Voices Converging on Henry Kissinger in the Louvre

by Frank A. Davis on November 3, 2017

We humans have evolved such that voice is one of our most distinctive features. Indeed, nearly each of us can be identified by voice alone, by one’s own combination of timber and pitch, of intonation and rhythm. Certainly, this is true for Henry Kissinger.

I was in my early teens when I first heard his voice. It seemed dry to my ear, as if the speaker had spent a long season on the High Plains, become inured to the arid land, and grown accustomed to going without water. The voice was slightly guttural and deeper than the voices of most American men. Kissinger’s accent, that of learned German, lent an exotic quality to his voice, and if one could soon discern that Kissinger was not a native speaker of English, one could never discern a problem in his grammar or diction, for from first sentence to last, clarity was always foremost in Kissinger’s speech. Professors of rhetoric maintain that the first prize always goes to clarity. If this is so, then Henry Kissinger took first-prize honors every time he spoke before a camera.

Confidence, too, seemed to permeate Kissinger’s speech, evincing itself not only in the choice of words and tone of voice, but also in his delivery, a delivery deliberate in pace, but often punctuated by a sudden pause or a surprising quip. This was true whether Kissinger had chosen to entertain journalists with a humorous anecdote from his Harvard days or intone on current geo-politics from a historical perspective. Regardless of his rhetorical purpose, I could hear in Kissinger’s voice the same sense of ease and confidence evinced by the High Plains rancher as he spoke of his first-hand experiences, whether humorous or grave.

As a young teen-ager growing up in the American hinterland, I automatically and without question attributed to the owner of such a voice the same qualities as those of the High Plains rancher–not only intelligence, but wisdom; not only perspicacity, but foresight; not only honor, but a kind of nobleness, not that of the aristocrats of Europe, but that of the self-made man, and certainly, to my eyes, Henry Kissinger was such a man, for I had read he was an immigrant from a working family in West Germany, who by his own hard work had made the journey to America in search of a new and better life. Here was an individual who had not only survived in a new land, but one who had flourished, rising first to a professorship at Harvard, then to the position of National Security Advisor, and then to Secretary of State.

The genius of his realpolitik, manifested through his personality and articulated through his unique voice, made possible the unanticipated détente with the Soviet Union, a fact that caused a vast wave of psychological relief to wash over my generation of Americans, a generation whose childhood had been indelibly stamped with nuclear bomb drills that saw us scurry beneath our desks at the sound of the attack siren. Then came the completely unexpected opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China. Visions of a smiling Henry Kissinger, a smiling Leonid Brezhnev, a smiling Zhou Enlai, even a smiling Mao Zedong, populated my thoughts as I lay in my bed, waiting to fall asleep. I saw Henry Kissinger’s image on the cover of Time magazine, dressed like Superman, with a vivid “K” on his chest, and I heard talk of changing the constitution so that he could be elected president.

His voice reinforced my concerns and my convictions about being an American. Whenever I heard him speak about the myriad dangers posed by communism–whether in Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia, in the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China, or closer to home, in Chile, Peru, or Cuba, or within America itself or its allies in the form of the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army, Baader-Meinhof, or the Red Army Brigade–it seemed that the threat to democracy and the American way of life existed everywhere, and I would hear in his voice an ominous tone which underscored the gravity of these challenges. Yet, at the same time, I would also hear him calmly explain in a vocabulary deliberate and clear to all Americans how best to meet these challenges so as to ensure communism’s defeat and America’s victory, and in his voice I would find a logic cold and lucid, and a confidence almost palpable. In my adolescent view of American culture, John Wayne had to step aside and make room so that Henry Kissinger, “Super K,” could assume center stage. Even though I had always embraced the patriotic words of John Wayne, I had known they were the words of a Hollywood actor whose real name was Marion Morrison, whose stage props were fake, and whose lines were rehearsed. On the other hand, Henry Kissinger’s real name was Henry Kissinger, his stage was the nation’s capital, Vietnam or Cuba, the Soviet Union or China, none of which was fake, and his lines were not rehearsed, but real-life responses to real journalists in real time. Henry Kissinger was authentic.

The unceasing urgency of the military draft, a saliency underscored by the induction of our paperboy into the army and his tripping a booby trap in South Vietnam, suffused every word and every phrase I as a teen-ager heard Henry Kissinger utter. Moreover, Henry Kissinger’s voice comforted me in ways that the voice of President Nixon could not. President Nixon, though he was my president and I was loyal to him, struck me as a politician, one always mindful of the electorate, and one who sometimes seemed to play to that audience. Henry Kissinger struck me not as a politician, but as a statesman who seemed always to speak in the same way, to the same audience, which was not an electorate, but history itself. Even as an adolescent, I could sense that the qualities of Henry Kissinger’s voice differed from those of Richard Nixon’s.

In Henry Kissinger’s voice I found solace and reason to assuage my sober recognition that the scenes of Vietnam–including the body count–that my family and I watched every weekday evening at supper were as real as the green beans and mashed potatoes on my plate. A young man from my town, this time wearing the uniform of a Marine, was wounded twice. Then, another young man from my little town, serving in the army, was also wounded twice. Both returned home as reluctant and reticent heroes. Then a track star, a nineteen-year old African-American, came home in a coffin. His feet had not been swift enough to escape a land mine. Henry Kissinger’s voice enabled me to endure these realities, realities that I myself might have to soon face in Vietnam. In his voice, I found examples from history both recent and distant that assured me that our cause was just, our purpose unassailable. His voice steeled me, steadied me, readied me. In the presence of my peers, I would at times speak in a slightly lower voice, and in a deliberate manner I would choose and enunciate my words and phrases, and for effect, I would sometimes pause or utter a witticism which I found both clever and relevant.

