Christopher Hitchens and the end of triumphalism
The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was vehemently criticised and defended around the world, and controversy persisted for the next few years, as the easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein was followed by widespread resistance to American-led forces, civil war between confessional groups, and economic collapse. Chistopher Hitchens had been a journalist and political commentator since he graduated from Oxford University in the early 1970s, but it was the support he gave, in print and in endless rounds of television talk show appearances and college hall debates, for Bush's attack on Iraq which made him into a celebrity and a hate figure in both his British homeland and his adopted America.
Hitchens had been a Trotskyist of sorts at Oxford, and had later associated with both the left of the British Labour Party and the ginger group of liberal American intellectuals which publishes the journal The Nation. By calling Bush's assault on Iraq a war of liberation, and by comparing its opponents to the appeasers of Hitler, Hitchens upset many of his old comrades and readers and delighted the right. His endorsement of Bush in the 2004 presidential elections only confirmed his apostasy.
In the early years of the Iraq war Hitchens was regularly excoriated by left-wing commentators, but few of his old opponents have felt the need to renew their fury in the aftermath of his death. The blogger Louis Proyect was one of Hitchens' most ferocious and persistent critics, but his obituary for his old enemy is surprisingly measured. Alex Callinicos, whose Socialist Workers Party was often condemned as an ally of 'Islamofascism' by Hitchens, has also refrained from denunciations.
The many articles published about the end of the American occupation of Iraq have had a similarly restrained tone. Long-time critics of Bush's war have been in a reflective rather than a strident mood.
If the end of the American war on Iraq and the death of that war's most passionate advocate have received muted responses, it is perhaps because Bush's war seems to belong to a different, distant era.
A decade ago, when Afghanistan had been speedily occupied and plans were being laid for an assault on Iraq, America was widely perceived as a dynamic and unstoppable superpower. The collapse of the Soviet Union had brought Eastern Europe into the American sphere of influence, and now, confronted by Bush's post-9/11 'for or against us' rhetoric and a massive military buildup, formerly recalcitrant parts of the Middle East and Central Asia seemed set to follow. Ideologues close to Bush talked about creating an 'American century', by using military firepower and free market economics to spread the writ of Washington into even the most barbarous corners of the globe.
The transformation of Iraq into an outpost of American capitalism and a model for the benighted parts of the world seemed, in this heady atmosphere, an easy task. Bush's deputy Dick Cheney predicted that the war on Iraq would be a 'cakewalk'; Hitchens gave victory a sort of teleological inevitability when he looked forward to the 'overdue liberation' of the country.
It is now obvious that the heady early years of this century marked the zenith of American imperial power and self-confidence. The adventure in Iraq ended up demonstrating the limits of American military capabilities, and the economic crisis that began on Wall Street in 2008 has shown up the fragility of the country's economy. Today not only the bomb-scarred streets of Baghdad but the ruined industrial zones of Detroit and Cleveland and the foreclosed suburbs of Stockton and Tampa mock the imperial hubris of the Bush era. To reread Hitchens' writings of a decade ago is to enter again the febrile atmosphere of the early years of the 'War on Terror'. Hitchens admitted to feeling a sense of 'exhilaration' in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, and his pro-war articles have a troubling excitement and confidence. After spending decades as a left-wing gadfly, with no influence in the centres of political and economic power, Hitchens felt that Bush's response to 9/11 had given him a cause with which he could identify wholeheartedly. The reformed Marxist's aggressive endorsements of Bush policies soon won him visits to the White House and meetings with neoconservative strategists like Paul Wolfowitz. Hitchens even gave Bush and his inner circle a political pep talk on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.
Hitchens' excited response to the War on Terror sometimes expressed itself in a frank delight in violence. In a 2002 interview, for instance, he enthused over the effects of the cluster bombs American forces were dropping on the recalcitrant parts of Afghanistan:
If you're actually certain that you're hitting only a concentration of enemy troops...then it's pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too. So they won't be able to say, "Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through." No way, 'cause it'll go straight through that as well. They'll be dead, in other words..
Hitchens' advertisements for Bush's war were written in haste, and without great regard for either facts or logic. Reviewing The Long Short War, a collection of twenty-two pro-war articles penned in late 2002 and early 2003, Norman Finkelstein noted how often Hitchens contradicted himself, even within the confines of a single article. Finkelstein found Hitchens claiming that the war had nothing to do with oil, then stating on his very next page that 'of course it's about oil'. He saw Hitchens arguing that Saddam's regime was on the brink of 'implosion', then asserting a page later than 'only the force of American arms' could bring regime change in Iraq.
