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Witness For the Prosecution

Henry Kissinger: Candide, Machiavelli, or schlump?



The Trial of Henry Kissinger

By Christopher Hitchens

Verso, 150 pp., $22

Exactly who and what is Dr. Henry A. Kissinger? Key expert in government at Harvard in the late 1950s? Key instrument of Republican Party politicos in Indochina in the mid-'60s? National security advisor under Nixon and Ford? Secretary of state under Nixon and Ford? Engineer behind Nixon's trip to China in 1972? Nobel Peace Prize co-winner in 1973? The answer, of course, is all of the above, and all of the above, of course, is on the record.

But, off the record, what manner of man is he? "An odious schlump who made war gladly" was novelist Joseph Heller's assessment of Kissinger in Good as Gold. "A mediocre and opportunist academic" intent on becoming "an international potentate" is Christopher Hitchens putting it mildly in The Trial of Henry Kissinger. Putting it not so mildly he also calls Kissinger (in short) "a stupendous liar" and (at length) "a man at home in the world and on top of his brief" but a Candide too: "naive, and ill-prepared for and easily unhorsed by events," a man whose writings and speeches "are heavily larded with rhetoric about 'credibility' and the need to impress friend and foe with the mettle of American resolve" but one who, "in response to any inquiry that might implicate him in crime and fiasco, ... rushes to humiliate his own country and its professional servants."

Humiliating country and countrymen may mark Kissinger the man, but Hitchens means to mark Kissinger a master criminal, which, if you follow the complicated paper trail that Hitchens documents in this book, could and should land the good doctor in an international court of law. The crimes, according to Hitchens, are these:

1) Kissinger's deliberate sabotaging of Johnson's Vietnam peace plan in Paris in order to get his own man, Nixon, elected in 1968. Four years later, Nixon presents the same plan and ends the war, and an additional 31,205 American servicemen and 475,609 of the enemy forces lose their lives. In that same period, more than 3 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian civilians are unnecessarily killed, injured, or rendered homeless. (Congratulations, Dr. Kissinger, on that Nobel!)

2) Kissinger's tacit approval of: A) Pakistan's takeover of Bangladesh in 1971 and B) the kidnapping and murder of Bangladesh's democratically elected leader. The "secret diplomacy" that kept the country destabilized for the following four years -- four years during which somewhere between half a million and 3 million Bengali civilians (estimates vary) were killed -- had two aims: U.S. interest in a Pakistani intermediary who could speed a possible détente between the U.S. and China; America's interest in showing China that we stand by our friends and Pakistan is a friend. (Screw India.)

3) Kissinger's "direct collusion" in the U.S.- financed and U.S.-armed 1970 kidnapping and murder of General René Schneider of Chile, who opposed any military interference in the free election of Salvador Allende as president. Hitchens calls this act, plain and simple, "a hit -- a piece of state-supported terrorism" designed to destabilize the democratic government of a country with which the U.S. was not at war. (Good going, General Pinochet!)

4) Kissinger's advance knowledge of a plan to depose and kill Cyprus' president and overthrow its democratic government -- this in order to satisfy the territorial hunger of the dictatorship in Athens and to protect U.S. air and intelligence bases in Greece. The coup in 1974 led to the deaths of thousands of civilians and the uprooting of almost 200,000 refugees. (Sorry, Cyprus.)

5) Kissinger's (and Gerald Ford's) full knowledge and support of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, during which a combination of mass slaughter and deliberate starvation resulted in the deaths, according to Amnesty International estimates, of 200,000 people. (Congratulations, General Suharto!)

6) Kissinger's personal involvement in a plan "to abduct and interrogate, and almost certainly kill," a Greek journalist working in Washington who vocally opposed his country's authoritarian regime and who vocally reminded readers of that regime's financial ties to the Nixon White House. (So sorry, free press.)

Is this sordid stuff really only the stuff of realpolitik, whatever the world hot spot, whoever the U.S. head, wherever the goon squad? Or are we talking here, when we talk of Henry Kissinger, about a clear and still-present danger? About crimes against humanity, crimes beneath the heading "business as usual" (aka "diplomacy") as enacted by a pudgy man with a zombie countenance but a man with (Hitchens' words) "the authentic touch of raw and unapologetic power"?

