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Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

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Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Rouge in order to explore why mass murder happens and what motivates perpetrators to kill. Basing his analysis on years of investigative work in Cambodia, Hinton finds parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi regimes. Policies in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 1.7 million of that country's 8 million inhabitants—almost a quarter of the population--who perished from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and execution. Hinton considers this violence in light of a number of dynamics, including the ways in which difference is manufactured, how identity and meaning are constructed, and how emotionally resonant forms of cultural knowledge are incorporated into genocidal ideologies.


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Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Of all the horrors human beings perpetrate, genocide stands near the top of the list. Its toll is staggering: well over 100 million dead worldwide. Why Did They Kill? is one of the first anthropological attempts to analyze the origins of genocide. In it, Alexander Hinton focuses on the devastation that took place in Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979 under the Khmer Rouge in order to explore why mass murder happens and what motivates perpetrators to kill. Basing his analysis on years of investigative work in Cambodia, Hinton finds parallels between the Khmer Rouge and the Nazi regimes. Policies in Cambodia resulted in the deaths of over 1.7 million of that country's 8 million inhabitants—almost a quarter of the population--who perished from starvation, overwork, illness, malnutrition, and execution. Hinton considers this violence in light of a number of dynamics, including the ways in which difference is manufactured, how identity and meaning are constructed, and how emotionally resonant forms of cultural knowledge are incorporated into genocidal ideologies.

30 review for Why Did They Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ozzie

    People reviewing this and deriding as jargony and dispassionate are missing the point. It's an anthropological study of a genocide, without the trappings and drawbacks of emotion. Emotions play a big part in human life, but often they are a roadblock to discovering root causes and understanding. Dark and emotional subjects like genocide deserve no less of a treatment, and Hinton provides exactly that. It IS an academic work of anthropology and sociology, but I read it as an undergrad whose disci People reviewing this and deriding as jargony and dispassionate are missing the point. It's an anthropological study of a genocide, without the trappings and drawbacks of emotion. Emotions play a big part in human life, but often they are a roadblock to discovering root causes and understanding. Dark and emotional subjects like genocide deserve no less of a treatment, and Hinton provides exactly that. It IS an academic work of anthropology and sociology, but I read it as an undergrad whose discipline was history, and I didn't find it too difficult to read. I highly recommend it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Khải Đơn

    The book is not easy to read at all. But it is VERY IMPORTANT if you want to dig in the motivation behind the genocide in Cambodia and its fluctuate concepts from time to time under Khmer Rogue Regime. I found very clear explanation from the tradition on revenge in Cambodian folk stories, to the root of Buddhism (in the Khmer Rogue system) and the motivations of each group of Khmer Rogue. The book also explains very clearly on the purges that happened before 1979 inside thee Khmer Rogue leaders The book is not easy to read at all. But it is VERY IMPORTANT if you want to dig in the motivation behind the genocide in Cambodia and its fluctuate concepts from time to time under Khmer Rogue Regime. I found very clear explanation from the tradition on revenge in Cambodian folk stories, to the root of Buddhism (in the Khmer Rogue system) and the motivations of each group of Khmer Rogue. The book also explains very clearly on the purges that happened before 1979 inside thee Khmer Rogue leaders itself. It is quite academic and hard to break all to understand. But it is very well-written.

  3. 4 out of 5

    AC

    Some of this was quite disturbing, but much of it is dull and jargony... A sociological-anthropological dissertation/academic tenure book on genocide... Something creepy about that in itself... A great teacher of mine once told me, talking about the superficialities of modern suburban students, that he was talking once about the 20th cen, and had said that its essential condition was one of horror and angst, and looked up to see all of his students, in tweeds and jeans, dutifully copying down hi Some of this was quite disturbing, but much of it is dull and jargony... A sociological-anthropological dissertation/academic tenure book on genocide... Something creepy about that in itself... A great teacher of mine once told me, talking about the superficialities of modern suburban students, that he was talking once about the 20th cen, and had said that its essential condition was one of horror and angst, and looked up to see all of his students, in tweeds and jeans, dutifully copying down his words: "the es-essenti-al cond-i-tion of the.... etc. etc"

