Voices of the Khmer Rouge: The Exhibition and the Mystery

I never heard the term “Khmer Rouge” growing up. We didn’t learn about Cambodia in school, didn’t hear about it in TV or the movies. I must have been a teenager when I first heard those specific words, and I remember it sounding terribly exotic and glamorous: “Khmer,” smooth, black, still as glass; “Rouge,” like lipstick, like burlesque, Paris in the 20s. (Cambodia, Cambodia—where even the genocides have beautiful names.)

I did hear about Pol Pot. Not all the time—quite rarely, actually, and only in passing, but in a way that made in stand out in your mind, that made it tuck into some cramped little corner of your brain where nothing much else goes. How did you learn to make fire from two sticks? “I learn during Pol Pot.” Why were you running, pregnant, through waist-deep water in the middle of a monsoon? “To escape Pol Pot.” Who hung you upside down for days when you were caught stealing food? “Pol Pot.”

It was never the Khmer Rouge, but instead always this person, this invisible man, a dark silhouette that you could perhaps see passing, passing, passing through the house at night—like a ghost or a phantom or something even realer than that: Pol Pot.

So it was a type of linguistic division—responsibility placed not on a mass of people, a movement (ie: Nazis), but on a single person. Not a war, a genocide, but a man.

I kept thinking about that last night. I chanced upon—as I’ve been “chancing” upon everything in this project, so that you can’t really call it chance at all—the exhibition “Voices of the Khmer Rouge.” A massive audiovideo installation, “Voices of the Khmer Rouge” features 30 interviews with former low-ranking Khmer Rouge soliders, displayed with multi-lingual subtitles on some dozen computer monitors/headsets. It’s being shown at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, an historical archive center with free, open access to the public. The exhibition opening happened to be last night. So I went.

It was sweltering hot in Bophana’s main floor, a space that was meant to have air-conditioning but didn’t. There were well-dressed Westerners and well-dressed Cambodians—lots of younger Cambodians, too: teens and twenties, what’s referred to as “the next generation,” all wearing the same type of short-leeve button-up top and slacks, conservative skirts. At a certain point, a herd of younger children filtered through, chattering softly; they were thin and dark and put on the headphones and stared.

The opening speeches were being translated into 3 languages—Khmer, English and French—and proceeded at a painstaking pace. I stood in the breeze of a fan and read the subtitles flashing on the screen.

All of the interviewees were poor villagers from a Northern province. Many of them had been young when they joined the Khmer Rouge—teenagers or even children. I’d read about that, accounts of that: the Khmer Rouge’s use of child soliders. Some had been arrested and forced to join, others felt they’d had no choice, and still others joined voluntarily, zealously.

So they’d mostly all been extremely vulnerable. They all spoke of experiencing hardship during Lon Nol’s regime and the American B-52 bombings: hunger, death, loss. They were angry, young, uneducated and desperate. These are dangerous conditions.

Their thoughts about the Khmer Rouge now ran the gamut. One man lauded Pol Pot as a hero who’d fought imperalism. He thought of him as a teacher and kept repeating that he couldn’t say Pol Pot is bad because, “If the student says the teacher is bad, then the student is bad too”—a logic steeped in the Cambodian brand of Buddhism.

There was a marked clarity when it came to the US’s involvement in the development of the war. One woman summed up: “Americans paid Khmers to fight other Khmer, and that’s what we were fighting: Khmer puppets.” Another man, with piercing eyes and deep wrinkles, spoke of how the power of the Khmer Rouge was set up by the “greater powers” of the world. He cited the US, China, Vietnam, Cuba, the Soviet Union—how they supplied money, guns, mines. “It was the greater powers that incited war. How could they have afforded it otherwise?”

He said that he was for the trying for former Khmer Rouge leaders, but that it wouldn’t be a proper trial if it was only trying them. “America must pay compensation too,” he said.

When I was at Tuol Sleng, my tour guide had said something about the Khmer Rouge that stood out to me. He said that they had “the trauma” just like the victims. Some of them killed, but they had to; if they didn’t, they’d be killed. “So they are victims too,” he said. “Indirect victims, but victims too.” That sense of division echoed in me: Pol Pot vs. the Khmer Rouge.

