The Lighter Side of Mass Murder
Picture a necrotic, sinister, burned-out wasteland — a vast, dull mound of rubble punctuated by moments of bleak emptiness and, occasionally, smoking. Those of you whose imaginations alighted instantly on the Late Christopher Hitchens have only yourselves to blame, for I was referring to Fallujah. The “city of mosques” was sacrificed in November 2004 during an all-American war movie: the MacGuffin, an obscure yet deadly figure known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who, predictably, “escaped” with his wily confederates into the deserts.1 Before the operation, the city was bombed to “encourage” its evacuation, and shortly thereafter sealed off — any male of fighting age (ten years old and upwards by present occupation standards) was prevented from leaving. During that operation, white phosphorus was used against civilians since, as one US soldier explained, anything that walked or breathed was considered an enemy combatant. It is reasonable to suppose that some of the melted bodies discovered had suffered agonizing deaths as the material sizzled their flesh to the bone. Others may have been more lucky — if they inhaled the substance, it will have blistered their mouths, throats, and lungs, suffocating them to death before they had to suffer the pain of flesh melting away both inside and outside. It is indeed hard to overstate what was pitilessly inflicted on Fallujah: a hospital deliberately bombed;2 another occupied;3 more than half of the houses damaged or destroyed;4 150,000 people obliged to flee to live in rough tents on the outskirts of the city as they were bombed and their water and electricity cut off;5 those returning to the devastated city were to be subjected to forced labor.6 While the US military only admitted to having killed 1,200 insurgents,7 initial civilian tolls were as high as 800.8 Lately, Iraqi NGOs and medical workers have estimated as many as 6,000 deaths, mostly civilians.9 In the face of all these facts, Christopher Hitchens remarked: “the death toll is not nearly high enough . . . too many [jihadists] have escaped.”10
You may have noticed this supererogatory relish in Hitchens’ rhetoric before. Here is another sample, regarding cluster bombs:
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.11
There is much more of this merriment. Here he is again: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.”12
And on those jihadis who appear to occupy a special place in his imagination:
We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders [sic] and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.13
Something is decidedly up here. The formal disavowal involved in the unctuous recitation that one is only, ever, targeting the bad guys doesn’t quite convince. There is too much joy involved in the murder of designated foes, just as there was too much liveliness in his celebration of Bin Laden’s “world-historical mistake” in attacking the twin towers.14 Jacqueline Rose was perhaps the first to notice this. In May 2002, the psychoanalytic theorist found herself in a debate about the “war on terror” sponsored by the London Review of Books. Christopher Hitchens was sitting next to her, and so she had ample opportunity to catch the flavor of his effluvia as they issued forth.
First, Rose noted the apocalyptic language that had been aroused by 9/11. By way of comparison with Hitchens, she offered to the audience some indistinguishable statements from Blair, Sharon, and Bin Laden, all marked by their extraordinary millenarianism and Manichean tone. The “extraordinary proximity” of this language was alarming, as was the fact that such apocalyptic language provides, copiously, the agar on which fundamentalism breeds. Rooted in a fear, it “thrives on the possibility of annihilation.” Second, she suggested that what Hitchens referred to as “civilization” (Western society) might well be problematized, given its extraordinary propensity for barbarism, past and present. Thirdly, she noted the decline of democratic possibilities within Western societies as a result of the “war on terror.” Fourthly, and most importantly, she ventured that 9/11 had ripped apart the American fantasy of invulnerability and immortality. Freud famously said that it is very difficult to imagine one’s own death, but this does not stop us from imagining that of others with extraordinary ruthlessness. Hence, a man might say to his wife, “When one of us dies, I think I shall move to Paris.” This is a homicidal impulse, one that operates on the level of unconscious fantasy life. Because our fantasy of immortality has been torn asunder, someone else must die. For reasons of ideological coherence and public relations, those Others must always be the bad guys, but die they must.15
“Someone else” happened to be several thousand people in Afghanistan. Note that Hitchens immediately followed Rose’s latter point by suggesting that a Human Rights Watch report would be released that would “mantle” the cheeks of those who believed the stories of massive civilian casualties with “a blush of shame.” That report, as it happens, did not exonerate the US or say anything specifically exculpatory. What it in fact said was:
The U.S. air strikes against Taliban military targets entailed an undetermined number of civilian casualties, at least some of which resulted from mistargeting. The air strikes also contributed to the humanitarian crisis, with thousands of Afghans fleeing their homes. Their flight swelled the ranks of hundreds of thousands who were already internally displaced because of drought, war, and conflict-related violence.16
There were such varied reports about the civilian death toll in Afghanistan that you could take your pick, of course, but why highlight a report to support your point when it doesn’t say what you claim it does? Possibly, Hitchens doesn’t expect to have his references checked. It would explain a lot.
