Reading more of the commentary on Christopher Hitchens’s death—and the reaction to those of us disinclined to join the hagiography—I’m struck by a consistent line I hear from some of his admirers and followers: “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but…” And then any one of a number of claims follow: he was a brilliant raconteur, a steadfast opponent of authoritarianism, a lovely stylist, a sensitive critic, a hilarious polemicist, a bon vivant, a loving and lovable mentor to younger journalists, a loving and lovable friend, and so on.
I want to focus on that “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but.”
First, Hitchens wasn’t just wrong on Iraq; he was wrong on the war on terror. As soon as 9/11 happened, Hitchens saw in the limited counter-terrorism effort against Al Qaeda a civilizational war against “Islamofascism.” The mere fact that I use the word “effort” is the kind of thing that would have sent him—and for a time, a great many others—into a rage. But in the end, that’s all the war on terror is—increasingly, was—and it is to his (though not only his) lasting shame that he ever saw, and longed to see, more in it than that.
Second, the problem isn’t just that Hitchens was wrong on Iraq and the war on terror; it’s how he was wrong. As I showed in my previous post, Hitchens’s words betrayed—actually, since he made no secret of it, displayed seems the more appropriate word—a cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and apocalyptic confrontation, an almost sociopathic indifference to the victims of that violence and confrontation, that are disturbing and frightening. What’s more, he included these feelings among his reasons for wanting to fight the war on terror.
Some might consider such confessions honest and brave. They are not. What’s honest and brave is to acknowledge these feelings in oneself and to seek to curb their influence on one’s reasoning. Not celebrating them, in the vein of politicians and propagandists in 1914 who sent men to die in vain. Hitchens’s is not the voice of the Enlightenment; it’s the voice of the men who brought that dream to an end, when they welcomed the bloodbath of the First World War as a relief from the tedium and boredom they had evidently been suffering from throughout the long nineteenth century.
Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.
Had Hitchens been wrong about the Soviet Union, say, in the way he was wrong about Iraq, there’d be no forgiveness, no loving memories of late-night drinks and dinners. That’s not merely because the Soviet Union was the enemy of the United States or a murderous tyranny or because Iraq was an American war. It’s because we have come to a point in our culture where war is viewed as a neutral tool of state or an instrument of national salvation and human progress—and, in either case, as something that simply does not touch “us” in its concrete facts of blood and death. Us being the people who are not the victims of our wars and the men and women who are not required to fight those wars.
I said in my previous post that Hitchens was not an internationalist but a narcissist. Reading the commentary since his death, it’s become clear to me that he had plenty of company.