One woman, old and thin now, spoke of how she’d felt sorry for the people in the camps, but how there was nothing she could do. “That is war.” Mostly, she felt sorry for her Khmer Rouge comrades. She said how, when one would die, they would mourn them like a sibling. And I imagined an army of children in black pajamas, in the jungle with their semi-automatic weapons, stripped of their families, with nothing but each other.

Another man had been sent to be a solider as a child. During the fighting, he said, he’d lost his thumb, an eye, had a leg cut off; he didn’t even mention his missing front teeth. “I became a disabled person,” and he said it with a smile, a well-what’re-you-gonna-do smile—a battered little shell of a man.

Another man had a broad smile and smooth dark skin. He spoke of being afraid. “Maybe they will see this and come arrest me and execute me.” I thought of what my tour guide had said, how he’s still easily frightened, all these years later. “This would be very unfortunate for me,” said the man on the screen, and he smiled still, laughed. “It may sound like I’m joking, but I’m not.”

The project’s producers were on hand to discuss the work—two Danish dudes. They insisted that this was an art installation, because it wasn’t attempting to answer questions, only raise them. They refused to tell viewers what to think of the interviews; they wanted you to look at them and make your own conclusions.

“There are no conclusions,” I thought.

I waited around to speak with one of them. I was curious about a point he’d made—that he felt there were different levels of Khmer Rouge, the “really bad guys,” as it was convenient to phrase, and the other people, who existed in shades of grey—so many shades of grey, I’d thought, that you hadn’t knew existed before, like looking at one of those charts of the light spectrum in science class and realizing that all you’d ever seen was this small sliver of what was out there.

Another American girl had him cornered; I eavesdropped and they seemed to be talking about the same thing. She was debating that point fiercely, the kind guilty-by-compliance logic that had always made sense to me, before this. She was young, unwrinkled skin and braces, and kept shaking her head.

I finally got my chance to ask him. I told him my linguistic childhood ancedote. He spoke about the shades of grey, how he didn’t think it was as simple as just Pol Pot or all the Khmer Rouge. He again urged me to find my own answers.

“I think maybe there aren’t answers,” I said.

Which I think didn’t sound the way I’d intended. It wasn’t to say that the search was futile—because, after all, what the hell am I doing? (What the hell am I doing?)

No, I think the search is one of the most worthwhile things we can do. But I keep feeling like every layer I peel back, the further I look into it, the more complex it gets; it only opens the door to new questions. So we can look at it and we can tease it apart and try to know it, but I feel that at the center of it all is a great mystery, an un-understandability—the same mystery that’s at the center of everything, only maybe a little darker.

It’s a fact I feel I keep coming back to and keep coming back to, that all of seems to orbit around: the impenetrable mystery—smooth, black, still as glass.

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12 Responses to “Voices of the Khmer Rouge: The Exhibition and the Mystery”


  1. 1 David March 5, 2011 at 4:18 am

    This is the context that I give to the events – cruel and horrible as they were:

    I believe we are all responsible for our actions, but I give some leeway to people whose country was bombed more heavily than all the tonnage dropped in World War II

    http://www.yale.edu/cgp/Walrus_CambodiaBombing_OCT06.pdf

    Because of what had happened to him, I give some leeway to the man who ran Tuol Sleng

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kang_Kek_Iew

    I think they were all driven crazy by what they suffered and what then happened during the Khmer Rouge years is not such a wonder.

    I think we just have to thank God when it doesn’t happen elsewhere.

    [And I am not singling out the US for any kind of ‘ultimate responsibility’. The position of the US was itself part of something else.]

  2. 2 David March 5, 2011 at 4:21 am

    Sorry – I forgot to say how much I enjoyed your writing in this article and that I empathise with you in your search for an answer to the cruelty in this world.