However, when “someone else” became Iraq, Hitchens blinked. He was in favor of a conflict with the Hussein regime, although not necessarily an invasion, as he told Salon in late 2002.17 And then, in short order, he was in favor of an invasion. There will be no war, he said, so “bring it on.” And while he had angrily declaimed to Tariq Ali at the LRB debate that he did not classify the Iraqi regime as fascist for cheap points, he did in fact tell Mirror readers that Saddam was Hitler (and Stalin as well).18 What have we been waiting for, he wondered? He has weapons and underground chambers — just you wait.19 When “just you wait” became “never mind,” Hitchens found other reasons to continue toward his doom.
Kurds, Imperialism, and Muslim-baiting
Hitchens had a history of support for “humanitarian intervention” to fall back on, when all else failed. If the war wasn’t about WMDs, it was about Saddam’s links with Bin Laden. And if it wasn’t about that, it was about the Kurds. For Hitchens, the Kurds provide a crucial ideological quilting point in relation to Iraq, in which support for imperialism can be suffused with the drama of revolution. About this, a curious myth abounds, which appears to have been generated by Hitchens. The myth is that he was in a jeep with some Kurds in 1991 following the Gulf War, who allegedly evinced some warmth for George Bush Senior, and in the course of that exchange he changed his mind about the war on Iraq. Conflict with Saddam, from then on, was both inevitable and devoutly to be wished.20 That is hardly thrilling political fiction, but fiction it is. As noted before, he in fact opposed the invasion of Iraq as late as 2002, and he had criticized Clinton for bombing Iraq in 1998’s Operation Desert Fox.21 As Dennis Perrin, a friend of Hitchens, writes:
He may have been in a Kurdish jeep, but the [story about his conversion therein] is a complete lie, and Hitchens knows this. I spent time with him in the period he mentions, and he never stopped criticizing Bush’s “mad contest” with Saddam, much less opined that “co-existence” with Saddam was “no longer possible.” I have a tape of him debating Ken Adelman on C-SPAN in 1993 where he’s still critical of the Gulf War, and again no mention of wanting to overthrow Saddam. As late as 2002, when I asked him directly if he did indeed favor a US invasion, he waffled and said that W. would have to convince him on “about a zillion fronts” before he could sign on.22
It is tempting to conclude that the main function of the Kurds for Hitchens is to cover his guilt, and shame, and embarrassment about allowing himself to be made a conduit for lies in the service of mass murder — but it is a considerable stretch to believe that Hitchens is capable of guilt, shame, or embarrassment these days. However, if Hitchens did not come to support an invasion of Iraq until very late in 2002, he did begin to express a fondness for interventionism back in 1993.23 He had supported Thatcher over the Falklands war, by his own account as a means of dislodging the Argentinian junta; and he became more and more in favor of intervention in the former Yugoslavia and also supported the restoration of Aristide in Haiti, something he supposes that the Clinton administration was forced into and subverted over. Hitchens also claims to have demanded that Britain intervene in Cyprus to defend it from an attempted partition by Greek and Turkish incursions. The argument bears a certain consistency — if imperialist governments are not moral agents, it is not too much to hope that they might be. We should “demand that the government acts according to its proclaimed principles.”24
In Kosovo, he was less consistent than perhaps he would like to admit. While he was later to deploy the now familiar line that “if the counsel of the peaceniks had been followed” something dreadful would have happened, he was initially less sanguine about the American strikes. On ethnic cleansing by Serb forces, he said: “[T]he cleansing interval . . . was both provoked and provided by the threat of air attacks on other parts of Yugoslavia.” About the responsibility of the warmongers for the fate of Kosovars, he added:
[T]he “line of the day” among administration spokesmen, confronted by the masses of destitute and terrified refugees and solid reports of the mass execution of civilians, [was] to say that “we expected this to happen.” . . . If they want to avoid being indicted for war crimes themselves, these “spokesmen” had better promise us they were lying when they said that.25
