wanker moment three: the killing fields

Christopher Hitchens had a good war. In the beginning, he imagined a beautiful war, and decided that it was identical to the war being machined into place by the oil oligarchs and Cold War relics of the Bush administration; then he supported his friends – and who had more friends than Hitchens? He was facebook before facebook – who fell into different categories: there were the Kurdish smugglers, the Iraqi financial frauds, the petro-criminals, the sneaks, the spies, and those promoting a National Front cleansing of Eurabia. And of course, the D.C. press corps, who, like the Arkansas rubes watching the Duke and Dauphin perform their version of Shakespeare, were bowled over by pisselegance proffered in a nurseryroom martinet voice. Then the war came, and it was good. The invasion was good. Then the war went slightly out of kilter. Then the fifth column at home raised traitorous questions. Then the clubman’s yelps he was reliably grinding out started getting boring, even when, like the ever heroic Orwell, he ventured into the very belly of the beast by visiting the mansions of a few Kurdish millionaires (friends!) and the green zone (where there were more friends!).Then, realizing that the thrill had gone in this war between “everything I love versus everything I hate” (Hitchens’ narcissistic cri de coeur summing up his impression of the attack on the World Trade Center), he turned to drumming up a war against Iran, supporting McCain mainly on the strength of McCain’s bomb bomb bomb Iran song. Finally, Hitchens passed away as the American troops were reluctantly marching out of Iraq, due to the failure of the American government to successful manage an invitation from the Iraq government to stay – and, incidentally, violate ten years of promises about the war.

Given this record, to find one shining moment of wankery is no mean task. The river is broad. There is, for instance, the column in Slate (where he did his best contrarian wanking) when he described, with a smartness of tone that would bring tears to Bungalow Bill, giving a talk at the Pentagon (on the invitation of friends!); there were the numerous moments when he dared the entire world to find any spots on Ahmed Chalabi (his friend!); there was the stern and stirring shot over the bow of anyone daring to question the relationship of Paul Wolfowitz (a friend!) and his mistress, Shaha Riza (a friend!) when Wolfowitz, made the president of World Bank, oversaw raises to Riza’s salary that hiked it up past the salary pulled down by the secretary of State; and there was, of course, the grave moral fault Hitchens saw in those who complained that the hawks on the war seemed chicken about fighting it themselves, or having their children fight it – which of course was an attack on the entire civilian command structure over the Pentagon.

Out of this unceasing stream of buncombe, I should pause especially for Hitchens’ defense of Chalabi, which is a formula for his journalistic m.o.

"Yet every journalist feels compelled to state, as a matter of record, that Ahmad Chalabi was once convicted (by a very bizarre special court in the kingdom of Jordan) of embezzling money from a bank that was partly controlled by Iraq. I am not an accountant, and I admit that I don't know what happened at the Bank of Petra in 1972. I am not sure, after exhaustive inquiries, that I know anybody who really does know. But I do know what happened at the Iraqi Central Bank a few weeks ago, and I don't have to be an accountant or auditor to understand it.”

Exhaustive inquiries here means – asking friends! And lo, behold his instant understanding of what happened at the Iraqi Central Bank! This, of course, relies on second hand intuition, which was pretty much the way Hitchens did everything in the double Os – running on gas fumes.  In fact, three days before  Hitchens wrote these sentences (on May 14,2003), an L.A. Times story laid out the details of the Petra Bank gig as clearly as, well, anything that transpired at the Iraqi Central Bank.

However, my own intuition is that none of these bloodthirsty rants quite equals the killing fields moment.

Maestro, a little music, please: back in the middle of the Iraq’s glorious liberation, the Lancet published an article that presented the results of a survey attempting to measure, in lives lost, the cost of it – to the happy Iraqis. The team making the survey was not employing any very novel technique. Rather, it was close to the techniques that had been used to measure the cost in human lives of the civil war in the Sudan and the Congo. It included not only battlefield casualties, but casualties due to lack of food, warmth, shelter, medical care – that is, the burden of violence on non-combatants as well as combatants. 

