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Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (John MacRae Books) Hardcover – January 13, 2005

4.0 out of 5 stars 64 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Towards the beginning of this massive biography, Short cautions readers against dismissing the terror of Pol Pot's regime as the incomprehensible work of evil men. Instead, Short argues, the explanations for the Khmer Rouge regime, which resulted in the death of over one-fifth of Cambodia's population, or 1.5 million people, are "rooted in history." The book begins its search for these explanations in the early life of Saloth Sâr, a "mediocre student" whose political disengagement offered no hint of the ideological nightmare he would fashion under the name Pol Pot. As a student in Paris, Sâr's political philosophy slowly began to take shape, and the book deftly follows his political evolution abroad as a part of the "Cercle Marxiste" against the backdrop of the tumultuous history of Cambodia after the war. Short, a former BBC correspondent who has also written an acclaimed biography of Mao Zedong, moves between Sâr's personal story and the broader history with ease. By the time these two narratives converge in the lucid and harrowing description of the Khmer Rouge victory and subsequent evacuation of Phnom Penh city, the book has already laid the groundwork for the horrors that would follow. Occasionally, Short's attempts to understand Pol's psychology lapse into vast over-generalization, as when he attributes Pol's erratic behavior to "the perpetual Khmer tendency to take things to extremes." More often, though, Short expertly identifies the historical and ideological causes that generated the Khmer Rouge impulse to terror and that eventually led to the regime's collapse. Though daunting in length, Short's book offers a copiously well-researched and surprisingly accessible portrait of Pol that will prove indispensable to anyone interested in the subject.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

Pol Pot once remarked that the Cambodian authorities in the nineteen-fifties "knew who I was; but they did not know what I was." Short, in his attempt to explain how a young man known for his bland amiability came to preside over the deaths of a million and a half people, follows the dictator from a childhood spent partly among palace concubines through his student days in Paris (where he read Stalin because Marx was over his head) to his imposition of a "slave state." Short does a good job on the political context of Pol Pot's rise, on his Buddhist influences, and on his gift for subterfuge. He remained almost invisible until the moment he took power. Later, busy killing his aides, he hid a Vietnamese invasion from his Army—then lived on for two decades, drinking whiskey and reading Paris-Match at his jungle base, before dying peacefully in his own bed.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Series: John MacRae Books
  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (February 8, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805066624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805066623
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.8 x 10.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #176,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By D. C. Carrad on February 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I approach this review with a background of five years of volunteer work in Cambodia (1995-2000) and marriage into a Khmer family. This is the best book I have yet read on the entire history of the Khmer Rouge years. It is more (fortunately) than a biography of Pol Pot -- it is just as much a history of Cambodia and and examination of its peoples' character, and shorter biographies of other prominent Khmer figures, especially King Sihanouk. The author scrupulously avoids the oversimplifications and falso moralizing of most books about Cambodia -- the ones that say either (1) the Khmer Rouge were entirely America's fault, (2) entirely Nixon's fault, or (3) entirely Kissinger's fault -- choose one. He carefully explores, among other things, American policy toward and conduct in Cambodia in the period leading up to 1975 in a thorough and neutral manner, with interesting suggestions on the significance of this and many other topics. In addition, the author's style is fluid and transparent, and he has done his homework. This is the best book about Cambodia I have ever read, and I have read all the ones I have been able to lay my hands on. Buy it even if you think you have no interest in the subject, or know it too well already -- you will be pleasantly surprised and will enjoy the book immensely.
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Format: Hardcover
Philip Short refers to his book on Mao in his preface to "Pol Pot:Anatomy to a Massacre" and, while acknowledging Mao's extraordinary beastliness (the man was probably responsible for over 50 million deaths) he highlights Mao's pretentions to greatness not unlike Napoleon's or Alexander's. That is not the case with Pol Pot. He did not fight an honorable war against a brutal invader, like Mao did with the Japanese. Instead, he led to his Cambodia's occupation by the hated Vietnamese, who had been his paymasters for a long time. Pol Pot did not succeed in brutally modernizing his country's industry, like Stalin in the Soviet Union or Mao in China. Instead, he pulled it right back into the stone age. Like his worst predecessors in genocide, he never learned from his mistakes. Instead, he kept his habit of ordering executions, a habit which eventually led to his imprisonment by his surviving henchmen (who feared for their lives) and some sort of trial. And his corpse was not preserved like Mao's or Lenin's. Instead, it was burnt with old tires and mattresses.