It was, he feared, another imperial carve-up. Later, he proceeded as if he had never said any of this, or at least never really thought it, even though it happens to be true: the NATO attack drastically worsened the situation of Kosovars. Needlessly so, since Western leaders had needlessly thwarted a deal26 that would have saved Kosovars from death and expulsion, not to mention preventing quite a few Serbs from being pounded into pink mist. That much is empirically established, and yet it is precisely at this point that Hitchens begins to be immune to inconvenient facts. Prime Minister Blair was acting out of principle, he later supposed, while Clinton was a war criminal for having bombed El-Shifa and sites in Afghanistan (something that Blair supported).27
Shortly thereafter, the oleaginous Clinton was replaced by the astonishingly inept Bush after a campaign in which the Democrat candidate could hardly find a word to say for himself, his sole simulation of passion and commitment being a bestial tongue exchange with his censorious wife in front of the television cameras. With Bush and his team of appointees from the Nixon and Reagan years in charge, Clinton would not be at the helm when the 9/11 bombers struck. Initially, those horrors inspired an uneasy response from Hitchens. He was at first critical of President Bush’s instant war cry, and even dared in the worst climate to offer a bit of criticism of US foreign policy,28 but it was not long before the torrent of bile was unleashed. If the left couldn’t drive Hitchens further to drink, it could at least set the fluid rushing in the opposite direction. They were guilty of “self hatred” and “fascist sympathies.”29 Rebuking those who thought that the root causes of the attacks included demonstrably baleful aspects of US foreign policy, Hitchens said:
The grievance and animosity predate even the Balfour Declaration, let alone the occupation of the West Bank. They predate the creation of Iraq as a state. The gates of Vienna would have had to fall to the Ottoman jihad before any balm could begin to be applied to these psychic wounds.30
Aside from being extraordinary ahistorical babble, this inaugurated Hitchens’ period as what Alex Cockburn calls “the hammer of Islam.”31 Let us pause only briefly to consider why. Only an intellectual midget or a racializing essentialist would suppose that modern political Islam has anything to do with traditional Islamic societies under the Caliphate. Hassan al-Banna may well have bemoaned the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but this was neither uncommon even in Egypt which had temporarily freed itself from that orbit before being occupied by Britain, nor did it signify ideological continuity with the traditionalist ulama. Nor was the Ottoman Empire governed particularly stringently according to theological propositions. Rather, military power was pre-eminent, as it was with coeval empires and polities, while the theorising of Islamic scholars was largely its circumstantial by-product. You may as well compare Ariel Sharon with Moses as compare Al Qaeda with the armies of the sultanates and the caliphate. Yet, this is the kind of mindless distillation that arises when “understanding” and analysis are eschewed. Indeed, Hitchens showed exactly what he thought about Muslims, when, in reaction to the French uprising, he told right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham that “[i]f you think that the intifada in France is about housing, go and try covering the story wearing a yarmulka.”32 He is happy for others to do his talking from time to time, as when he approvingly cited Abdulrahman al-Rashed claiming that “[a]ll the World Terrorists are Muslims.”33 This article went on to aver that “[o]ur terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture.” Daniel Pipes was as delighted as Hitchens was, although those Muslims who have never committed a terrorist act and would never contemplate doing so would have had good grounds for feeling insulted. On the matter of empirical evidence, evoking Islam as an explanation for modern terrorism — particularly suicide bombing — must tickle the FARC or LTTE, but academic studies tend to suggest that Islam is far less important than geopolitical considerations.34 That’s the sort of fact that it pays to ignore if you don’t want to be slandered by Hitchens as an apologist.