  3. 5 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    It’s such a complicated history. I guess what I was so suRprised about was the academic qualifications that all the senior Cambodian communists had. To fully understand the events that happened in Cambodia I recommend that you read some of the books these students were reading while students in Paris. The communist manifesto and Chairman Mao’s little red book. I have a copy of Khieu Samphans economic thesis if you’d like to have a read and a copy of Pol Pots 1977 speech. email me.

    Comrade Duch, head of S-21, was the number 2 math student in the national exams. He taught at the pedagogical institute in Phnom Penh. He was turned to communism by several Chinese exchange students. In 1979 “several copies” of Chairman Mao’s little red book were found at Tuol Sleng. Below are some quotes from Chairman Mao’s little red book:

    “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

    “Before a brand new social system can be built upon the site of the old, the site must be swept clean. Invariably, remnants of the old system remain in people’s mind for a very long time, and they do not easily give way. After a co-operative is established, it must go through many more struggles before it can be made consolidated. Even then the moment it relaxes its efforts it may collapse.”

    “To maintain public order and safeguard the interests of the people, it is necessary to exercise dictatorship over embezzlers, swindlers, arsonists, murderers, criminal gangs, and other scoundrels who seriously disrupt public order”

    “Revolutionary war is an antitoxin which not only eliminates the enemy’s poison but also purges us of our filth.”

    “When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars, counter-revolutionary or revolutionary, unjust or just, that will be the era of perpetual peace for mankind.”

    “Our country and all the other socialist countries want peace: so do the peoples of the world. The only ones who crave war and do not want epace are certain monopoly capitalist groups in a handful of imperialist countries which depend on aggression for profits”

    “Several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and EVIL GENTRY INTO THEIR GRAVES.”

  4. 6 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    Khieu Samphan, or brother number 2, head of State in the Khmer Rouge years attended the Sorbonne in Paris and received a PHD in economics. Egyptian economist Samir Amin was his advisor when Samphan wrote his economic thesis.

    Samir Amin attended the Sorbonne in Paris receiving degrees in political science and economics. In his autobiography Itinéraire intellectuel (1990) he wrote that in order to spend a substantial amount of time in “militant action” he could devote only a minimum of time to preparing for his university exams. In Paris, Amin joined the French Communist Party (PCF), and associated himself for some time with Maoist circles.

    In his book, Eurocentrism, Samir Amin recommends a to return to ancient cultural or diverse forms of Third World nationalism. That is exactly what Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan did in the Cambodian revolution…..they decided to restore their country to the glory of the Angkor Empire and became part of the Third World Liberation movement to free Cambodia from Capitalism.

    A quote from Pol Pot –

    “We all know the Angkor of past times. Angkor was built during the slave period. It was our slaves who built it under the yoke of the exploiting classes of that time, for the enjoyment of the king. if our people were capable of building Angkor, they can do anything. We move now to the third part, dealing with the new period of the revolution, in which the tasks are the defense of Democratic Kampuchea, the continuation of the socialist revolution and the construction of socialism in Kampuchea”

    In 1957 Amin presented his thesis, originally titled “The origins of underdevelopment – capitalist accumulation on a world scale”. Samir promoted the Dependency theory. Dependency theory predicated on the notion that resources flow from a “periphery” of poor and underdeveloped states to a “core” of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. It is a central contention of dependency theory that poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the “world system.”

    Many dependency theorists advocate social revolution as an effective means to the reduction of economic disparities in the world system.

    Samir later advised Cambodian PHD candidate Khieu Samphan in his economic thesis entitled “Cambodia’s Economy and Industrial Development”. Samphan advocated national self-reliance and generally sided with dependency theorists in blaming the wealthy, industrialized states for the poverty of the Third World.

    Returning from Paris with his doctorate in 1959, Khieu held a faculty position at the University of Phnom Penh and started L’Observateur, a French-language leftist publication that was viewed with hostility by the government. Like Samir Amin, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were Maoists as well. His magazine was quite similar to what you’d hear at the World Social Forum directed by Samir Amin in Senegal. A bunch of young kids protesting all the injustices of the world. His first important conflict with the anti-Communist Cambodian government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk came the following year, when L’Observateur was banned and Samphan was arrested, forced to undress and photographed in public. Samphan fled to the northeast of Cambodia and joined the communists in the jungles of the Northeast of Cambodia.

