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The Believer

Perhaps a tendency toward adulation and loathing comes naturally with the weakness for great causes. Politicians and people Hitchens disapproves of are never simply mentioned by name; it is always the “habitual and professional liar Clinton,” “the pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter,” Nixon’s “indescribably loathsome deputy Henry Kissinger,” the “subhuman character” Jorge Videla,2 and so on. What this suggests is that to Hitchens politics is essentially a matter of character. Politicians do bad things, because they are bad men. The idea that good men can do terrible things (even for good reasons), and bad men good things, does not enter into this particular moral universe.

By the same token, people Hitchens admires are “moral titans,” such as the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James. Not only was James a moral titan, but he was blessed with a “wonderfully sonorous voice.” He also had “legendary success with women (all of it gallant and consensual, unlike that of some other masters of the platform).” This is a dig at President Clinton, whom Hitchens habitually calls a “rapist.” Why he should know how James, or indeed Clinton, behaved in the sack isn’t explained. But bad sexual habits are clearly a sign of bad politics. For many years Gore Vidal was a “comrade,” worshiped by Hitchens as much as Rushdie et al. But now that he has taken the wrong line on Iraq and September 11, we have to be told that Vidal “always liked to boast that he has never knowingly or intentionally gratified any of his partners.” Well, that puts paid to him. Hitchens reassures us four pages later that whatever followed from his own meeting with Martin Amis, it “was the most heterosexual relationship that one young man could conceivably have with another.” Good for Hitchens and Amis.

Another typical word in Hitchens’s lexicon is “intoxication.” This can literally mean drunk. But that is not what Hitchens means. Writing about his early political awakening, when he shared with his fellow International Socialists a “consciousness of rectitude,” he claims:

If you have never yourself had the experience of feeling that you are yoked to the great steam engine of history, then allow me to inform you that the conviction is a very intoxicating one.

This must be true. When Hitchens became a journalist for the New Statesman, after graduating from Oxford, he adopted a pleasing kind of double life, part reporter, part revolutionary activist, imagining how he might help an IRA terrorist hide from the law. He found this double life “more than just figuratively intoxicating.” One can only assume that intoxication again played a part when he took the view that yoking himself to George W. Bush’s war was to hitch a ride on the great steam engine of history.

The trouble with intoxication, figurative or not, is that it stands in the way of reason. It simplifies things too much, as does seeing the world in terms of heroes and villains. Or, indeed, the dogmatic notion that all religion is bad, and secularism always on the right side of history. One of the weaknesses of the chapter on Hitchens’s journalistic exploits in Poland, Portugal, Argentina, and other places is that he never seems to be anywhere for very long or meet anyone who is not either a hero, someone very famous, or a villain. One longs to hear the voice of an ordinary Pole, Argentinian, Kurd, or Iraqi. Instead we get Adam Michnik, Jorge Luis Borges, Ahmad Chalabi, all interesting people, but rather exceptional ones. One misses all areas of gray, all sense and variety of how life is lived by most people.

In some countries, most people are religious. A consequence of the constant sneering about religion, of any kind, is that it obscures political analysis. What should we think, for example, of the persecution of religious parties in Middle Eastern police states? Must we stand with secular dictatorships in Egypt and Syria just because they are opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood? Was a military coup in Algeria justified only because Islamists won democratic elections in 1991? There is no simple answer to any of these questions. But atheistic sloganeering does not help.

Hitchens seems to be perfectly well aware of this. He writes in his concluding chapter:

The usual duty of the “intellectual” is to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae. But there is another responsibility, to say that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated….3

He is right. Standing up to Nazism or Stalinism was the only decent thing to do in the last century. There are turning points in history when there can be no ambiguity: 1939 was such a year, and for Communists perhaps 1956. The question is how Hitchens came to the conviction that 2001 was such a time. The mass murder perpetrated in Lower Manhattan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist gang must be strongly condemned. Nor do I have a quarrel with the claim that Saddam Hussein’s “state machine was modeled on the precedents of both National Socialism and Stalinism, to say nothing of Al Capone.” But the idea that September 11 was anything like 1939, when Hitler’s armies were about to sweep across Europe, is fanciful.

For Hitchens, however, it seems to have brought back the specter of the Commander. He quotes W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” when “Defenseless under the night/Our world in stupor lies….” He recalls Orwell’s essay, entitled “My Country Right or Left,” written in 1940, when Hitler was at his most menacing. And he thunders: “I don’t know so much about ‘defenseless.’ Some of us will vow to defend it, or help the defenders.” He decides that the US is “My country after all” (his italics). He realizes that “a whole new terrain of struggle had just opened up in front of me.” Acquiring US citizenship at the Jefferson Memorial may not be quite on the same order as sinking the Scharnhorst, but it was one way to contribute to the War on Terror, I guess.

In fact, as Hitchens writes, his break with the old left on the question of US military interventions came earlier, in the Balkans. In Bosnia, he writes, “I was brought to the abrupt admission that, if the majority of my former friends got their way about nonintervention, there would be another genocide on European soil.” I, for one, agreed with that sentiment then and still do. Still, Iraq in 2003 was not Bosnia in the early 1990s. Saddam Hussein had certainly been guilty of mass murder in the past, and would have had no scruples to be a killer again, but the Iraq war was not launched to stop genocide. It was sold to the public as a necessary defense against a tyrant’s acquisitions of nuclear weapons, and a strike against the men who, as was quite falsely alleged, helped to bring the Twin Towers down. Liberal hawks and neocons, as well as some hopeful (or desperate) Iraqi liberals, were more sold on the idea of liberation and democracy, but officially that was an afterthought. If a democracy cannot make up its mind precisely why it needs to start a war, it is surely better not to start one in the first place.