You be the judge because someone has to be and because it won't be, officially, the United States, which believes itself immune from the truth and reconciliation commissions being conducted by "lesser" nations today, immune from international human rights laws, immune from international criminal law, and immune from the law of civil remedies, a country only too happy to continue dressing Kissinger up in what Hitchens calls "the cloak of immunity that has shrouded him until now."

"Until now" because Hitchens, who treats this material with none of his easily digestible,Vanity Fair brand of broadside, means to dress Kissinger seriously down, whether you can or cannot keep up with the chronology of events Hitchens describes, can or cannot keep tabs on Kissinger's highly profitable and private, big-business deals, can or cannot decipher the damaging evidence in the often heavily redacted CIA cables, White House journals, declassifed documents, and memorandums he heavily quotes, can or cannot keep count of the shady doings of the Kissinger-headed "40 Committee," or can or cannot distinguish between an already-seedy "Track One" line of diplomatic skullduggery from the even seedier parts one and two of "Track Two."

Henry Kissinger has deeded his papers to the Library of Congress on the stipulation that they not be examined until after his death. If Christopher Hitchens doesn't do the doctor's reputation in, time can tell and just maybe justice will. -- Leonard Gill


By Julian Rios

Knopf, 225 pp., $25

Imagine for a moment that through some strange rift in reality you have been physically transported to the absurd, unnatural, and harrowing world of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, but you're blindfolded. Providing narration for every terrible and nonsensical sight encountered is your disturbingly alliterative and alarmingly articulate guide Julian Rios, author of Monstruary.

Rios' most recent book, masterfully translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, is nigh Joycean in its labyrinthine linguistic complexity, though you most likely can decipher its prose -- unlike some of Joyce's -- albeit a bit dense and breathless.

Monstruary is the tale of Emil, our writer/artist/narrator, and his exceptionally gifted cadre of friends and acquaintances, who are all caught up in a world of high-octane art and bad- luck love. The title of the book comes from Emil's friend Mons' painting- series-in-progress, a number of works with many different recurring themes but one thing in common: chilling imagery.

It seems Mons must first have a drunken nightmarish vision a la Bosch before his brush touches canvas: "Ill-assorted multitudes of human figures with the heads of animals and all kinds of beasts and insects with the heads of men and women. ... A tightrope walker with the head of a goldfinch. A carp with the head of a duck."

Admittedly, this is a very odd book. While we learn the details of the characters' lives and loves, we're intermittently taken on descriptive roller-coaster rides regarding paintings and sculptures, the life of the mind of several artists, mysterious journals full of automatic writing penned by unaware mediums of dead wives (each almost indecipherable phrase rife with possible meanings), et cetera. And this roller coaster starts on page one.

Somewhat pretentious is the narrator's ubiquitous plays on words, obscure puns, and alliterative phrases -- that poor exhausted translator! -- of which there have to be at least 20 on every single page. (Every character is a latent linguist.) No phrase is left unskewed by double entendre, no pun is left unpunned, and rarely is a sentence left in which every word does not echo another with the same sound or series of letters. Chew on this: "That delirious architecture seemed to spring from the opium visions of De Quincey and Coleridge, semisymmetries in a chaotic kaleidoscope where dromedary domes rose beneath the cupola of night, mad truncated caracole staircases against unsalvageable walls, lofty basalt rising over the abyss, pilasters soaring to the stars and splintered plinths and prostrate rostrate columns, the sharp beaked peaks of their rostrums earthbound, and alligators astride astragals in the black sun of melancholy."

For many readers this will be too much to deal with. They'll lose interest immediately, or, if intrigued, will simply be worn out by the sentence strata they have to constantly dig through to get at meaning. But there are plenty of masochist members of the intelligentsia who relish a very challenging book like this, obstinately difficult in its narrative bent. You just have to be a word junkie. You have to enjoy it like others enjoy puzzles. The meaning's there, but you've got to know what to look for to get it.

Don't get me wrong. I recommend Monstruary, especially if you love art and literature. But don't eat too many pronto pups and cotton candy before you get on the ride, and for God's sake keep your hands inside the car at all times. -- Jeremy Spencer

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