Coterminous with Hitchens’ shift on imperialism was a definite move to the right. He ceased, for instance, to call himself a socialist. He began to reminisce about his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, and expatiate on the virtues of capitalism. Capitalism was more revolutionary than its opponents, he suggested. In fact, Hitchens went so far as to say that he regretted not having voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and that he had actually wanted her to win. Unemployment, union-bashing, homophobia, and nationalism are of little consequence in this equation, since the “radical, revolutionary forces” were led by the Right, who broke the “political consensus.” This is a fairly consistent theme for Hitchens, inasmuch as he needs to believe that whatever his position is on a given topic on a given day, it is contrary to whatever the consensus is. Hence, opposing the Iraq war became “respectable,” indeed “establishment” — to support this ridiculous claim, Hitchens hallucinated that Ariel Sharon may be against the war.35 In Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens urges his young reader to live “at a slight angle to society,” which means to be idiosyncratic rather than tendentious. This contrarianism is a fetish, and it is one that encases in amber the burning polemical zeal of a former radical, a soixante-huitard. In the wake of a detumescent revolutionary fervor, and with the associated political vision largely gone, we are left with an opportunistic polemicising in which no matter how much one’s opinion alters, it remains permanently in opposition, permanently contrarian. And this delivers the hammering Hitchensian irony in which the most consummately bourgeois opinion acquires the mould and fashion of resistance.36
Indeed, something of that can be detected in the anfractuous rhetorical strategies Hitchens has deployed. On weapons of mass destruction, he first channelled Cassandra and then rejoined the chorus and suggested that it wasn’t about WMDs in the first place (only to bleat more about it when some new wafer-thin “evidence” emerged37). The torsions of posture and tone are, at times, astonishing. Hitchens terrified Mirror readers by advising them of all the nasty things that Saddam was getting up to — the mukhabarat were busying themselves destabilizing other countries and weapons of mass destruction were being readied. Little of what Hitchens said in the run up to war was accurate, and what was accurate was rarely worth saying since it was widely acknowledged. Within a couple of years, he was telling the intellectual amoebas of the Weekly Standard that Bush and Blair had ruined a good case for war by trying to frighten people instead of enlightening them.38 Enlightenment in Hitchens’ hands, however, radiates disaster triumphant. Here is a man who dared to introduce a set of essays written during the war with a monograph entitled “Twenty-Twenty Foresight.”39 In what did this foresight consist? Well, for example, following a series of surgical strikes, “a massive landing will bring food, medicine and laptop computers to a surging crowd of thankful and relieved Iraqis and Kurds.”40 Laptops. He actually said laptops. Similarly: “Will an Iraq war make our Al Qaeda problem worse? Not likely.”41 Further, “War requires that two countries pit their armies against one another for indefinite combat. I’m willing to bet you now that there will be no such engagement in Iraq.”42 There would be no war, so “bring it on.” They brought it on alright. And I still wonder if the man who spent so much time slandering opponents as fascist sympathizers, who accused Naomi Klein of “swooning” for “theocratic fascists,”43 and who said “Ha ha ha to the pacifists” really ever thought he would find himself begging others to “stop the taunting.”44
To disarm critics of Bush’s pre-war lies, particularly his claim to have been doing all possible to avoid a war when in fact he was readying one from very early on, Hitchens said that after all this was merely a continuation of the Iraqi Liberation Act, passed unanimously by the Senate in 1998, and of a post-9/11 policy of changing the balance of power in the region.45 As it happens, the Iraq Liberation Act specifically precludes invasion,46 and, although I happen to know Hitchens was made aware of and acknowledged this, he nevertheless repeated the claim during his “debate” with George Galloway in New York.47 In a later article, he suggested that the Act had not mentioned invasion, whereas in fact it had mentioned it — to specifically preclude its use.48
Hitchens specializes in retailing myths about Zarqawi these days, too. I think his first mention of Zarqawi was in February 2003, when Colin Powell brought him up. He averred that the “presence of al-Qaeda under the Iraqi umbrella is suggested chiefly by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a senior bin-Laden aide and an enthusiast for chemical and biological tactics,” while “most US intelligence officials now agree that it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the pro-al-Qaeda gang, Ansar al-Islam, is fighting to destroy the independent Kurdish leadership in the northern part of Iraq that has been freed from Saddam Hussein’s control.”49 The interesting thing about this is that Hitchens didn’t even get it right in hindsight. He continues to insist on the Baghdad-Bin Laden connection (via Baghdad and northern Iraq)50 despite ample refutation, of which we might mention the fact that Zarqawi’s supposed presence in Baghdad was speculation, an “inferential leap” in the first place;51 that both British and German