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A horror of facing March 22, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Decent Left, Iraq.
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Hitchens_Shower

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?  – J.M. Keynes

There are times when brute stubbornness, an unwillingness to concede defeat and to plough on regardless, can be a virtue: attempting to give up smoking, completing a particularly interminable Resident Evil game or arguing with racists over on politics.ie.  On most occasions, though, it’s a character flaw, demonstrating a lack of self-confidence and an inability to look at oneself critically.  We see this ably demonstrated in Christopher Hitchens’ piece in today’s Irish Times entitled ‘Invading Iraq was a just cause, and much good has come of it’.  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

The article is a reprint of Hitchens’ contribution to the ongoing series in Slate various pro-invasion writers reflect on the Iraq war five years on entitled ‘How did I get Iraq wrong’ (Hitchens’ response is the wonderfully blunt ‘I didn’t’).  It’s, in many ways, a rehash of many of the arguments he made in the run-up to the invasion and in the early stages of the occupation that can be found in his (in retrospect, rather unfortunately named) collection A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq.

While he goes some way to acknowledging the already well-documented incompetence, arrogance and short-sightedness that typified the occupation, he still makes the case that, on balance, the decision to invade was the correct one.  He writes:

 A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society.

Some of these are obviously true, others are far more arguable.  More complicated though is the question he poses in asking “What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?”, a question well worth the asking.  Where his argument is most seriously flawed is in his failure to seriously address it, or to look in any detail at the negative consequences of the occupation, other than to say:

None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don’t know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam’s immense network of mass graves.

One could be generous and assume that Hitchens is using the Abu Ghraib abuses as a metaphor for the wider failure of the occupation forces rather than just the scandal itself.  Even then, however, there’s no acknowledgement of the full scale of the disaster that has befallen the Iraqi people, no indication that Hitchens fully appreciates the full extent of the tragedy.  Perhaps most damningly, there’s not a single direct reference to the Iraqis who have been killed since the invasion, even leaving aside the question of whether the invasion caused those deaths.  Instead, reference is made to a more vague “chaos, misery and fragmentation”.

Fragmentation is a term that might well be used to describe the current state of the so-called ‘Cruise Missile Left’.  The pre-invasion consensus in support of the war has been shattered.  Some, like Nick Cohen and (as splintered aptly calls him) Oliver Kampf are at one with Hitchens in sticking to their guns.  Others, like Norman Geras or the Traitor Hari have, to greater or lesser extents, repudiated their previous positions.  Even those who now view their initial support for the war as misguided tend to remain convinced that their moral judgement was correct, and that their primary mistake was in misreading how badly the coalition forces would handle the occupation (a judgement which, by its very nature, can ony rendered in hindsight).  None, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seriously tackled the question of whether a pro-invasion position was the correct moral one at the time.  Certainly no one has addressed this point as Andrew Sullivan (not even a leftist) in his own piece of self-criticism from the same ‘How did I get Iraq wrong?’ Slate series.  Sullivan writes:

I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides (the one point in favor I did not put a question mark over was the existence of stockpiles of WMD!), the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and the righteousness of this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn’t really engaged in a truly serious moral argument. I saw war’s unknowable consequences far too glibly.

This is the kind of clear-thinking and honest assessment that one would like to be able to associate with Hitchens, who remains a far better writer than any of the others listed above.  Unfortunately, Hitchens doesn’t appear to be able – or, more likely, willing – to honestly ask himself the same kinds of questions.  It may well be that he’s just too arrogant and egotistical to do so, and refuses to admit where he’s wrong.  It’s also possible – on a more generous reading – that he feels that it’s precisely because of the disastrousness of consequences of the invasion that he feels the need to continue to justify his original position.  If Hitchens was wrong in the first place, then all the lives lost since 2003 have been completely wasted.  If, however, overthrowing Saddam remains the right thing to have done, then they can be seen to have been sacrificed in the name of a higher good.

One event, in particular, may be key to this.  The most affecting thing Hitchens’ has written on the invasion is this piece in Vanity Fair, where he describes his discovery that a young U.S. soldier killed in Iraq was heavily influenced by Hitchens’ writing to enlist and serve.  It’s the only piece by Hitchens on this subject that I’m aware of that shows a genuine humanity and something approaching an emotional honesty (although one notes, of course, that again there’s no acknowledgement of the suffering of Iraqis – the only victims of the war in this are American).  Just as Gore Vidal has stated that, in his view, the Second World War wasn’t worth the life of Jimmie Trimble, his boyhood love, could it be that Hitchens somehow has to believe that the Iraq War must be worth the life of Mark Daily?

