By Willie Schatz
Four decades on, at last the chance to say, "I'm sorry," in person.
Sorry that "my country" ruined yours.
Sorry that "my country" dropped three times the bomb tonnage on you than the Allies dropped on Japan.
Sorry that Amerika demonized you as gooks, slants and all the other dehumanizing, degrading, racist, demeaning descriptions I cannot — or, more likely, WILL not — remember.
All this, then more. And more.
Yet your people are kind, sweet, gentle. They smile, they laugh, they wave, as though we have been best friends for days, months, years, decades. Rather than shun us as the warmongers we were (are?) they welcome us with open arms.
The letter "S" and the number "21" are darker, more foreboding, more terrifying and more fearsome now. A genocide museum can do that.
Its name is Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. But that phrase takes too long to say, so most people call it S-21. It was the most gruesome of the Khmer Rouge's 196 prisons.
An electric fence with barbed wire. Cells with very little light and barely large enough to stand in. Barbed wire at every window "to prevent the desperate from committing suicide," said an information sign. Pictures of the tortured and the murdered - thin, hollow, shrunken, withered, empty, soulless. Literally, no there there.
The chill, the fear, the fury, the anger, the helplessness and the HOPELESSNESS seized me, shook me, owned me. Taking pictures is difficult when you can barely breathe. I hope the few I took honor the victims.
Shattering as this was, I wanted to stay. But time waits for no one, so we motored on to Choeng Ek.
Compared to what I saw there, S-21 is a country club.
I was in the killing fields. I repeat, because I must, THE KILLING FIELDS, where innocent people were butchered, slaughtered, tortured, murdered and executed. I saw the weapons - bayonet, iron stick, axe, knife, hoe. Why shoot when you can prolong the pain and the agony with a more medieval method?
Rows upon rows of skulls with colored dots indicating the weapon used to execute the deceased. Excavated bones. A tree used as a whipping post for children. Rags of clothing saved and recovered...for what?
I didn't want to look. But, I had to. As my spouse Molly said, "how can you come to Cambodia and NOT go here?" You can't. So we did.
We left our Buddhist monk-blessed red protection strings on a tree shrine in front of a killing field. In those circumstances, it was the least we could do. It was also the most.
Full disclosure: I am NOT a veteran. To quote Paul Wisovaty, I am one of "[T]housands of otherwise draft-eligible, white, upper middle class males [who] avoided the draft by joining the reserves." If that blows my cred with you, so be it. I do, however, donate to VVAW.
I also read every issue of The Veteran thoroughly. (I was about to write "religiously," then thought that would be unwise.) Your writers move me, shake me, motivate me. They make me FEEL as though I were in the fields, the foxholes, the jungle with them. I cried when reading Sherwood Ross's "The Epiphany" in the Spring issue.
The issue commanded me to send you the attached piece. I wrote it during our National Geographic-Lindblad Travel January cruise down the Mekong. You can shred it, burn it, share it — maybe even publish it! (Please, please do NOT napalm it.)
We thought we knew the war before we embarked on this trip. Now, after S-21, Choeung Ek and the War Remnants Museum, we know we didn't have a fucking clue. Coming up close and personal — NOT as your members did, of course-changes one's moral and intellectual compasses.
Thank you for your courage and your bravery. Thank you for standing tall for your principles. And thank you for making reading a joy, a pleasure and a learning experience.
Write on, and on, and on...
Willie Schatz is a lecturer in Legal Writing Professional Writing Program University of Maryland, College Park.