Some of my peers would question me with their looks and some would laugh at the right time and some would not, but none questioned the substance of my speech, nor its logic. Once, my high school librarian and I stood side by side watching Secretary of State Kissinger explain a new policy in Vietnam. In convincing fashion, he drew with ease from his vast knowledge of history, and at speech’s end, he just as adroitly fielded several questions from the journalists who formed his immediate audience. Even on such a serious topic as the war in Vietnam, his witticisms and charm were such that one could enjoy them without feeling guilt. I remember how the librarian, a tall and reserved woman in her late fifties, turned to me and glowed: “Isn’t he marvelous!”

In ready assent, I nodded and replied, “Yes, he is.”

I entered college, and as I did so, I felt myself ready to leave my classes if drafted. I was ready to go, fight, and kill communists in Vietnam. It was that simple.

However, I did not go, fight, and kill communists in Vietnam. The year in which I became eligible for the draft, a lottery was held. My birthday was drawn. It was number 103. Those young men with lottery numbers 1 through 100 were to be drafted. I felt some relief, but also a sense of guilt because of that relief. The birthday of John Spivak, one of my dorm-mates, was number 6. He disappeared for three days—drunk. I had loathed Hair. I began to loathe it less and less. I began to see it from a different perspective. I noted the plaintive sound in John Spivak’s voice. Would my dorm-mate meet the same fate as George Berger?

Hippies I had detested from my first knowledge of them. Those on campus I looked at askance and assiduously avoided. They appeared dirty, unkempt, and definitely un-American. One late Friday afternoon, I found myself at a study table in the library. At some point, I realized I was not alone. I looked up from my studies. Sitting diagonally across from me was a hippy. I’m sure my eyes widened. I know my face went slack. Seeing me look at him, the hippy offered a slight smile.

“Hello,” he said in a quiet voice.

I hesitated about responding, but I had been brought up to have good manners.

“Hello,” I said.

In a very normal and natural way, as if he were in the habit of talking with me on a daily basis, the hippy asked what I was studying. After a few minutes, our conversation turned from European literature to economics and war.

He asked, “Do you know which country has been involved in the most armed conflicts in the last two-hundred years?”

I figured it would be Germany or Russia or China, but I said nothing.

“Do you know which country makes the most weapons and the most money from these weapons?”

I did not like the hippy’s questions. I liked even less his answers, but it was the tone of his voice that kept me from leaving, that kept me seated across the table from him, for in his voice I heard no anger, no disparagement, not even criticism, though the questions were certainly critical. What I heard was sorrow and concern, and regret and disappointment, and in his eyes and on his face I saw these things, too. The hippy grew silent, and I wondered about him. I wondered why he was there. Then, he asked me another question.

“Do you know that almost all the officers in Vietnam are from the middle class or the upper class and have college degrees, and that almost all the other soldiers are from the working class and the poor and have no more than a high school diploma, and many times, not even that?”

He paused for only a moment. Then, in a voice low and even, he asked, “Do you have any idea how much money some Americans are making because of the war?”

I thought to myself, What does that have to do with the fight against communism?

And then he said, “The United States government encourages and supports assassination. Can this be right?”

I squinted my eyes and looked at him in disbelief.

Seeing that I was not going to respond, the hippy again offered me a slight smile. His smile puzzled me. It seemed alien, foreign–incongruous with his words.

He stood and looked at me one last time. “Well, I need to leave.”

The hippy left, but his voice did not. I realized that all the dead and wounded from my little town were from the working class. Our paperboy’s father worked in a factory. Walt’s father was dead, but his mother worked in a grocery story. Jerry’s father worked for the sanitation department, and Kenny’s father was a coal miner. None of my friends had been to college, nor had any of their parents.

Classes ended in May and I went home. That summer, two other young men from my little town returned from Vietnam. Neither Darrel nor Roger had been wounded physically, but both were visibly changed. Darrel always seemed somewhere else, a vague, far-away look inhabiting his eyes. He had been pleasant and playful before going to Vietnam; now, he seemed absent, even in the midst of his friends, even with his girlfriend, who had waited faithfully for him. Roger came back sullen, angry, face flushed continuously, eyes piercing whatever they rested on. He remained always on the threshold of rage, and after a beer or two, any misperceived action or utterance, no matter how innocuous or innocent, sent him across that threshold. Often, I would see him with face and hands bruised and swollen from fistfights. Often, the townspeople would read his name in the police ledger of our weekly paper. His father was a plumber; Darrel’s father was a small farmer.

Two other young men from my hometown also returned from Vietnam, Burroughs and Gregory. Before going, both had earned college degrees, and in Vietnam, both had been officers. After returning from Vietnam, Burroughs soon entered graduate school, became a CPA, and had twin boys. His father was also a college graduate and had served as an officer in World War II. Burroughs’ family seemed very pleased with him. Gregory became the assistant editor for his father, who owned the local newspaper. Gregory married and had a fine-looking boy, called Greg-Greg.

Whenever I thought of all the young men from my hometown who had gone to Vietnam, the hippy’s voice would haunt me. Its truth would not leave me.

Soon, the hippy’s voice would haunt me again, for a different reason: in September of 1973, Salvador Allende, the president of Chile, died during a coup d’état supported, and financed in part, by the CIA. Charges of United States government complicity surfaced, and Henry Kissinger was often named in these charges. General René Schneider, commander-in-chief of the Chilean military and seen as a supporter of Allende, had been assassinated earlier during a kidnapping attempt. Henry Kissinger also became linked to Schneider’s death. The nightly scenes from Vietnam on the evening news, the dead and the wounded from my little town, the silence from my hometown’s veterans of the second world war and the Korean conflict–all hovered at the edge of my consciousness, casting shadows at whatever explanations the Nixon Administration might offer regarding the assassinations in Chile. I had always been able to ignore earlier accusations of American involvement regarding the death of Che Guevara or assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, but now I could not ignore them any more than I could ignore the voice of the hippy.

