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Exactly What Christopher Hitchens Means to Say

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Message Wes Walls
What courageous humility is exemplified by Christopher Hitchens, who ... strike that, reverse it, I misread his recent article in Slate.

To revive a different motif: what a sack of shit is Hitchens, who now trots out his anemic debate team arguments for a last stand. The bad boy of letters must not admit defeat!

We get legalistic arguments about UN resolutions, as if we didn't know those resolutions are based on U.S. arm-twisting and bribery and can be always be had for the right price. We get lines like the following:

The Bush administration never claimed that Iraq had any hand in the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But it did point out, at different times, that Saddam had acted as a host and patron to every other terrorist gang in the region.

Here's what Cheney said in 2003: "We learn more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the '90s that it involved training, for example, on [biological and chemical weapons], that Al Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems." Whether Cheney avoided the technical error of saying "Hussein helped Al Qaeda accomplish 9/11," that's what these statements meant to most Americans; and that's what most Americans believe. I'm sure we could find and celebrate the technical nuances of many other examples of successful propaganda -- that is, after all, what makes them successful.

Of course, strained legal technicalities are of particular interest to Hitchens -- this is after all his self-defense. His article ends with sophistry that can be paraphrased thus: "I admit that civil war was predictable, but that's because the roots of this civil war lie in Saddam's exploitation of sectarian differences, which means there already was an "unease" that certainly would have led to civil war anyway if ... (someone invaded?).

But the icing:

So, you seriously mean to say that we would not be living in a better or safer world if the coalition forces had turned around and sailed or flown home in the spring of 2003?

That's exactly what I mean to say.

I suppose we are not to ask Iraqis this question, because manifestly they do not live in a "better or safer world". And we know historically that Saddam was a threat only to a) his own people and (when armed and encouraged, intentionally in the case of Iran and unintentionally in the case of Kuwait, by the United States and Europe) b) his neighbors, to whom he is no longer a threat; hence the primary task of the war was to improve the quality of Iraqi lives. It was not: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions, and the devastation of their infrastructure, economy, and way of life. Life was bad under Hussein; it is much worse under coalition forces.

For men like Hitchens, these concerns are just rank consequentialism: there are ideals to uphold -- what are human lives next to these grand ideals? Under this view, when countries go to war, the send only their blue-blooded patriots, and upright pure defenders of freedom; all the compassionate carriers of machine guns who would never hurt a fly if the good of their invadees were not at stake.

In fact: when countries go to war, they send a motley crew of good and bad men: they send men with fine and heroic sensibilities, and they send sadists and criminals. They send the men who are saints, and they send men who, for instance, will rape a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and set her on fire and kill her entire family. And then of course they send average men; they pour their entire, mixed bag of these men into another society -- and with them, their courage and nobility; but also, their problems, their frailties, and their crimes. And then this entire spectrum is subjected to tremendous stress and impersonal, bureaucratic militarism: so that, for instance, when they ordered to massacre Iraqi soldiers running for their lives, they will do it, as they did on the "Highway of Death" in the first Gulf War; and when they are told that rules of engagement allow blindly "clearing" houses anywhere near areas where they have encountered fire -- i.e., killing every Iraqi man, woman, and child, as in Haditha, they may well take the opportunity to do it and defend their actions afterwards; or if a car pulls up to quickly on their skittish and impromptu checkpoint, they are more likely than not to turn its occupants into dead meat. Some soldiers will enjoy these atrocities, some will be haunted by them, some destroyed: but the point is that war is so catastrophic, so spiritually and physically catastrophic for both sides, that it ought not to be entertained as Hitchens entertains his scotch or his next glib bit of copy. We ought to take seriously the tragedy of war, and its consequences; because its execution transcends and destroys the values for which it is supposedly a means, and the only value that may survive it and justify it is brute survival. The words and the grand ideals of writers and neocons are not the actuality of war; war is not the smart bombs and good guys and bad guys; the actuality is a devastating moral perversion that no amount pickled sentimentality or troop-supporting will reverse.

But beyond this: if we do believe there are ideals which justify the mass-murder of innocents as well as those unfortunate wearers-of-uniforms, we ought to ask whether we want to be the executioners, and whether our government has the kind of record of moral purity and competence that might encourage us to believe that war will in fact improve our lives and ultimately the lives of those we vanquish. As Andrew Sullivan puts it:

The real question is: if we knew then what we know now about the caliber, ethics, competence and integrity of the president and his aides, would we have entrusted them to wage this war?

But then what administration would we trust, in a country whose recent history includes killing millions of Vietnamese? In a country that has supported death squads in South America, and armed and encouraged both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, which killed more than a million people? In a country that went out of its way to defend Hussein while he was gassing his own people, right up to the eve of the first Gulf War, for the principal reason that he was needed to satisfy the war profiteers and economic interests that so strongly influence its government? You don't have to be a liberal or an America-hater to believe these things; you merely have to read history and love your country enough to be upset by it. War profiteering and corruption and atrocities and mismanagement and bungled occupations are not novel apparitions, suddenly coming on the scene to confound the theorists of the good, the true, the right-pure war. And we ought not to be confused on these points by the fact that Bush has added more brazen forms of criminality and acts that really threaten to destroy the United States by dissolving the institutions that comprise it -- torture and indefinite detention and suspension of habeas corpus, for instance.

So while we worry about the destruction our country via its values and institutions (and the traditions we thought until recently that conservatives cherished), let Hitchens tell Iraqis that the destruction of theirs was worth it because of our abstract sense of safety and their abstract sense of liberation from a bad, bad man. Let him tell them how, consequences be damned, he was right, because by his math a world minus a bad man is a better world, notwithstanding the subtraction of a few hundred thousand lives. Let him tell them that this is exactly what he means, as if one writer sticking to his imaginary guns were itself such an act of fortitude that it redeems any amount of actual destruction.
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Wes Walls is a communications consultant living in Washington, D.C.
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