Weapons of mass destruction did not clinch the argument for Hitchens. For even if it could have been proved that Saddam had none, he writes, “I would have argued—did in fact argue—that this made it the perfect time to hit him ruthlessly and conclusively.” Since 2001, in the mind of Hitchens, was like 1939, he skates over any distinction between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and talks blithely about “the Saddamist–Al Qaeda alliance.” So keen was he to be among the liberators, and so attracted to the heroic gesture, that both his moral compass and his journalistic instincts began to seriously let him down.

In an earlier phase of his career, Hitchens tells us, “I resolved to try and resist in my own life the jaded reaction that makes one coarsened to the ugly habits of power.” Quite right too. He was also commendably staunch about the use of torture by the British in Northern Ireland. A Labour minister who defended torture as a necessary measure is called “a bullying dwarf.” Hitchens writes: “Everybody knows the creepy excuses that are always involved here: ‘terrorism’ must be stopped, lives are at stake, the ‘ticking bomb’ must be intercepted.” What on earth was this same Hitchens thinking, then, when he adopted Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, as his new good friend?

Hitchens was so smitten with George W. Bush’s Pentagon, despite its connivance at torture, that he appears to have believed everything he was told: “In all my discussions with Wolfowitz and his people at the Pentagon, I never heard anything alarmist on the WMD issue.” To be sure, Wolfowitz has since admitted that oil was a major reason for going to war, and the threat of WMDs was just a convenient “bureaucratic” excuse. But his Pentagon boss certainly was alarmist about the nuclear threat, as were the President and the Vice President. In claiming that there was no alarmism at the Pentagon, Hitchens is either disingenuous or a lousy reporter.

He appears to want it both ways, however. On the one hand, WMDs didn’t matter, and on the other he wants us to believe that they were indeed a threat, and what is more, that he, Hitchens, found proof of this. UN inspectors under Hans Blix looked at five hundred sites in Iraq without coming up with any evidence of WMDs before they were recalled. But Hitchens dismisses these as “very feeble ‘inspections.’” Blix must have been very feeble indeed, for Hitchens, on one trip to Baghdad, in the company of Paul Wolfowitz, was shown components of a gas centrifuge dug up from the back garden of Saddam’s chief physicist. And he was told by the US Defense Department that “some of the ingredients of a chemical weapon” had been found under a mosque.

That is not all. Before the war a band of comrades, including Ahmad Chalabi—a slippery political operator with strong links to Iran—was taken up by Hitchens, this time with the rather grandiose name the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. It was “the combination of influences” of this group “by which political Washington was eventually persuaded that Iraq should be helped into a post-Saddam era, if necessary by force.” And this group of heroes, according to Hitchens, was subjected to a “near-unbelievable deluge of abusive and calumnious dreck….” This unbelievable deluge was dropped, no doubt, by the kind of “Western liberals” whose “sick relativism…permitted them to regard ‘honor’ killings and genital mutilation as expressions of cultural diversity.”4 Not to mention liberals like “Norman Mailer, John Updike, and even Susan Sontag,” who all “appeared to be petrified of being caught on the same side as a Republican president.”

Again, the narcissism, the narrow scale of characters, and the parochial perspective are startling: “We were the only ones to see 1968 coming.” It is as if the central focus of the Iraq war was about scores to be settled between Hitchens and Noam Chomsky or Edward Said. It is odd that in all his lengthy accounts of the war, the name of Dick Cheney is mentioned only once (because he happened to share the same dentist with Hitchens). What is utterly missing is a sense of perspective, and of the two qualities Hitchens claims to prize above all: skepticism and irony. A skeptic would not answer the question whether he blamed his former leftist friends for criticizing the war with: “Yes, absolutely. I was right, and they were wrong, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.” Asked about his literary influences, Hitchens mentioned Arthur Koestler. He was right on the mark. Koestler, too, lurched from cause to cause, always with the same unshakable conviction.5

How, then, does Christopher Hitchens think? Several times in the book he expresses his loathing of fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, which in his account is a tautology. As a typical example he cites the Japanese suicide pilots at the end of World War II. In fact, many were not so much fanatical as in despair about a corrupt society going under in a catastrophic war. But if modern Japanese history must serve as a guide to our own times, Hitchens might have mentioned a different category of misguided figures: the often Marxist or formerly Marxist intellectuals who sincerely believed that Japan was duty-bound to go to war to liberate Asia from wicked Western capitalism and imperialism. They saw 1941 as their finest hour, the moment when men were separated from boys, when principle had to be defended, when those who didn’t share their militancy were disloyal weaklings. These journalists, academics, politicians, and writers were not all emperor-worshipers or Shintoists, but they were believers nonetheless. The man who emerges from this memoir is a bit like them: clearly intelligent, often principled, and often deeply wrongheaded, but above all, a man of faith.

  1. 2

    Not that the Argentine junta leader was not guilty of horrendous crimes, but even criminals, alas, are human.

  2. 3

    This dilemma explains the title of the book, Hitch-22.

  3. 4

    If you look for them carefully, especially in universities, you might still find some people who think like that, but I would hesitate to call them liberals.

  4. 5

    Perhaps “liberating Iraq,” the caption to a photograph of Hitchens smoking a cigarette with delighted Iraqis, is meant to be ironical. Somehow, I doubt it.

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