Christopher Hitchens and the Iraq War ended on the same day, December 15, 2011—a historical coincidence that only he might have known what to do with. In the trajectory of his career as brilliant talker and polemicist, man of letters, self-dramatizing personality, and traveller to bad places, Iraq was the turning point. Until then, his work fit roughly within the conventions of the left. Given the deadliness of much left-wing writing in the age of Reagan, Hitchens achieved the rare feat of being dazzling while sticking fairly closely to political orthodoxy.
I read almost every one of his “Minority Report” columns in The Nation from the mid-eighties until he gave them up after the 9/11 attacks, because they were reliably less predictable and more exciting than anything else in the magazine. If, as Hitchens once said, hatred was what got him up in the morning, the first three decades of his career were motivated more than anything by a contempt for American foreign policy and the hypocrites and evil characters who carried it out. As late as 1998, Hitchens hated Bill Clinton much more than Osama bin Laden. When Clinton ordered Cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan after Al Qaeda bombed the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Hitchens wrote a series of columns dissecting the American retaliation: he concluded that Clinton had chosen to kill innocent people (primarily Sudanese) in order to distract attention from Monica Lewinsky. Wag the dog, not Islamofascism, was the cardinal sin, the scandal that got Hitchens to the keyboard.
By 2000, he had embraced Naderism, finding nothing significant to distinguish Bush from Gore, and explicitly refusing to accept the lesser evil. It’s a position from which much thunder can be visited upon the meek accommodations of ordinary political life, but it’s also a dead end of sorts.
Two years later, after 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban, with the U.S. just months from going to war with Iraq, I went down to Washington to interview Hitchens for a piece on liberal intellectuals and the coming war. I hadn’t known Hitchens until then, and what I remember from that long afternoon of drinking (now a cliché of Hitchens eulogies, and one that doesn’t make me smile, since it helped kill him) was the sense of a man who was girding for battle. Hitchens took me on a long excursion through his political life, an account of the Education of Christopher Hitchens, with key stops at the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, which had pitted everything he loved against everything he hated, and the first Gulf War in 1991, which he had opposed. He described driving through the refugee camps in Kurdistan at the end of that war, with peshmerga fighters who had a picture of George H.W. Bush taped to their windshield. The thought of America on the side of a liberation movement occurred to Hitchens then, for the first time. It didn’t change his position on the war, but it planted a seed.
His monologue continued up until 9/11 and the singular insight that the attacks had given him: the American revolution was “the last one standing” and beat pretty much any conceivable alternative in the oppressed corners of the world. He was saying that he had been wrong, something that Hitchens didn’t do often enough—wrong not about anything in particular (he defended every specific political choice he’d made), but about the core question of whether America was a force for good or evil in the world. From there, it was a fairly short and direct line to the late evening, a few years later, when I met Paul Wolfowitz at a party in Hitchens’s D.C. apartment.
Some of his critics on the left, the former devotees of “Minority Report,” accused Hitchens of currying favor with the powerful—specifically, with those in the Bush Administration who were leading the war effort. The idea was that Hitchens had sold out for the sake of celebrity and dinner invitations. I don’t buy it—in spite of his well-established attraction to fame and fortune. So why did he throw himself with complete zeal into the idea of the war, breaking with so many old comrades, often with relish?
One reason was his hatred of religion. September 11, 2001, put Hitchens in touch with the molten anti-clericalism that was one of his elemental passions. It burned so hot that he turned it without a second thought at a secular, totalitarian Iraqi dictator. 9/11 gave Hitchens a sense of purpose like nothing since that early intimation, the Rushdie fatwa. It propelled him straight through the last, most productive, most visible decade of his life.
The second reason is a little murkier. He was, by his own lights and that of his admirers, a thoroughgoing contrarian. (One of his lesser known books was called “Letters to a Young Contrarian.”) And nothing could be more contrarian, in the early years of the last decade, than for a hero of the left to embrace George W. Bush. It breathed new life into Hitchens, his persona, and his prose.
He and I argued a lot about the war. We had both supported it, but as Iraq disintegrated, my criticisms of the policy struck him as weak-kneed and opportunistic, an effort to curry favor with bien-pensant liberals. In turn, his brave talk of sticking by his “comrades” in Baghdad rang false to me. Who were they, after all? Exiled politicians whose sectarian agendas helped take Iraq into a terrible civil war. The only comrades worthy of the name that I knew were those who had risked their lives for the American effort—the Iraqis who were betrayed by Bush, and have been betrayed again by Obama.
Iraq led Hitchens to some of his worst indulgences—the propaganda trip to Iraq in Wolfowitz’s entourage, the pose of Byronic heroism. But perhaps the war and the enemies it made him helped give Hitchens the courage of his last years and months—the atheist in the foxhole. Hitchens was one of the very few people who could slash and burn you in print, then meet for drinks and talk in the true warmth of friendship, discussing a writer we both admired, garrulous to the very last. It was a sign of his essential decency that he didn’t make it personal.