Short's book would have been very short (and uninteresting) indeed if he had confined himself to Pol Pot. Instead, he wrote a veritable tableau of Cambodian history from WWII to our days. 1950s Cambodia comes across as a Ruritarian kingdom ruled by the beguiling Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk is one of history's true survivors (the man is still around!). One would need to look to Mitterrand or Fidel Castro for equivalent types who were able to survive and even thrive in impossible conditions, turning their alliances as they saw fit with no sense of shame. Sihanouk is in a fact a much more attractive character than Pol Pot, who is opaque, a mere cypher in some ways.
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Format: Hardcover
Of course, this isn't just an account of Pol Pot the person, it necessarily has to be an overview of the dreadful Khmer Rouge. It is, in fact, a very gripping read. 450 pages in couple of days. But the author's conclusions are very disturbing.

THere are several questions that ANY book on Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge must answer, and Short does answer them, but not straightforwardly. Let's take a look at some examples of such questions, and Short's answeres:

1.Why did Khmer Rouge take everything to extreme?

a. Because Khmeres traditionally tend to take everything to extremes.

b. KR leaders were fans of utopian socialists when they studied in Paris, and were trained by head-strong idealist (but really unpractical and incompetent in real life) students in paris. They just caried it out simplistically.

b. Khmeres are notoriously lazy, and they wouldn't work unless they are forced.

2. Why did KR kill so much?

a. Oh, that was not their intention. They just wanted to extract confessions, or to apply strict morale in the party. Everyone just happened to die.

b. Because Khmere tradition holds that people never change, any attempts of re-education was never seriously considered.

c. KR soldiers were completely uncivilized peasants, and they can't handle complicated stuff. Killing is clear and easy. So they did.

3. Why didn't people revolt to such atrocity?

a. It was Khmere Bhuddist tradition to accept desitiny and authority and fate.

b. Khmers didn't have much of a community in the first place, so there were no serious effort

c. Every single power in Cambodia was extremely atrocious, including the ancient Angkor, Sihanouk, Vietnamese, etc. So they were used to it.
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Format: Hardcover
It may be impossible to explain why Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge government caused the deaths of more than one million -- possibly two million --Cambodians during their 4 year rule (1975-1979) The author, Philip Short, made an effort to do so in this book. I didn't find his theory -- that the mass-murder was consistent with Khmer culture and history -- very persuasive, but I don't have a better one to offer in its place. Perhaps, insane outbreaks are hot-wired in the human psyche to occur now and then -- in the same way that lemmings commit mass suicide by running over cliffs. The Khmer Rouge was a movement that ran amok.

"Pol Pot" is a thorough, readable, and well-researched account of Cambodian politics from about 1950 until the death of Pol Pot in 1998. The writer avoids polemics and gave me a sense of confidence that he is presenting the ghastly story of Pol Pot and Cambodia as objectively as possible. Short's account may be too dispassionate for many people as he focuses on Khmer Rouge philosophies and programs, rather than recounting endless atrocity stories. Those stories are readily available elsewhere. In this book, I appreciated the author's search for the root causes of the Khmer Rouge's inhumanity.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the fall of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and the subsequent forced evacuation of that city and other Cambodian cities by the Khmer Rouge. Short has a detailed account of that event, the philosphy behind it and the human consequences.

Pol Pot himself seems an unremarkable person. It is fitting that after he died his body was burned on a funeral pyre comprised of old tires and broken furniture. Evil is banal.

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