a paper in The Asia-Pacific Journal called " Roots of U.S. Troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian Bombing Casualties and the Cambodian Precedent," in which they argue that incidents like the predator drone strike on a Pakistani village in 2006 created direct blowback.

This point of view is echoed by Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif, who recently argued that the strikes are not only radicalizing the population but are "creating a whole new generation of people who will grow up thinking that this is what happened to us and now, now we want revenge." In Pakistan and Yemen, Jo Becker and Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times, "drones have become the recruiting tool of choice for militants."

In this respect, the DOJ could not have found a more fitting precedent than the carpet-bombing of Cambodia. The purpose of the sustained bombardment from 1972 to 1973 was to prevent the Khmer Rouge from consolidating power. The result was the opposite.

The thousands of people killed so far by drone strikes represent a fraction of the several hundred thousand who died beneath the B-52s between 1969 and 1975. But the level of fear and anger -- and the opportunity for insurgent groups to harness those emotions -- cannot be so easily calculated.

In the words of retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, one can't help but hear an echo of Charles Meyer, Richard Dudman, and other observers of the Cambodia campaign. "What scares me about the drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world," McChrystal said last month. "The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes...is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one."

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Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.   

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