By David K. Shipler
The word “great” is overused in this age of superlatives, but it’s no exaggeration when applied to Syd Schanberg, whose coverage of Cambodia during its 1970s war has been remembered almost reverently, since he died last week, by those who worked with him. Here are three vignettes:
One evening in Phnom Penh, as we were about to take Syd’s favorite government censor to a French restaurant for rich food and copious amounts of wine—standard practice to lubricate the “approved” stamp on controversial copy—Syd told me of a run-in with a different Cambodian censor three years earlier. It had been 1970, as ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were being attacked and imprisoned by the government and civilians. Syd wrote of Vietnamese being placed in “internment camps.” The censor, whose English was passable but not colloquial, said (as I recall Syd recalling the quote), “Mr. Schanberg, the phrase ‘internment camps’ is not correct. We are not imprisoning them. We are just bringing them together for their own protection. We are concentrating them. You should say, ‘concentration camps.’” That wouldn’t be such a good idea, Syd told the censor. In the story, I believe, it came out just plain “camps.”
Syd had a towering sense of justice—some might call it self-righteousness, and he could be prickly about it. He had a keen eye, and his indignation flared over incidents that less sensitive people would have considered insignificant. One day, when he and I were walking into some government compound with Dith Pran—the storied Cambodian interpreter and fixer whose trials and ultimate escape after the Khmer Rouge takeover were dramatized in the film, “Killing Fields”—the Cambodian guard at the gate called Pran over for a pat-down but was about to let us two Americans pass without a check. Syd raised an angry protest, practically shouting at the guard that if he was going to frisk Pran he was damned well going to frisk us as well. The guard, clearly confused by this unique American who eschewed the privilege of being American, obediently gave us both perfunctory pat-downs.
Syd’s moral outrage was not to be resisted, as I saw when he, Pran, and I visited Neak Luong, the village where an American B-52 in August 1973 had mistakenly dropped bombs in a long row through the heart of the town. At the time, American officials pretended that not much damage had been done, and under U.S. orders no doubt, Cambodian forces sealed off the village so no journalists could get there to see for themselves.
With Pran’s canny help, he and Syd got a boatman to take them to Neak Luong via the Mekong River, where Syd recorded and reported, with the understated clarity of a gifted and careful journalist, the simple facts that spoke the powerful truth.
“A third of the hospital is demolished,” Syd wrote, “with the rest badly damaged and unusable until major repairs are made. Several patients were wounded and some are believed killed. A bomb fell on the northeast corner of the hospital, blowing some walls down and scattering concrete, beds and cabinets.
“At his press briefing [U.S. air attache] Colonel [David] Opfer, who visited Neak Luong within a few hours of the bombing, said that there was ‘a little bit of damage to the northeast corner of the hospital’ and talked about some ‘structural cracks’ in a wall.”
Several weeks later, Syd and Pran took me along on a return visit to Neak Luong, this time in a helicopter of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had been mobilized by Syd’s reporting to render assistance. Even that long after the bombing, there were none of the usual smiles and laughs from children who usually flocked around visiting foreigners. Kids stared at us vacantly, as if still in shock. Adult survivors remained stricken. The hospital looked like a ruin, and it had practically nothing of medical value to treat the injured.
There was fighting outside the town that day, and we saw Cambodian boys in camouflage, hardly taller than the rifles slung across their backs, getting ready to go out to combat. (Yes, the U.S. supported child soldiers in the Cambodian army.) As two stretchers with wounded soldiers were carried out of the thicket toward the hospital, a couple of the boys stopped in their tracks, watched their comrades going by, then resumed their halting steps into the thicket from which the stretchers had just come.
It was obvious that the broken hospital had no way to save the two Cambodian soldiers. Some reporters would have taken pictures and notes. Syd took action. Knowing that the Cambodian military was not flying helicopters into battle zones to evacuate the wounded, he went to the American head of USAID in Cambodia, who had invited us along, and insisted that he fly the soldiers back on his chopper to Phnom Penh. Now, the U.S. Embassy detested Syd. As an institution, it excluded him from briefings as much as possible and hated the way he wielded uncomfortable facts. But this USAID man was no monster, and while he hesitated for a few beats, there was something in Syd’s tone of voice and body language that was formidable.
So the soldiers were lifted into the chopper, and as we took off, somebody asked me to try covering the sucking wound in one man’s chest, which I did with a small plastic calendar from my wallet, about the size of a credit card. I held it there so his lung would sort of work while we flew directly to the hospital in Phnom Penh. We never learned whether the two soldiers made it or not.
I didn’t think to ask Syd in later years if he remembered his intervention. Probably not, it was so natural for him.