    Samphan became brother number 2 in and head of state of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. As head of State of Communist Cambodia he did away with capitalism, emptied people from the cities, and ultimately oversaw the killing machine that murdered almost a third of the Cambodian population.

    Samir Amin recently wrote a book entitled, “The world we wish to see: Revolutionary objectives of the 21st Century”.

    Even though Samir’s protoge, the PHD economist Samphan, did away with Capitalism, freed the country from American Imperialism and destroyed the country of Cambodia Amin still cannot envision that Cambodian’s are better off today working for $55 per month at garment factories than they are doing away with Capitalism and becoming slaves of State planners like Amin.

    If you’d like to see what the world would look like if Samir Amin were in power look no further than the student he mentored who oversaw Cambodia’s killing fields.

    “I joined the revolution because I was sick of capitalism and privilege” – Huy Him executioner at Choeng Ek

    “Any ideology which mentions love for the people in a class based system will lead us to endless tragedy and misery” – Comrade Duch, number two mathemetician in Cambodia, Physics, Maths teacher at Pedagocial institute and head of Tuol Sleng Security center. He oversaw the execution of some 17,000 capitalist enemies of the people.

    “A capitalist is like a weed, if you cut it down it will grow right back up. A capitalist must be plucked out by the roots” – Pol pot. A child was the roots of a capitalist in Cambodia. Pol Pot was saying if you kill a capitalist and do not pull it out by the roots (kill the children of the capitalist) it will grow right back up.

    “On April 17, 1975, after struggling determinedly for five years and making many sacrifices in the revolutionary war of national liberation against U.S. imperialism’s war of aggression, the people of Kampuchea and their Revolutionary Army have totally and definitively liberated themselves from exploitation and oppression by imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and all the exploiting classes.” Pol Pot

  5. 7 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I too had many questions regarding why Pol Pot did what he did. No one will never know exactly why he did what he did, but there is so much relevant information out there that one need not just wonder.

    For instance, I wondered, why in the world did Pol Pot take kids away from their parents and do away with the system of family!?

    In the communist manifesto it states, “Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists. On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On Capital, on private gain. In its completely developed for this family exists only among the bourgeoise. But this state of things finds complement in the practical absence of family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital. Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty. The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into articles of commerce and instruments of labour.” – Karl Marx’s Communist manifesto.

    You can also read Marx’s partner Frederich Engels in his book The Origin of The State and family.

  6. 8 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    I also wondered why in the world did he empty everyone from the city.

    There is much to be enlightened on this subject by reading Chairman Mao. Also in the Communist manifesto Marx list a number of goals. Number 9 of those goals is: “Combination of agriculture with manufactureing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country.

  7. 9 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    Also you stated the following on your blog above: “One man lauded Pol Pot as a hero who’d fought imperalism. He thought of him as a teacher and kept repeating that he couldn’t say Pol Pot is bad because, “If the student says the teacher is bad, then the student is bad too”—a logic steeped in the Cambodian brand of Buddhism.

    You are correct. Teachers are regarded highly in Buddhist society and it is not a students place to correct their teachers.

    Pol Pot taught geography and history. Khieu Samphan, head of state for Khmer Rouge, taught at a high school in Kompong Cham. Pol Pot’s sister in law, Khieu Ponnary returned to Lycee Sisowath but now as a teacher, while her husband Ieng Sary taught at Chamraon Vichea, a new private college. She went on to Paris with her sister where she studied English Literature majoring in Shakespeare at the Sorbonne. She became the first Cambodian to achieve a degree in English Literature. Upon returning to Cambodia she opened a private English school and worked as a teacher. She was a member of the Khmer Rouge Central Committee and became “the first lady of the Khmer Rouge”. After returning to Cambodia Ieng Sary taught history and geography. Comrade Duch, head of Tuol Sleng, was the number 2 mathemetician in the national exams in Cambodia. He trained teachers at the pedagogical institute in Phnom Penh. He was said to have a photographic memory. He taught physics and maths until he was found in 1999.

