The Lost Executioner: A Journey to the Heart of the Killing Fields by Nic Dunlop

I have always been interested in knowing more about the Khmer Rouge and their destruction of Cambodia. To satisfy this morbid curiosity, I decided to read The Lost Executioner by Nic Dunlop. It is an interesting look at one of the most heinous members of the Khmer Rouge -Comrade Duch, chief executioner for the Khmer Rouge – and the Khmer Rouge’s rise to and fall from power.


Here is booklist’s description of the book:

Irish photographer Dunlop steps out from behind the camera to render this visceral account of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communist regime responsible for more than two million deaths between 1975 and 1979. Armed with a black-and-white photograph of Comrade Duch–Pol Pot’s chief executioner–Dunlop traveled to the war-ravaged country to probe the dark depths of a once-studious young boy and dedicated teacher who became one of the twentieth–century’s most notorious mass murderers. (More then 20,000 men, women, and children were reportedly executed during Duch’s tenure as chief of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh.)

In April 1999, Dunlop’s encounter with Duch–who had changed his name, slipped quietly back into village life, and become a lay pastor–led to a confession that shot ice through the photographer’s veins. (Dunlop’s role in exposing Duch earned him Johns Hopkins’ award for Excellence in International Journalism.) Dunlop’s interviews with former Khmer Rouge members are both wrenching and revelatory. Among the most memorable subjects is Prak Khan, who was like an “empty shell,” with rigid posture and eyelids that “blinked slowly, as though he had difficulty keeping them open.” To date, only two prominent Khmer Rouge perpetrators are in prison: Comrade Duch and Ta Mok, aka “the Butcher.” For Dunlop, it is but a small step in a long journey toward justice.

This book is an excellent look at how individuals are influenced differently by an ideology – in this case Communism. Some Khmer Rouge, like Duch, went with the more and more demented views of the Khmer Rouge leadership (the Organization), but others were appalled at what the Organization was doing to Cambodia. I find myself wondering is it the individual that is warped – i.e. are some people more prone to being abusers than others – or is it the ideology – i.e. does Communism and other totalitarian ideologies foster this type of behavior.

In any case, Dunlop does a superb job of shadowing Duch’s life with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. As the Khmer Rouge gain more territory, Duch gains more power. Duch establishes his first prison, M-13, as the Khmer Rouge slowly take more of the country. Dunlop shows that M-13 is the training ground for Duch’s later exploits at Tuol Sleng – prison in Phnom Penh where most of his interrogations and executions occurred.

Throughout the book, Dunlop does not pull any punches in his analysis of the Khmer Rouge and their conquest of Cambodia. He blames many for the Khmer Rouge rise to power – the corrupt officials of the Cambodian government, the North Vietnamese, and even the Americans for widening the Vietnam War into Cambodia. But he holds his highest scorn for the Khmer Rouge. After the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, Dunlop accurately accuses the United Nations of being more concerned about purchasing air conditioned SUVs than about feeding and sheltering the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees.

Finally, I think one of the strongest parts of the book does not even deal with the Khmer Rouge killings – it deals with the issue of photography. Before I began reading the book, I wondered why there weren’t more pictures in the book – since Dunlop is a photojournalist. Dunlop answers that a chapter about the Khmer Rouge photographer who took pictures of all the victims that passed through Tuol Sleng by stating “The display of the images becomes a passive act of remembrance, rather than a call for justice.” I completely agree – it is all too easy to forget that photographs of people suffering are real rather than highlights to an article. In some respects the pictures can dehumanize horrific images.

Although a morbid topic, I think this is a good read because, as the saying goes, if we fail to learn the lessons of history, we are bound to repeat it.

About the author

Jeff Grim

Jeff Grim has been a reader all of his life. He has had a particular interest in military history, any war at any time. His fascination with military history has brought him to an interest in historical fiction where the history comes alive with fictitious heroes and villains. Recently, Jeff has become interested in historical mysteries set in various time periods.

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