It is easy for the right and right leaning Libertarians to ridicule the futile adulations that many of the left seem to adore upon Che Guevara. The revolutionary killer has taken on an iconic appeal by many of those inside the left leaning realms of popular dissent. Just as it is easy for those on the left to look at the brutality of the policies of great intellectual statesmen like Henry Kissinger, a sacred behemoth among political elites of government. In the minds of many, one represents all that is wrong with the other side. Just as the reverse is true as far as imagined virtues goes.
Both are iconic, Che fills the front of a T-shirt with a rock stars brilliance whereas the deep matter of fact voice of Kissinger comes only close to, ironically, the droning sounds made by Noam Chomsky who himself is as an icon. What compels human beings to seek these figures, to uphold another human being above all others regardless of the realities that surround them? To make them, iconic.
Henry Kissinger would be nothing if not for the millions of public servants eagerly enacting the policies that he is famously associated with. The establishment regardless of party fondly romances the man as though he almost alone ensured the cessation of nuclear warfare between the Soviet Union and the USA. The real politick pragmatism that he was associated with helped to steer the war weary world into a safer and more cynically peaceful path, so it is written.
This perspective and world view can exist from academia and among the elites of politics but for those that died beneath the mighty bombs of the USAAF inside South East Asia, the boots of tyranny in Chile or the bayonet in Indonesia the view differs. Yet, Henry Kissinger was not present for these bloody massacres, somehow, he near solely takes the blame for such brutal conduct. The blame is not for those human killers who were on the ground acting in lustful disdain for life or because they were simply obeying policy, it is his crime.
While intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Christopher Hitchens may spar through lectures and books about the merits and crimes of a great man like Henry Kissinger, it neither brings back the dead or satisfies the victims of the government policy that his greatness is associated with. Henry Kissinger may be a great mind for international politics and American foreign policy, that does not make him a good man. He may be sought even in his greying years as a speaker, paid lofty sums by academic institutions to hear how his brand of policy staved off war yet helped to destroy millions of lives. Or to give sound bites on contemporary politics by mainstream media, it is with the selfie obsessed politicians who frequently reanimate the near corpse for another self-serving photo op. A nod to the establishments past of business as always.
As a Henry Kissinger is embraced by political leaders, each of them desperately seeking his approval with a sickly publicity framed insecurity as though he is a grand uncle of wisdom. Those who consider themselves anti-establishment and dissenting embrace the firing squad savvy master, Che. The actual repressor of so much and yet symbolic liberator of so little, his face found inside of dorm rooms and on Rock albums alike. Even for the non-politically minded they can associate him with rebellion, unsure as to who he really was, like most it would seem.
It does not matter what the true history stands to state, only what the sexy illusory depictions of who Che may never of have been is inside the minds of those who sometimes, sort of dissent from the mainstream. Whether for gay liberation, free speech, direct democracy or utopian socialism, Che and his pragmatic comrades killed, kidnapped and stole their way to victory. Yet, it was not in their deeds but in their enemies’ crimes that helped to secure their legacy as iconic Robin Hoods. It is why protesting NFL stars will wear his image, he is in their view anti-establishment and anti-that America. Who else could would be available for such a surface scratching dissenter to embrace on their shirt front?
As the United States blasted to pieces jungles and innocents in South East Asia, Western imperial powers clutched on desperately to colonial possessions with brutal control and as corporations profited with sinister glee thanks to their governments regulations and might, a dissatisfied element seeking justice rose up from among the ranks of the privileged as well as the oppressed. For them this was the face of capitalism. After all some profited and those who ruled often talked about the merits of capitalism, free markets and the need to oppose communism, what else could it be if not what they claimed it to be. Regardless of any of it having little to do with laissez faire capitalism, that mattered little to those listening and witnessing. Such intellectual debates are not available for the starving and desperate.
It was inside the anti-imperialist rhetoric of left wing pamphlets and speeches that many found a solace and a means to fight the oppressors. Uncle Sam was for many the ultimate tyrant, and its crony dictators only helped to ensure this sentiment was felt far and wide, especially South of the border. Che was a powerful voice and emissary for not only Cuba, which he had participated in ‘liberating’ from the gringo’s tyrant. Che was on the ground, in the soils of Africa and forests of South America helping to train and fight with the down trodden rebels. This was powerful, romantic and exciting. If the brutal Americans and their profiteering corporations stood for capitalism, then the opposite of that must be the liberator it seemed to many.