Watergate mushroomed, dominating the news for months. Along with millions of Americans in August of 1974, I watched in disbelief as Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and then I watched in disgust as his appointed successor, Gerald Ford, quickly pardoned him. Nine months later came the fall of Saigon. We saw distraught Vietnamese mothers pushing their babies over the American embassy fence and the American helicopter sliding off an aircraft carrier into the South China Sea.

When, in the fall of 1973, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee announced two winners, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, for the Paris Peace Accord, I had initially felt a sense of vindication when Kissinger accepted the prize. This honor seemed to restore some of the prestige Kissinger had lost by his association with Allende’s death and with Richard Nixon. To my surprise, however, Le Duc Tho declined the honor, explaining to Henry Kissinger, the Nobel Committee, and to the world that the ceasefire would not endure. In 1975, I realized that Le Duc Tho had been right. The war had continued among the Vietnamese people for two additional years, with more killing, more wounding, more maiming, more sorrow. As I saw the Vietnamese mothers push their babies over the top of the American embassy fence and the American helicopter slide from the aircraft carrier into the South China Sea, I also saw that Le Duc Tho had been right to decline the prize and its money. It had been the correct and honorable thing to do. In turn, and with some reluctance, I wondered about Henry Kissinger’s motivation and judgment.

I wondered again about Kissinger’s motivation and judgment during the Mayaguez incident, an incident during which he closely advised Gerald Ford, an incident whose handling from start to finish seemed only to make it increasingly squalid and tragic, needlessly costing the lives of scores of young men.

Not long after, in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, a former colony of Portugal, East Timor, attained independence. Indonesia, ruled by a single man, was envious of East Timor and desired to make it a part of the Indonesian archipelago, but was reluctant to begin military action without a guarantee of non-intervention from the United States. Henry Kissinger advised Gerald Ford to provide such a guarantee to Indonesia, and Ford did so. Thus began another regional war that would cost thousands of lives and require more than two decades for the people of East Timor to free themselves of the aggressor.

Unwelcome questions began to form in my mind. Could it be that some of Kissinger’s critics were right? Could it be that the man whose voice had provided me such solace, such logic, such reason, was not an honorable crafter of realpolitik in the manner of Willy Brandt, but instead, a clever and opportunistic pragmatist in the style of Metternich, who, after all, had been a focus of Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation? Surely not, I told myself. This could not be, I reiterated. Yet, the mere fact that I had entertained these questions troubled me.

Both Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger left public office in 1976, but unlike Gerald Ford, who was less and less in the public eye and who perhaps gladly removed himself from it, a smiling Henry Kissinger seemed to welcome the limelight as he continued to walk the corridors of power in Washington and New York, his advice sought by present and future occupants of the White House. When I heard him speak, his voice–still slightly guttural, still logical, still confident–seemed the same. Or was it? Had it become more loquacious than deliberate, more glib than articulate? “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” I heard him say in an interview, and obviously, he enjoyed this utterance.

With increasing disappointment, I read of the Peace Prize laureate advising Ronald Reagan, whose Iran-Contra scandal, though no Watergate, seemed another instance of the duplicity that cost lives and hurt democracy while helping American defense contractors. I happened to become acquainted with a bricklayer from El Salvador who had helped build the new compound for the American embassy there. Though impressed by the architecture and facilities of the embassy, my friend the bricklayer was dismayed and confused by American support of the entrenched, wealthy, and right-wing government, a government not democratic and not concerned about the needs of the majority of his fellow Salvadoreños, a government that acquiesced to–and may have authorized–death squads.

I again became dismayed when Kissinger actively counseled against the Clinton administration’s goal of freedom, sovereignty, and democracy for Croatia and Kosovo, arguing instead that a centuries-old history of subordination to Serbia should be respected.

And then, the Peace Prize laureate not only supported George W. Bush’s campaign for a second war against Iraq, but argued for a military operation significantly greater than that deployed by the Bush administration. How could this be? Not only was the voice the same voice I had heard during the Vietnam era–deliberate, calm, logical, and confident–but the consequences were also the same–more young men, and women, by this time, killed, maimed, and psychologically crippled, more families and friends grieving, and more profits for the defense contractors. All this, Kissinger counseled for, despite the baldness of the desire for Iraqi oil, despite the disapprobation of the United Nations, and perhaps more tellingly, despite the refusal of staunch and long-time allies such as Germany and Turkey to allow fly-over rights or airfield use. Had this brilliant man not come to comprehend what I and millions of Americans and millions of world citizens had? Had the lessons of colonies and empire, of Cuba and Vietnam, been lost on this man whose voice I had so valued when I was a teen-ager vulnerable to the draft and to an uncertain fate in southeast Asia?

The voice of the hippy haunted me once again. I began to see that the hippy had been right, and that I, as a vulnerable young man, had been wrong about many things, and especially wrong about the primacy and ultimate purpose of American foreign policy, which was not to foster and cultivate democracy and social justice, but to maintain and to increase whenever possible the status quo of American corporations, corporations which had become multi-national and which knew no national allegiance, and therefore no allegiance to a constitution whose preamble called for domestic tranquility and for the general welfare of the people.

As I realized how wrong I had been, and for how long I had been wrong, a great revulsion arose in me and spread throughout every aspect of my consciousness. I wanted to regurgitate all I had ingested of Henry Kissinger, whom, with such good faith, I had been so willing to believe, to embrace, to make a part of me in thought and deed. I knew I could never embrace communism or fascism or any form of authoritarianism, but neither could I for an instant countenance the continued deceit and manipulation of the American people, and much of my revulsion and disdain came to focus on Henry Kissinger, who seemed no longer a source of light, but of darkness. How great had been his deceit, how great my error. His image I had grown to detest, the sound of his voice abhor.

