Two villains for the price of one. After watching The Pinochet Case and The Trials of Henry Kissinger, two blistering documentary indictments of state-sponsored terrorism, it’s difficult to choose which wrongdoer is worse.
General Augusto Pinochet and his Chilean military junta “disappeared” some 1,200 ordinary people — their own countrymen — between 1973 and 1990 in the name of stability, law, and order. Henry Kissinger, in his reign as the foreign-policy éminence grise behind three US presidents, arranged the deaths of untold thousands of foreigners as part of a grand chess game of global “diplomacy.” The common denominator of these two elderly, once-powerful men is that their careers most often served what is usually called “American interests.” They’re still walking around free. But their time is running out, if these two films are any indication.
Patricio Guzmén’s French-produced Le Cas Pinochet (2001) joins the story in 1998, when Pinochet was detained by British authorities while visiting England and held for 503 days under house arrest. The UK government was acting on a warrant from a Spanish court alleging torture and murder, in a case brought by Chilean survivors. Pinochet was eventually allowed to return to Chile, ostensibly for medical reasons, but not before the House of Lords stripped him of his legal immunity, as a former head of state, against standing trial for crimes against humanity. On his return to his country, Pinochet was also divested of immunity there. He resides there now as the national wart.
The case against Pinochet hinges on the testimonies of his victims and their families. Chilean-born, Paris-based political filmmaker Guzmén (The Battle of Chile; Chile, Obstinate Memory; In the Name of God) makes sure we hear from the Madrid lawyer who represented many of the victims, as well as from the Spanish prosecutor and judge, who were well aware of the international legal ramifications of bringing to justice a sick old Chilean visiting England, on a warrant issued in Spain, for crimes committed in Chile. The judge, Baltasar Garzón, in fact continues to pursue war criminals from places such as Argentina.
The testimony from victims is gut-wrenching. Mothers still miss their children. Women mourn husbands. One woman can never forget being raped and beaten. Most chilling is a visit to the suburban Santiago torture chambers, where the empty, desolate walls and floors hold the same stark, silent terror as similar places in Cambodia or El Salvador. Of course, there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that under Pinochet’s orders, men and women, often no older than seventeen, were kidnapped, jailed in secret, tortured, and murdered, their bodies dumped in unmarked graves — for such crimes as being a student, organizing a union, or acting like a “leftist intellectual.” All the while, in newsreel footage, Pinochet (Chileans like to refer to him as Pinocho, a reference to the puppet character whose nose grew when he lied) struts around pompously in his absurd, operatic uniform, keeping Chile safe. For whom?
Global activist that he is, filmmaker Guzmén draws parallels between Pinochet and other world-class criminals: Suharto was tried in Indonesia, Milosevic is under arrest in Yugoslavia, Fujimori fled Peru to avoid prosecution, etc. And of course, Goering and the other unrepentant Nazis were found guilty at Nuremberg after WWII, but that was a case of war victors punishing the vanquished. The Pinochet case is different because his side won the war at home, at least for the time being, and enjoyed the patronage of the United States. Nevertheless, Pinochet was hauled before the court and humiliated, although not hanged. In the international legal arena, the bloodhounds are on the trail.
Which brings us to another of Margaret Thatcher’s teatime companions, Henry Kissinger. His is a curious case indeed. Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, former US Secretary of State and national security adviser, acclaimed foreign policy expert, former Harvard professor, and much-in-demand after-dinner speaker, Kissinger has a glorious résumé, yet there’s something disturbing about him.
Eugene Jarecki (The Opponent) and Alex Gibney’s (Soldiers in the Army of God, The Pacific Century) 2002 documentary prosecutes Kissinger just as vigorously as Guzmén’s film does Pinochet, but from behind a hedge, so to speak. Pinochet is a universally despised ex-military dictator; Kissinger is a revered elder statesman accustomed to the corridors of power. But he’s left some damning footprints.
