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Review of Alexander Laban Hinton. Man Or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

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Abstract

One of the most resonating quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, “All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.” In many ways, this characterization of Mr. Hyde as the epitome of evil, a morally iniquitous villain, is how we typify mass killers. One such killer who fits this description is Kaing Kek Iev (កាំង ហ្គេកអ៊ាវ, aka. 江玉耀Jiāng Yùyào, or more famously, “Comrade Duch”), the one-time head of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s (CPK) internal security branch at Tuol Sleng (S-21). A modern-day Mr. Hyde, this man seemingly detached from his inner Dr. Jekyll—a respected mathematics teacher and highly intelligent CPK cadre—to oversee the imprisonment, torture, and execution of an estimated twenty thousand people. Recently, Duch’s trial, which is under the aegis of theUnited Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), has garnered significant international attention. However, the forces behind his “heel turn” and an understanding of Duch the man, teacher, defendant, perpetrator, and monster, among other aspects of his multifaceted persona, has yet to enter the mainstream. Enter Man Or Monster? by Alexander Laban Hinton, the Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights and Professor of Anthropology and Global Affairs at Rutgers University, Newark. The author of the groundbreaking ethnography of the Cambodian genocide, Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (2005), Hinton goes further in Man or Monster? with an “ethnodrama,” which he describes as an ethnography containing dramatic structure and which “uses language and narrative structure to raise questions and evoke ambiguities that are often glossed over in expository writing” (p. 35).
Alexander Laban Hinton. Man Or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer. Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
One of the most resonating quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, “All human beings, as we meet them, are
commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure
evil.” In many ways, this characterization of Mr. Hyde as the epitome of evil, a morally
iniquitous villain, is how we typify mass killers. One such killer who fits this description is
Kaing Kek Iev (  , aka. 江玉耀 Jiāng Yùyào, or more famously, Comrade Duch), the
one-time head of the Communist Party of Kampuchea’s (CPK) internal security branch at Tuol
Sleng (S-21). A modern-day Mr. Hyde, this man seemingly detached from his inner Dr. Jekyll
a respected mathematics teacher and highly intelligent CPK cadreto oversee the imprisonment,
torture, and execution of an estimated twenty thousand people. Recently, Duch’s trial, which is
under the aegis of theUnited Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
(ECCC), has garnered significant international attention. However, the forces behind his “heel
turn” and an understanding of Duch the man, teacher, defendant, perpetrator, and monster,
among other aspects of his multifaceted persona, has yet to enter the mainstream. Enter Man Or
Monster? by Alexander Laban Hinton, the Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and
Human Rights and Professor of Anthropology and Global Affairs at Rutgers University, Newark.
The author of the groundbreaking ethnography of the Cambodian genocide, Why Did They Kill?
Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (2005), Hinton goes further in Man or Monster? with an
“ethnodrama,” which he describes as an ethnography containing dramatic structure and which
uses language and narrative structure to raise questions and evoke ambiguities that are often
glossed over in expository writing” (p. 35).
To accomplish this task, Hinton expertly weaves trial proceedings, testimonials, and
contemporary analyses of Democratic Kampuchea, thereby crafting an ambitious exposé of
Duch’s trial and the various forces behind collective memory of him. The book’s title serves as a
deliberate vocare pro provocare to “‘stimulate a reaction’ by ‘provoking’ thinking about the
question itself and what, ultimately, it suggests about Duch’s trial and the banality of everyday
thought” (p. 288). And provoke deeper thought about Duch and his trial is exactly what the book
does, as Hinton draws poignantly from Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” to
problematize and contextualize our framings of Duch as man, monster, or both oras Hinton’s
study labors to showa man who did monstrous things.
The book consists of ten chapters across two parts, with each chapter heading playing on
the ambiguity that surrounded Duch and the roles that he played throughout his life.