    Son Sen From attended a teacher training college in Phnom Penh and taught for a time at the Lycee Sisowath, and went on to become director of studies of the National Teaching Institute, part of the University of Phnom Penh. Sen oversaw the Party’s security apparatus, including the Santebal secret police and the notorious security prison S-21 at Tuol Sleng.

    Hu Nim intended to become a customs officer, he studied at the Customs School and continued his studies in law at the University of Phnom Penh, he completed his doctoral thesis, on land tenure and social structure, in 1965. After returning from Paris he was a teacher for a short time. He was minister of Information for the Khmer Rouge.

    Hou Yuon studied economics and law, earning a doctorate from the University of Paris. The doctoral dissertation he wrote, The Cambodian Peasants and Their Prospects for Modernization, expressed basic themes that were later to become the cornerstones of economic policies adopted by the Khmer Rouge.

    In the 1940s, Nuon Chea studied at Thammasat University in Bangkok and worked part-time for the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He began his political activities in the Communist Party of Siam in Bangkok.

    So most of the senior Khmer Rouge were teachers, actively spreading communist ideology amongst their students.

    Recently I met a Cambodian teacher, who was a communist, and we had a few beers together. He can plays guitar and knows some Beatles and Santana songs. Then he said he teaches a lot about American history and wanted to ask me a few questions. So he said the U.S. started as a colony of the British and I said yes that’s correct. He then said the white people killed all the “red skins” and I said I don’t know enough about that history but we can say that they fought each other and the red skins lost. Then he said, “how many colonies has America had”. I said I don’t know if these countries would officially qualify as colonies, but we can say Puerto Rico, Guam, the Phillipines for a short while. He then says what about Hawaii. I said yes of course Hawaii. He asks how did the U.S. take Hawaii, I said I don’t know enough but I’m guessing they took power from the King that was there. He said yes exactly. He then said America tried to colonize Cambodia from 1970 to 1975. I said yes and then Cambodia was colonized by the Chinese from 1975 to 1979 and then Colonized by the Vietnamese and Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989.

    Go have a read in the Communist manifesto. It gives the exact same history.

  8. 10 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    Also this is called Historicism which much has been written about. Both Karl Marx and all the teachers that were senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been considered historicist. Karl Popper used the term historicism in his influential books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies, to mean: “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history”.

    So that history teacher, because of his view of the history of the United States, it’s history of slavery, history of repression of the Indians, and it’s Karl marxs analysis of Capitalism believes that because of that history the United States was planning on colonizing Cambodia in order to have cheap labour in it’s markets and to exploit Cambodia’s natural resources. Of course he does not consider the Khmer Rouge years the colonization of Cambodia by the Chinese or the rice the people of Cambodia produced to send to China as exploitation.

  9. 11 Aaron Crandall May 25, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Also if you get a chance read the history of the French Revolution. In Pol Pots last interview he said, “When I was a student in Paris I read many books, like Revolution Francais.”

    In the French revolution a group of Atheists who called themselves the Inner Circle of Conspirators authored “The Manifesto of the Equals”. They intended to make a society where all were equal. Being atheists they did away with the calendar and were wiping away all history and declared the founding of their new society YEAR 1. They made a new calendar doing away with the old Calendar.

    The reign of terror was a period of violence that occurred after the onset of the French Revolution, incited by conflict between rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of “enemies of the revolution.” The guillotine (called the “National Razor”) became the symbol of the revolutionary cause, strengthened by a string of executions.

    During 1794, revolutionary France was beset with both real and imagined conspiracies by internal and foreign enemies.

    Hébert’s and Chaumette’s atheist movement initiated a religious campaign in order to dechristianise society. The program of dechristianisation waged against Catholicism, and eventually against all forms of Christianity, included the deportation or execution of clergy; the closing of churches; the rise of cults and the institution of a civic religion; the large scale destruction of religious monuments; the outlawing of public and private worship and religious education; the forced abjurement of priests of their vows and forced marriages of the clergy; the word “saint” being removed from street names; and the War in the Vendée.[8] The enactment of a law on 21 October 1793 made all suspected priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight.[8] The climax was reached with the celebration of the goddess “Reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.

