Christopher Hitchens recoils, in Hitch-22, at the thought that his journalism before September 11 "had contributed to this mood of cynicism and defeatism, not to mention moral imbecility, on the left" that he discerned in the aftermath of the attacks. I meant to explore that subject with him in a phone interview last week. The interview didn't go well, however. Confusion over the scheduling led to an unexpected call from an apparently tired author.
Ask an easy question first, is the usual approach. I asked him what he thought of Obama so far. "I don't think about him all that much," he said. His book, a memoir, stops prior to Obama's rise, he added.
O-o-o K, let's get right to it, then: In the book, he tells how he came to support the invasion of Iraq, a case I'd summarized as "Saddam was murderous, crazy and capable of anything, including doing business with al-Qaida and the rest of the lunatic Islamic fundamentalists who are America's sworn enemies."
What's not in the book is serious consideration of the case against invading Iraq, including the likely displacement of Saddam by a Shia-led dictatorship aligned with the fundamentalists already running Iran, i.e., America's sworn enemies.
I asked why not, and we went around about it, with Hitchens insisting that the U.S. is not militaristic, not overextended around the world, and in fact, "We hugely underestimate the threat" that al-Qaida and the fundamentalists pose at home and around the world.
"If it had been up to the anti-war left movement—face this—Milosevic would still be in power in Belgrade, Bosnia would be part of Greater Serbia, Kosovo would've been ethnically cleansed and Iraq would still be privately owned by the Saddam Hussein family (and) Afghanistan would be run by the Taliban," Hitchens said.
"The anti-war people should be self-critical," he added, "instead of asking me if I should owe the explanation."
This struck me, as did his book, as a cartoon of the opposition to invading Iraq, which was broad enough to include many who supported the American involvements in the Balkans and, for that matter, the first Gulf War with Iraq. Hitchens rightly argued that Saddam's dictatorship was on the verge of collapse before the 2003 invasion; "a ruined, a traumatized, a maimed Iraq" was inevitable. "It's a pity it was allowed to limp and drag on (after the '91 war)," he said.
Why, then, was it necessary for the U.S. to destroy much of the country and kill countless Iraqis to save them?
Hitch-22 is the story of a man passionate about literature, self-expression and the place of reason alongside, and separated from, religious belief (he is, of course, famously unbelieving) in Western culture. He sees the West in a perpetual war to defend these values against religious fundamentalists. He sees Europe in retreat and the U.S.—his adopted country—as not merely the tip of the spear but the last line of defense.
But at what price to those same values?
Early in the book, Hitchens underlines the importance of the movement for a better world. "For me, this 'movement' is everything. It contains within itself the germinal hope of a better future where a thinking working class can acquire the faculties of a serious party of government, and can extend these small, early reformist gains into something more comprehensive—all the while uniting with similar movements in other countries to repudiate the narrow nationalisms and chauvinisms that lead to wars and partitions."
In his conclusion, though, Hitchens pronounces the movement dead. "What was I to say when [students] asked my advice about 'commitment'? They all wanted to do something to better the human condition. Well, was there an authentic socialist movement to join, as I would once have said there was? Not really, or not anymore," he writes. "Could a real internationalist 'Left' be expected to revive? It didn't seem probable."
Is there no hope?, I asked him. I don't have any such hope of a rebirth of the movement, he replied. So what's the answer? After a pause, Hitchens said, I don't know, that's why the book is called Hitch-22.
What next? "The first thing is to get rid of any illusions you may have at the moment," he said, "then see what you have left."
Correction (Wednesday, June 16, 2010): The final two paragraphs here are mostly paraphrases and should not have been in quotations in print. This version is correct.