As you may have heard, Christopher Hitchens wrote an article in Vanity Fair this week ruminating on the fact that a young man, recently killed in Iraq, may have taken one of Hitchens columns as inspiration for joining the US Army. Hitchens response to this event is occasionally moving, and I’m reluctant to trample into what is clearly an emotional situation both for him and for the family of the young soldier.
Nevertheless, I see something terribly dishonest in Hitchens response. Days after 9/11, by his own admission, Christopher Hitchens decided that this was his moment to shine. He came to believe himself to be a warrior for justice; he correctly understood that this war would require not only bombs and tanks, but also rhetoricians. Hitchens devoted his pen to a rearguard action against fifth column leftists, and lent his formerly radical political persona to an effort to create the veneer of ideological comity around the invasion of Iraq. To his credit, I think he went into this project with open eyes, understanding that he was an element in a rhetorical machine and not a “neutral analyst” like Kenneth Pollack or Michael O’Hanlon. That the result of Hitchens programme was untold column inches of absurd invective, character assassination, bald distortion, and flat out deception is beside the point; Hitchens fulfilled the role of rhetorical warrior quite capably, and got his war. He understood the political force of rhetoric, and correctly assessed his own contribution. In this sense, while I think that there are numerous identifiable individuals who may have had a larger political role in creating and implementing this disaster than Christopher Hitchens, I hold him just as morally responsible for the war as they. Indeed, I would like to think that he’d be comfortable with that.
But here’s the problem; when Hitchens accepted (nay, demanded) the role of rhetorical warrior, he gave up the right to act surprised when people died because of his columns. Warriors don’t have the luxury of belief in their own impotence. While Tom Friedman certainly bears some responsibility for the war, I think I might actually believe an expression of surprise and dismay on his part upon hearing that one of his columns had led to a death. With Hitchens I don’t; I think he understood full well from the very start that the project he was involved in would result in the deaths of many thousands (I’ll grant the small concession that he may not have understood just how bloody the project would be), but that those deaths would be justified by the ideological transformation of Iraq and its neighboring states. Hitchens doesn’t deserve a moment of clarity, because he’s never been unclear about the direction he’s headed.
And so I can’t believe that the experience of meeting the family of Mark Daily is a moving one for Hitchens, or at least in the sense that he wants to tell it. And, unsurprisingly, we find that the column has little about Daily and much about Hitchens. Finding that Daily had copies of Animal Farm and 1984, and that a distant relative of Daily’s had briefly interacted with Orwell in Spain, Hitchens lets loose the Orwell fetish:
To borrow some words of George Orwell’s when he first saw revolutionary Barcelona, “I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for”…
I mention Orwell for a reason, because Mark Daily wasn’t yet finished with sending me messages from beyond the grave.Orwell thought that the Spanish Civil War was a just war, but he also came to understand that it was a dirty war, where a decent cause was hijacked by goons and thugs, and where betrayal and squalor negated the courage and sacrifice of those who fought on principle. As one who used to advocate strongly for the liberation of Iraq (perhaps more strongly than I knew), I have grown coarsened and sickened by the degeneration of the struggle: by the sordid news of corruption and brutality (Mark Daily told his father how dismayed he was by the failure of leadership at Abu Ghraib) and by the paltry politicians in Washington and Baghdad who squabble for precedence while lifeblood is spent and spilled by young people whose boots they are not fit to clean. It upsets and angers me more than I can safely say, when I reread Mark’s letters and poems and see that—as of course he would—he was magically able to find the noble element in all this, and take more comfort and inspiration from a few plain sentences uttered by a Kurdish man than from all the vapid speeches ever given. Orwell had the same experience when encountering a young volunteer in Barcelona, and realizing with a mixture of sadness and shock that for this kid all the tired old slogans about liberty and justice were actually real.
By the end, Daily has ceased to be a human being, and instead has become the other side of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens idolizes Orwell more than any healthy writer should another, but he’s never quite been able to take the last step, and actually go to Spain (such as it were) and put himself in physical, as opposed to rhetorical, jeopardy. Now, Daily has done it for him, and “by sending messages from the grave” reaffirms Hitchens courage and sense of purpose. Nevermind that he’s given no evidence in his writings of growing coarsened or sickened by the course of the struggle, or that he’s demonstrated ample willingness to keep dancing with the most reprehensible of those who brought us this war; rather, we’re supposed to believe that the sacrifice of this young man, unforeseen by Hitchens, has reinvigorated his sense of what it’s really all about.
No; there’s nothing any less self-serving and destructive here than in any other column that he’s written in the last seven years.