In the introduction to his short book on George Orwell, Hitchens writes:

‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’  Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’.  It’s oddly well put.  A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact.  So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’.  The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’.  Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoublying of efforts to overcome the obvious.  The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.

If this is the test of the great writer, it’s one that Hitchens in this case unfortunately fails.  While he undoubtedly retains his facility with words, it’s his horror of facing the unpleasant facts about his support for the invasion which continues to undermine his credibility.  One can only hope that this is something he might overcome as he completes the memoirs he is apparently working on at present.

Comments»

1. Starkadder - March 22, 2008

Where did you get that image of Hitch in shower?
Is it Photoshopped or real?

I think Hitchens’ decline began around the time
he went after Sidney Blumenthal-he became increasing
comfortable hanging around the Right after that event,
and his “Nation” columns became less critical
of the Republicans.

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2. smiffy - March 23, 2008

It’s from my private collection; a very special weekend we spent together.

Actually, I think it’s from a Vanity Fair fluff piece where Hitchens goes to some kind of health spa. It’s also one of the first pictures you get when you Google him.

On the Blumenthal thing, I think that was one of his better moments. Assuming he’s telling the truth, rather than Blumenthal (and having read Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars, I find Hitchens more credible), it’s an example of someone taking a principled stand despite the personal consequences. That said, I do think his obsession with the Clintons led to a lack of concentration on the Republicans, as well as aligning him with some profoundly unpleasant individuals (a little bit like the Iraq invasion, when you come to think of it).

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3. Starkadder - March 23, 2008

He’s pushing sixty and still thinks smoking looks
“cool”. How pathetic. He looks like a cross between
Joe Strummer and an uncooked chicken.

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4. Mbari - March 23, 2008

Actually, the word on the Decent street — blogspot, I guess– is that the Hitch has quit smoking. Good point about Strummer and the uncooked chicken though.

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5. Hitch's Bitch - March 23, 2008

“Gore Vidal has stated that, in his view, the Second World War wasn’t worth the life of Jimmie Trimble, his boyhood love”: Has he? If he has, does that make him morally superior to Hitchens, or is it evidence that, unlike Hitchens, Vidal – and all too many others – cannot distinguish between moral judgements and mere personal preferences? Think about it: one person is worth more than all those who would have suffered if Nazism, Fascism and Japanese imperialism had *not* been defeated? I prefer Hitchens’s approach, whatever his shortcomings, to that kind of monstrous solipsism.

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6. WorldbyStorm - March 23, 2008

As someone who broadly supported the overthrow of Saddam I have taken in the last number of years throwing objects at the television when the true horror of the war and aftermath have become evident. I felt this particularly on Friday night watching a debate from Jordan hosted by C4 News where the overwhelming sentiment was one of anger at the US for acting as catalyst (or more than catalyst) to a civil war.

The problem Hitch’s Bitch, and like smiffy, I have considerable time for Hitchens even today – he’s a perceptive and thoughtful writer, is that he appears to need to be right and consequently the war has to be right, rather than an objective viewpoint which would argue that on many different grounds the war was not merely a wrong way to deal with the fairly minor threat from Saddam and the state he ran, and the terrors he imposed on his own people, but an actively malign way. It’s worse than that because the manner of the interventions in Iraq have now delegitimised action by the international community in ‘sovereign’ states due to public sentiment, etc, etc. So we arrive at a point where it is now almost infinitely more difficult to achieve aims – humanitarian and so forth – due to the stupidity of the US/UK actions. Look how reluctant people are to accord the UN increased powers in this area. Look how reluctant states are to underwrite peacekeeping missions. Look at how Afghanistan is slowly moving back to the status quo ante as political and public support withers.

Quite apart from the appalling waste of life (a monstrous crime in itself) it is this continuing fallout from the War that most sickens me. I was watching TV the other night and for the first time I actually began to have some sympathy with the idea that what has happened fell under the category of war crimes. I can’t imagine how any serious analysis wouldn’t conclude that not merely was the War wrong, but that its impact on all future interventions has been abysmal.