Years earlier, during my sojourn between undergraduate and graduate school, I had heard another voice. If the hippy’s voice had pricked my consciousness and eventually led me to a bitter realization about the poison of American foreign policy and Henry Kissinger, the voice of Mohandas K. Gandhi offered an antidote. Gandhi’s voice, like that of Henry Kissinger’s, was deliberate, and his words were articulate and also produced with an accent, a light and not unpleasant accent, but Gandhi’s voice was neither deep nor guttural, and though Gandhi came from a region more arid than the High Plains of the United States, his voice sounded not dry but liquid. Moreover, Gandhi’s voice expressed a logic not of rigorous conclusions drawn from historical premises, but of suppositions spare, tentative, and a priori, resting on common observations found in common life. Also like Henry Kissinger, Mohandas Gandhi had been an immigrant. Also, he, while in a foreign land, had earned an advanced degree in the humanities, but unlike Kissinger, Gandhi returned to his native land, where he diligently toiled to achieve the independence of his country from over two-hundred years of colonial injustice and oppression begun by and maintained by the disciplined and overwhelming might of the British empire. Complete and total independence is what Gandhi’s voice enabled, a voice soft-spoken yet fearless, bold yet sensible, a voice uncompromising yet compassionate, evincing a logic not duplicitous but transparent, a voice that enabled common people to demonstrate uncommon courage in manifestation after manifestation–all and always non-violent.

This voice, which I first heard as a fifteen-year old who momentarily found in it an interesting corollary to the teachings of Jesus, I soon put aside because its source was not Christian; instead, I embraced the crusading oratory of Billy Graham, who counseled one president after another and who figured prominently among the nation’s leaders when convened at the national cathedral during times of imminent military action. Certainly, Billy Graham, America’s pre-eminent Christian evangelist, possessed a voice that moved people. Over the years, however, with anguish amounting to pain, I came to realize that this voice moved Americans to maintain the same status quo that Henry Kissinger’s voice sought to maintain, a status quo whose religion was consumerism, whose god was profit. Although Gandhi’s voice at first and for some time seemed to me foreign, both in religious and political ways, I came to see that it was a voice heard and heeded by Martin Luther King, Corazon Aquino, Lech Walesa, Vaclaw Havel, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, and others; it was a voice that enabled democratic revolutions–non-violent and people-rooted–to push aside and sweep away authoritarian, unjust governments in Asia, Africa, and Europe, governments some of which had been openly, as well as clandestinely, enabled by the United States and its foreign policy, a foreign policy either orchestrated by or influenced by the voice of Henry Kissinger. Grudgingly, painfully–sometimes almost tearfully–I came to see very clearly that Gandhi’s voice was one that sought to enable truth and justice, where Kissinger’s voice sought to enable duplicity and injustice, and most tellingly, the intent of the former was non-violent and uplifting, that of the latter, violent and oppressing.

It was also at about this time that I witnessed the births of my children. These sublime moments convinced me that I could no longer kill. I quit hunting; I did not re-new my subscription to The American Rifleman; I left the NRA. I sold all my guns, even the .380 semi-automatic sidearm that had been a cherished souvenir of my father’s time in Patton’s army. John Wayne, the Green Berets, and their ballad were gradually replaced by John Lennon, the Peace Corps, and “Imagine.”

Not content to quit the NRA, to quit hunting, and to quit killing, I felt a need to act, to be pro-active against duplicity and injustice and for truth and justice, and so I chose to teach at the college level and to use the classroom, not as a venue for anti-Kissinger, anti-American foreign policy, but as a forum where students and teacher alike could examine a variety of voices that spoke to recurring questions of humanity, where reasons for duplicity and injustice could be postulated, examined, and perhaps resolved. Ever careful to maintain neutrality in the classroom, I worked to encourage my students to sift through the reasoning behind issues and to seek non-violent and just solutions. The spectre of the Vietnam era, of my peers wounded in mind and body, my peers killed and enveloped in body bags, their families and friends grieving still–all this I kept at the far edge of my consciousness lest it color and skew my performance in the classroom, lest I, too, become duplicitous and part of the problem.

At nearly every institution I taught, students honored my teaching, despite my stinginess with B-s and my parsimony with A-s. I thought I was on the right track, the good track.

On the day the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I was on academic leave in Granada, Spain. Spaniards young and old, rich and poor, flooded the streets in fervent, anti-war protests co-ordinated by Granada police. I traveled to Madrid, where I witnessed much larger and more tumultuous protests that in some places were challenged by the capital police. The protests took root and helped topple the Aznar government, which, along with the British, had constituted the only two allies of note that George W. Bush could claim in his war against Saddam Hussein.

I returned to America, hoping to see a people as motivated and as effective as their counterparts in Spain. Instead, I found a populace manipulated by mass psychology and mass media, a people submissive to a government exploiting their fears and pre-judging any opposition as unpatriotic, anti-democratic, and pro-terrorist. By night, all this kept me awake, and by day, it ate at my stomach, threatening my balance in the classroom. I saw that Henry Kissinger judged the American military action insufficient and called for an increased military presence. I joined the small protests in my city; I traveled to Washington to join a larger protest; I gave what money I could to the anti-war effort and wrote letters arguing for a cessation of the invasion and a withdrawal. To my disbelief, the American people validated the war by re-electing George W. Bush. For months, I anguished over the state of American foreign policy and what the American electorate had become.

Among the first areas of Iraq secured by the American and British forces were the oil refineries, then the oil fields. These had been owned or operated by British companies in the 1950s and were now back in their control. War news was much more controlled than during the Vietnam era. Body counts, body bags, and flag-draped coffins in military hangars did not figure in the mainstream news watched by most Americans. Gradually, however, internet postings worldwide, alternative news sources both American and international, and independent, non-corporate documentaries revealed the hideous nature of the American-Anglo war: the killing and maiming of young and old, of children, mothers, brothers, and sisters, of soldiers and civilians; the humiliating abuse of those captured; the playing of sadistic music in war machines as soldier-operators did their deadly business; most revealing of all was the return to America of its veterans, many of whom had been lured by recruiters to join the military to learn a trade or a profession while accruing benefits for higher education.       The young people who returned from the American-Anglo war in Iraq were rarely whole in body and mind, but instead, missing a foot or leg or both, or a hand, an arm, or both–and too often missing a part of their psyche, the absence of which seemed to threaten forever any possibility of being fully human again. I knew working-class parents who had supported their children’s decision to join the military, but these same parents came to look at American life with stark, vacant gazes. Their unquestioning patriotism had been replaced by a void. The stories their returning children told them revealed the horrible truth of manipulation and deceit. Their faith was shaken, and for many working-class people, faith was what sustained them in their day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck world.

