Christopher Hitchens' Unforgivable Mistake

The outpouring of grief, goodwill, and teary encomia that has attended news of Christopher Hitchens' passing would—if he was anything like the persona he presented in print—have turned his stomach. He loathed sentiment, welcomed combat, and delighted in inflicting hard truths. In that spirit, it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong.

In its obituary, the New York Times quoted Hitchens' friend Ian Buruma, who told the New Yorker in 2006 that Hitchens was "always looking for the defining moment — as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy." He shared that impulse with George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz, and they found their moment in the stupid decision to invade Iraq. For Hitchens, it was the opening maneuver in a grand, imagined clash of western civilization against the Islamofascist hordes.

It was something else for 113,000 civilians who died in the chaos unleashed. The great tragedy of Hitchens' life was that, toward its end, he aligned himself so stridently with the very fools, cowards, and charlatans who most desperately invited exposure by his prodigious skills as butcher. How can someone who devoted so much of his life to as noble a cause as destroying the reputation of Henry Kissinger blithely stand shoulder to shoulder with Rumsfeld?

People make mistakes. What's horrible about Hitchens' ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made. In September 2005, he defended the debacle in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard in terms that are simply breathtaking in their lack of concern for the victims of his Mesopotamian adventure. It was headlined "A War to Be Proud Of."

Torture and murder by feckless American troops at Abu Ghraib? "Prison conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad," he wrote. How clever! Anyone objecting to the occupation of Iraq on the grounds that torturing and murdering people is wrong and illegal is now obligated to defend the "abattoir" that existed prior to our arrival.

Anyone complaining that the chief rationale for the invasion—the indisputable presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—turned out to have been a fantasy is being "childish," he wrote. "'You said there were WMDs in Iraq and that Saddam had friends in al Qaeda. . . . Blah, blah, pants on fire.' I have had many opportunities to tire of this mantra." How tiresome you are with your boring insistence that wars be justified! Hitchens' answer to that whine is a trivial list of ominous fragments, conspiratorially arrayed: "Abdul Rahman Yasin, who mixed the chemicals for the World Trade Center attack in 1993, subsequently sought and found refuge in Baghdad." If you don't recognize the immediate global danger that the presence in Iraq of a man who built a bomb that killed six people ten years ago presents, you are a child.

If you dispute the Bush Administration line that "terror" must be fought in Iraq lest it be fought on our soil, Hitchens alleged, you are guilty of dispensing "sob-sister tripe pumped out by the Cindy Sheehan circus and its surrogates." Sheehan's son had been dead scarcely a year at the time Hitchens wrote this.

But surely Christopher, you recognize that the war has been badly bungled even if all your hearts were in the right place, right? "We need not argue about the failures and the mistakes and even the crimes, because these in some ways argue themselves." For Christopher Hitchens to identify a subject about which no argument is required is a rare thing indeed. Abu Ghraib—why argue? The $9 billion in cash that simply disappeared—what's to argue? Two months after the Hitchens wrote those words, U.S. Marines massacred 24 men, women, and children in Haditha. No need to argue.

"If the great effort to remake Iraq as a demilitarized federal and secular democracy should fail or be defeated," he closed, "I shall lose sleep for the rest of my life in reproaching myself for doing too little. But at least I shall have the comfort of not having offered, so far as I can recall, any word or deed that contributed to a defeat." The rest of Hitchens' life turned out to be unjustly circumscribed. But his demilitarized federal and secular democracy is a mirage. More likely a future Iranian client state and Shi'ite stronghold awaits. Those words would not wear well on his headstone.

Hitchens' style—ironically, given his hatred for tyranny and love of free expression—brooked no dissent. There was little room for good-faith disagreement or loyal opposition. His enemies were not just wrong, they were stupid or mean or small-minded or liars or cheats or children or cowards. It was thrilling and gratifying to see that articulate viciousness deployed against the Clinton cartel, or Mother Teresa, or Henry Kissinger—against power and pretense. To see it deployed in favor of war, on behalf of a dullard and scion, against the hysterical mother of a dead son was nauseating.

In the months and years since Hitchens publicly proclaimed his pride in the invasion of Iraq for Murdoch's ideological crib-sheet, 78,708 Iraqi civilians and 2,548 U.S. troops have been killed. He did immense good in his life, and unforgivable harm.

[Image via AP/Chad Rachman]