intelligence cast doubt on the story at the time;52 that even George Tenet, when testifying to a Senate Committee that Zarqawi had been in Baghdad, nevertheless said that he was neither under the control of Al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein; that Zarqawi was an opponent of Al Qaeda at this time;53 that Ansar al-Islam leader Mullah Krekar denied having ever met Zarqawi and that his group was opposed to Hussein and did not associate with Al Qaeda;54 that, according to the International Crisis Group, the potency of Ansar al-Islam was drastically inflated by the PUK for its own reasons.55 There is considerable doubt about whether Zarqawi is alive, has two functioning legs, and is really in Iraq. Whether Zarqawi is a myth or a monster, the only story that obtains here is that there is no story. Saddam and Zarqawi never did have their Baghdad nuptials, however convenient the tale is for pro-war storytelling.56
On WMDs, he keeps trying. Of late, he was been amplifying claims made in the New York Times that Saddam’s key weapons sites had been systematically “looted” — probably, Hitchens darkly intimates, by Saddam’s goons. The curious thing to note about these claims is that Hitchens has either lost the capacity for scepticism or just doesn’t care to apply it in this case. Saddam’s best weapons plants are supposed to have been raided and stripped in a systematic fashion, perhaps by his cronies, unchecked by US soldiers. If the US had thought its evidence on WMDs was up to anything, it would have guarded those plants just as zealously as it guarded the Ministry of Oil.57 These weapons were the primary justification for the war, and one would expect that the US military would be eager to ensure that whatever was there was recorded and displayed — if they really believed their intelligence to have been up to anything. Further, the story’s backbone is composed of claims made by Dr. Sami al-Araji, presently operating as a minister under the US occupation. Not only are the claims not remotely credible, they come from a source with an obvious and declared interest in the matter.
Aside from WMDs, Hitchens’ most cherished blind spot is that he cannot and will not stand for the notion that there is a resistance movement in Iraq which is domestic, grassroots, and increasingly popular among Iraqis. He would not be alone in this, since the very suggestion is generally obscured by moralizing cant. Of late, he tried saying, inter an awful lot of alia, that:
Where it is not augmented by depraved Bin Ladenist imports, the leadership and structure of the Iraqi “insurgency” is formed from the elements of an already fallen regime, extensively discredited and detested in its own country and universally condemned.58
This happens to be entirely and exclusively nonsensical. The Iraqi resistance is notable for many things, and one of them is that there is not a leadership or indeed much of a structure to speak of. Intelligence reports suggest a movement that is cellular, decentralized, and disarticulated.59 Moreover, it is composed not of Ba’athists and Zarqawi loyalists, who are “lesser elements,” but rather of “newly radicalized Sunni Iraqis, nationalists offended by the occupying force, and others disenchanted by the economic turmoil and destruction caused by the fighting.” For this and other reasons, the notion of a movement directed from above by an axis of Bin Ladenists and Ba’athists simply isn’t persuasive.60
Nor is it true to say, as Hitchens does, that the resistance is primarily composed of “gangsters” who “pump out toxic anti-Semitism, slaughter Nepalese and other Asian guest-workers on video and gloat over the death of Hindus, burn out and blow up the Iraqi Christian minority, kidnap any Westerner who catches their eye, and regularly inflict massacres and bombings on Shiite mosques, funerals, and assemblies.”61 Statistics from the most reputable sources suggest that, although there is certainly an element that behaves in an abominable fashion, the bulk of resistance attacks are overwhelmingly directed against US troops, not civilians.62 According to figures from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent Washington think-tank, attacks on US military forces account for 75% of attacks, while civilian targets comprise a mere 4.1% of attacks. The Department of Defense figures show a consistently similar trend. A lot of the demonization of the resistance is also related to unconscious fantasy life, with Iraq perhaps reduced in many minds to an imaginary menagerie, a hothouse full of savage, exotic animals leaking blood indiscriminately. If the resistance are like that, of course, so much the easier to enjoy a joke about mass murder, so much the easier to dream of their erasure from the face of the earth. But Iraqis, who have to live with the occupation, have a more positive attitude toward the resistance than they do toward the interlopers who have so far imprisoned, killed, tortured, beaten, and raped them, generally appropriating every vile method of Ba’athist dictatorship and making it their own. How many Iraqis support resistance attacks? According to a secret Ministry of Defence poll, 45% of them — that includes Kurds. How many Iraqis support the occupation? Close to zero, with 82% strongly opposed to it.63 How many Iraqis reported an improved opinion of Moqtada al-Sadr after he fought the Americans in Najaf? 81 per cent.64 What we have in Iraq, in other words, is a grassroots guerrilla movement, one which has arisen because of the brutality of the occupation, (rather than the other way round), and which is growing in number and support.
