In December 1974, when I first arrived in Phnom Penh for The New York Times, Cambodia was in the final throes of a decades-long war that would shortly turn into the twentieth century's final holocaust. Vast stretches of the capital--its population swelled to more than two million from a modest level of 600,000 by refugees fleeing the countryside where the Khmer Rouge were tightening their vicious and bloody grip--were being fed by the likes of Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and CARE. When I developed a horrific infection that sent my temperature soaring to more than 104 degrees, my Washington Post colleague, David Greenway, helped me across the road from the Hotel Phnom to a clinic staffed by an all but overwhelmed French missionary physician. I stepped over scores of desperately ill bodies to find my way to his tiny corner office where he dispensed some questionable looking pills, told me to take two immediately, then one every four hours. "In the morning, you will either be better or dead," he shrugged matter-of-factly.
He was right. By the morning, I was better. But tens of thousands of others were not. And by the time the vicious Khmer Rouge finally entered the capital they had all but strangled in the preceding months, relief workers had fled, and the communists were left to take on the cause of millions they had rendered homeless, destitute, and famished. Their solution was a simple one--they executed a million of their countrymen, turning Cambodia into one of history's most appalling charnel houses.
Post-conflict scenarios three decades ago were different than they are today. At the time of the victory of the Khmer Rouge, North Vietnamese, and Pathet Lao, America had its fill of losing battles in remote corners of the world. A certain degree of isolationism had set in--the nation numbed by years of body bags and deadly firefights from the Central Highlands to the Mekong Delta.
At the same time, relief efforts were not much different than they had been back in the time of Florence Nightingale or Henri Dunant and the Croix Rouge he and the wealthy matrons of Geneva founded after the Napoleonic Wars ravaged half of Europe. Down through the last quarter of the twentieth century, such agencies and their volunteer workers provided aid to the sick and wounded while the conflict was proceeding, then they left. To the victors belonged the spoils--and the caring of the sick, the infirm, the homeless and the famished who the winners had either created or inherited. It was a distinct variant on the "you break it, you own it" concept that Americans have come to know and understand today in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a minimum. In those now far-off days, if you broke it, you could simply turn it back to the next proprietor.
Declaring "victory" doesn't work in the modern world, however, since with every victory--often even before the victory-comes the victims. Along with the victims comes relief. And relief these days has become a very big, very high-stakes business indeed. Back in the final days of Phnom Penh, relief workers who'd hang out at the Hotel Phnom pool, along with the old French rubber planters and the small army of western reporters, photographers and assorted hangers-on, understood that their job was a finite one--that it would, doubtless, end with the end of hostilities. Indeed, Dith Pranh, the New York Times' late, brilliant local reporter, interpreter, fixer, and photographer, used to tell Sydney Schanberg and me that "if only the fighting can end, then we can deal with the Khmer Rouge and rebuild our country together. We are, after all, all Khmers."
Perhaps this represented the very moment of the end of innocence. They were all Khmers, but some fancied themselves decidedly more Khmer than others and wanted not to rebuild their nation "together" but very much alone. And anyone who didn't pitch in quite enthusiastically or ditch their eyeglasses which branded them "as intellectuals," was marked and dead. Very dead.
After Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, the post-war scenarios changed somehow. Perhaps it was our consciences that had been pricked. But no longer could we entrust the consequences of war to the victors. Human security was somehow bigger, larger, more important and less capable of being conveyed to those who failed to appreciate the broader, human stakes--on the civilian side, the professional aid workers; on the military side, advisors, consultants--those who built careers, indeed empires around these guarantees.
The fact is that there are a host of different stakes these days in dealing with the dilemmas of human security in crisis situations, and different challenges. My fear is that we are failing...