Reading the biography of a 20th-century tyrant takes courage. The tales of atrocities can be numbing, the motives unclear, and the lessons uncertain. Evil seems like a lurking character in such books, either in one man, the body politic, or foreign players, and is eventually exposed as, well, a rather stupid mistake.
British journalist Philip Short has already led readers through the prickly thicket of one tyrant's murderous story with his acclaimed 1999 biography of Mao Tse-tung. In "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare," he probes deeply into the background of a man who launched the world's most radical modern revolution by taking the tiny nation of Cambodia where "no country in history has ever gone before."
From 1975, when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rebels emptied Cambodia's capital of its residents and declared the nation's history at "Year Zero," until he himself fled before invading Vietnamese troops in 1979, the outside world knew little of what horrors he had wrought on the nation's estimated 7 million residents. The global silence over what was happening was similar to that during the Jewish holocaust.
While the 1984 movie "Killing Fields" and previous books on the Khmer Rouge have kept memories of those horrors before the world's conscience, nothing compares to the journalistic detail that Short provides here in 446 pages of narrative and some 200 more of footnotes.
Compared with Mao, Hitler, Stalin, and other 20th-century tyrants, Pol Pot comes out the worst in causing the most deaths in proportion to his controlled population. He was impatient to impose a weird sense of social justice and to regain the nationalist grandeur of ancient Angkor. His harsh rule led to the deaths of an estimated one in five Cambodians, either through execution, illness, overwork, or starvation.
He tried quickly to impose a communist rural utopia that excluded money, religion, property, cities, law, even romantic marriage. Children were taken from their parents at age seven. Anyone caught reading or wearing glasses was considered an intellectual and probably killed.
The author pins much of Pol Pot's actions on his warped notions of Buddhist austerity, detachment, and the suppression of individuality, combined with his ill-formed study of Marx in Paris as a young man and as a follower of Mao and Stalin. Born with the name of Saloth Sar and later called Brother No. 1 by his comrades, he was also jilted in an early love affair that may have left him bitter.
Relying on interviews with former Khmer Rouge leaders and the translation of thousands of documents, Short's psycho-bio also tries to pin much of the blame on Cambodian culture, where both peasants and kings have been historically brutal, where the folk tales are grim and menacing, and where the people suffer from a national inferiority complex.
He also explains how Pol Pot's cause was helped along by the actions of French colonizers, Vietnamese communists, United States bombing, Chinese meddling, and former King Sihanouk. Much of this analysis echoes the explanations given by recent scholars for the rise of Hitler within a German and international context. It doesn't always succeed but, like geologists looking for roadcuts that expose different strata of meaning, it's a search for patterns that might be useful to prevent future tyranny.
The illogical can't always be made logical, however, and the book falters in overreaching generalizations such as this: "Like a cornered animal, which turns instinctively to confront pursuing predators, Pol Pot viewed policy in terms of a fight to the death. The alternative was to be devoured."
Still, Short's contribution is in describing Pol Pot's Cambodia as a modern slave state, as North Korea still is. Even today, Cambodia is ruled autocratically by former minor Khmer Rouge leaders, despite the efforts of the United Nations to bring democracy there. (Pol Pot's top men may face trial next year.)
Much like slavery's demise, the Khmer Rouge's downfall was due largely to its internal contradiction in denying each person's basic humanity. Its leaders eventually turned on themselves in a paranoid purge that provided an opening for Vietnam to invade Cambodia.
Just before he died in 1998 in a jungle hideout - unrepentant and unpunished - Pol Pot claimed in an interview that his conscience was clear and that he had done it all for his country. Like other tyrants of his century, we may never know enough about him to draw the right conclusions. Short's book, however, takes us more than half way there.
• Clayton Jones is the Monitor's chief editorial writer. He covered Cambodia for the paper as the Southeast Asia bureau chief from 1986-1990.