Yet if Hitchens cannot face easily accessible facts about the resistance to the occupation, he still insists on the stupid disavowal of what the occupation has done to Iraq. He advertises that he pays no attention to the casualty figures (is oblivious to the evidence in other words), yet becomes hysterical the second anyone mentions the Lancet report. When it was raised in New York, he described it as “polticized hack-work,” a “crazed fabrication,” whose conclusions had been “conclusively and absolutely shown to be false.”65 To justify this claim, he referred to a piece by Fred Kaplan, a notoriously ill-informed piece that rested on a ridiculous misunderstanding about confidence intervals.66 The least one can say is that the Lancet report is not hack work. It is an extensively peer-reviewed epidemiological study. Its method of cluster sampling and extrapolation have been used in other parts of the world, for instance in the Congo, and recently in Sudan.67 Those figures were lauded as “reliable estimates” — by Christopher Hitchens.58 It is obvious to me, as it should be to any passing insect, that this is as transparent an instance of self-deceit on Hitchens’ part as one is ever likely to encounter. He doesn’t care about the casualty numbers, but he would like you to understand that they aren’t so very high, and can’t be, and anyone who says otherwise is a fraud.
In Place of a Conclusion. . . .
Norman Finkelstein was probably guilty of understatement when he wrote that Hitchens, while redoubtable as a left-wing polemicist, only invited doubt as a right-wing one. It’s worth quoting some of what Finkelstein wrote:
To prove that, after supporting dictatorial regimes in the Middle East for 70 years, the U.S. has abruptly reversed itself and now wants to bring democracy there, he cites “conversations I have had on this subject in Washington.” To demonstrate the “glaringly apparent” fact that Saddam “infiltrated, or suborned, or both” the U.N. inspection teams in Iraq, he adduces the “incontrovertible case” of an inspector offered a bribe by an Iraqi official: “the man in question refused the money, but perhaps not everybody did.” . . .
Hitchens maintains that that “there is a close . . . fit between the democratically minded and the pro-American” in the Middle East — like “President for Life” Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan. . . ; that Washington finally grasped that “there were ‘root causes’ behind the murder-attacks” (emphasis in original) — but didn’t Hitchens ridicule any allusion to “root causes” as totalitarian apologetics?; that “racism” is “anti-American as nearly as possible by definition”; that “evil” can be defined as “the surplus value of the psychopath” — is there a Bartlett’s for worst quotations?; that the U.S.’s rejoining of U.N.E.S.C.O. during the Iraq debate proved its commitment to the U.N.; that “empirical proofs have been unearthed” showing that Iraq didn’t comply with U.N. resolutions to disarm; that since the U.N. solicits U.S. support for multilateral missions, it’s “idle chatter” to accuse the U.S. of acting unilaterally in Iraq; that the likely killing of innocent civilians in “hospitals, schools, mosques and private homes” shouldn’t deter the U.S. from attacking Iraq because it is proof of Saddam’s iniquity that he put civilians in harm’s way; that those questioning billions of dollars in postwar contracts going to Bush administration cronies must prefer them going to “some windmill-power concern run by Naomi Klein” — is this dry or desiccated wit?69
Hitchens expended a great deal of energy responding to that particular essay precisely because it was so cutting (and so thoroughly deserved). I cite these passages because in them Hitchens’ present absurdity is expertly encapsulated and because Hitchens, in his punch-drunk yet extensive reply, could not dream up a word to say about them.70
Yet it is not just that Hitchens has slyly detached himself from those aspects of reality that he cannot bring himself to accept. It is not merely that he has moved so far to the right that he has internalized the virtues of aggressive American militarism and rapacious American capitalism. Or that he has become a calumniator, a ridiculous liar, and a back-stabber. It is not even the unpleasant confluence of the way in which his literary flair has declined in proportion to his political nous. On the strength of the evidence, his left-wing convictions weren’t all that invulnerable from the start, while he has never been terribly shy of supporting gunboat diplomacy. This is not a noble mind overthrown, although there may have been some kind of regime change post-9/11. What is most alarming is that Hitchens has a new audience: he purveys his deranged fantasies about killing more and more evil-doers for the mass ranks of Republican twenty-somethings. Malodorous macho assholes who nevertheless like to think that their myopic nationalism and sociopathy has something to do with liberation and freedom — or just, indeed, something. This is his audience today — a collection of barely post-pubescent neophytic imperialists, and bumpkin billionaires who read the Weekly Standard. The sort of degraded, hallucinatory nonsense that this poetaster of genocide exudes these days ought not to be exposed to daylight, never mind offered up as intellectual sustenance for a class of powerful men. Hitchens can’t change, of course, and he will just have to live with the thought of what a hideous figure he has become. Or, more probably, die with it, perhaps suffocating on the impacted faecal matter that is perpetually welling up inside him. Let’s just say that when that tumescent cadaver finally explodes, the left should be grateful to think of what new friends he will surprise.
