Show us the papers, Hitchens.(Review) / (book review)

Author/s: Frances Stonor Saunders

Henry Kissinger has finally met his match in Christopher Hitchens. But do they deserve each other? Frances Stonor Saunders goes into battle with two mighty egos

THE TRIAL OF HENRY KISSINGER

Christopher Hitchens

Versa, 160pp, at www.newstatesman.co.uk

My natural orbit doesn't usually swing me into close proximity to people like Henry Kissinger and Christopher Hitchens. I suppose I should be grateful, as meeting them both (though not, you will appreciate, at the same time) has not been an undiluted pleasure. Both men have mighty egos, so in order to avoid unnecessary offence, I call chronology to my aid. I met Kissinger first.

It was a Monday morning of normal Ibsen-grey in London. I hadn't slept, so tormented was I by the thought of appearing on Start the Week alongside Dr Kissinger. First, I was going to get nailed by Jeremy Paxman, then I would be dumped on by the carpet-bomber. Arriving at Broadcasting House, I was led to a little dump of a room next to the studio. And there, sitting on a tatty old chair, was a little man stuffed too tightly into an expensive woollen suit and looking, to my astonishment, more nervous than I was. As he conferred with his publicist, he appeared to be reconsidering his decision to appear on the programme (he had been threatening to withdraw for the past week). But the silken tongue (which conceals a fatal venom) of the other guest, Geoffrey Robertson QC, seemed to calm Kissinger. So much so that when we sat down together in the studio, elbow to elbow, the Doctor turned his Grecian 2000 head to announce that both Robertson and I could "take a pop" at him if we so desired (magnanimously revoking hi s earlier caveat that he would appear on the programme only if we both remained mute).

"For the benefit of younger listeners," Paxman began, "we ought to explain that [...] you were one of the most famous men in the world. You were a Nobel Peace Prize winner, you were Time magazine's Man of the Year, you were voted, in a poll of Playboy bunnies, the man they would most like to go out on a date with. You were never a shrinking violet, were you?" Only younger listeners (the sort of audience not courted by Start the Week) could have interpreted this build-up as flattery. Paxman's introduction was, in fact, magisterially rude. Kissinger had been promised a "friendly" interview. He had anticipated an underarm bowl, not a googly. And bouncers were to follow. As he fiddled with the papers in front of him, I noticed that his fingernails were bitten down to the quick.

Only weeks before this interview, General Pinochet, whose murderous regime Kissinger supported, had been arrested in his bed in a private London clinic. The request by a Spanish judge for the General's extradition to face charges of genocide, torture and terrorism provided a worrying new context for the international travel plans of those such as Kissinger. In the same period, Margaret Thatcher, under whose watch the Belgrano was sunk outside the Falklands exclusion zone, was reported to have consulted the Foreign Office as to the likelihood of her being picked up for war crimes when travelling abroad. The case for detaining Nixon's mental babysitter was -- and remains -- far more substantial.

Paxman duly proceeded down the charge sheet: complicity in the overthrow of the democratic leader of chile, Salvador Allende ("We had nothing to do with it"); support for his usurper, Augusto Pinochet ("We did not support the Pinochet coup. I didn't even know who Pinochet was"); the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians during the secret bombing of neutral cambodia ("That's absolutely not true. This is an absolute outrageous nonsense"); the extension of the Vietnam war, at further cost of life to all sides ("I'm not aware of hundreds of thousands of lives lost. We lost 12,000 Americans in the first year of the Nixon administration"). And, somewhere in there, the suggestion that Kissinger was a fraud for accepting the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his "diplomacy" in Indochina. "A what?" "A fraud." This left Kissinger struggling for breath. (Does he breathe when he talks? His voice seems more the product of a subterranean vibration.) His supply of "heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions [are] asked" (Hitchens) exhausted, he now rolled his papers into a tight baton, with which he hit the table before leaving mid-programme in such a state of confusion that he tried to exit via the sound screen.

Having coaxed Kissinger into the studio, perhaps Paxman can be faulted for not having to hand some of the prima facie evidence to support his claims. Indeed, at one point of hyperactive denial, he looked pleadingly through the glass to his production team in the vain hope that they might be able to throw him a line with which to bind his wriggling catch. He could have produced extracts from the congressional inquiries, the declassified memos, the transcripts of White House tapes, and all the other government documents either leaked or supplied under the Freedom of Information Act, which plainly and incontrovertibly establish Kissinger's mendacity on these and other issues.

The public domain is awash with such evidence, and it is now assembled by Christopher Hitchens in his latest J'accuse-style tract. Truth, as all politicians know, is rhetorically mobile. But with Kissinger it has extraordinary kinetic energy. His lies tumble across every page of his self-serving memoirs (three volumes written over three decades, running to thousand of pages: The White House Years, Years of Upheaval and now Years of Denial, er, sorry, Years of Renewal).

One has to ask how an intelligent man arrives at a position of exorbitant mendacity. "There are . . . those who lie consciously, coldly falsifying reality itself," wrote Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved. "But more numerous are those who weigh anchor, move off, momentarily or forever, from genuine memories, and fabricate for themselves a convenient reality . . . The silent transition from falsehood to sly deception is useful: anyone who lies in good faith is better off, he recites his part better, he is more easily believed."