  4. 4 out of 5

    Yunzhi

    Author talked a lot about disproportional revenge and how people hold grudge and wait for the right time to beat the enemies. However, I have some doubt on this. Is this culture really popular in everyday life for Cambodian? It’s hard for me to imagining a society where majority of the people choice this way to hold their grudge and revenge disproportionally. If this were true, too many people will get hurt and die very often, to the extend of unable to hold the society itself. Also, to hold gru Author talked a lot about disproportional revenge and how people hold grudge and wait for the right time to beat the enemies. However, I have some doubt on this. Is this culture really popular in everyday life for Cambodian? It’s hard for me to imagining a society where majority of the people choice this way to hold their grudge and revenge disproportionally. If this were true, too many people will get hurt and die very often, to the extend of unable to hold the society itself. Also, to hold grudge and smile to the enemy is against the basic human desire, and I doubt how many people will able to do that. I do suspect it's the Pol Pot communist party that invented/reinvented this system of revenge. It seems this culture is from China, by the word “si sach hot cheam / eat the flesh and sip the blood” (note that China do have a lot non-Confucius side of the culture). But, in China, this only appears in very few (but popular) old tellings and practice very very rare. Only during the so-called "culture revolution,” where this culture was reinvented/reminded by Communist party, and things got really horrible. This “disproportional revenge” culture is not Cambodian specific, nor Asian specific. If somehow very unfortunately some cruel dictator took over the U.S., It’s likely they would also remind the people about stories inside Bible related to the disproportional revenge, and start a horrible political movement out of that. The “disproportional revenge” ideology is everywhere, it precipitated into different cultures in slight different, but more or less similar ways. What need to be blamed are the idea that disvalue the life of human, the false confidence of holding the “truth”, and the cruelty of dictators. There is of course huge value inside digging the issue of Cambodian massacre, understand the causes and dynamic inside it. I really love this book and agree most part of it. But I do want to point out that the Cambodia described in the book looks very similar to any place that has strong focus on family / blood bond, while lack of fair law enforcement and human rights (I can imagine those stories happen in rural area of China and/or Tibet 20 years ago). It’s not the “exotic" Cambodian culture that cause horrible things to happen, horrible things could happen in every culture.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Try Lee

    The horrible and cruel genocide regime happened in Cambodia during 3years 8months and 20days. The revenge of Khmer rouge to Lon Nol regime, the gap between poor and rich were too large. The hate to previous government officials from the top to bottom, Lon Nol workers, intellectuals, capitalists. The scope of the accusation were too big, they accused the same crime to wife, children, brothers and sisters, relatives, they eliminated all. They lost trust, suspicious, revenge not only enemies but al The horrible and cruel genocide regime happened in Cambodia during 3years 8months and 20days. The revenge of Khmer rouge to Lon Nol regime, the gap between poor and rich were too large. The hate to previous government officials from the top to bottom, Lon Nol workers, intellectuals, capitalists. The scope of the accusation were too big, they accused the same crime to wife, children, brothers and sisters, relatives, they eliminated all. They lost trust, suspicious, revenge not only enemies but also inside the party even ministers, they took them to S21 prison led by Duch brutal harm physical and forced to confess the crime and told somebody who were related and executed all.

