—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Media Monitor
7 July 2006

Christopher Hitchens: the Final Collapse

I've written before about the dreadful apostasy which the talented British journalist Christopher Hitchens underwent following the September 11 attacks. Since then, his writings, which give full-throated endorsement to George W. Bush's war on terror and pour vitriol on all critics thereof, have represented a steady drool of rationalizing and power apologetics, neither rising nor falling in absurdity to any great extent. But two recent articles represent the nadir. (Especially his Vanity Fair piece - Hitchens, never quite clean-mouthed throughout his career, has always exhibited a loutish side which herein was given free rein.) They are a sure indication of Hitchens' total reversal of principle and the collapse of any sense of propriety. The first article was on the Haditha attack.


SUBSTANCE:
On the Haditha Killings


'The Marine and Army grunts who deal with the complacent and devious citizens of Iraq are being held to an impossible standard'

           - Letters to the Editor, Time, 3 July 2006


EUDOXUS: It is then a very unseasonable time to plead law, when swords are in the hands of the vulgare, or to thinck to retaine them with feare of punishments when they loke after liberty and shake of all goverment.

IRENIUS: Then so it is with Ireland continually, for the sword was never yet out of ther hand, but when they are weary with warrs, and brought doune to extreame wretchednesse; then they creepe a litle perhaps, and sewe for grace, till they have gotten new breath and recovered strength againe: so it is in vaine to speake of planting of lawes and plotting of pollicies till they be altogether subdued.

          - Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, 1596.

For Americans such as James H. Rehrig of Nazareth, Pennsylvania (quoted above), Iraqis remain puzzlingly ungrateful for being invaded and occupied (or in the case of Haditha, summarily killed). It is classic colonial thinking. There are unmistakable echoes here of Edmund Spenser's frustration with the 'mere Irish', whom he also regarded as inveterately devious and ungovernable. (Spenser went on to recommend measures for the pacification of Ireland which we would today regard as genocidal.[1]) Leaving aside the obvious contradiction between complacency and deviousness, one is left wondering how Mr. Rehrig would respond to the invasion and occupation of his own country by, say, Arabs. Not favourably, I would wager. I would suggest that deviousness would be the mildest of many reasonable people's responses to foreign occupation. Indeed, one might say that it would be the minimum required of a patriot.

The longer the carnage in Iraq goes on, the more vulgar the excuse-making becomes. We've sat through Norman Podhoretz's citing of Thomas Paine to justify Bush's oil-grab in Mesopotamia;[2] we've listened to O'Reilly's bellicose braggadoccio on Fox; personally I thought MSNBC's labelling of Cindy Sheehan and her acolytes as 'anti-war extremists' was the lowest point. But just when the bottom of the barrel has been scraped dry, Christopher Hitchens punches through: it seems that the bottom is just not low enough for some. Before we examine Hitchen's latest rant, however, it's worth travelling briefly back in time to re-read an article written by the pre-9/11 Hitchens.

In February 2001, Hitchens published a piece in The Nation entitled 'Wiesel Words'[3] in which he excoriated the moral contortions of Nobel Prizewinner and notable Israel-apologist Elie Wiesel. What came under strongest attack was Wiesel's equivocations concerning another mass killing in the middle east, the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, a slaughter of up to 2000 Palestinian civilians which took place in west Beirut during Israel's 1982 invasion. The Phalange militia, which were trained, armed and uniformed by Israel, entered two refugee camps encircled by the Israeli army and, over a period of several days, massacred their way through the defenseless families therein. Asked to comment at the time, Wiesel's said that his response was that of 'sadness - with Israel, and not against Israel.'[4] Hitchens' disgusted comment on this was: 'For the victims, not even a perfunctory word.'

