Man or Monster

Man or Monster: the Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer, by Alexander Laban Hinton

Hinton calls the experimental format of his account of the war crimes trial of one of the Khmer Rouge’s chief torturers an “ethnodrama,” layering witness interviews, museum representations and accompanying graffiti, a careful account of the constitution of the tribunal as well as the day-to-day proceedings of the trial, evidentiary artefacts like the torture manual written and used by the defendant (Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch), and even poetry made of a redacted copy of his confession together to produce a multi-vocal and narrative framing-conscious account of the nature of Duch’s offenses. Though it makes for an interesting read, in the end the methodology seems to bear little fruit in answering the question posed by the title. It turns out, what Duch is depends on how you look at him. Well, sure.

This is as good a time as any, btw, to point out that some of the torture techniques listed in Duch’s how-to manual have also been used by the CIA while interrogating suspected terrorists. Would Duch’s torture be more excusable if its victims had posed real rather than imaginary dangers to Cambodians? This was not presented as one of the ways to look at Duch in the text, but it rises unbidden to the mind.

The question of moral responsibility is itself almost ignored in the text, perhaps fairly enough because it is barely engaged by the court, either. Duch presents in his defense paperwork showing how everything he did was subject to the approval of his superiors and duly reported directly to them; his argument is the standard “just following orders.” Given the number of party comrades who were tortured into divulging the names of yet more comrades to purge, Duch’s claim that he would have been next had he jibbed at his orders is unassailable. The court dismisses this defense by judging that Duch showed enthusiastic compliance, which he certainly did, but of course a lack of enthusiasm could also have been probable cause for some purgative torture. The only way to square this circle is to ignore it, but in doing so the court lends credence to Duch’s additional claim that he (along with a very few others) is being scapegoated for the millions of murders committed by the Khmer Rouge collectively.

On the other hand, so should they be. The problem with the “just following orders” defense is that, if the only person who wanted to slaughter millions to perfect the revolution was Pol Pot, then everyone down the chain of command could have resisted if they’d wanted to; authority is just the sum of deference paid to a ruler by his underlings. The closer you are to the top, the fewer who need to be coordinated in resistance and either win the point or topple the leader, so I think it’s fair enough to blame officers at Duch’s level or higher for the killing fields. Still, Hinton’s portrait of Duch is nuanced enough to implicitly make the argument that just about anyone would have done the same in Duch’s position, so I gave this book four out of five banality of evil stars on Goodreads.


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