Sunday, December 25, 2011


Slaying Christopher Hitchens' Ideas

An interest in ideas led me to Christopher Hitchens.

His words could seemingly take any proposition, even the inherently grimy, and shine them until they glistened under harsh light. It was his knack for deconstructing the arguments of others that first grabbed my attention, though, particularly his assailing of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 and his leftist, secularist case for the invasion of Iraq.

I was in my mid-20s, still unsure of what to make of the world three years after the day when 19 hijackers armed with box-cutters and no regard for self-preservation showed our overconfident country that it was not invulnerable. Invading Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with that attack had not seemed like the best course of action, but didn’t Saddam deserve his fate? Didn’t America need to do something in order to show that something like 9/11 wouldn’t be permitted again?

These questions troubled me, and arguments against the Iraq invasions coming from sources like The Nation, and arguments in favor of it in the pages of The National Review were too predictable to answer them. Hitchens, a vocal foe of religion and proponent of Marx and Orwell, suddenly became a compelling voice for the crusade of modernization against Islamic fundamentalists, an endeavor he was confident the invasion on Iraq could further.

As the occupation grew two and then three years old, though, the eloquence of Hitchens’ words and the ideals of reason he espoused could not conceal the Iraq mission’s failure. Though thousands of miles removed from it, untouched by the bullets and mortar shells, as well as by the atmosphere of terror that they leave behind, one could see that we were not winning. Every day brought new reports of Americans killed (and, I found later, glossed over dozens of dead Iraqis for every fallen U.S. soldier). Questions about the future of our country if the effort failed became commonplace.

The best America’s right-wing politicians and pundits could offer was a determination to stay the course, assuring us that to abandon the mission would bring worse consequences. The liberals countered by insisting either that a) the war was worth it, but had been badly managed, or b) the war had been a mistake, but would require more competent prosecution to preserve America’s “honor.” Start electing Democrats, they insisted, and you’ll see a change.

America’s intellectuals had failed.

Not only had Iraq been a disaster, but it was time to start comprehensively re-evaluating our foreign policy, to see just how benevolent a force our military had been around the world. A few American politicians and intellectuals would try to do so, but they were rare voices, ones not tolerated in “serious” discussions.

Fortunately, though almost all of my news came from mainstream sources, my entertainment did not.

The thrash metal veterans Slayer share with Christopher Hitchens a confrontational approach, especially in their disregard for religious custom or supernatural belief. Those who know of my religious inclinations and reading habits are generally surprised by my appreciation for music of such raw aggression and distaste for subtlety; but I have no plans to stop listening to Slayer until they stop coming up with interesting lyrical concepts and memorable riffs.

Since their early days, one of their strengths has been their ability to set a mood of horror, one especially appropriate when their songs deal with war. Guitars that sound like a galloping infantry or planes raining death from above, along with a “singer” with the bark of hell’s drill sergeant make a compelling case against war that even Bob Dylan and Barry McGuire could not match.

And for all Dylan and McGuire’s accomplishments, Slayer are the only songwriters I can think of to have ever changed a viewpoint of mine completely.

Christ Illusion, released in 2006, was a concept album of sorts, detailing thoughts on religion and war. What Hitchens saw as a noble effort to curb religious influence on public affairs, with the Middle East as this conflict’s first theater, Slayer portrayed instead as a natural by-product of religious belief, particularly when two different orthodoxies conflict with one another. It’s not a thesis one need buy in its entirety (human greed is the main cause, in my opinion, and religion can be used for greedy or benevolent purposes) to find it compelling.

Hitchens may be more literate and sophisticated, but Slayer’s lack of intellectual pretension resulted in clearer thinking in this instance, and allowed them to spell out the unfolding disaster’s numerous after-effects, from casualties on the ground, to increased fervor among Jihadists, to increasing paranoia at home.

