How Crisis Mapping Proved Henry Kissinger Wrong in Cambodia

Crisis Mapping can reveal insights on current crises as well as crises from decades ago. Take Dr. Jen Ziemke‘s dissertation research on crisis mapping the Angolan civil war, which revealed and explained patterns of violence against civilians. My colleague Dr. Taylor Owen recently shared with me his fascinating research, which comprises a spatio-historical analysis of the US bombardment of Cambodia. Like Jen’s research, Taylor’s clearly shows how crisis mapping can shed new light on important historical events.


Taylor analyzed a recently declassified Pentagon geo-referenced data set of all US bombings during the Indo-Chinese war which revealed substantial errors in the historical record of what happened to Cambodia between 1965-1973. The spatial and temporal analysis also adds more food for thought regarding the link between the rise of the Khmer Rouge and American air strikes. In particular, Owen’s analysis shows that:

“… the total tonnage dropped on Cambodia was five times greater than previously known; the bombing inside Cambodia began nearly 4 years prior to the supposed start of the Menu Campaign, under the Johnson Administration; that, in contradiction to Henry Kissinger’s claims, and over the warning of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Base Areas 704, 354 and 707 were all heavily bombed; the bombing intensity increased throughout the summer of 1973, after Congress barred any such increase; and, that despite claims by both Kissinger and Nixon to the contrary, there was substantial bombing within 1km of inhabited villages.”

To be sure, the crisis mapping analysis of Cambodia “transforms our understan-ding of the scale of what happened to Cambodia during the Indochinese war. The  total tonnage of bombs dropped on the country had previously been pegged at some 500,000 tons. The new analysis dramatically revises this figure upwards to “2,756,941 tons of US bombs dropped during no fewer than 230,516 sorties.” To put this figure into context, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia than the number of bombs that the US dropped during all of World War II. Cambodia remains the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Kissinger had claimed that no bombs were being dropped on villages. He gave assurances, in writing, that no bombs would be dropped “closer than 1 km from villages, hamlets, houses, monuments, temples, pagodas or holy places.” As Owen reveals, “the absurdity of Kissinger’s claim is clearly demonstrated” by the crisis mapping analysis below in which the triangles represent village centers and the red points denote bombing targets, often hit with multiple sorties.

Owen argues that “while the villagers may well have hated the Viet Cong, in many cases once their villages had been bombed, they would become more sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge,” hence the supposed link between the eventual Cambodian genocide which killed 1.7 million people (~21% of the population) and the US bombing. To be sure,  “the civilian casualties caused by the bombing significantly increased the recruiting capacity of the Khmer Rouge, whom over the course of the bombing campaign transformed from a small agrarian revolutionary group, to a large anti-imperial army capable of taking over the country.”

In sum, the crisis mapping analysis of Cambodia “challenges both the established historical narrative on the scale and scope of this campaign, as well as our understanding of the effects of large scale aerial bombardment.”

7 responses to “How Crisis Mapping Proved Henry Kissinger Wrong in Cambodia

  1. Pingback: Cambodia: the most heavily bombed country in the world. « Living in Phnom Penh

  2. Interesting! I wonder when these techniques will be applied to current shadow wars, like the current administration’s Drone escapades… (I think I remember someone using crisis mapping for this in Pakistan maybe? May need historical perspective to see full scale though…)

  3. Pingback: Ape Con Myth › Anything that Flies, on Anything that Moves

  4. Pingback: Crisis Mapping of US Bombardment in Cambodia · Global Voices

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