Tyler Durden loves his explosives. Cambodia does not.

By Bryan Liu, Living Arts Co-Editor

“Fight Club” is not a movie about fighting. 

Author Chuck Palaniuk says “it’s about two men and a woman, and one man, the hero, is shot to death”—which is literally The Great Gatsby. To me, “Fight Club” is about one man: Tyler Durden. The charismatic alter-ego of our unnamed narrator and Marla Singer’s love interest: the quirky chain smoking manic-pixie-dream-girl, who’s dead inside.

Expressing his burning hatred for modernity through demolition based corporate iconoclasm, Durden has uncanny knowledge of DIY explosives—which he learned from his startup Paper Street Soap Co. A byproduct of the soap distillation process is nitroglycerin, which is the main ingredient in dynamite. 

“With enough soap, one can blow up just about anything,” he explains. 

Durden is an entrepreneur and a savior: one man trying to save the world from rigid class structures created by ruthless capitalists by bombing modernity back to the Stone Age. Durden’s eponymous fight club is made up of the frustrated working class who “haul your trash,” “connect your calls,” “drive your ambulances,” and “guard you while you sleep.”

“Fight Club” is a tale as old as America—not just because of its intertextuality, but also because of its Marxist-Leninist commentary on America’s involvement in Cold War era Cambodia.

Durden’s proletariat club parallels the Khmer Rouge, a Cambodian Communist Party led by revolutionary dictator Pol Pot. Both leaders antagonized the bourgeoisie for exploiting the working class and sought to reject modernity and embrace tradition. Pol Pot envisioned a self-sufficient agrarian utopia, while Durden’s proposal sounds like the best episode of “Survivor.” 

He says, “in the world I see, you are stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life and you’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower.”

But unlike Durden, Pol Pot didn’t have to blow up the existing republic—because America did it for him.

It seems Durden inspired Richard Nixon and Lyndon B. Johnson when the latter ordered an extensive, decade-long carpet bombing campaign in neutral Cambodia to disrupt suspected North Vietnamese supply lines during the Vietnam War. In the name of America’s swollen savior-complex, our B-52s dropped a total 2,756,941 tons of explosives on officially neutral territory to weaken the spread of communism in Southeast Asia—for reference, the combined Allied Powers only dropped around two million tons of bombs during World War II. That makes Cambodia—a country no bigger than Oklahoma—the most heavily bombed country in history.

Two years later, Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge to overthrow the then-weakened Cambodian Republic and establish the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or CPK—not to be confused with California Pizza Kitchen—the other CPK. Receiving support from the Chinese Communist Party and the Viet Cong, Communist Cambodia was the biggest uno-reverse-card against American geopolitics. Ironic, but not comical. 

The same way that Durden’s fight club devolved from a good-natured weekly brawl-sesh to Project Mayhem—a high commitment domestic terrorist organization—the Khmer Rouge’s totalitarian rule also did a full 180.

The party started by executing all the members of the old order: doctors, lawyers, politicians, intellectuals, anybody with bourgeois associations—if you wore glasses, you were dead. Hundreds of thousands were sent to march into the countryside. Entire cities were displaced to fill a nationwide system of forced labor camps, collective farms, and execution grounds also called killing fields. 

Pot’s regime banned religion and commerce, tore families apart, and dehumanized its members. Under project mayhem, Durden’s former fight club members had their names removed, their heads shaved, and enforced an all-black dress code—an identical practice with the Khmer Rouge.

The mass executions, forced labor, physical abuse, malnutrition, and disease ultimately led to the genocide of 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians.

After a failed invasion attempt into Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979 by the Vietnamese army, but still escaped persecution for decades. 

In December of last year, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia sentenced Khieu Samphan, 91, the last surviving Khmer Rouge leader to life in prison. The tribunal initially convicted three former Khmer Rouge officials, two of which died of old age during their trials. The United Nations-backed genocide tribunal combined two very different legal systems and cost over $330 million. In the end, we did not convict criminals, we convicted vegetables. 

Pol Pot was never brought to justice—he died peacefully. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, was a former high ranking cadre of the Khmer Rouge who interfered with the tribunal out of self-preservation. A tribunal that wasn’t even convened until 2006, more than 25 years after the genocide happened.

We all know the first rule of fight club is don’t talk about fight club. But what about genocide? Because the discourse regarding Cambodia left out a lot of information.

Apart from the Dead Kennedys’—the worst punk band ever—1979 chart-topper “Holiday In Cambodia” and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster, like Roland Joffé’s 1984 film “The Killing Fields”—and now David Fincher’s adaptation of “Fight Club,” the Cambodian Genocide has mostly disappeared from the public eye, dismissed as a genocide concluded. 

If only we’d broken the first two rules of “Fight Club” sooner.