And part of that has to be ascribed to the idea that in some sense Iraq was close to Nazi Germany on a spectrum, when clearly by 1993, let alone 2003, it wasn’t.

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7. Starkadder - March 23, 2008

Hitchens was quite critical of people like Richard Perle
in his 80s collection, “Prepared for the Worst”-he knew
these people were behind the Reagan Administration’s
dirty tricks in Latin America, and he should have known they
were not after Saddam out of the goodness of their hearts.

Anyone ever see that “New Statesman” article from the
mid-70s where he praises Saddam?

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8. WorldbyStorm - March 23, 2008

No, do you have a link?

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9. smiffy - March 23, 2008
10. Starkadder - March 23, 2008

Thanks for the link.
Odd to think Saddam was once allied with Iran..

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11. CL - March 23, 2008

HItchens’ trajectory has a rough parallel with that of one of his major influences, Conor C. O’Brien.
Hitchens definitely wants to be right, or perhaps more accurately, he wants to be on the winning side. When the socialist project appeared to him to be doomed he switched his allegiance to the ‘only alternative’-capitalism.
But he has impaled himself by his support for the neo-con debacle in Iraq: he has supported a doomed enterprise and he has blood on his hands.

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12. JG - March 23, 2008

It may well be that he’s just too arrogant and egotistical to do so, and refuses to admit where he’s wrong

No doubt about it. The man is arrogance incarnate, and undoubtedly more uncooked chicken than Joe Strummer. Although I think to say he has blood on his hands may be going a little too far.

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13. chekov - March 23, 2008

on many different grounds the war was not merely a wrong way to deal with the fairly minor threat from Saddam and the state he ran, and the terrors he imposed on his own people, but an actively malign way. It’s worse than that because the manner of the interventions in Iraq have now delegitimised action by the international community in ’sovereign’ states”
It really amazes me that intelligent people can take this sort of stuff seriously. States intervening in other countries for humanitarian reasons? The Iraq war being motivated by the threat of Saddam – pure fantasy that doesn’t stand up to a minute’s scrutiny. That’s why all such arguments assume the above rather than arguing for it – if you try to prove rather than assume the point, you fail in spectacular fashion.

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14. Conor McCabe - March 24, 2008

“Even those who now view their initial support for the war as misguided tend to remain convinced that their moral judgment was correct, and that their primary mistake was in misreading how badly the coalition forces would handle the occupation (a judgment which, by its very nature, can only rendered in hindsight).”

The problem with the argument that the moralists make is that War is not a moral act. Never has, never will be. The decision to go to war is a tactical one. It has nothing to do with morality.

Even taken at the most naive face value – that the war was fought to remove the threat of WMDs – it was a complete failure, as there were no WMDs. The tactic of going to war to combat a phantom is so mind-numbingly crazy that its ridiculousness is surpassed only by those who believe that the morality of the cause of war gives them some kind of lifeboat to sail away on.

There are more than a few great scenes in Apocalypse Now, but the one which sums up the moralists and the Iraq War is the scene where the river patrol boat comes across a Vietnamese boat. They get suspicious, thinking that it may be a supply boat for the Viet Con and they go to search it. Kilgore tells them not to stop the boat, but they ignore him. While they are searching the woman on the boat goes for something and the soldiers start firing, thinking that she is going for a weapon, killing everyone on board except the woman, who is seriously wounded. Once the shooting stops, the soldiers realize their mistake, that there were no weapons on the boat, and that the woman was instead going for a puppy. They try to save her life, and decide to turn the patrol boat around and get her to a medic. Kilgore stands up and shoots the woman through the heart, telling the rest of them that they never should have stopped the boat. They leave the boat, but take the puppy.

For me, that’s the moralists of the Iraq war. Searching for a puppy in the ruins of Baghdad, when they never should have stopped the boat.

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15. WorldbyStorm - March 24, 2008

Chekov, why is it impossible to believe that in some instances states intervene for a multitude of reasons, some good, many bad. And beyond that the UN as an expression of the will of many states acts in a collective fashion which combines self-interest but other reasons. To argue that actions are purely cynical or self-interested may well be comforting but it doesn’t entirely explain what is going on. For example take Serbian interventions in Bosnia etc, sure, much of that was self-interested on the part of Milosovic, but those behind him weren’t. Some were Yugoslav idealists, others Serbian nationalists…etc, etc. To be honest I find the entirely cynical approach also fails for much the same reasons as you articulate, simply because it’s so simplistic.