The dirty, dishevelled long haired rebel was the perfect image for the counter culture West but most of all among the misery laden victims of colonialism. In Che’s execution he was sanctified, a martyr for the religion of the left, the apparent only force of dissent. Regardless of his bloody conduct and those he associated himself with, Che, had an anti-imperial message, one that was relevant to the then. It still echoes on into this age, except those who know nothing about suffering and true misery seem to find inspiration in his image for social justice glory. So long as libertarians and anarchists are absent in the condemnation for war and imperialism, the old left and the revolutionary left of Che shall stand as the only alternative to the status quo for the many suffering.
While the traditionally right-wing elements remained silent on imperialism, at least in the positive, that meaning opposing it, men like Henry Kissinger could rise to prominence. The mess that was the Vietnam war and the wider struggle between Soviet Imperialism and Western ‘freedom’ could allow a man who had fled the Nazi regime some credibility as a diplomat and political science expert. He could help to steer the US in its course, thus ensuring peace. So long as the United States was the pre-eminent power alongside its allies, what victims were made mattered little so long as the status quo and détente was found.
Unlike Che, Kissinger was clean looking and could not be found inside the jungles of consequence, the dirtiest he would have gotten would be if chalk dust powder splattered onto his pants as he helped to inspire some of tomorrows policy elites. It is in his State Department role alongside President Nixon that Kissinger is most often known, and where he is often condemned the most.
US political regimes before Kissinger and Nixon had been involved in coups, the mass bombing of innocents, propping up of dictators and supporting death squads but it was perhaps with the timing of the post 1968 euphoria of dissent that the duo met their symbolic condemnation. Che was dead and the ready to cling to heroes for the left had too few to find. Nixon had revealed himself to be untrustworthy and with the revelations of the Pentagon papers, massacres of My Lai and the over throw of the Allende regime in Chile the administration was in hot water, and then off course Watergate. Though the bloody miserable revelations of war and death often preceded the then current political regime of Nixon and Kissinger, it was with the first American political-gate that most seemed to focus on the regimes wickedness. Though no one died because of Watergate, the wider world watched the American public and media go after their leader, while remaining silent on the millions of dead thanks to its foreign policy. Che was right it would seem.
Americans suddenly distrusted government, at least for a time. It would take some years until their love of government would reach the pre Nixon levels and even then, it was easier to simply blame men like Nixon and Kissinger for such foibles and controversy. The institution and dedicated public servants ever pure, if not for a few bad figure heads that pollute such nobility from time to time. Kissinger would go on to become that bad figure head of foreign policy for his critics mostly on the left. His crimes, ever apparent only after the end of the Cold War when macho Uncle Sam could let out its waist band for a moment.
For those who proclaim to be libertarian or liberty minded it is dangerous to both forsake the appeal of either man or to focus on one over the other. The flaws of the right have always been that for all its talk of free markets, it often seeks nationalism and a form of imperialism. It is empty when it comes to opposing either. Just as the left with its desire to control markets and industry at home is often vocally opposed to the wars and colonialism. The imperialism for them seems to ever be focussed inwardly. For the victims, overseas those inside the dominions of empire, it is the blathering appeal of the left that tends to resonate, the revolutionary iconography of Che and not the political mass bombing pragmatism of Kissinger. The victims are pragmatic also, stop the wars. Che in his false symbolism for many of them represents this.
For the establishment minded, Kissinger represents a stability that only with a skewered hindsight they can find. The instability that those who suffer outside the United States thanks to it and its allies’ foreign policy is anything other than stable. It is terrible and deadly. Whereas the anti-establishment rebels, those very real and only inside their own minds, opposition to the present tyranny does not necessary mean what replaces it is for the positive. Often, should there only be opposition and no principle in mind those with blood already on their hands can become the next tyrants, whether Jacobins replacing monarchy or Bolsheviks eventually ruling instead of the Tsar. Such icons and what they supposedly represent have beneath them a veil of consequence that is not so simply dissenting or stabilising. Neither represents and real liberty or salvation for the individual’s freedom, just more calamity and pain.
The great irony of both supposedly opposing icons of the establishment and anti-establishment is that many who in their disgruntled college youth, privy to endless education most likely wore the Che shirts and had on their walls his poster, as they learned to someday become better Kissinger’s. A broad stereotype perhaps but so is the belief that both men are all that they are praised to be, and all that they are criticised for. For Kissinger is nothing without the obedient men and women who served their government. And Che, he is just a man, those that stood by and watched him execute and those who helped him they did so as bloody murderers for their own cause, and not one for either justice or liberty. Both are great men, but not men of good moral virtue, as is perhaps the case for all icons of history.
Kym Robinson, October 2017.