  6. 5 out of 5

    M.A. Stern

    This book is a heavy read-as one will inevitably find in texts on historical atrocities. Hinton does a good job of examining the unique and broader context which enables the Khmer Rouge to arise and inflict horrors on Cambodia.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Aubrey

    Hinton analyzes the Cambodian genocide, and the motivations for such violence, from a very individual perspective. He theorizes from socio-psychological and socio-cultural perspective - which makes this book absolutely perfect for my own analysis for my thesis. These perspectives play on notions of group cohesion and socialization, which are not only important for understanding the group dynamics within a genocidal regime, but also for understanding individual rationalizations. Basing much of his Hinton analyzes the Cambodian genocide, and the motivations for such violence, from a very individual perspective. He theorizes from socio-psychological and socio-cultural perspective - which makes this book absolutely perfect for my own analysis for my thesis. These perspectives play on notions of group cohesion and socialization, which are not only important for understanding the group dynamics within a genocidal regime, but also for understanding individual rationalizations. Basing much of his research from similar processes that occurred during the Holocaust, it is very easy to draw parallels between the two instances of genocide. However, they are not the same occurrence, nor did the acts committed occur for the same reasons. There were specific cultural and bureaucratic factors involved in the Cambodian genocide that were not present in Nazi Germany. These are important to consider going forward in reading this book - or in any genocide research, really. There are times when this book is an extremely tough pill to swallow. There are in-depth first person narratives that make it extremely difficult to continue. However, these narratives are necessary in order to understand why these perpetrators chose to commit genocide. These narratives are also important in culturally and historically situating ourselves. In order to best understand what was happening, we need a clear picture of what the times were like. This book outlines social and cultural concepts involved in genocidal ideology, among many others, very well in its explanation of perpetrator motivations. Hinton dives in head first to understand - not excuse - what, exactly, drives a person to extreme acts of violence. This is a very good book for understanding the individualistic side of perpetrators, and where cultural socialization plays into their reasoning.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sunny

    The author wanted to explore the complex links macro-structures to the individual psychology of Khmer Rouge (KR) soldiers who tortured and killed their countrymen. This anthropological thesis draws on interviews with survivors and former KR soldiers, radio broadcasts and text from the KR era – including forced confessions written by people who died in the infamous S-21 interrogation prison. The author argues that although national instability and strict party ideology provide the conditions ‘hot’ The author wanted to explore the complex links macro-structures to the individual psychology of Khmer Rouge (KR) soldiers who tortured and killed their countrymen. This anthropological thesis draws on interviews with survivors and former KR soldiers, radio broadcasts and text from the KR era – including forced confessions written by people who died in the infamous S-21 interrogation prison. The author argues that although national instability and strict party ideology provide the conditions ‘hot’ for genocide, something else needs to happen. Whilst the order to make people kill comes from the top down, there was also reception by the foot soldiers who received and interpreted the message, in order to justify their action or to go viciously above and beyond what was ordered. This interplay between individuals and systems also interacts with a broader cultural body of knowledge including Buddhist principles and Khmer cultural values for saving face and hierarchy. Overall, this is an interesting read that tries to explain why people do such horrible things to each other. But the author acknowledges throughout that ultimately, we can only guess what KR soldiers were thinking. This book is probably suited for people interested in research on genocide. For a more historical text, I’d recommend Elizabeth Becker’s ‘When the war was over’ for a thoroughly detailed account of the political machinations during the KR era.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Noelle

    Dense anthropological look into the Cambodian genocide. Hinton translates gruesome details into symbolic actions. Good academic read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jerry Elmer

  11. 5 out of 5

    Patrick

  12. 4 out of 5

    Tricia

  13. 4 out of 5

    Dani Curry

  14. 4 out of 5

    Vivek

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sanne Meijer

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jenni

  17. 5 out of 5

    ចរ៉្រទ ត្នោត

  18. 4 out of 5

    merireads

  19. 5 out of 5

    Steph

  20. 5 out of 5

    Emily

  21. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

  22. 4 out of 5

    Jakke

  23. 5 out of 5

    koaibah shtayeh

  24. 5 out of 5

    stanislav kuvaldin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

  26. 4 out of 5

    Floyd

  27. 5 out of 5

    Alex Riehle McDermott

  28. 4 out of 5

    Vivian Blaxell

  29. 5 out of 5

    Charlotte Freeman

  30. 4 out of 5

    Pablo Lopez

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