Edited by Sam Thielman
LONGTIME FOREVER WARS READERS will remember that back in June of 2022 I mentioned a "very long obituary I recently finished for a major magazine" about Henry Kissinger. The strange thing about preparing an obituary of Kissinger is that while you write it, you have no choice but to think: please don't let Kissinger die before I'm done. But last night my wife ran over to me phone-first to show me that he had finally died. So, finally, here is "Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America's Ruling Class, Finally Dies." If the piece feels like it takes too long to reach its end, well, I'm just marrying form and content.
Rolling Stone editor Noah Shachtman, twice my boss and forever my friend, commissioned this piece from me a while ago. After I wrote a Donald Rumsfeld obituary for him at The Daily Beast in 2021, it only made sense. I knew from more than 13 years of working with Noah that he wouldn't restrain me from using plain language like "war criminal." His headline for the Rumsfeld one was "Donald Rumsfeld, Killer of 400,000 People, Dies Peacefully." (The Kissinger one was a rare headline that I wrote.)
But in order to speak plainly about Kissinger—in order to contextualize him for readers, and to honor the memories of the many millions whose lives he directly or indirectly ended or worsened—I had to earn it. I pulled The Price of Power by Sy Hersh off my bookshelf (and whatever you think of Hersh circa 2023, that book is him at the height of his considerable powers) along with Truong Nhu Tang's Viet Cong Memoir, and got additional material from the library. Greg Grandin, one of my favorite historians and a Kissinger biographer, liked REIGN OF TERROR enough to invite me to speak to his Yale students, so I prevailed upon Grandin for an up-high quote tallying Kissinger's body count. It's best to have that critical detail come from an expert source so Kissinger's apologists can't handwave it away. One source I didn't reference was the late Christopher Hitchens' Trial of Henry Kissinger, which is probably a good book, but his post-9/11 heel turn made me not want to bother.
I wanted to express in the Kissinger piece that Kissinger is only a component of his story. The rest is about the system that produced and heralded Kissinger, and what his legend, his wealth, his fame and his impunity from consequence tell us about America and its elites. We see it in the whitewashing prominent in the obituaries in the Washington Post and the New York Times. But this point, to me, is the heart of my obituary:
Watergate was a grim demonstration, for neither the first nor the last time, that the crimes America commits abroad have a dialectical relationship with the crimes that America commits at home. Infamy has as many fathers as victory.
That, ultimately, is why Kissinger died a celebrity, with the wealth necessary to get taken in by Theranos. It is why Roger Morris and Anthony Lake opted against telling the country that the commander-in-chief was an alcoholic who was secretly surveilling his real and imagined critics. Whatever Kissinger’s origins, whatever rants about Jewboys he had to endure, Kissinger was an exemplar of the self-confident geopolitical potency that America’s elites, whatever they might personally think of Henry Kissinger, want America to make the world respect. When the Roger Morrises and Anthony Lakes and Hillary Clintons see Henry Kissinger, they see, despite what they will rotely and euphemistically acknowledge as his flaws, themselves as they wish to be.
I see this morning that Fox News, for all its hilarious posturing as an outsider voice, is mad about it. Jon Schwarz at the Intercept also tells me I'm being unfair to Kissinger in saying he "inaugurat[ed]" the American tradition of betraying the Kurds. Fair point.
There's one thing I don't have in the piece that I wish I did. In the early 80s, a California band called Crucifix released Dehumanization, a classic peace-punk album that is a very close cousin to Victim In Pain by Agnostic Front. Crucifix's singer, Sothira, is a refugee from Cambodia. Because I was writing this for a music magazine, I wanted to track down someone who has never given many interviews and ask him for his thoughts on Henry Kissinger. Long story short, word came back that that wouldn't happen—but Sothira, if this makes it to you, the invitation is open. In any event, today is a great day to listen to "Indochina" by Crucifix.
Last thing. If you like the Henry Kissinger obituary—how it's constructed, the ideas it expresses, the manner of that expression—you are really going to like the fourth and final issue of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, my DC Comics spy-thriller miniseries. That comic is out on December 12, so tell your local comic store to reserve your copy. My friend Hank Kwon of Bulletproof Comics is selling autographed sets of all four issues and offering a great deal on them, including a certificate of authenticity. This is my first published piece of fiction. I address the same questions the Kissinger piece does, only this time, I do so with superheroes.