    What ended up happening at the end of the reign of terror is earily simiiar to what happened in Cambodia.

  10. 12 carole June 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Hiya
    I came to your site because I was curious who the guy was who wrote the ideological attack on samir amin in amazon book review (roughly: amin=french=communist=killing fields).

    I’m in my forties, so I was surprised you hadn’t heard of the Khmer Rouge, but I guess it must fall in the blind zone of history for you. By which I mean: when something happens too recently to be in your school history books, but too long ago for you to have recall of contemporary media coverage, then it disappears into a blind zone, until it gets neatly bundled into history books at a safe distance in time, later in your life. People are bad at keeping up with reading about the world-out-there during their prime activity years, so the blind zone doesn’t really get visited in written form by people who also remember the period and can critically compare memory/historiography.

    You may find the following books interesting. Quoting end page reviews to give you some idea
    Extremely Violent Societies, Mass Violence in the Twentieth-century World by Christian Gerlach, “….from Indonesia to East Pakistan and farther to explore why, at particular times, these societies exploded in paroxysms of violence. In supplanting a simplistic, state- and ideology-centered genocide model with a multi-causal approach, he convincingly argues that complex processes during transitional crises enlist all social groups in producing these terrible outcomes. At once sober and humane, this book is a landmark in the scholarly analysis of the most troubling phenomenon of our times.” (Indonesia and Bangladesh were in my blind zone)

    The Trouble with the Congo, Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding by Séverine Auteserre “This is a disturbing book about a failure that is not acknowledged as a failure, about intervention strategies that do not address key sources of deadly violence, and about the trained incapacity of diplomats who look solely to national agreements and processes to end long-standing wars….” (nearest genocide to us in time, current leader Paul Kagame is someone the following author wanted to prosecute for war crimes)

    Madame Prosecutor, Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst Criminals and the Culture of Impunity, by Carla del Ponte “Mass killings, rapes and deportations arising from war went without prosecution for so long after Nuremberg that too many political and military leaders, diplomats, and intelligence chiefs grew to assume that impunity for the powerful was an immutable fact of life. In her years at the Yugoslavia and Rwanda war crimes tribunals, Carla del Ponte angered many by her determined efforts to demonstrate that a change was possible. They provide the most concrete description to date of successes and failures in the effort to wrest cooperation from the unwilling and demonstrate that international justice can break the cycle of impunity.”

    A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, Revised and Updated with a New Epilogue by Marguerite Feitlowitz opening chapter
    “The grand orator of The Process was admiral Emilio Massera, master of the majestic rhythm, learned tone, and utterly confounding – but captivating – message. As a young man he had studied philology, and language would remain a lifelong obsession. Here is but one of his darkly shining verbal jewels: “Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers of reason.” The quote is taken from “The Quiet and Subtle Cyclone”, one of his most widely disseminated speeches. In his opening he makes clear that he speaks not only for himself, but on behalf of the entire navy, whose union with the army and airforce is “brotherly” and “indestructible”. (They were in fact bitter rivals). Grandly solemn, he says that his themes derive from a “meditation” on “objective reality”, which he italicizes in the published text. That reality is “a veritable world war whose battlefield is the human spirit”, a war in which “even the Word of God is used by murderers to invent a theology that justifies violence.” Here, as elsewhere, Massera is tormented by the state of language, which he compares to “an abject Tower of Babel”, and warns his audience to beware of words. They are “unfaithful”, will betray the unsuspecting, destroy the innocent. “The only safe words are our words.” The warning is surreal, for it captures exactly what Massera himself is doing: spinning an intricate verbal web to ensnare his audience and “perturb (their) powers of reason”.

    These are hard books to leave lying around as evidence of your reading. But they are not books of gore. They will help you ask hard questions about what you refer to in your blog. Best wishes to you. Carole


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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