1 News reports later announced that locals were in fact the core of the Fallujah insurgency: Associated Press, “Two Locals Were Core of Fallujah Insurgency” (24 November 2004). There is no clear evidence that Zarqawi was ever in Fallujah: BBC, “Inside Besieged Falluja” (18 October 2004). Major General Richard Natonski never expected Zarqawi to be there, as he explained: “We’re not after Zarqawi. We’re after insurgents in general” (Associated Press, “General Praises Assault’s Speed,” 14 November 2004)
4 Ann Scott Tyson, “Increased Security in Fallujah Slows Efforts to Rebuild,” Washington Post (19 April 2005).
5 Jim McDermott and Richard Rapport, “Investigate Alleged Violations of Law in Fallujah Attack” Seattle Post-Intelligencer (11 January 2005).
7 Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, “Fallujah Secure, But Not Yet Safe, Marine Commander Says,” American Forces Press Service (18 November 2004).
10 Mike Ludders, “Columnist Hitchens Lectures on Political Dissent” (about Hitchens’ speech at Kenyon College, Ohio, 15 November 2004), The Kenyon Collegian (18 November 2004).
12 Edward Herman, “Christopher Hitchens And The Uses Of Demagoguery,” ZNet (22 September 2002).
13 “An Interview with Christopher Hitchens (‘Moral and Political Collapse’ of the Left in the US),” WashingtonPrism.org (16 June 16 2005).
14 “I am one of those who believe, uncynically, that Osama bin Laden did us all a service (and holy war a great disservice) by his mad decision to assault the American homeland four years ago. Had he not made this world-historical mistake, we would have been able to add a Talibanized and nuclear-armed Pakistan to our list of the threats we failed to recognize in time” (Christopher Hitchens, “A War to Be Proud of,” Weekly Standard 10.47, 5-12 September 2005).
15 “The War on Terror: Is There an Alternative,” London Review of Books debate, Logan Hall, Institute of Education, London, 15 May 2002.
20 Labour Friends of Iraq, “Christopher Hitchens and Others Debate Iraq on Start the Week 30 May 2005″ (31 May 2005).
21 Christopher Hitchens, No One Left To Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family, Verso, 1999.
23 Christopher Hitchens, “Never Trust Imperialists: Especially When They Turn Pacifist).” Boston Review (December 1993/ January 1994).
25 Christopher Hitchens, “Bloody blundering: Clinton’s cluelessness is selling out Kosovo,” Salon (5 April 1999).
26 John Pilger, “What Really Happened at Rambouillet? And What Else Is Being Kept under Wraps by Our Selective Media” (31 May 1999). John Pilger was notoriously attacked by a Guardian journalist named Ian Black for saying that the Rambouillet text included the demand that Serbia a) become a free market economy and b) that the entire territory of the FRY become subject to Nato occupation (see Ian Black, “Bad News,” The Guardian, 19 May 1999). Pilger was correct.
32 It was so difficult to believe that this was an accurate quotation that I had to contact Hitchens himself and ask if it was correct. He confirmed that it was, which I then duly recorded: “Christopher Hitchens’ Bad Language,” Lenin’s Tomb (10 November 2005).
34 Diego Gambetta, ed, Making Sense of Suicide Missions, 2005; Jacqueline Rose, “Deadly Embrace,” London Review of Books 26.21 (4 November 2005); Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005.
