One day in Cambodia, in the fourth summer of the war, the soldiers sat around in the ruins of the Kruos Pagoda watching women burning bits of bodies. The limbs and leaves of bullet-shattered trees lay about in the courtyard as if a hurricane had passed; and the pagoda itself, its graceful, curving roof perforated by a hundred shells, stood stark white against a darkening, rain-swollen sky.

The living had built a little charcoal fire to burn what they could pick up of the dead; bits of skull could be seen among the coals. Nearby lay the pelvis of a man severed at the belt—two white thigh bones sticking from blood-soaked trousers. My interpreter became sick to his stomach— the smell was very bad—and the soldiers laughed at him.

For several weeks the Cambodian army had been trying to clear the insurgents from this bit of Route 4 leading from Phnom Penh to the sea, and the Kruos Pagoda had changed hands several times during the fighting. The ground was littered with the remains of men blown to pieces, and the soldiers said that they could not tell which bits were from government corpses and which were the enemy’s.

There was nothing special about this particular battle. Route 4 had been blocked and cleared countless times before and several times since. Nothing permanent was accomplished, except for the destruction of the pagoda and the extinction of human life. But then in Cambodia whole towns have been destroyed and thousands of people killed without any tangible political or military results.


For Cambodia, the Paris Peace Agreement, which the United States and the Vietnamese signed in January, 1973, brought nothing but more bloodshed and death. The Nixon Administration could say that it had inherited the wars in Laos and Vietnam. but the American involvement in Cambodia began with Mr. Nixon, first with the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia and later with the South Vietnamese and American invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970. Besides demonstrating how tough Richard Nixon could be (“the President wants a brutal blow,” Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying at the time), the rationale behind the invasion was to attack the North Vietnamese sanctuaries to buy time for Vietnamization and gradual American troop withdrawal.

There is no hard evidence that the Americans were behind the coup that ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk in March, 1970, but they were very quick to take advantage of it. The fragile peace that Sihanouk, no matter what his faults, had managed to preserve for his country was lost. Marshal Lon Nol, who played Brutus to Prince Sirik Matak’s Cassius during the Ides of March, 1970, had made his fortune supplying the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in Cambodia. Nevertheless, when he came to power he denounced the agreement Sihanouk had made permitting the North Vietnamese to use Cambodian territory as long as they left the Cambodian people alone.

Cambodian students flocked to the capital to join the army and defend the motherland against the Vietnamese in the kind of innocent patriotic enthusiasm for war not seen in the West since the summer of 1914. The North Vietnamese, moving out from what had once been their sanctuaries along the Vietnamese border, soon engaged the fledgling forces of Lon Nol, and the war was on.

By January, 1973, however, several changes had taken place. The North Vietnamese had successfully managed to Cambodianize the war to the extent that most of the l=fighting could be carried on by ethnic Cambodian insurgents with North Vietnamese “advisers" and logistical support.

Second, though the peasants in the countryside had always considered Sihanouk a god-king and perhaps still do, the townspeople had grown weary of his capricious and arbitrary rule and at first supported Lon Nol. But after three years, it was obvious that in Lon Nol the Cambodians had simply “replaced a god-king with a god-president,” as one Western diplomat put it. His rule was as capricious and arbitrary as ever Sihanouk’s had been, and the corruption was far worse, if only for the reason that there was more money to steal once the Americans began pouring aid and equipment into the country.

People had grown weary of the war, and the morale of the Cambodian army had declined dangerously. Senior officers were wont to abandon their men under fire, and everyone knew that they were growing rich on the war. The Americans paid the bill, including the soldiers’ salaries. A common rip-off was the so-called “phantom battalions”; Cambodian officers would keep the names of dead men and deserters on their payrolls in order to collect their salaries.

The mystical Lon Nol, partially paralyzed by a stroke in 1971, retreated more and more into the world of magic and sorcery. Disastrous campaigns were planned on the strength of magic intuition rather than on military grounds. Soothsayers were sent aloft in helicopters to sprinkle magic sand around Phnom Penh, and Lon Nol got it into his head that the insurgents planned to tie bombs to the backs of rabbits in order to set them loose into government lines. The population was instructed to report people buying rabbits to the police. All of Phnom Penh laughed, but no one dared tell the “godpresident” that he wore no clothes.

Bombing dominoes

This was the state of affairs when the United States and the Vietnamese signed their agreement in Paris in January. Under the urging of the Americans, Lon Nol offered to cease all offensive operations, which was something of a joke because it had been almost a year since the government troops had engaged in serious offensive operations. The insurgents’ answer was to start an offensive, the heaviest and strongest offensive of the war.

