No-one could really figure out how something like that could have happened.I must have seen Swimming to Cambodia pretty much when it came out, in 1987. I think I actually saw it before I saw The Killing Fields, which had come out three years earlier and which you probably need to have seen in order to make Swimming to Cambodia entirely comprehensible. The Killing Fields itself is about destruction and mass murder in Cambodia - which may not be entirely comprehensible at all.
You can try, though. It's an Enlightenment thing: part of the long project of freeing us from the spell of superstition and the yoke of religious authority was, and is, the insistence that all things are subject to rational explanation, that the allied powers of reason and scientific investigation can ultimately provide us with explanations. It's permanently a work in progress: never completed, like Paul Valery's art, but unlike that art, never abandoned unless we choose to do so.
We can abandon it. We can opt for unreason and most people, on one level or another, choose to do so: the number of people who care what is true is nearly always smaller than the number who do not. We mostly fit our facts to our opinions, like we were choosing curtains to suit a room already painted. It doesn't make us killers - much of the mass mechanical killing of the twentieth century, of which the murder of Cambodia was one of the final acts, was carried out by people who thought they knew the truth, and many of the victims were people who had lived happily and harmlessly without concerning themselves too much about it.
You don't have to opt for reason. But you can try.
There's a passage I remember - in the sense of remembering being struck by it, rather than remembering it like a poem that I once learned for recital - in Swimming to Cambodia. It's not the one below, though the one below is striking too.
The passage I remember describes how the Khmer Rouge became the thing it did, paranoid beyond all understanding, industrial in nothing but its means of committing and recording murder. It's recorded thus on IMDB: I'm not sure they have it down completely accurately but I don't have the original, or the text, to check against. It may be close enough. I like it as it is.
It doesn't insist on any single given explanation for the Khmer Rouge. It doesn't shy away from ideology
an education in Paris environs in strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseaunor even the role of the apparently inexplicable, of a form of madness we can describe as evil
including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, Americabut nor the element of what happens to people if you subject them, for years, to pitiless and extensive aerial attack.
Five years of bombing.Five years of bombing. That was the thing that we contributed. That was the thing we did that we didn't need to do. And if we are looking for explanations, and we leave that bit out, we leave behind any chance of arriving at an explanation.
But we don't have to look for explanations. We can talk about the Khmer Rouge simply as a death cult. And we can talk similarly of ISIS. A fascist death cult, if we wish. There's a lot of it about. Here's Chris Riddell, a fine illustrator of children's books if a mediocre political cartoonist, calling ISIS "a murderous death cult" in a cartoon with a headline The plain truth about ISIS. (I feel guilty italicising it. You probably shouldn't italicise anything so plain.)
I don't know if the headline belongs to the cartoonist, but murderous and death cult and even plain and truth are better terms than the. What is this the? There is no the.
But there's a lot of this particular the about. Its authorship is claimed by Michael Burleigh:
Attacks like these almost always result in the deaths of the perpetrators, for both Al Qaeda and Islamic State are 'death cults' (a term I coined).I'd want convincing that the claim is valid, though I'd not begrudge it, since previously Professor Burleigh's only contribution to our intellectual life of which I was aware was his role as an arse-kisser to Niall Ferguson. So why not? Give him credit for the term, the main function of which is not to illuminate its subject but to assure us that all the light we need has been shone already. ISIS is a "death cult". More than that we do not need to know.
And hence we do not need to worry that we might be doing the very thing we do not need to do.
At the end of the clip above, Gray says this:
I get very confused. And Roland Joffe came to me and said "Spalding, I hope this film has taught you that morality is not a movable feast".That's one way of looking at it - if we accept that there are ways, more than one, of looking at it. Or we can opt for certainty and the knowledge that what we're speaking of is beyond all reason, either ours or its own.
I get dizzy. Cause I keep seeing it moving all the time.
Listen, and understand. It's out there. It cannot be bargained with. It cannot be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.
It's true, in a film. And that strategy works, in a film.
So let us therefore hope this is not real life. Let us hope that this is actually a film.