June 18, 2013
Peter Stothard on Christopher Hitchens
Posted on May 27, 2010
Forty years on, she inspires a coda on the question of self-slaughter, the 14 suicides in Shakespeare, the fears of William Styron, the martyrdom of Jan Palach in protest at the Soviet invasion of Prague, a self-immolation which once Hitchens had praised but now he praises less. Today he has had “every chance to be sickened by the very idea of martyrdom,” an act which now joins the lists of other horrors of religion, not least the great Jewish Masada itself, which is misunderstood by his friend, Al Alvarez, as well as by almost all other writers, being not a mass suicide decision at all but a fanatical extremist excess. As for Yvonne, she may not herself “have needed or wanted to die but she needed and wanted someone who did need and want to die.”
In its pages of more public life, the text is studded with an array of names that have recurred, often in unexpected ways, over the years—from Martin Amis to Abu Nidal, Salman Rushdie to Paul Wolfowitz, Jorge Luis Borges on the etymology of a “trafficker in cunt,” Philip Larkin on the phrase Yank bags, Jessica Mitford on being “non-speakers” with her sister, Diana, “since Munich,” the courageous Jacobo Timerman and his son. Hitchens and Bill Clinton share a student role as the “tethered goat” for a pair of Sapphic young Oxford friends who wish to attract fellow females into their den. Later the two take notoriously more divergent parts in the president’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair. The former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw takes issue with Hitchens over the noose for his predecessor at Oxford, arguing as a student union leader at the time that protection of free speech was the higher virtue. But when we reach the 2003 war in Iraq, they are both on the same side, Straw being a rather reluctant fighter in the neoconservative cause, our author characteristically more ferocious in his support.
Hitchens’ pugnacity in defense of George W. Bush and Tony Blair has severely tested his admirers in the past seven years. In his chapter “Mesopotamia from Both Sides,” he recounts how his once favorable view of Saddam Hussein as an “up-and-coming secular socialist” and of Iraq in 1976 as a “progressive model for the rest of the Middle East” was reversed only in a long and “painful” process. His first contacts were a Baathist minder who liked to play Gwendolyn” in domestic performances of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Hitchens approved the regime’s early recognition of Kurdish identity and rejection of Islamic rhetoric—while noting and attempting to combat the oppression of communists. The invasion of Kuwait was one milestone on the painful road out, the chemical attacks on the Kurds another; but he concedes that his opposition to the first President Bush’s role in aiding a Central American dictatorship with illegal funds from Iran remained an obstacle to going further. Marxist colleagues told him that they had all to choose between a course of anti-imperialism, tolerating a Saddam who would at least help the Palestinian cause a little, and anti-fascism, rejecting Saddam for his cruelty, aggression and intolerance.
Hitchens came to decide that this was no choice: With George H.W. Bush and his Kuwaiti and Saudi friends “you could have both imperialism and fascism.” Direct experience of the horrors of the Halabja gas attacks on the communist-sympathizing Kurds was the first decisive move toward the creation of a tiny group of “conspirators” that came to play so critical a part in promoting George W. Bush’s war in 2003. To a man of the highest education in the old left, “the idea of ‘Reds for Bush’ might seem incongruous but it was a very great deal more wholesome than ‘Pacifists for Saddam.’ ” Keeping contact with the country when others in the Clinton years looked elsewhere, he began to extend his links with others who recognized “the radical evil” of Saddam’s rule, liberals and neoconservatives who redefined themselves in relation to the new circumstances especially after 9/11, a Trotskyist architecture critic, an aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a Welsh Labour MP, Kurdish and Swedish diplomats, the veteran Washington infighter, Paul Wolfowitz, and the man who has since become “so well hosed with bile and spittle,” the Iraqi exile and passer of the Hitchens “acid test” for Trotskyist comprehension, Ahmad Chalaby.
In this book Hitchens has remained characteristically loyal to these men and their ideals, even as his former allies on the left have raised their eyebrows, curled their lips and worse. He does not spend long on the failings and failures of the invasion; still less does he defend every aspect, becoming by his own admission “coarsened and sickened by the degeneration of the struggle” and arguing that there are limits, in the case of a political and literary commentator, quite extensive limits, to a writer’s knowledge of civil and military logistics. He ends instead characteristically with a single instance, of a California soldier, killed in Iraq, whose decision to fight had, according to his family, been “deeply influenced” by the moral case for war he had learned from “writings by the author and columnist, Christopher Hitchens.” He attends Mark Daily’s funeral service, meets his family and ends with the nobility observed by this single soldier, fighting as had Orwell in the Spanish Civil War for aims which seemed “fly-blown” to the old and cynical but were fresh to all who found them for the first time and must always be kept fresh.
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