With North Vietnamese support, the insurgents quickly overran the entire area east of the Mekong River, with the exception of a few isolated government towns. This ensured that the Provisional Revolutionary Government’s zones in Vietnam were flanked by friendly forces to the west all the way from the former Demilitarized Zone to the Mekong Delta. The Nixon Administration met this challenge in the usual way, by unleashing savage air attacks, including carpet-bombing by B-52’s, against rebel-controlled areas.


For years Americans were told that the United States was involved in Vietnam to prevent the neighboring dominoes from falling to the Communists. Now Americans were told that we were bombing one of the dominoes to prevent Vietnam from falling to the Communists. For the first time the B-52’s moved away from the sparsely populated border areas and onto the heavily populated plains of central Cambodia. There was no way to estimate accurately the casualties, but one estimate, taking the number of sorties and the size of B-52 bombing patterns in populated areas, was that the Americans were killing civilians at a rate of about seven hundred per week, according to Western diplomatic sources.

In mid-March, morale in Phnom Penh hit bottom when Lon Nol’s brother, the hated General Lon Non, put down a teachers’ strike by force, with some loss of life. On the same day a disgruntled pilot made a bombing run over the presidential palace, missing the President but managing to kill scores of soldiers camped in the courtyard. The pilot was said to have been the husband of one of Sihanouk’s daughters. The government took harsh action, locking up students and teachers and putting Sihanouk’s relatives and even the co-founder of the Khmer republic, Sirik Matak, under house arrest.

Under American pressure, however, the crisis was defused. The dreaded Lon Non was sent abroad, and President Lon Nol agreed to share power with three of his political rivals, Sirik Matak, In Tam, and Cheng Heng. The Americans spoke brightly about “broadening the base of the government,” a favorite American expression in Indochina. Perhaps the formation of a fourman state council did stave off a worse crisis. But in the following months it was quickly revealed that the four rivals could not work together, and that very little had been reformed.

The offensive continued throughout the spring with more and more territory falling to the insurgents. Warfare in Cambodia has often centered around insurgent attempts to cut the roads that lead out of Phnom Penh like spokes on a wheel. The two most important roads are Route 4. which connects the capital with the Gulf of Siam, and Route 5. which runs west to the rice-growing province of Battambang on the Thai border.

The most important supply route of all, however, is the Mekong River. Ocean-going ships form convoys off the coast of Vietnam and then make their way up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. Petroleum storage facilities in Phnom Penh are limited, however, and the city is dependent on the arrival of the convoys every two weeks or so.

The insurgents have never been able to keep all the roads and the river route cut for any length of time; but for a couple of weeks in late March and early April, the capital was effectively blockaded except by air. The insurgents held both banks of the river, and there were long lines of automobiles and motorcycles outside every gasoline station. The Americans began flying in aviation fuel, and there was talk of larger airlifts to come.

By the end of the first week in April, the convoys began arriving again. The worst of their problems had been on the South Vietnamese side of the border, where the ships were fired upon from the bank but could not enjoy the benefits of American air cover. One tanker was set afire and left burning, and several other ships were hit.

The rusty, old-fashioned coastal freighters and tankers, flying the flags of half a dozen nations, steamed slowly up the narrow stream as the insurgents fired at them with rockets and recoilless rifles from both banks. Once the ships crossed the border into Cambodia, American planes were free to bomb and strafe the banks in an effort to suppress fire; but as soon as the planes were gone, the insurgents would pop up from their holes to fire again.

The first ship to run the blockade arrived late one Sunday afternoon, its bridge sandbagged and its superstructure torn in several places, into the sleepy little Joseph Conrad river port that is Phnom Penh. With its low-lying godowns, a few pigs rooting down by the banks, the slow cough of an engine out on the river.

and the golden spires of the former royal palace shimmering in the implacable heat of April, Phnom Penh did not give the impression of a blockaded capital. The city itself, swollen with refugees, continued to react to the war with indifference. Life went on as usual.

In June, having failed to strangle Phnom Penh, the insurgents changed their tactic and began to move against the city itself. This change of tactic was expensive, for to move against the capital required a greater concentration of troops than that needed simply to cut the roads; and the insurgents were thereby made all the more vulnerable to American air attacks. Daily the Americans bombed ever closer to Phnom Penh in an attempt to hold back the rebels. Yet, in the teeth of everything the Americans could throw at them, the insurgents made slow but steady gains as the demoralized government troops kept falling back on Phnom Penh.

Although the rebels never reached a position from which to put Phnom Penh under a state of siege, their forward elements came to within a few miles of town. Foreign embassies began to evacuate their dependents. Rich Cambodians paid exorbitant prices for exit visas and plane tickets to Battambang and abroad. By day one could see the bombers over Phnom Penh, and by night the undersides of the monsoon clouds glowed pink in the false dawn of exploding bombs.