While many early supporters of the war on Iraq either revised or abandoned their arguments as the war dragged on, Hitchens persisted with the same discredited talking points. Up until the end of his life he claimed, in the face of an avalanche of countervailing evidence, that Saddam had maintained a nuclear weapons programme in the 1990s, and had tried to buy uranium from Niger. In an interview with Radio New Zealand last year he repeated the lie that the Iraqi Communist Party and labour movement had supported the invasion of their country, neglecting to mention that the American 'liberators' had not only maintained but enforced a Saddam-era law banning trade unions and strikes.
What is important in Hitchens' pro-war writings is not evidence or logic but a rhetoric of destiny and triumphalism. In text after text, Hitchens gives the impression that the war in Iraq, and the War on Terror in general, are struggles of world-historical importance between forces of reaction and progress, and suggests that these struggles might be won or lost because of the bravery or cowardice of Western intellectuals. Hitchens treats critics of the War on Terror like unforgivable enemies, and presents himself as an auxillary of the American armed forces - a 'keyboard warrior', hunkered down in his Washington office-bunker.
Hitchens' delusions of self-importance are not novel, for anyone who has studied intellectual history. In the 1920s Ezra Pound decided that Mussolini was taking his advice; a decade later Martin Heidegger was stupid enough to believe that, by circulating his writings inside the Nazi Party, he was becoming Adolf Hitler's intellectual mentor, and guiding the progress of the 'new Germany'; in the 1960s Louis Althusser convinced himself that his office at the Ecole Normale was the secret centre of world revolution.
Hitchens responded to the failure of the American mission in Iraq by broadening rather than abandoning his vision of a world-historical battle between forces of good and evil, light and darkness. As Iraq fractured along confessional lines and support for Bush collapsed in America, Hitchens turned increasingly from the War on Terror to the notion of a wider war between religion and reason. In his 2007 book God is not Great he proclaimed religion an 'urgent danger' to the survival of the human race, and demanded a concerted struggle against it.
Hitchens' book won him support from some atheist organisations, but his penchant for violent rhetoric and his particular antipathy for Islam meant that the atheists sometimes came to regret inviting him to speak at their gatherings. The biologist and atheist PZ Myers described what happened after Hitchens took the stage at the 2007 Freedom from Religion convention in Wisconsin:
[I]t was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy...
The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties...Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again...I could tell that he did not have the sympathy of most of the audience at this point. There were a scattered few who applauded wildly at every mention of bombing the Iranians, but the majority were stunned into silence. People were leaving — I heard one woman sing a few bars of "Onward, Christian soldiers" as she left to mock his strategy.
Hitchens wrote a series of books which attempted to celebrate men he regarded as his precursors in the struggle against religion and other forms of unreason. But texts like Orwell's Victory and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: a biography are so poorly researched and constructed that they can only be considered assaults on reason. Hitchens' study of Paine piggybacks shamelessly on John Keane's biography of the great man, at times lifting whole paragraphs from its source; his homage to Orwell dispenses with secondary literature altogether, preferring unsubstantiated assertion to quote and citation. Just as Jim Morrison is only considered a great poet by folks who don't read poetry, so Hitchens is only acclaimed as a scholar by the right-wing ignoramuses who know him as an advocate for war on Fox News.
Abandoned by the left, Hitchens increasingly found a home on the hard right of American politics. He began to associate with David Horowitz, the famous defector from the 1960s left who had become an advocate of the deportation of American Muslims and the exclusion of socialist teachers from high school and colleges. Hitchens reviewed one of Horowitz's books sympathetically, spoke at one of the anti-Muslim rallies Horowitz regularly holds at American universities, and began a joint speaking tour with Horowitz before falling ill.
In the eighteen months it took to kill him, cancer took some of the hubris and aggression out of Hitchens' prose. Invalided away from the television talk shows and Washington cocktail parties which were his usual frontline, the keyboard warrior found himself writing about painkillers and chemotherapy and hospital gowns. The world-historical struggle for freedom was suddenly internalised, in prose that exchanged bombast for quiet irony:
Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat...So now every day I go to a waiting room, and watch the awful news from Japan on cable TV (often closed-captioned, just to torture myself) and wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light. What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.
Hitchens tried to immortalise his writing by making it the servant of powerful men and a world-historical struggle, but it is the very personal work he produced at the end of his life which is most likely to persist in print. Like Pound's Fascist Cantos and Heidegger's rectorial addresses, the feverish advertisements for Bush's wars will be of interest only as examples of the dangers that power, or the illusion of power, poses for intellectuals.
Footnote: an academic paper I wrote back in 2005 about Hitchens and the rest of the 'pro-war left' can be read here.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]