Image of a promise not kept

The mind will seize an image, often powerless to shed it. Music, poetry, a scent, a taste or a feeling will all linger. But  an image can be unsurpassed in its power to freeze and distill an experience, an event or even the struggles of an era.

A newspaper clipping of an Associated Press story from April of 1998 thrust an image into my mind that has become unshakeable. It shows a heap of debris that is just starting to burn. A man to the left is carrying a log to add to the pile of fuel. Another, in the background and just in the frame to the right, is staring off into the distance, seemingly uninterested in the activity nearby. Sticks, old tires and scrap pieces of lumber are loosely piled around, on top and even under a wooden box. An upside—down chair teeters precariously on top of the end, facing the witness.

The scene is in a clearing in the jungles of Cambodia. The image punctuates the history of Southeast Asia, and closes a chapter in a long and  tragic tale of bloody conflict. The butcher of one quarter of his fellow Cambodians has passed into history. It is the funeral pyre of Pol Pot.

Americans have many images of Vietnam burned into their collective consciousness. Individuals probably have a specific one that pops to the foreground when recalling the years of tumult and agony that were America's prosecution of a war, for what its proponents insisted were noble reasons. Perhaps it's the one of the South Vietnamese officer executing a Viet Cong rebel during the Tet offensive of 1968. Perhaps it's the scene of the last remaining evacuation helicopter perched atop the American Embassy, just prior to its departure. Or perhaps one of the many others. For me it's this picture of Pol Pot being ushered into eternity. I just cannot get my head around it. The irony is caustic. The murderer of nearly two million men, women and children is unceremoniously being returned to ash in a manner that affords consideration little greater than that shown his victims.

If the United States had not left Vietnam in 1975, would there have been this horrific slaughter? How many Vietnamese would have escaped Communist re—education or retribution? How many would have not fled thereby not risking or losing their life? I would like to think that a less dreadful history would have ensued. Not perfect, but far less damning of the Cambodians, Vietnamese and ourselves. And so, to me, the news photo of Pol Pot's cremation is an image of a promise not kept.

Twenty—some years hence will there be another image that conveys a similar message about Iraq? We will then have an even greater multitude of scenes stamped upon our minds binding us to or alienating us from the purposes that brought us into the land of the Butcher of Baghdad. But the image that will then punctuate our memory and our history is as yet unseen, for our promise to the Iraqis and ourselves is as yet unfulfilled.
It won't be the shot of the FDNY men raising the flag atop the ruble of the fallen twin towers. It won't be the ashen ghost of a man emerging from the pall of dust, soot and smoke enveloping that twisted wreckage. Or any of the other myriad images of the day that pointed our way to Afghanistan, Iraq or other places that we may yet go. It won't be the picture of Saddam's colossus being toppled. It won't be of the Commander—in—Chief landing on an aircraft carrier. And it certainly won't be one of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos.

No, the image we must remember is one that we have not yet seen. I imagine it will be something quiet, in black and white, more like the photo of that clearing in the Cambodian rain forest. Something without sound that shouts realization. Something without motion that rocks one's sensibilities. I don't know what that image will be. But I do know it will be a picture of a promise either kept or not kept. If it is an image of a promise not kept, then we may very well suffer a toll in human life greater than that hell in Southeast Asia. The price paid for a promise not kept in Iraq will be steep.

And this time, we'll be the ones to pay it.

Dennis Sevakis is a former Air Force captain and fighter pilot