“General Water”

The people of Phnom Penh lived in an unreal world. The cafés were full. Diplomats and foreign residents continued to give parties as usual in their air-conditioned villas while the pressure of the explosions outside rattled windows and doors like an outraged and uninvited guest.

Few expected that August 15—the day the American Congress had set as the end of American bombing— would bring about the immediate collapse of the Phnom Penh government. But the Cambodian army had grown dependent on the bombing, and since the insurgents were advancing in spite of it, few saw much reason for long-run optimism.

The Americans in Phnom Penh predicted a sudden turnabout in the Cambodian army’s performance once it was clear to them that they were on their own. It was the next thing to an admission that the bombing policy had perhaps been a failure. “You never can tell how the army will perform when their backs are really to the wall,” was a familiar refrain. In the end it never came to that kind of a test. By August 10, five days before the American bombing ended, it was clear that the insurgents were pulling back from their positions around Phnom Penh.

At the Prek Ho Bridge, a few miles south of the capital, there was an eerie change. For weeks the bridge had been under fire from rebel lines. Now, suddenly, one could walk across the bridge and down the road in the bright sun and in silence—the debris of war on the shell-pocked road, but not a shot fired in anger. The insurgents were gone.

When the American air war over Indochina ended, there was little change on the ground except that it was less noisy. The American planes left Cambodian skies, thus ending a decade of direct American involvement in the Indochina war. The pilots offered laconic congratulations to each other. “We knocked their dicks off more than once.” one pilot could be heard saying to the command aircraft. “We hope to work for you again.”

The offensive had been going on for over six months, longer than most Western experts thought it could last, and the reason for the pullback may have been that the rebels found themselves short of ammunition and supplies. Offensives are very hard on the Communists’ logistics system, and the pattern has usually been intense activity followed by lulls while the insurgents build up their supplies again. The Cambodian army was hopeful that the breathing space would last until the onset of the dry season, for as one Cambodian put it: “General Water can hold Phnom Penh for us until December.” Fighting usually dies down during the monsoon season, for in the summer months the Mekong overflows its banks and hundreds of square miles are inundated with rich, brown water. In many places, trees, houses, and outcroppings of land seem but imperfections in a vast mirror of water reflecting the sky. The rising water makes it vastly more difficult to move an army against Phnom Penh, and therefore the monsoon favors the defense. Also, the monsoon makes it easier to keep the river open, for not only is the Mekong wider but the water is also higher, and so the Cambodian river patrol boats can fire directly at the banks without having to fire up at them as is necessary when the waters recede.

In September, the failure of the insurgents to capture the river port of Kompong Cham, about fifty miles upriver from Phnom Penh, confirmed the nature of the monsoon stalemate. The insurgents managed to overrun part of the town, and the government troops were in a very narrow perimeter holding on for their lives. But the government was able to bring sufficient reinforcements and supplies upriver quickly by boat, and the government position held. By the middle of September, it became clear that the insurgents were running short of ammunition, and their attack faltered. Westerners found it ironic that the government troops performed more effectively during the battle for Kompong Cham than they ever had with American air support.

The war is now stalemated, and Cambodia is trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of bloodletting. The war has become, if anything, more savage and bitter during the past year. Quarter is seldom given by either side. December and the coming of the dry season might be expected to bring yet another rebel offensive. But Prince Sihanouk, from his exile, told journalists that China and North Vietnam would not give the Cambodian insurgents enough ammunition to defeat the government.

Cambodia’s best chance for peace would seem to be a compromise interim government involving Prince Sihanouk. (In November the Russians and the Poles appeared to be in the process of withdrawing diplomatic recognition from Lon Nol’s regime in favor of Sihanouk.) For although the Prince is liked neither by the hard-core insurgent leaders nor by the Phnom Penh establishment, he is nonetheless the only figure with enough prestige, both at home and abroad, to bring it off.

“Sihanouk would be accepted, no matter how reluctantly, by most factions in Phnom Penh and in the army,” a diplomat based in Phnom Penh said recently, “because he represents a legitimacy which none of the insurgent leaders have. He would also be accepted because people have become so disillusioned with Lon Nol.” But Sihanouk does not delude himself that the insurgents would tolerate either himself or the monarchy for very long.

As the year ended, the Cambodians themselves seemed incapable of stopping the fighting. Perhaps the powers that feed the war—North Vietnam, China, and the United States—could find a way to end it. The American Ambassador, Emory C. Swank, upon his departure from Phnom Penh in September said that the Cambodian war was “losing more and more of its point and has less and less meaning for any of the parties concerned.”The “point” of the Cambodian war. as far as both the United States and North Vietnam are concerned, has been the sacrifice of Cambodian lives to foster their interests elsewhere. Both have found that wars are easier to begin than to end.