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Greg Grandin, Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015).
Imagine for a moment that you are standing before the threshold of a Spanish colonial mansion bedecked with carefully placed and impeccably manicured tropical plants. A gentle breeze sways the palms overhead and you can hear and smell the waves of the Caribbean caressing the beach that is just a few hundred yards away. You walk through the door and are enveloped by the sumptuous and tasteful décor, all wood, marble, and overhead ceiling fans for that touch of colonial tropical authenticity. You are ushered through the cavernous house and into the elaborate gardens of the rear that provide a dappled light, a comfortable transition to prepare you to be properly sun-kissed on the private beach. You take your place on a cushioned reclining chair and are handed a drink—let’s say something refreshing with rum, mint, and a spritz. Can you picture yourself there? There is obviously only one thing missing from this scenario: Henry Kissinger.
Apparently, that is what Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton thinks. The Clintons, Henry Kissinger, and his wife Nancy have spent their winters together for years vacationing at the opulent home of the famed Dominican fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, as Mother Jones has recently reported. Why should such personal leisure idiosyncrasies be newsworthy these days, one may ask? In what became an important moment in one of the Democratic primary debates in early February, Hillary Clinton name-dropped Henry Kissinger and his approval of her foreign policy in an attempt to diminish Bernie Sanders’ seriousness and qualifications for the presidency. It didn’t work. Instead, it unleashed a flurry of think pieces on and assessments of Kissinger’s tenure and legacy. While there are the usual “10 worst” lists and synthesis pieces, nothing compares to what the historian Greg Grandin has achieved in his recent intellectual/professional biography, entitled Kissinger’s Shadow. Grandin, a scarily prolific writer, also contributed to the burst of Kissinger assessments after the debate, publishing an excellent piece in The Nation the very next morning. As good as that article is, consider what follows to be a very strong pitch to sit down and read his brilliant book in its entirety. However, be advised—if you do end up on a nice beach with a drink in your hand, I’m not sure this book is the one to bring.
The Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas is where US Army formulates and codifies its doctrine. In addition to the high priests of counterinsurgency warfare and conventional tank strategy, since 1985 Leavenworth is also the home of the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). Headed at its inception by then Colonel Wesley Clark, CALL publishes studies of what went right and what went wrong in America’s past military engagements. Politics, strategy, and tactics—the Clausewitzian triptych—are all considered. In essence, the Army studies the past in order to learn from past mistakes and in hopes of avoiding them in the future. Such a use of historical data would be anathema to Henry Kissinger.
What is perhaps the greatest take-away from Grandin’s study is that Henry Kissinger does not believe in reality, and that this mental orientation has governed his policy-making and advisory role for the entirety of his all too long career. That is to say, the archetype of the realist school of foreign policy does not believe in reality. This rejection of the notion of a shared world made up of observable and verifiable facts is based on Kissinger’s metaphysical conception of being, which Grandin describes as comprised of “equal parts gloom and glee.” The gloom comes from an existentialist belief in the absurdity and ultimate meaninglessness of existence. A German Jew, Kissinger came to the United States in 1923 at the age of fifteen and thus escaped the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Twelve of his family members did not, and this cemented his pessimistic outlook. However, unlike Theodor Adorno, another German Jewish transplant in America, he didn’t think writing lyric poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric. It so happened that Kissinger’s lyric poetry was Machiavellian foreign policy memos. And here we have Kissinger’s gleeful element: if all history is suffering and barbarism and there is no point to being per se, then why not embrace it and act boldly. Since there is no Divine plan, no Fate, then one is radically free and able to act as such, though within some of the pre-existing constraints that preceded one’s existence. To the pessimistic belief that life has no meaning, Kissinger had a positive response: YOLO.
Kissinger’s existential metaphysics held that truth is in the eye of the beholder. Life is meaningless also because there is no possibility of a shared experience of truth. “Meaning represents the emanation of a metaphysical context. Every man in a certain sense creates his picture of the world,” argued Kissinger in his graduate thesis. Thus, the facts of history don’t matter, because each man inescapably is entitled to his own facts. The material of history is not to be studied for the understanding of cause and effect but rather for analogical reasoning. Thus, facts are relative, determining cause and effect is a fool’s errand, and history is of interest to political decision-makers only insofar as it offers an analogous and usable situation. Grandin sums up the outcome of this reasoning very well: “In other words, if you don’t like the lesson Richard Nixon and Vietnam teaches, don’t worry about it. There’s always Neville Chamberlain and Munich.”
