Category: book reviews



Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters


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.

Even Better than the Real Thing


Elliot Ackerman, Green on Blue (New York: Scribner, 2015)

The centenary of WWI has produced a flurry of new works that consider the origins, prosecution, and legacies of the Great War. For anyone with an interest in war or this time period, the past couple of years have been a reader’s dream. What is striking about WWI was just how very modern it was. An underground organization called Unity or Death! produces an offshoot that is even more radical: The Black Hand. It enlists a nineteen year-old, Gavrilo Princip, to carry out a terrorist attack that ends up killing the heir to the Habsburg throne and unleashes a war that by 1916 many observers thought might last forever. If one considers the origins of many current conflicts in the Middle East, the birth of the Soviet Union, and the rise of fascism as both a militarized form of mourning and expression of anger over the WWI settlements, it might not be too much of a stretch to suggest that those observers might have been right.

We are, of course, currently living through what the journalist Dexter Filkins has somberly dubbed “the forever war.” How are we to understand out present moment? Given the ever-burgeoning literature on analyzing wars past and present, it stands to reason that readers like me who are interested in these topics would have a somewhat firm grasp on the clashes of yesterday and today. Yet every time I read a newspaper report about conflicts from around the world, I am stunned. War, at its base, is organized groups of human beings inflicting premeditated violence upon one another. How is this possible? Why is it so frequent? How well can history answer these questions? When confronted with the ambient violence of the world that is the daily news, I am confronted with the limits of history.

Due to the norms and forms of historical writing, the limits of history become visible as limits of representation. Historians’ truth claims are bound by the documentary record. What we can say absolutely depends on what others said before us—and on whether or not they bothered to note it down somehow. This is not to attack historians but rather to point out the explanatory limits of the discipline with regard to what is one of its chief objects of analysis. A number of impressively skilled historians have explained the origins of war through the careful analysis of war plans, economic incentives, territorial rivalries, ideological differences, the politics of prestige, and the quirks of statesmen. Doubtlessly, these are crucial factors to consider in understanding how wars come into being. However, to my mind, they do not fully explain how warriors come into being. That is to say, they do not provide an adequate account of how ordinary people transform their will to commit acts of violence they would ordinarily consider inhumane. Interestingly, it is in fiction that we may find truth about war and warriors.

In his book The Drowned and the Saved, the brilliant Italian Jewish Holocaust survivor Primo Levi asks the question, “Have we—we who have returned—been able to understand and make others understand our experience?” As an answer, he suggests that the human desire to simplify, to arrange people, thoughts, and actions into neat moral categories, is understandable but perverts the complexity and ambiguity of human experience. Reality, especially in times of crisis, is not black and white but exists in what he calls “the gray zone.” It is this gray zone that is so elegantly brought to life in Elliot Ackerman’s new novel Green on Blue.

Ackerman is also a man who has, in a sense, “returned” and attempted to convey his experience. A decorated Marine Corps Special Operations officer who served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a stint as the head of a 700-man Afghan battalion that sought to capture Taliban leaders, his novel is astonishing for the narrative perspective it adopts. Rather than telling the story of the current war in Afghanistan through semi-autobiographical fiction like many of the great war novels—Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Barbusse’s Under Fire, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, O’Brien’s The Things They Carried—Ackerman reverses the perspective and tells the entire story through the eyes of an Afghan boy named Aziz whose life is irrevocably changed by the wars in his land.

Aziz and his brother Ali were left orphaned by “the war that came after the Russians but before the Americans.” Their village obliterated, they eked out a living with other orphans, begging and doing odd jobs in the market town. By their fourth year alone, things took a drastic turn for the worse as yet another war came: “Americans accused men of being militants and disappeared them in the night on helicopters. The militants fought to protect us from the Americans and the Americans fought to protect us from the militants, and being so protected, life was very dangerous.” When Ali is gravely wounded by a rocket attack by the warlord Gazan, Aziz is recruited to join the Special Lashkar, an American-backed Afghan unit, that will allow him to get his badal (revenge) and regain his family’s nang (honor). Thus, Aziz quickly goes from being a child to a soldier and becomes that awful hybrid of modern conflict: a child soldier.

Ackerman is sparing with Aziz’ introspection about his life in the Special Lashkar, during which he learns about the dirty dealings of his ferocious Commander Sabir and the motivations of his fellow fighters. However, it is in the small exchanges of dialogue that Ackerman is able to convey the tragedy of Afghanistan’s recent history and how it has affected the Afghani cultural psyche. The near endless war-making in the country since the Soviet invasion in 1979 has produced generations of people whose normal condition is war. In an exchange with Mumtaz, a benevolent village elder, Aziz is told stories of Mumtaz’s carefree childhood and his father’s thriving trucking business. Mumtaz implores Aziz to remember these stories: “Aziz, you’re still a young man. Know these stories so we can remember a way that is different than now. The future is in the remembering.”

The stories, however, prove insufficient to resist the force of circumstance, as we observe the young Aziz lose his innocence and settle into a role that is at once tragic and completely understandable. It is the power of Ackerman’s writing that makes Aziz’s initial choice to take up a life of arms and the ensuing transformations due to that choice utterly believable. Ackerman has performed a colossal act of empathy with this novel. For such sparse prose, there is an intimacy to this work that gives us a glimpse into the particular motivations for war of an Afghani, a boy, a villager, a poor person. We also understand Aziz’s motivations from the universal perspective: Aziz loves his brother Ali. Given all of this, the opening lines of the novel are poignant: “Many would call me a dishonest man, but I’ve always kept faith with myself. There is an honesty in that, I think.” War, like life, is complicated. Ackerman understands this deeply, and, as such, Green on Blue unfolds in shades of gray.