As narrated by actor Brian Cox (the first screen Hannibal Lecter, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter) and recounted by dedicated Kissinger-baiters like journalists Christopher Hitchens (“I don’t miss a chance to confront Henry Kissinger”) and Seymour Hersh (“The dark side of Henry Kissinger is very, very dark”), the German-born diplomat’s brilliant career has been stained by a number of crimes against humanity: the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1970, the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam in 1972 (“a public-relations mass murder from the sky,” in the words of Hitchens, that featured a raid on Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital, a civilian target), complicity in Pinochet’s 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s elected government in Chile and Allende’s murder (as well as the assassination of pro-Allende Chilean general René Schneider), and Kissinger’s machinations in the 1975-76 Indonesian government-led genocide in East Timor.
In addition, Kissinger has a few questions to answer about the Paris peace talks between the United States and North Vietnam. The film charges him with sabotaging the 1968 version of the peace treaty because its timing didn’t suit President Richard Nixon’s ambitions; the treaty was eventually signed in 1973 and Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for it (along with Le Duc Tho of Vietnam), but the terms were exactly the same as in 1968, meaning that thousands of Americans and Vietnamese lost their lives in the interim, in order to provide Nixon and Kissinger with a subsequent diplomatic tour de force. Likewise, the 1972 Christmas bombings were Kissinger’s attempt to “send a message” about US resolve; they had no military purpose other than the killing and maiming of civilians in order to demoralize an enemy who refused to kowtow. Even the Pope protested. Clearly, Henry the K is a master terrorist.
The film catches Kissinger in numerous similar deceptions, such as serving the Democratic Lyndon Johnson White House while simultaneously conspiring with Nixon’s Republican presidential campaign. He jumped easily between administrations. As they say, the man was a master of “triangular diplomacy,” always with an eye toward consolidating his own power, á la his European childhood heroes Metternich and Bismarck. After all, what are a few lives compared to such grand strategic goals?
Kissinger’s arrogance is a matter of public record, and it obviously brings Hitchens’ and Hersh’s blood to a boil. Asked about the need for a Chilean coup d’état, he once stated: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist, due to the irresponsibility of its people.” The beneficiaries of Kissinger’s and the CIA’s efforts in Chile, aside from Pinochet, were American companies such as ITT and Pepsi-Cola, which felt threatened by Allende’s talk of nationalization. Indeed, much of Kissinger’s career has been spent smoothing the way for rich industrialists, ambitious rightwing politicos and military men (see General Alexander Haig, now as then the supreme Kissinger apologist), and, of course, himself. Jarecki and Gibney’s documentary lays much of the blame on the doorstep of the military industrial complex that Kissinger so loyally served.
The tide may be turning for Kissinger as it did for Pinochet, and it’s happening on an international level. In 1998, 139 nations signed an agreement to establish an International Criminal Court, a global judiciary to try individuals for crimes against humanity, and in 1999, Kissinger was subpoenaed by a French judge to answer questions about the Allende coup. The United States did not sign the International Criminal Court charter, but in the end that may not matter. Declares Hitchens: “The hunt for those who will use force against civilians or against democracy for short-term or fanatical aims of their own is now a hunt in which the whole world takes part. And there can’t be any exceptions.” Talley ho!
Both films preach to the choir a bit. If we didn’t believe Pinochet and Kissinger were guilty, we probably wouldn’t bother watching them. There’s an immediacy to Guzmén’s shots of the angry crowds of Chilean exiles beating drums outside Pinochet’s English hideaway that’s somehow lacking from the rather dry parade of Kissinger newsreel footage and his talking-heads accusers. Guzmén aims for the gut; Jarecki and Gibney make their appeal in a classic, civilized, op-ed manner. But just having the two titles on a marquee together is a victory of sorts, one that many people have been waiting for since the ’70s. And if Guzmén’s indictment of Pinochet is the more impassioned of the two, and manages to shame and anger us in an emotional, direct way that Jarecki and Gibney’s indictment does not, that’s due to the respective dispositions of the two cornered beasts. The Pinochet file is pretty well closed; in Kissinger’s case — more unsettling by far because of the inherent cynicism of the man and his official anointment by the ruling structure — the worst may be yet to come.