Several readers forwarded me the new Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens and asked if I had read it, and if I had, what were my thoughts. As I've said many times -- and people think I'm joking when I'm not -- I rarely read anything by Hitchens anymore. If I wanted to wallow in sewage, there are plenty of other sources that would suffice. But this piece is about his feelings for a dead soldier, I was told. Maybe Hitchens has turned a corner with this piece. Well, maybe. Anything's possible. So I clicked on the link to see for myself. I wish I hadn't. It's not the worst thing Hitchens has written, but it's pretty damn close. And given his Greatest Hits of the past six years, that's really saying something.
As many of you know, since the piece has been floating around online for days, Hitchens celebrates the brief but heroic legacy of Lieutenant Mark Daily, who was killed last January in Iraq. Now, normally for Hitchens, this would be no big deal. After all, the imperial meatgrinder that he has helped oil and keep humming is a proper place for the likes of the late Lt. Daily. How else are they going to get the brutal training necessary to fight the many wars that Hitchens foresees past the present phase, wars that Hitchens will doubtless cheerlead with the same blustering, bumbling gusto? All part of the deal, so keep your tears to yourself and keep firing at anything that moves. But in Lt. Daily's case, there was a personal connection. Seems that the young Army officer was swayed to enlist in part by the pro-war screeds of Sir Christopher Hitchens himself.
"I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze," says Hitch. "I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.?"
Not only possible, but all too true. After consulting the words of William Butler Yeats, a secular saint to whom Hitch assures us he cannot creatively equal (another mystery solved), the old boy went to Daily's My Space page. "And there, at the top of the page, was a link to a passage from one of my articles, in which I poured scorn on those who were neutral about the battle for Iraq ... I don't remember ever feeling, in every allowable sense of the word, quite so hollow." Hitchens finally contacted Daily's family, who told him how much the young man admired Hitch's work, and had tried to contact him from either Kuwait or Iraq.
"I don't intend to make a parade of my own feelings here," Hitchens tells us early on, then does make a parade of his own feelings, a self-pitying procession played with dented instruments. To be expected, I suppose. Hitchens has affected numerous postures since 9/11, all of which have been financially and professionally lucrative for him. So the "Gee, did I do that?" pose is really no surprise. And judging from the many favorable, tear-stained responses online, the old dear has hit another one out of the park. The misty-eyed pro-war reactionary has feelings. He is even deeper than any of us first imagined.
Naturally, Hitchens wouldn't have written this piece a year or two ago, and would've pissed all over anyone who showed the slightest wavering from the glorious crusade. But Christopher understands life in ways that few of us can seriously appreciate, so when it's his turn to weep about human loss, we are all supposed to stop and weep with him. When he describes Lt. Daily's family:
"I had already guessed that this was no gung-ho Orange County Republican clan. It was pretty clear that they could have done without the war, and would have been happier if their son had not gone anywhere near Iraq."
I thought, hey, that sounds familiar. Now where did I hear about a mother whose son was killed in a war that she opposed? Shavan . . . Sheedan . . . oh yeah, Sheehan. Cindy Sheehan. She, too, "could have done without the war, and would have been happier if [her] son had not gone anywhere near Iraq," yet I don't recall Hitchens extending his understanding to that grieving mother. Quite the opposite: Sheehan was "a vulgar producer of her own spectacle," and an "embarrassment to her family"; a "shifty fantasist" spouting "wacko opinions" who should "end her protest."
And so on.
What's the difference now? I suppose that because the Daily family didn't make the same antiwar noise as Sheehan lends them more dignity. Or that Hitchens, being the moral arbiter of such matters, gets to choose who is wise and who is a fool. Whatever his reasoning, one wonders what his response to the Dailys would have been had their antiwar feelings taken them to the streets and in front of Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Well, "wonders" is a dodge. We know exactly what he would have written.
All corpse-choked water under the bullet-pocked bridge. Today, Hitchens confesses:
"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 . . ."
Does this mean the old war horse has shaken off his blinders? Perhaps. It's a little late in the day, of course, but it is possible. Yet, as you've probably discerned by now, I have serious doubts about any true conversion on Hitchens' part; and it will take much more than this one piece to convince me. But that's my personal view, based on what I know of the man. Your perception may and probably does vary. It's a complex world, after all.
Still, I find Hitchens' piggy-backing on a dead American soldier a rather cheap and easy way to express his penance, such as it is. There's the predictable Orwell/Barcelona reference, which suggests that Hitchens still thinks that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken for "noble" purposes, but was "hijacked by goons and thugs, and where betrayal and squalor negated the courage and sacrifice of those who fought on principle."
In other words, the real patriots have been stabbed in the back once again.
One can excuse, indeed mourn, an idealistic 23-year-old who believed that the "United States was a force for good in the world, and that it had a duty to the freedom of others," even though this romantic mindset got him killed in the service of geopolitical and corporate piracy. The young are routinely lied to by the old when the cannons begin firing. But there's no excuse for the nearly 60-year-old Christopher Hitchens, who shamelessly lied to the likes of Mark Daily, and who remains aware enough to know that some of Daily's blood is on his hands. Time will tell whether this piece is a first step toward a deeper recognition, or a cynical final chapter before the next war erupts.