I asked myself how Henry Kissinger could not only support George W. Bush and this war but argue for more of it, for a greater American presence? How could this be?

The killing and maiming began in 2003, and it continued in 2004, in 2005, in 2006, in 2007. Year after year, the war in Iraq–argued for by Henry Kissinger–gnawed at my stomach by day, and by night it invaded my sleep, making nightmares of my dreams, making me restless and on edge, threatening my equilibrium at home and in the classroom.

For the academic year 2007-2008, I received a sabbatical. During this same year, my wife taught at the University of Angers, not quite two-hundred miles southwest of Paris. We lived in a small, second-floor apartment that overlooked Avenue Vauban. A five-minute walk took us to the market at Place Lafayette, a fifteen-minute walk to the train station. So, for that fall and winter, while my wife became acquainted with French students and faculty, I researched and wrote on my project. During the day, I could usually focus on the project, but in the evenings while strolling the city, and especially at night while falling asleep, anguish over the Iraqi war riddled my spirit.

Often, my wife’s schedule gave her three-day weekends, allowing us to travel by train to much of France. In Calais, I lingered before Rodin’s sculpture of the six burghers who had stepped forth, willing to be executed to save their city and fellow citizens; beneath a full moon at high tide, I wondered at the austerity of Mont St. Michel; and all along the Loire, I marveled at the splendor and expanse of the Renaissance chateaux. Paris, the City of Light, was less than two hours away, and here my wife and I frequently toured, sometimes staying near the Eiffel Tower, sometimes in Place d’Italie, sometimes in Montparnasse. It seemed that no matter where we walked in Paris, no matter where we cast our eyes, history presented itself, not a sentimental, myopic history, but a history stared at full face, unblinking, unvarnished, a history encompassing the Ècole Militaire bounding one end of the Field of War, the Eiffel Tower the other, while in between on its grassy mall, young people frolicked with soccer balls, families picnicked, and lovers nuzzled where the Romans had killed the Parisii and where the Lumière brothers had launched the first hot-air balloon; I saw the same projection of history in the Place de la Concorde, centered at the obelisk marking in stark relief the place where the terribly bloody revolution guillotined more than 1300 persons in a single month; and, I saw in such a history a populace still very mindful of the slaughter that ended the Commune.

My wife and I learned of a special exposition at the Louvre, one featuring Babylon. The exposition was to open in April, so through the internet, we bought tickets for a Thursday in May, thereby hoping to avoid the crowds. We reserved seats on the TGV and booked a room in a small hotel on Avenue Bosquet. Arriving the day before we were to see the exposition, we decided to picnic on the Champ de Mars for our evening meal.

Rue Cler ran behind our hotel, and there in the warming rays of the spring sun, we strolled from booth to booth, buying tapenade and fresh strawberries and Brie, along with a large bottle of San Pellegrino. A hot baguette, only seconds from the oven, completed our shopping.

As we approached the Eiffel Tower, we could see that among the fountains and gardens of the Palais du Chaillot, a large and elaborate wedding was unfolding. The wedding party was Japanese, with the men in pale linen suits and the women in pastels of pink and blue. The groom wore a top hat and a grey cut-away with tails, his black pants accented with fine grey lines and an outside seam of shiny, black satin. The bride’s brilliant white gown–an immense affair with its full, long veil, large shoulders, and great folds of silk and satin–easily captured the attention of all within sight. A trio of grinning children tended the long train. The gown nearly obscured the bride’s delicate body, but her eyes glistened and her smile beamed as she looked all about, cameras clicking and whirring.

Everywhere we looked, Paris seemed in bloom, with trees clothed in verdant, fresh foliage and flowers bursting in a multitude of reds and whites and violets and yellows and oranges. My wife and I found an empty bench on the south side of the Champ de Mars and there ate our picnic meal beneath the leafy trees as tourists and Parisians alike mingled in the vernal twilight, the murmuring of various languages providing a kind of melody as we enjoyed our modest repast.

Later, we strolled in the cool, evening air along the Seine. My wife, in the mood to ride a bateau, took my arm and led me down the worn, stone stair to the landing, and soon we were gliding on the river from the Pont d’Iéna, passing in silence the National Assembly and Musée d’Orsay, the Grand Palais and the Petite Palais, easing beneath the Pont Neuf, and around Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cité. When we de-boarded, the hour was late and the night dark. We decided to return to our hotel, and as we walked the quiet streets, with only an occasional car passing us, I for a time held the comforting thought that there was a place where people had learned from history. Earlier in the day, near an entrance to the Metro, I had seen a pink poster with Gandhi’s image in shades of grey. I recalled that Bismarck had written that what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. Perhaps, I ventured to myself, that Bismarck’s maxim was not true in Paris.

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked as I was about to lie down in bed. “You look worried.”

“Really?” I answered in surprise. “It’s been a wonderful day, a very pleasant day.” However, even as I said these words, I knew why I looked troubled. I knew that gnawing at every pleasant moment we had shared that day was my continual awareness that several hundred miles to the southeast, the day had not been pleasant, had not been memorable in any positive sense. No, the day had been yet another day of war in Iraq, and as I closed my eyes, terrible images from the past and the present formed in my consciousness and waited to inhabit my dreams.

I awoke first. Despite the quiet of the room and the calm of the morning, a restlessness nagged at me, a restlessness I sought to conceal so as not to worry my wife. Perhaps, I thought to myself, the restlessness stemmed from my knowing that the much-anticipated and much-acclaimed exposition we were about to witness originated from the very part of the earth where at that exact moment the Iraqi war raged in its sixth year.