What may appear to be an unnecessary detour into the inchoate philosophical musings of a graduate student actually sheds light on the rationale of Kissinger’s policies and his blasé attitude toward the destruction it often wrought. The epigraph of the book quotes Kissinger stating that, “The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.” Not only, as Grandin notes, do we hear the echo of this sentiment in Karl Rove’s “reality-based community” claims during the Iraq War, this is an orientation that can be thought of as a response to the existential void. Faced with the death of God, Kissinger suggests one should try and play God on earth, if only for a fleeting moment.
Unfortunately, the god of war was the deity he most faithfully emulated. The litany of terror produced by Kissinger’s policies is too long to comprehensively address (read the book!!). However, an exemplary case of Kissinger at work was the secret bombing of Cambodia from 1969-1973. By the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was raging and the North Vietnamese communists used the snaking supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send resources and reinforcements to their southern allies. Having gained approval from the Cambodian ruler Prince Sihanouk, the North Vietnamese purposefully directed the trail over the Vietnam-Cambodian border. With domestic support for the war waning after the 1968 Tet Offensive and the onset of the draft, Kissinger did not want to go to Congress to get approval to bomb another sovereign state on whom there had been no declaration of hostilities. How quaint. In our era of endless, borderless, robotic death from above, the notion of having to get Congressional approval for bombing countries against whom we have not declared war seems passé. It is. It is because of the precedent set by Kissinger in Cambodia and also in neighboring Laos.
This bombing campaign was the most brutal in human history. In the course of four years, a half a million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, killing at least 100,000 civilians and creating the grounds for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. The escalation of the bombing took on not a logic of its own but a very Kissingerian logic. Since the only thing one can do in the world is act, and since in foreign affairs it is better to act than react, the secret bombing had to happen to teach the North Vietnamese and Cambodian government a lesson. When they weren’t taught the lesson, the only way to better teach it would be to bomb even more. For Kissinger, formulating policy depended not on facts but intuition, gut responses, and what mattered ultimately were ideas of “American credibility” and “determination,” not so much the consequences. The carpet bombing of Cambodia at this moment in history gave rise to the genocidal Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. Why? As one former Khmer Rouge member said, “The ordinary people…sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came…Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.”
In Laos, up to 30,000 civilians were killed and the intensity of the bombing was even greater. Laos remains the most bombed country in history. From 1965-1973, the US bombed Laos every eight minutes. Approximately 280,000,000 bombs were dropped on Laos—about one ton of explosives for each Laotian—and about 80,000,000 million cluster bombs are still buried in the soil, unexploded. More precisely, they are exploding over time and have killed over 20,000 people from the end of the fighting in 1975 to 2009, 40% of whom were children. Add to this the tens of thousands of limbless and maimed of Cambodia and Laos and the bombing campaign over North and South Vietnam, and we have about 1,000,000 civilian deaths due to bombing in Indochina (2,000,000 other civilians died due to the ground war). As one recent history has estimated, the amount of bombing firepower expended in this region by America from 1964-1975 is the equivalent of 640 Hiroshimas.
The US Army has been grappling with what lessons to learn regarding the Vietnam War for decades. However, one of the Army’s favored son’s (until recently), Gen. David Petraeus, argued that one should be wary of reasoning by historical analogy. “Perspective and understanding” are what one can hope for in historical analysis and that dogmatic analytical conclusions must be avoided. He, of course, was hoping to rescue counterinsurgency from its déclassé position in American strategic thought due to its failure in Vietnam. Thus, the purpose of history is to provide context, but it shouldn’t end up hamstringing action: “It would be more profitable to address the central issues of any particular case that arises than to debate endlessly whether the situation could evolve into ‘another Vietnam.’” For all of Petraeus’ critique of historical analogy, he ends up with Kissinger’s philosophy of history: study and value history only insofar as it lets you tell the story you want to tell in order to do what you want to do. This is what Grandin aptly calls Kissingerism without Kissinger. What did Kissinger learn from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos? After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he had this to say at a press conference: “The United States must carry out some act somewhere in the world, which shows its determination to continue to be a world power.” Some act, somewhere, some day, bombs away.