Accordingly, Hinton proceeds chronologically, moving from the trial’s beginning to its end and
intermingling trial proceedings with Duch’s life-and-times. He uses what he calls an
“ethnodramatic and more literary style, including the use of the first person narrative voice” to
produce a “more polyphonic account…us[ing] imagery, language, and juxtaposition to convey
key concepts” (p. 290). The chapters that comprise part one are on the trial’s examination of the
nature and form of S-21 before and during Duch’s helmsmanship. Chapter one covers the
opening stages of Duch’s trial, introducing the major players, such as co-prosecutors Chea Leang
and Robert Petit, both of whom “foreground[ed] origins, structure, and operation of S-21, Duch’s
degree of autonomy and criminal responsibility, and the profound dehumanization of his
victims” (p. 53). The chapter also introduces defense lawyer François Roux, who framed Duch
as a mere stooge. Chapter two details Duch’s revolutionary career as it occurred against the
Man Or Monster? The Trial of a Khmer Rouge Torturer 101
backdrop of the Cambodian revolution, with testimonials by François Bizot, a prisoner at M-13
under Duch whose account “affirmed Duch’s humanity [yet] revealed an excess that unsettled
[the] articulation of Duch the man” (p. 83). Chapter three examines the establishment of S-21
and Duch’s role as a subordinate to the untrustworthy Nat, who Duch viewed as inferior to him
in theoretical knowledge and immersion in the Communist canon, while chapter four details
Duch’s strategic importance to CPK implementation, with him representing a hand-picked
“counterbalance” to Nat at S-21 (p. 124). Here, experts such as Craig Etcheson challenge Duch’s
defense, a self-framing of himself as a “passive, reluctant cog,” arguing that in fact, Duch was
“an active, willing participant and an innovator” at S-21 (p. 126). Part one concludes by
examining Duch’s time as an operator (alongside Nat and after) of S-21 and as its principle
torturer and executioner. As the sixth chapter reveals, Duch used the interrogation skills that he
learned while at S-21 to deflect indictments of himself, many of which cast him as a
medievalesque sadist who withdrew from his own humanity to extract information from his
prisoners. If nothing else, the chapters in this part portray Duch as a dedicated cadre who
followed the brutal CPK line, as did many others, but his self-framing as “a man of noble
qualities who, through circumstances and poor judgment, became trapped in a vortex of
violence” falls flat against the evidence to the contrary (p. 69).
The chapters of part two, meanwhile, place the attention squarely on the victims, whose
framings of Duch during the trial guide us toward the climactic final verdict. Chapter seven
presents the civil parties’ closing arguments, including Cambodian painter and human rights
activist Vann Nath’s gut-wrenching testimonial, in which he detailed Duch’s brutality towards
him during his time at S-21. Chapters eight and nine detail the closing arguments by the
prosecution (using ample evidence to debunk Duch’s self-portrayal as a passive cog) and the
defense, respectively, with the latter stressing Duch’s humanity and that he was, as Duch’s
defense co-lawyer Kar Savuth advocated, “the wrong man” (p. 216). The final chapter and
epilogue bring us to the trial’s end, with Duch convicted of crimes against humanity, among a
litany of other wrongdoings. Hinton succeeds in weaving personal testimonials of Duch by his
captives with the legal proceedings and arguments of both sides. His conclusion posits Duch as a
“thinking man” whose “thoughtless stance of effacing conviction,” as reflected by his
mathematics background, ideological rigidity, hyperrationality, tendency to strip away
complicating detail to assert a narrower, categorized vision of the world, disempathy, and desire
for ‘black and white’ truth,” ultimately predisposed him to commit the atrocities that he did (pp.
295-296). Thus in the end, Duch is both man and monstera man conditioned by his
experiences and training to detach from his humanity to become something monstrous.
Overall, Man or Monster? is a thought-provoking literary triumph by Hinton, whose
expertise on contemporary Cambodian history is on full display. The material is accessible, and
each chapter contains a wealth of biographical information on Duch that guides the reader
towards a fuller understanding of Duch without apologia. The greatest strength of Hinton’s book
is its narrative, as it blends vignettes of Duch’s experiences as told by the man himself or by his
victims with the court proceedings and respective cases for and against his case. Hinton’s
coverage of the in-court testimonials of Duch’s victims, in particular, plays to this strength.
Though at times the narrative approach obscures the overarching point of a chapter, leaving the
reader wondering what the chapter is trying to achieve beyond recounting events and
testimonials, Hinton brings it all together seamlessly by each chapter’s end. One issue lies with
Hinton’s take on Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” which he recasts as the “banality of
everyday thoughtby proposing that a failure to think in exceptional circumstances” obfuscates
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that the everyday ways we simplify and categorize the world [to] navigate complexity
parallels a key dynamic in the genocidal process(p. 31). Unlike Eichmann, Duch was a thinking
man who was very much motivated by ideology and career advancement; thus, “banality” falls
not on Duch’s thought or actions, as they were far from “banal. Hinton’s larger point about our
framings of killers succeeds, however, and while this criticism is a minor issue with an otherwise
stellar contribution to the field, it bears noting.
Indeed, Man or Monster? accomplishes what it sets out to do: provoke thinking about the
titular question and contextualize as well as problematize framings of this particular mass
murderer. To quote Stevenson once again, in reading this book I, not unlike Jekyll, learned to
recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that of the two natures that contended
in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I
was radically both.” Duch is both, but as Hinton shows clearly, to render facile the complex and
multifacetedDuch playing several roles or framings throughout his lifeobscures the greater
story to be told and makes it even more difficult to gain an understanding, if ever possible, of a
man who did such monstrous things.
Matthew Galway
University of British Columbia
matt.galway@alumni.ubc.ca
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