We decided to breakfast at a brasserie not far from the hotel. The morning sun warmed us as we joined other pedestrians moving unhurriedly yet with purpose on the wide sidewalk. A gentle breeze swayed the leafy branches, and patches of sunlight played on us as we walked toward the brasserie.

Along the way, we passed a butcher shop. In its windows were freshly killed rabbits, shorn of fur and skin, eviscerated and drained of blood, flesh shining gruesomely in the bright, morning sun. The several rabbits hung motionless, very thin and perfectly in the vertical as if an invisible plumb line pulled them taut and toward the center of the earth. My pace slowed at what I saw in stainless steel trays resting below the rabbits: mounds of calf livers so recently removed from the calf that blood continued to seep from the dark brown tissue and pool in the bottom of the trays. So many drops oozed from the livers that I thought I could see the level of the calf’s blood rise in the stainless steel trays. The livers glistened in the sun even more than the rabbit carcasses.

My wife noticed that my pace had slowed.

“What is it?” she asked, slowing her pace as well.

“Oh,” I said, “the rabbits remind me of when I used to hunt.”

I did not tell her what the calf livers reminded me of, but later we were served our steak and eggs at the brasserie, and when I sank my teeth into the breakfast steak saignant, I saw the calf liver again, and I saw myself kneeling years before in a forest at the side of a deer I had just killed. It was the first deer I had ever killed. I carefully lay my rifle on the leaves of the forest floor. From the sheath sewn onto the side of my hunting boot, I drew the leather-handled knife, its blade gleaming, curved, and razor sharp. I gazed at the moist, shining nostrils of the deer. Then, with great care, I slit open the body of the deer from near its heart to its pelvis. The autumn air was cool; a vapor rose from the intestines and stomach. I reached inside. I pulled on the liver with one hand, and with the gleaming knife, sliced a portion free. It, too, was warm in my hand, and my fingers, already bloodstained, shone with fresh blood oozing from the piece of liver. Mountainman-like, wildman-like, I put the piece of liver to my mouth, bit off a section and ate it.

I looked at my wife as I chewed and swallowed a piece of the breakfast steak saignant.

“How’s your steak?” she asked.

“Just fine,” I said.

We left the brasserie. Our route took us alongside les Invalides. I thought of all the suffering Napoleon had caused, of all the soldiers who had lain inside les Invalides, wounded in both body and mind. I wondered what sort of voice Bonaparte had.

We walked along Rue de Solférino, then arrived at the Louvre, just as it opened. Only a few people descended the stair with us into the main foyer beneath the glass pyramid; fewer still made their way to the entrance of the Babylon exposition. My wife, ever the humanist, had for some time been keen to see this special exposition. I, too, had been looking forward to it, but a sense of regret, almost palpable, weighed on me, for I could not dissociate the on-going, American-made, Kissinger-counseled war in Iraq from the exposition whose chambers I was at that moment entering. We handed our tickets to the attendant and entered the Hall Napoléon. In the subterranean portion of the Louvre, it seemed very quiet that Thursday morning. Along the walkways, the lamps offered only diminished twilight, and the unoccupied corners were actually dark, but bright and very focused light illuminated the exhibits, most of which were behind crystal-clear glass. Those exhibits too large to encase were watched over by uniformed attendants. So few and so soft-spoken were the other visitors that I soon felt at times as if I had the exposition to myself. Only occasionally did a murmur or a movement instruct me otherwise.

I paused first in front of a small case which held a passage in Akaddian, written about 3000 B.C.E., and beside it, a passage written in classical Hebrew, written about 600 B.C.E. Exhibit notes explained how the name of Babylon–“Bab-el,” meaning “doorway to God”–had by the Hebrews been given a negative association–“to mix or to confuse”–through means of a Hebrew word game that exchanged some letters for others. I learned it was the maintenance of this false connotation that contributed to the mistaken but largely accepted account of the Tower of Babel.

Next, I saw a bust, the four-thousand-year-old head of Hammurabi, sculpted in diorite, and its quality reminded me of the dignified busts of Greeks and Romans of much later eras.

As a young pupil in my public school, I had been told about the code of Hammurabi, and so when my eyes actually saw an original stylus of basalt, engraved with a portion of the code almost four thousand years ago, I shook my head in amazement. I did likewise upon seeing an actual tablet covered in the cuneiform of Akaddian and providing an account of the great flood, as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, long before it was told in Genesis. In another, brightly-lighted glass case, a three-thousand-year-old sceau of lapis-lazuli had been very carefully rolled across a pad of smooth, beige sand, revealing intricate, carved images of Adad.

I turned a corner. Two large exhibits transfixed me, exhibits too large to be encased in glass. One was the image of a dragon, composed of ceramic bricks, with a mottled coat of creme and beige scales, a serpent-like tail lifted high in the air, and a forked tongue of gold testing the atmosphere for signs of danger. The other image, even larger, was that of a heavily muscled lion, whose golden wings and mane and eyes and teeth–all against a background of vivid aqua-marine, made by artisans during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar–still commanded the attention of all whose eyes happened to see it.

Here, I said to myself upon seeing these exhibits, “here, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, only sixty miles from the current location of Baghdad, was Babylon–and yet instead of uplifting and venerating this site where humanity’s first cities flourished and its first high culture blossomed, the armed forces of America are bombing, blasting, killing, and maiming at this very moment.” I shook my head in sorrowful disbelief; I clenched my teeth in suppressed anger.

I asked myself, “How could this be?”

In the dark, connecting corridor, I paused for a time, trying not to envision the terrible events happening at that very moment in Iraq, an Irak bright and noisy in death and suffering.

To my great surprise, the last exhibit was not a product of Babylon, but a project proposed by an American, the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, entitled “Plan for Greater Baghdad, Dedicated to Sumeria, Isin-Larsa, Babylon.”