The report calculated that by 2006, there were "654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war.” This worried the American media. They had a nice correct ratio in their heads of virtuous war-to-deaths, which was more like 40 thousand Iraqis killed (and all of them no doubt deserving it!). Thus, the media gave a lot of space to conservatives and warhawks who shot spitballs at the report (which allowed the media to split the difference, in the preferred He said she said manner – NYT decorum calls for trotting out “from 100,000 to 150,000 victims” at the moment). It will astonish all and sundry that the American media does not give a lot of space to, say, the Sudanese government’s counterclaims on the number of the dead resulting from the attempt by Khartoum to crush the people of the South, but  can easily be accounted for by the ‘friends!” rule – the owners and editors of the papers don’t normally go to cocktail soirees where the leaders of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation are hanging around the wine bar. Also, see under Power, Establishment use of; Fourth Estate,corruption of; and various other like entries in the Encyclopedia of the double ohs.

Hitchens came to the plate at this grave moment and wrote an immortal column about the statistics of it all. As Hitchens himself, back in the nineties, relied beaucoup on stats to prove that Clinton was committing an enormous crime by starving the Iraqis through sanctions, he had a sticky wicket to navigate. And so he pulls here, and he pulls there. He notes: “And it's been noticed that Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of the magazine, is a full-throated speaker at rallies of the Islamist-Leftist alliance that makes up the British Stop the War Coalition.” He stops short of accusing Horton of making his wife wear a burqua, but this is because Hitchens has a humane side. Of course, Hitchens does not mention that the war he is fullthroatedly supporting had reached a stage in which our liberated Iraqis were being led by the Islamic Da’wa party – this would discouragingly muddy the invective, as of course that would make him a supporter of the Islamicist-Rightist alliance. In the dream war that Hitchens was fighting, that was unacceptable. 

Then Hitchens, in a moment of inspiration, realizes that starting a war means that people on the other side kill people on your side, so that you have to really count the people you save by killing the people on the other side. It is a moment of Alice in Wonderland brightness:

“Make the assumption that some percentage of those killed by the coalition are the sort of people who have been blowing up mosques, beheading captives on video, detonating rush-hour car bombs, destroying pipelines, murdering aid workers, bombing the headquarters of the United Nations, and inciting ethnic and sectarian warfare. Make the allowance for the number of bystanders and innocents who lost their lives in the combat against these fanatics (one or two, alas, in the single case of the precision bombing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, just to take one instance). But who is to say how many people were saved from being murdered by the fact that the murderers were killed first?”
This is painful. At about the same time Hitchens was spilling these words onto some screen, he pulled himself together for an interview with Reason Magazine concerning the war, and there he regained his valor:

“Did you support the invasion of Iraq?
Yes: I was an advocate before the fact, not a supporter.
2. Have you changed your position?
Not in the least: I wish only that Saddam had not been able to rely upon Russian and French protection and the influence of oil-for-food racketeers and other political scum.
3. What should the U.S. do in Iraq now?
The United States and its allies should continue to stand for federal democracy, while making Iraq a killing-field for jihadists and fascists and a training ground for an army that will need to intervene again in other failed state/rogue state contexts.”

Who knew that the U.S. was standing heart and soul, chickenhawk and hero, for federal democracy in Iraq? But such are the wonders of liberation, I suppose, that the casus belli changes as fast as the top ten hits on Melody Maker. However, "the killing ground" phrase is truly immortal. It is the martinet mind finally freed from all scruples, and taking wing. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Hitchens, in the 00s, was also reveling in one of the laws of heredity he had forgotten: because his father was an navy man, which made Hitchens almost into a veteran. 

I confess that I rather lost sight of Hitchens after 2006. The bubble of cretinism was bursting around the globe, and Hitchens brand of it seemed as outmoded and out of touch as the horrendous Fighting Words column, which Hitchens himself must have known was a mistake. Although perhaps the man whose increasingly leaden touch for language made him ever more popular in D.C. (where all were friends, and friends, and friends) could not understand the death of his talent underneath the avalanche of his verbiage.   

For those who want to make the tour of the mock killing fields, here are some references:

Hitchens on Chalabi. John Dizard in Salon on Chalabi’s thievery