Enter Christopher Hitchens, who recites lies brilliantly -- not his own, but other people's. When I met him earlier this year, it was in a lecture hall at New York's Columbia University. We were both panellists at a seminar on "Dissenting Journalism", taking Greece (a United States protectorate from 1947) as a case study. An appearance by Hitchens on any American platform guarantees a big draw, so eager is the public to submit to his perorations on the deliquescent state of world affairs. It is all very theatrical. On this occasion, like any good showman, he kept them waiting ... and waiting. Forty minutes after the scheduled start time, he finally appeared, waving and nodding to people in the audience as he picked his way through the crowded aisles, the stale odour of booze and cigarettes trailing invisibly in his wake. His eyes were bloodshot, and his crumpled clothes looked as if they had doubled up as bedding for the past week. And so this latter-day Swift entered the coffee house of student debate.

In person, as on the page, Hitchens is in masterly possession of what he calls saeva indignatio, that "combination of cheek and anger to point out how the world falls short of its pretensions". He is a skilled orator, working, as far as I could see, without a text or notes. He chooses his weapons carefully, and is efficient either as a sniper or as a bombardier unloading the full arsenal of his invective. But he is also a barnum, of the type so congenial to that quintessentially American tradition of cracker-barrel salesmanship. When an elderly woman rises to challenge Hitchens, he quips: "Mother, I told you not to do this." Thus her question is deflected, amid the general laughter of an audience who are now behaving as so many valets to this lofty wit.

If Hitchens were a barrister (and the tone of The Trial of Henry Kissinger suggests he might have missed his calling), he would definitely play to the court. It is not that he doesn't build an effective case, but that he can't resist showing off his own cleverness. And his methodology is a bit shoddy. To make the case for the prosecution of America's pre-eminent statesman in 149 pages is one thing, but to fail to cite the dates and sources of the documents he produces in evidence is another. This is not to question the legitimacy of his evidence: much of it is available in facsimile on the internet (and if you don't trust that, you can go straight to the National Archives in Maryland, Virginia). But there is a kind of arrogance in this neglect of notation, and one that plays straight into the hands of Kissinger's apologists (and, more generally, the custodians of America's "manifest destiny"), who will grab at any flotsam to shore up their defence. Show us the papers, Hitchens, show us the papers.

Hitchens's argument is that Kissinger practised a depraved and morally repulsive realpolitik from the moment his ascendancy from mediocre academic to "international potentate" was secured. It is not for this that he should be tried before a court of law. Instead, the basis for a legal prosecution stems from, as Hitchens puts it, "identifiable crimes that can and should be placed on a proper bill of indictment". These crimes are listed as:

1 The deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina.

2 Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh.

3 The personal suborning, and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation -- Chile -- with which the United States was not at war.

4 The personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus.

5 The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor.

6 The personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.

Some of these charges were rehearsed by Paxman in his interview two years ago. They have been circulating for decades, and are examined in such books as The Arrogance of Power: the secret world of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers (1999) and Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power (1983). These are indispensable sources, which Hitchens rightly acknowledges. But it falls to Hitchens, professional controversialist and provocateur, recently dubbed "the radical from Conde Nast", to stitch them together. Hitchens, said the historian Todd Gitlin, is a "man who affects revolutionary virtue" in a post-revolutionary age. And indeed, his revolts against Mother Teresa (The Missionary Position) and Bill Clinton (No One Left To Lie To) were seen by many as just that -- affectation, the vulgar indulgence of a man without an ideology. But in Kissinger, he seems finally to have found a worthwhile target, and is running as soon as he lands.

To take one example from the embarrassment of riches: in March 1969, Kissinger secretly initiated the B-52 bombing of Cambodia. When later challenged by the Senate foreign relations committee over the legitimacy of extending the Vietnam conflict by "hot pursuit" across the borders of a neutral country. he claimed that the areas of Cambodia selected for bombing were "unpopulated". Yet a memo prepared by the joint chiefs of staff, and sent to the Defense Department and the White House (and therefore read by Kissinger) before the bombing began, stated plainly that "some Cambodian casualties would be sustained in the operation" and "the surprise effect of attack could tend to increase casualties". Reviewing the "menu" of districts selected for attack, the memo stated that Base Area 35 (codename "Breakfast") was inhabited by about 1,640 Cambodian civilians. Base Area 609 ("Lunch") was inhabited by about 198 civilians, Base Area 351 ("Snack") by 383, Base Area 352 ("Dinner") by 770, and Base Area 350 ("Dessert") by about 120 Cambodian peasants.

Kissinger was, says Hitchens, in "a position of virtual co-presidency where Indochina was concerned". He was even fiddling with the mission patterns and bombing runs (and all the while lying to the American public and acting without the consent of Congress). As a result, he orchestrated a policy of aggrandisement that led to the deaths of 600,000 civilians (there are higher estimates) in Cambodia alone. The US Senate subcommittee on refugees estimated that, during the Nixon-Kissinger watch, more than three million civilians were killed, injured or rendered homeless in south-east Asia. In the same four-year period, the US dropped almost 4.5 million tons of high explosive on Indochina, nearly twice as much as the estimated total tonnage dropped in the entire Second World War. These were, claims Hitchens, "premeditated war crimes which still have the power to stun the imagination".

And yet the legal community and human rights lobbies of the US have long averted their gaze from Kissinger's "lonely impunity" (many of his former associates are now in jail, or awaiting trial, or have been otherwise discredited). So, until such a time as "they can become seized by the exalted standards to which they continually hold everyone else", Hitchens shall take their place. There's a fine irony here: while Kissinger thinks he is above the law, Hitchens, a free booting British journalist who started at the New Statesman, becomes the law.

Frances Stonor Saunders is the author of Who Paid the Piper: the CIA and thecultural cold war (Granta, COPYRIGHT 2001 New Statesman, Ltd.in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart. COPYRIGHT 2001 GaleGroup

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