The notes explained how this project would help Iraq become the most modern city in the Middle East and the envy of the Arab world. Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a Baghdad which would be a bridge between the past and the present, between East and West, safeguarding the accumulated knowledge of the ancient civilizations of both the Orient and the Occident.

The exhibit featured, in muted colors, a crayon-on-papier-calque image of an immense statue of Haroun al-Rachid atop a colossal minaret bound with a helical ramp, located at the edge of the Tigris, just northwest of Baghdad. I read how the project came to be still-born: both Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as the leader of Iraq, Faisal II, had soon died within the same year.

I looked once more at the statue atop the minaret in Wright’s depiction. In some strange way, it reminded me of the Statue of Liberty. My eyes lingered on the pastel blue water of the Tigris, in whose reflection the statue and the minaret with its helical ramp evinced a simple yet compelling dignity, while the water of the Tigris, smooth and calm, evinced peace. I shook my head in regret.

Sighing, I turned my eyes in the direction of my wife. I did not see her.

I looked all around. She was nowhere in sight. Realizing I had not seen her for quite some time, I retraced my steps into the prior chamber, and then into the one before that. Still, no wife. Very few people were in the Hall Napoléon; I could not have overlooked her. I concluded that she must have exited the hall and was in the foyer, waiting for me.

However, I did not see my wife in the foyer. I sat near the ladies’ room and waited for her to appear, but after several minutes, she had not emerged. Approaching a female attendant, I explained the situation. The attendant offered to go into the ladies’ room and call out my wife’s name. This she did, but to no avail.

“She must still be in the exposition,” I said to the attendant. “Sometimes, she becomes quite engrossed in the exhibits. I’ll retrace my steps until I see her.”

The attendant explained that I could not do so by using the exit doors. I would need to begin my search by passing once more through the entrance of Hall Napoléon. She assured me that my ticket stub would permit me to do so, and she was right.

I re-entered the exposition smoothly. Once inside, I paused until my eyes re-adjusted to the diminished light. Then, I slowly worked my way from one chamber to the next, seeking in each one the form of my wife. I noted the passages in Akaddian and classical Hebrew and the explanation of how “Bab-el” acquired its negative connotation. I passed the sculpted head of Hammurabi and the stylus containing a portion of his code. Still no sign of my wife. I glanced at the tablet, etched in Akaddian, telling the original story of the great flood. In the next chamber, I saw the sceau, which had been rolled across the smooth sand to reveal its intricate details. Perplexed, I entered the large chambers containing Nebuchadnezzar’s dragon and lion. I shook my head, saying to myself that my wife was either in the next chamber–the last chamber–or she had by now exited the Hall Napoléon and really was in the foyer waiting for me.

And then, just as I was entering the last chamber, the sound of his voice brought me stock-still, dead stock-still. It was his voice–low, and dry, and steady, and confident–above all, it was confident.

I could not believe it.

I ceased to breathe. It seemed I even ceased to exist at that moment in Paris, underground in the Hall Napoléon of the Louvre. I seemed not to exist–nothing seemed to exist–except that voice, that dry, steady, and confident voice. Suddenly, I once again was fifteen and listening to the voice of Henry Kissinger as he made simple to the media and to us, his television audience, the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy. I once again was eighteen–on the verge of the draft–and it was his voice that offered me the necessary, the absolutely essential, logic and reasoning that would enable me, if drafted, to do my duty and go, fight, and kill communists.

It was the voice of Super K that had thrilled me and the rest of my Cold War generation as we heard about the new policy of détente and what it meant for our psychology of fear and for the nuclear age. It was the voice that had stupefied, then exhilarated, my high school librarian and me as we listened to his words explaining his secret trip to China and its wonderful ramifications then made public–but as I stood there in the Louvre amidst the revelatory exhibits of Babylon, these thoughts and sensations passed almost as soon as they were conceived, and something darker and stronger, something much darker and much stronger, took their place.

I shuddered, and then I began to breathe again, and once more, I felt I existed, and existed undeniably in the Hall Napoléon.

I could hear, but not see, Henry Kissinger. To do that, I would need to move further along the dimly-lit corridor and turn the corner into the exhibit.

I forced myself to walk slowly, sure-footedly, and as I did, as I drew ever closer to his voice. A tumult of anticipation swirled within me. My heart pounded and pounded. My eyes widened. My breathing grew increasing shallow and quick, just as it had when I killed my first deer. I turned the corner.

Six figures came into view, two of which I recognized immediately: Henry Kissinger and his wife, Nancy Macginnes. They stood close to the exhibit containing the Frank Lloyd Wright depiction of Haroun al-Rachid atop the minaret. The light, very bright in front of the exhibit, illumined all six persons.

Closest to the glass case stood a curator from the Louvre, a woman of a certain age, tastefully dressed.

Henry Kissinger had assumed a position directly in the center of the exhibit and close to the glass.

To Kissinger’s left stood a bodyguard, another to his right, and one to his rear, each within an arm’s length of him. The bodyguards, all dressed identically in navy blue suits, were of the same size and build. Just beyond the triangle of bodyguards, and behind and to Kissinger’s left, stood his tall wife. The curator I saw just beyond the triangle of bodyguards and to Kissinger’s front and right. All appeared to be relaxed, except the curator.

Standing in the shadows, perhaps three strides from the bodyguards between Henry Kissinger and me, I took all this in, my heart pounding so that I thought it would burst at any second.

The curator had just explained how the meaning and purpose of the Tower of Babel had been twisted to provide the negative connotation of confusion and pride.

“That I did not know,” Kissinger pronounced, and as I saw his lips move and heard the sound of his voice, I began to shudder all over again.

Upon actually seeing his lips move and hearing his voice emerge, I realized we were not alone in the chamber.

Just beyond the curator, looking at Kissinger with forehead wrinkled and eyebrows arched in pain, our paperboy stood gazing incredulously at this figure of a man who had been a principal architect of his tripping the booby-trap and instantly ending his young life. Behind our paperboy stood his parents–poor, simple, believing parents–with the same incredulous look on their faces.

