Review of Christopher Hitchens’ “Hitch 22”

[Sensitivity alert:  the “c” word and the “f” word are used in this post.]

The title of Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch 22 is based on the brilliantly acerbic WWII satire by Joseph Heller Catch-22, the title of which has entered the lexicon and describes a no-win situation, a “catch” that is frustrating, and in the case of Heller’s novel, absurdly hilarious. At least from the outside looking in.

To the reader, Hitchens’ memoir is only obliquely funny. It is wry, raw and searching and, as might be expected by the atheist author of God is not Great:  How Religion Poisons Everything, stinging in its condemnation of many, many things–from English literary luminaries like his best friend’s father Kingsley Amis, to the excesses of the political left; from the lunacy of organized religion to the hypocrisies of the English boarding school system.

The book is also a breathless romp through literary and political history of the formative English/American decades of the 60s and beyond.  But what makes its 424 pages worth reading is Hitchens’ transformation from a doctrinaire Anglo-socialist carousing the streets of Cuba looking for the “authentic Left” (p. 122) to a pro-war advocate of the American/British invasion of Iraq in 2003.

I first learned of what seemed like a classic flip-flop in Hitchens–from liberal firebrand to advocate of preemptive war–at the BookExpo in New York City in May 2010. Having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer (virtually a death sentence), Hitchens was there promoting this book, and–even though I had some serious problems with his anti-God/anti-religion screed-posing-as-a-measured treatise, I went to hear him speak anyway. He was appropriately profane–must keep up with the image, I suppose–using the word “cunt” at least three times in a fifteen-minute speech, along with a limerick about an Anglican priest fucking an altar boy.

Thoroughly offended by him, I didn’t think I’d read his book, but, stuck at Newark International overnight, I braved the first few pages and was hooked. It turns out that unlike his God book, “Hitch,” as he is known by his closest friends, has in fact turned out a searing tome of transformation that will challenge the assumptions of both the liberal and the conservative. In the end his meanderings, his pontificating and his astute observations of family, state and the cliques he found himself alternately beholden to and soured by turns into a touching, at times tortured self-examination that few of us would initiate and if we did, could not endure.

Perhaps because he’s dying, Hitchens has pulled out the stops, relentless in skewering everyone. For example, he reports that author Gore Vidal is a shameless bugger–a kind of literary “top,” giving it to young men who caught his fancy while never admitting to what it might say about identity.  (Hitchens’ candor about his own bi-sexual exploits is refreshingly non-judgmental, more a function of happenstance, power among sexed-up males and the social position of being, as a boy and a young man, identified as “pretty” rather than signaling orientation.)

Reading this book made me believe again that relentless self-examination and honest expression (and, lest I be misunderstood, not just profane expression) might still be possible in this world, and that while the norm is to adopt the opinion of someone else, we all have the responsibility at some point to actually form our own opinions. Hitch-22 is a good example of this. It turns out that the god-hating Brit who later in life found out he was Jewish, is a worthy opponent in the best sense of that term. He is articulate, self-deprecating and fearless about where his formidable intellect may take him, and what actions it then demands in the real world.

It’s impossible to predict where Hitchens’ opinions will fall. Unlike Americans who seem to merge social conservatism to right-leaning (pro-war, for example) politics, Hitch can happily reside in a place animated by liberal sexual mores and still eviscerate Noam Chomsky for suggesting that the Bush Administration was actually behind the attacks of 9-11. Intellect and and learning (academic or otherwise) are not litmus tests of credibility for Hitchens even though he honors intellect and learning. While religion is a falsity, ethics sometimes even borne of a religious mind, are warrants for his arguments. And too, he is not ashamed of appearing gauche, sentimental or loyal, becoming an American citizen at least partly to show his approval of the United States’ unvarnished and “necessary” response to the terrorist attacks by destroying Iraq.

Being pro Iraq war might have been forgivable to his cronies in the old country, but becoming an American and applauding Bush’s cowboy-ism must not have gone over very well with the likes of Martin Amis and others, and certainly not the die-hard members of the International Socialists with whom Hitchens aligned, some would say went slumming with, for more than two decades. Still, I have to admire that he had the courage of his convictions, even though I cannot agree with his assessment of the Iraq War being justified. He can talk all he wants about the horrors of Saddam Hussein on both the Iraqis in all of their tribal configurations as well as the Kuwaitis and Iranians; he can detail the chemical warfare, the callous disregard for life at any age or any class of people; he can rail against the softness of the Liberal Left (a railing that they–we?–deserve on many fronts), but he can’t convince me that hyping a madman’s connections to Al Quaeda–or worse lying–can bode well for a country that still at least claims the moral high ground when it comes to armed intervention. It was still a preemptive war and it has proven devastating in ways that even the horrors of Hussein cannot justify. What use is it in the long run to become the very thing we abhor? Surely, Hitch could have addressed that in his capacious mind along with recognizing the future effects of mendacity as a modus operandi on the future lives of his own young children.
But Hitchens doesn’t address these effects, perhaps because he feels that the end justifies the means.  That lying or at least hyping “weapons of mass…” whatever is necessary for the good of…whatever. History will tell us if that is so, but probably with more questions than statements.  Questions such as:  “Was Harry Truman right in dropping atomic bombs on Japan?” and “Should Winston Churchill be held accountable for successfully putting the passenger liner Lusitania in the path of German U-boats for the express purpose of propelling the U.S. into WWII?”  And to be honest with myself as a reader of Hitch 22, history will also tell us if we were guilty of over-thinking something as critical and devastating as jihadists blowing themselves up in the name of Allah.

The self-criticisms, as Hitch calls them near the end of the book, relate more to the shamefully inadequate logistics of the Bush Administration and Pentagon.  “[W]hat I should have been asking [Paul] Wolfowitz [Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy], instead of bending his ear about these enterprises of such moral pith and geostrategic comment, was: ‘Does the Army Corps of Engineers have a generator big enough to turn the lights of Baghdad back on?’ or perhaps ‘Has a detachment of Marines been ordered to guard the Iraq National Museum?'”  Hitchens didn’t ask those questions, he confesses, but he is still unrepentant:  “I probably now know more about the impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration than do many of those who would have left Iraq in the hands of Saddam.” 

In the end, though, it is the personal rather than the “geostrategic comment” that grounds Hitch.  His detailing of one soldier, Mark Daily, reminds the reader that the inherent goodness of Americans who have “made up…[their] minds that the United States was a force for good in the world, and that it had a duty to the freedom of others” is what tips the balance for him…and hopefully others.  “He had no doubts at all about the value of his mission,” he writes of Daily who was killed by an IED in Mosul, Iraq. That Daily credited Hitchens’ writings on the “moral case for war” as an impetus for his own service rendered Hitch speechless after reading the account of the young man’s death and the fallout in his hometown of Irvine, California.  “He had no doubts at all about the value of his mission,” writes Hitch of Daily, “and was the sort of natural soldier who makes the difference in any way.”

I am still not sure that in this day of industrial, preemptive warfare spurred by the unique madness of our own clumsy leaders, that soldiers make any difference at all in a war–except to each other. But Hitch’s encounter with the story of this young man–and later his encounter with his grieving family–touches on the broadening questions we should all be asking about the power we have to destroy and the potential we have to restore. 

Copyright, David G. Pace, 2010


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