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16. chekov - March 24, 2008

“Chekov, why is it impossible to believe that in some instances states intervene for a multitude of reasons, some good, many bad.”

It’s not impossible to believe it, but in general it requires one to ignore all the evidence. In particular, global superpowers that are capable of actively shaping global geo-politics intervene in order to shape global geo-politics for their strategic interests. Any examination of history or contemporary reality shows this to be glaringly obvious. Discussing the Iraq war as being motivated by anything other than an attempt to exercise tighter control over the world’s energy supplies is simply not dealing with the world as it is. Starting from an assumption that Saddam was seen as a threat to the US is to assume something that is completely absurd on closer examination – just as bad as the WMD.

“And beyond that the UN as an expression of the will of many states acts in a collective fashion which combines self-interest but other reasons. “

When it comes to matters of secutiry, the UN is pretty much purely an expression of the strategic interests of the major military powers, aka the permanent members of the security council. Probably the best example to demonstrate this truth is their debate over the use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe the situation in Rwanda. However, there are countless such examples which fatally undermine the naive idea that altruism comes into their considerations in any way.

“To argue that actions are purely cynical or self-interested may well be comforting but it doesn’t entirely explain what is going on. For example take Serbian interventions in Bosnia etc, sure, much of that was self-interested on the part of Milosovic, but those behind him weren’t. Some were Yugoslav idealists, others Serbian nationalists …etc, etc.”
You’re arguing that their self-interestedness came in a range of varieties, not that they were acting selflessly. But, in any case, I’m not arguing that all military action is purely motivated by strategic considerations, especially not when we’re dealing with civil wars. Nor am I arguing that the motivation of the participants is normally aligned to the interests of those directing the intervention (I don’t think it is).

But, I think that the following has been shown to be true throughout all recorded history:

* States and other centres of political power partake in foreign interventions purely for strategic reasons (which basically boil down to increasing the power and wealth of their ruling class).

* They use a variety of ways to motivate their citizens to support their wars, humanitarianism and nationalism being the two most important.

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17. WorldbyStorm - March 24, 2008

I don’t have a problem with your points in the abstract. Indeed I’m certain that they’re often true. it’s just when we map them to the actual I think there are problems.

I’m not disagreeing that Iraq prima facie was a case where ‘humanitarian’ interventions were the mask on something entirely different. But that doesn’t explain all other interventions particularly in the contemporary era. I completely agree that even the UN interventionism often masked a wish for stability. Having said that, that’s not the most ignoble aim, I’m fairly certain that many in Iraq would be quite happy to exchange the current situation for even Saddam led stability – or another better way of removing him without all else that happened. As ever interventions are a mixture of opportunism, idealism, militarism or whatever in varying quantities. I also think that the nature of interventions is so wide a spectrum, with for example Irish interventions as part of peace-keeping missions (which are interventions one way or another) as to render the argument moot. Are we to say that because states intervene that per se invalidates all shifts across national borders be they say something like the Cuban interventions in Angola (which I supported and still do), Vietnam in Cambodia (likewise), Irish peace keeping and monitoring in Lebanon and Cyprus (again likewise). I simply don’t agree and in a context where states are the prime mover in our larger social constructs while it is entirely reasonable to critique them as you do, I think it’s pointless to assume they won’t be in the main the driver of these events. As for humanitarianism, I tend to think that’s a much much more recent development than nationalism (while being aware of the poor little Belgium discourse from the past), and doesn’t simply because some states have used it as a motivation invalidate the fact that in many instances there are good reasons to intervene for precisely that reason along again along a spectrum of intervention from soft (peacekeeping) to hard…

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18. Brian - March 25, 2008

“HItchens’ trajectory has a rough parallel with that of one of his major influences, Conor C. O’Brien.”

As I remember Hitchens used to admire CC, but later savaged
him over his book “On the Eve of the Millennium”.

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19. John - March 26, 2008

“States and other centres of political power partake in foreign interventions purely for strategic reasons (which basically boil down to increasing the power and wealth of their ruling class).”

That’s a surprisingly Marxist view for an anarchist, Chekov!

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