The Resistible Rise of Donald Trump


            ( Photo credit: Robyn Beck/Agence France Presse)


Is Donald Trump a fascist? He certainly sounds like one.

So strong are the parallels of Trump’s language to the fascist rhetoric of the 1920s and 1930s that I shifted my history curriculum to compare Mussolini and Hitler’s speeches and policies with those of Trump and other members of the political class.

Case in point: On Sunday, November 15, 2015, Jeb Bush argued that only Christians should be allowed into the country; Ted Cruz concurred. The next day, Chris Christie stated that Syrian orphans under the age of five should not be allowed into the US. On Wednesday, the Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, David Bowers, issued a statement suggesting Muslim refugees meet that same fate as Japanese-Americans who were herded into concentration camps during WWII. Finally, on Thursday November 19th, Donald Trump proposed that Muslims in America be specially registered and identified. So, in the span of five days, senior members of the American political class (all Republicans barring Mayor Bowers) called for religious exclusion at the borders, concentration camps, dual legal and surveillance regimes for Muslim Americans, and special insignia.

The most outspoken of the lot, Donald Trump, has emphasized his belief that Muslim immigration to the US should be explicitly banned—call it a Muslim Exclusion Act.

It sounds fascist, right? No, says Vox Media.

The constellation of academic stars Vox queried about whether or not Donald Trump is a fascist categorically rejected the label. Ranging from the usual excruciating academic jargon (“Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism”—Roger Griffin) to much more useful arguments (describing fascism as a type of politics “obsessed with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood”—Robert Paxton), each highly respected scholar rejected the descriptor “fascist” for one reason: Trump continues to embrace the democratic process. They argue that because Trump has not questioned the political legitimacy of democracy itself, he cannot be a fascist and thus has much more in common with the “right-wing populism” of France’s Front National. But this conclusion is problematic, and overlooking its deep flaws might well be contributing to what seems to be Trump’s irresistible rise.

“The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler.”

First, the term “fascism” need not be rendered an ineffective description just because it is not an exact mirror of the classical fascism of the 1920s and ’30s. Should Bernie Sanders not be called a democratic socialist because his platform isn’t a carbon copy of, say, the Weimar Republic’s Social Democrats? Conservatism also means something quite different today than what was articulated by Edmund Burke, but the term is still useful as a category to identify a certain body of thought and action. As Mark Twain noted, history never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.

No, Trump does not have an army of Trumpshirts beating political opponents in the streets, but he has responded positively to violence committed in his name, suggesting that his followers are either “very passionate” or that the victims might have deserved to have been “roughed up.” Coupled with statements about a specialized legal regime for certain citizens and a motto that emphasizes reanimating a latent, authentic America, Trump has the rhyme and meter of fascism down pat.

Second, while Mussolini and Hitler were not voted into power and relied on the use or threat of force to engineer executive appointments, their parties did use the democratic process to field candidates, thereby gaining popular legitimacy and shifting their ideologies from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream. The anti-democratic nature of fascism reveals itself as such only when it hits the limits of democratic processes. Currently, these processes appear to be going just swimmingly for Donald Trump.

Lastly, it’s true that Trump’s campaign may have more in common with the reactionary right-wing populism of France’s Front National than Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento. However, it’s true only insofar that these are different political movements in different national and historical contexts. The flaw in this analysis hinges on the fact that 1) fascism is always paired with a heavy dose of right-wing populism, but, more importantly, 2) it forgets the fascist origins of the Front National itself. The Front National’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen has a long list of fascist sympathies, from his admiration of the Vichy collaborationist leader Marshal Philippe Pétain to being fined for having sold records of Hitler speeches. Additionally, when the Front National was founded in 1972, it was a mélange of violent, extreme-right wing, neo-fascist groups, such as l’Ordre Nouveau (The New Order). Le Pen viewed the jack-boots and violence as not immoral but unproductive and by 1974 convinced the membership to start wearing respectable suits. He also eschewed the language of anti-democracy and instead repurposed the rhetoric of French republican universalism to identify those—Muslims and former colonial subjects—who were too particular to be worthy of inclusion in French society and politics. In a deft piece of political jujitsu, Le Pen re-invented the republican tradition and used its themes of assimilation and the separation of church and state as a rationale to exclude certain people at the borders and to draw internal borders in French society.

This should be a warning to those who want to write off Trump as simply an American Le Pen. Le Pen’s Front National is an illustration of how fascist ideas can easily coexist with and utilize democracy to further entrench these ideas. The recent electoral success of Jean-Mare Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, is a testament to the political evolution of fascism: fascist in content, democratic in form.

The exact mimicry of German National Socialism or Italian Fascism is a dangerous measure for assessing the moral and political identity of contemporary political movements. Everyone falls short of Hitler. The great German-Jewish philosopher, and refugee, Hannah Arendt warned of becoming so obsessed with totalitarianism as the ultimate in evil that we become “blind to the numerous small and not so small evils with which the road to hell is paved.”

In essence, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and policies are these small evils and must be resisted at every step. It’s deeply troubling that though many in the Republican establishment have disavowed his remarks, many others have also said they would support him should he become the presidential nominee.

When in power would Trump dismantle the US government with an Enabling Act, demand an oath of personal fealty by the military, or institute anti-Muslim legislation? I’m not sure. Unlike former president George W. Bush, I make no claim to be able to see into men’s souls. However, I am sure that it is the duty of all Americans to resist the rise of Donald Trump to ensure such questions remain in the realm of theory and not practice.