“Eyes of the Insane” is not the best-executed song on the album, but its concept is one of their most interesting: A soldier, having served time in combat, struggles with PTSD, never free of images of “mutilated faces” and the constant fear remaining from the battlefield. The best thing about the song, though, is that it resulted in this video.

This is hopefully the closest I’ll ever come to combat, to being gravely wounded, to having to take a life, and to seeing lives snuffed out in front of me. This video was enough, though, to make me realize that Iraq, even if its supporters had noble ideas, had resulted in an untold number of fatalities, wounds, and minds forever scarred.

And Iraq was a choice.

Hitchens, along with Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria and others embraced this war of choice, insisting that the threat of Islamic terrorists was one that had to be met with proactive uses of force. They’ll never see the deaths, never lose a drop of blood in combat, and never have to deal with the memories of the atrocities taking place in war zones. Neither will I, hopefully, but I will never favor sentencing anyone to that fate unless we’ve been attacked first and are sure we face attack again if we don’t act.

In the months that followed the release of the “Eyes of the Insane” video, Ron Paul launched his 2008 presidential bid. His brave insistence on a policy of non-interventionism in debates with a stage full of militarists eager to send other people’s children to war solidified my belief, and reading Glenn Greenwald, Justin Raimondo and Chris Hedges since then has provided a literate foundation for this view, one at least as solid as Hitchens did for the interventionists.

Hitchens clung to the view that the war in Iraq was worth fighting, that the war in Afghanistan had to be continued a decade past its launch, and that more, not less, aggression toward the Muslim world was required to defeat its fundamentalists. With the release of God is Not Great, he shifted the tone of the argument, insisting that Iraq and the war on terror were battles for secularism against religion, and that anyone who disagreed was blinded by or to religion’s deceit. The number of those who saw Iraq and Afghanistan as logical efforts continued to dwindle, but in debates with Hedges, Raimondo and Greenwald, Hitchens sought to overcome his position’s weakness with the ferocity of his attack.

In the past two weeks, Hitchens died and the war in Iraq officially ended. My country launched that endeavor to prove that, despite the loss it suffered on 9/11, the rest of the world would still see it as strong. Today it is weaker for having wasted so much blood and treasure there. The lives of civilians lost in Iraq (and in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Yemen, and Somalia) have scarred the minds of many in those countries who will not forget nor forgive the U.S. for its choices.

A right-wing government proposed Iraq, but it took a broad coalition to make it happen. That alliance consisted of the far right, the moderate right, the center-left, and even a few on the far left who thought to blame 9/11 on radical Muslims rather than the principle of blowback. Had a Christopher Hitchens or a Thomas Friedman stood up then and said that, no matter what else they thought of the Islamic world, the war was not going to change things for the better, we might still have fought it.

But the broad coalition in place made many afraid to speak out against it. One was taking his career in his own hands to say such things prior to the point at which George W. Bush’s approval ratings went down. By late 2005, when the consensus was that Bush had bungled Katrina and was bungling our wars, more than 2,000 Americans and an untold number Iraqis were dead.

Hitchens response, when told 2,000 had died, was that it wasn’t an “important milestone.”

But his death two weeks ago was viewed as significant, because he was an outspoken atheist, a great writer, or just a great character we all enjoyed watching. For years we’ve heard atheists proclaim that religion is evil because it has caused wars. When an atheist, one who they continue to praise, champions one of the most unnecessary wars of modern times, what does that give us to look forward to when religion has been erased?

If a person’s personality, or their way with words, can erase their complicity in war crimes, what grounds have we to criticize Chairman Mao or Kim Jong-il? Like Hitchens, we have no evidence they ever killed anyone themselves.

Christopher Hitchens’ career was built on ideas, and for a time their appeal was undeniable. To have ideas, though, is not the same as having veracity. It is not the same as having morality.

Christopher Hitchens, as time would tell, had neither on his side. That he is being honored now shows that wasn’t alone in this.

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