And then, Kenny, the African-American track star at my high school, said to the curator in his quiet and respectful voice, “Excuse me, ma’am,” and stepped in front of her and walked to the center of the glass case, where he stood on his two nimble and quick feet, feet still attached to his gazelle-like legs, feet that had not been quick enough to escape the mine that blew them off and exploded his life away. Kenny stood there with the same incredulous look on his face, his young forehead furrowed and his eyebrows arched with continuing pain. And then, between Kenny and the curator, I saw Kenny’s parents, his mother a domestic, his father a coal miner, their eyes brimming with tears, their spirits broken.

To Kenny’s right stood Darrel, whose body had returned whole from Vietnam, but whose mind and spirit would be thereafter vacuous and forever wanting.

Henry Kissinger did not see them. I could tell he did not see them. He seemed to look past them, even past Darrel’s parents, who now were standing behind their son, standing and slowly shaking their heads as if they understood nothing at all about the fate of their once whole and happy and healthy son.

Henry Kissinger was oblivious.

I thought my heart would explode. My head hurt, it pounded so.

At that instant, I heard another voice, not the voice of Henry Kissinger, nor that of the curator, but the voice of the hippy from so long ago. His voice, calm and even in tone, asked me a question, much in the manner of any mundane question, such as, “What would you like to eat?” or “Do you know what time it is?” or “How are things?”, but the question was anything but mundane. The hippy repeated a question from our first encounter: “Do you know which country has been involved in the most armed conflicts in the last two-hundred years?”

No sooner had the hippy uttered these words than our paperboy, and Kenny, and Darrel–as well as their parents–all disappeared, and in their place immediately appeared two young men and a young woman, dressed not in the military uniforms used in Vietnam, but in those used in Iraq. These young people, their foreheads also furrowed, their eyebrows also arched in pain, gazed at Henry Kissinger with the same incredulous expression. Behind each young person stood the parents, eyes brimming with tears, lips trembling, and these mothers and fathers also looked at Henry Kissinger with incredulity, as if they, too, understood nothing at all about the fates of their once whole and healthy and happy children.

Henry Kissinger was oblivious.

The curator pointed one last time at the blue and beige depiction of Haroun al-Rachid atop the colossal minaret at the edge of the Tigris, not far from Baghdad. She had just finished explaining about Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Plan for Greater Baghdad, Dedicated to Sumeria, Isin-Larsa, Babylon.”

Mr. Kissinger made no reference to the on-going destruction, to the continuing death and maiming and grieving caused by the American war in Iraq, a war for which he had counseled an even greater military force. Nor did he make reference to the young people and their parents.

I felt the hunter rise within me, the violent instinct that from my childhood and youth had been cultivated by my heritage. Here, within three quick strides, was the principal architect of years and years of unwarranted suffering.

Mr. Kissinger turned his attention from the exhibit to the curator.

I felt my body tense, like that of a cat about to spring. I knew I would be thrown to the ground and I knew I would be pinned by the bodyguards, but not before I had leapt through the opening in front of Nancy Macginnes, not before I had assaulted Henry Kissinger, slamming him to the floor, and for one brief moment, flooding his oblivious mind with terror and the unknown, a terror and an unknown that might haunt him every time he appeared in public, a terror and an unknown that might haunt him at night as he lay in darkness beside his tall wife.

I knew I had to act, even though I knew I would be arrested.

Mr. Kissinger, in his articulate, dry, voice, asked the curator, “This is the same Frank Lloyd Wright, the American architect?”

I knew my wife, my children–my colleagues– all would be surprised, but . . . .

“Yes,” the curator responded. “The same Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Mr. Kissinger turned his attention back to the exhibit.

“That I did not know,” he pronounced.

I took a very quiet and long, calming breath, gauging again the distance for my attack.

The bodyguards suspected nothing. The curator suspected nothing. Nancy Macginnes suspected nothing. Henry Kissinger suspected nothing. He was oblivious again. Ha! But he would not be oblivious for long. I would make him–at least for an instant–feel pain, senseless pain, and perhaps the same incredulity that those poor young people and their grieving parents felt without end.

Henry Kissinger turned to look at his wife, who stood just beyond the triangle of bodyguards and less than two strides from me. The light from the exhibit shown clearly on his face. I could see every feature. His face had aged, to be sure, but his voice was the same. Henry Kissinger’s voice had not changed, nor had his advice to presidents.

I clenched my teeth, ready to spring from the shadows, ready to slam Henry Kissinger to the floor, ready to make Henry Kissinger feel, for at least an instant, the way he should feel forever.

“Did you know that?” he asked his wife. “Did you know that Frank Lloyd Wright had been thus involved?”

His wife shook her head no.

I was keenly aware of where I was and what I was about to do, and I was quite willing to accept the consequences. I felt the same intense concentration and clarity as I had when hunting, with a big buck in the cross-hairs and my finger on the trigger, squeezing it ever so incrementally. I tensed my thighs and shifted my weight to the balls of my feet.

As I did so, I heard another voice speak, a voice deliberate, accented, liquid.

“Ours is not to conquer,” the voice said, “nor even to confront. Ours is to convert.”

The voice was Gandhi’s, and he, too, spoke in a confident voice, yet his confidence was not borne solely of logical premises and conclusions, but of living close to common people and understanding their common wisdom.

“We must be,” Gandhi’s voice continued, “the change we hope to see.”

I saw the faces of the young people from the Vietnam era and the faces of their parents; I saw those of the Iraqi era. They all looked from Henry Kissinger to me, and I heard yet another voice, a quiet, resolute voice that uttered only one word: “Write.”

Frank A. Davis is Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati who uses classical rhetoric to teach beginning and intermediate students to think openly and critically about the state of U.S. society and its relationship to the world. He has taught there since 1982, having been a member of the International Socialist Organization and the American Association of University Professors.

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