37 Christopher Hitchens, “This Was Not Looting,” Slate (15 March 2005). This following claims in the New York Times that Saddam’s weapons plants were systematically looted: James Glanz and William J. Broad, “Looting at Weapons Plants Was Systematic, Iraqi Says” (13 March 2005).
39 Christopher Hitchens, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, Plume, 2003. Published as Regime Change in the UK.
41 Hitchens, 2003, op cit, pp. 60-2. Unfortunately: BBC, “Iraq War ‘Increased Terror Threat'” (2 February, 2004); Andrew Grice, “Iraq War Increased the Threat of Attacks, Says Major,” The Independent (26 July 2005); Bryan Bender, “Study Cites Seeds of Terror in Iraq,” Boston Globe (17 July 2005).
47 Debate at Baruch College, New York, hosted by Amy Goodman. 14 September 2005.
52 Don Van Natta, Jr., “Portrait of a Terror Suspect: Is He the Qaeda Link to Iraq?” International Herald Tribune (10 February 2003).
55 International Crisis Group, “Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse That Roared?” Middle East Briefing N°4 (7 February 2003). Indeed, much of the “evidence” linking Ansar al-Islam to Al Qaeda appears to come from PUK sources, or their prisoners: Catherine Taylor, “Taliban-style Group Grows in Iraq,” Christian Science Monitor (15 March 2002).
56 For more on the Al Qaeda-Zarqawi disputes, see Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, I. B. Tauris, 2004. For more on the Zarqawi myth, see Loretta Napoleoni, Insurgent Iraq: Al-Zarqawi and the New Generation, Seven Stories Press, 2005. Suffice to note that like every other bogey man of the US imperialist imaginary, Zarqawi is Hitler: “Rumsfeld: Zarqawi Like Hitler,” CBS (26 May 2005). This according to Donald Rumseld who, unlike Zarqawi, did meet Saddam and did exchange weapons of mass destruction in the process.
57 Charles Clover, “Confusion over Who Controls Iraq’s Oil Ministry,” Financial Times, 20 April 2003.
59 Walter Pincus, “CIA Studies Provide Glimpse of Insurgents in Iraq,” Washington Post (6 February 2005).
60 See Michael Schwartz’s excellent analysis here: “Schwartz on Why the Military Is Failing in Iraq,” TomDispatch (5 March 2005).
62 You can consult the graphics at <http://www.lefthook.org/Charts/CSIS.jpg> and <http://www.lefthook.org/Charts/NYTimes.jpg>. M Junaid Alam’s article on the figures is available here: “Does the Resistance Target Civilians? According to US Intel, Not Really,” LeftHook (16 April 2005).
63 Sean Rayment, “Secret MoD Poll: Iraqis Support Attacks on British Troops,” Telegraph (23 October 2005).
65 Debate at Baruch College.
66 The “dartboard”: Fred Kaplan, “100,000 Dead — or 8,000,” Slate (29 October 2004). The reply: “Reply from Author of Lancet Report,” Lenin’s Tomb (31 October 2004). Not only had Kaplan misunderstood confidence intervals (a poisson-curve distribution of values is not a dart-board) but he had failed to understand that there was information not contained in the confidence interval, vital information at that, which suggested that the median figure was conservative. Further, he relied upon some unusually high pre-war infant mortality figures to suggest that the report had underestimated these, thus providing an inaccurate figure for excess deaths: Jack Kelly, “Estimates of Deaths in First War Still in Dispute,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (16 February 2003). What is more, the UNDP Iraq Living Conditions Survey figures for pre-war infant mortality are much closer to those provided by the Lancet authors than those provided by Beth Daponte. That is not the only way in which the ILCS corroborates the Lancet report: “Bringing Out the Dead,” Lenin’s Tomb (27 September 2005).
67 E. Depoortere, F. Checchi, F. Broillet, S. Gerstl, A. Minetti, O. Gayraud, V. Briet, J. Pahl, I. Defourny, M. Tatay, and V. Brown, “Violence and Mortality in West Darfur, Sudan (2003-04): Epidemiological Evidence from Four Surveys,” The Lancet (1 October 2004).
70 Christopher Hitchens, “A Few Words of Fraternal Admonition to ‘Norm’ Finkelstein.”
Originally from Northern Ireland, Richard Seymour is a political activist who lives, works, studies, and writes in London. He maintains a weblog known as Lenin’s Tomb: <http://leninology.blogspot.com>.