Fast-forward to 2006. Again, an occupying army has committed a large-scale killing in the middle east. On 19 November 2005, twelve marines from kilo company killed twenty-four unarmed civilians following a roadside bomb attack near the town of Haditha. The story originally disseminated by the military - to the effect that fifteen civilians and were killed by the roadside bomb and eight insurgents died in the subsequent counter-attack - was inconsistent with evidence later unearthed by a Time investigation. Many of the victims were women and young children and some seem to have been shot at close range. Moreover, it now seems that nearly all the victims were civilians: in short, this is lookingly increasingly less like a rout than a rampage.

Here, however, we are dealing with the mindset of a post-9/11 Hitchens. Hitchens, who has already written an article in January 2005 explaining 'why Iraq and Vietnam have nothing whatsoever in common'[5] now finds himself having to refute a rather more embarrasingly specific claim by way of explaining 'Why Haditha isn't My Lai'.[6] It seems that a once-great journalist is now reduced to playing rhetorical whack-a-mole: Vietnam parallels keep popping up, and Hitchens' task is to hit them on the head immediately and unthinkingly.

I do like the use of the 'whatsoever' bluff in his first argument - it is the fig leaf behind which Hitchens hopes to hide his argument's analytical nudity. The very fact that Hitchens himself has to deal with another Vietnam/Iraq comparison takes the 'whatsoever' sting out of his first rebuttal. If there's no similarity 'whatsoever', how many more times will we find Hitch having to respond to something in the Iraq war that has an analogue in the Vitenam war? With his every article on these parallels, he confirms (by the very weakness of his arguments, outlined below) the opposite of what he is saying. Additionally, if Vietnam/Iraq parallels are worth writing about, they obviously have a public resonance which Hitchens is eager to quench. After all, the Vietnam/US conflict did not end with a Vietnamese withdrawal.

Anyway, here's Hitchens on Haditha:

Unjust though the assumption may prove to be, let us imagine that the Marines of Kilo Company did indeed crack up and cut loose in Haditha that day. Something like this has certainly been waiting to happen.
The opening words set the tone. It's 'unjust' to take the side of the preponderance of evidence: that the soldiers slaughtered civilians that day.

[In Vietnam] we were vainly attempting to defeat a peoples' army with a high morale and exalted standards. I, for one, will not have them insulted by any comparison to the forces of Zarqawi, the Fedayeen Saddam, and the criminal underworld now arrayed against us.
Put aside the unctuously hurt tone, the weakness of the appeal to the unspecified 'us', and the accidental implication that the head-chopping Zarqawi and his disciples would somehow be deserving of higher regard if they had higher morale. This is all rather cack-handed issue-ducking, soon followed by the boilerlate assertion that:

Only pacifists not those who compare the Iraqi killers to the Minutemen have the right to object to every casualty of war. And if the pacifists had been heeded, then Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein would all still be in power hardly a humanitarian outcome. People like to go on about the "fog" of war as well as the "hell" of it. Hell it most certainly is but not always so foggy. Indeed, many of the dilemmas posed by combat can be highly clarifying, once the tone of righteous sententiousness is dropped.
Indeed. The Milosevic/Taliban/Saddam gimmick is one of Hitchens' most oft-repeated straw-man arguments.[7] I don't recall any such movement coagulating into an identifiable bloc of people to advance their agenda that the international community should go easy on all three tyrannical regimes. But I do recall the existence of an eminently identifiable pro-war camarilla in Washington and their undergirding of intellectuals, ideologues and media figures, all of whom Hitchens has yet to ask an awkward question of.

Other tidbits imparted by this sententious tract include the claim that '[the insurgents] methods of warfare [include] the attempt to alienate coalition soldiers from the population.' Ah yes, it's the old story that were it not for the insurgents, Iraqis and their neocolonial conquerors would be getting along just fine. Apparently it's not even thinkable now that the very presence of foreign troops on your street, kicking down your door, etc., might be itself alienating.

Marines serving in Iraq are undoubtedly 'under pressure'. But it is a squalid rhetorical shrug to say that such killings as took place in Haditha are 'waiting to happen' and that avoiding such slaughter implies attainment of an 'impossible standard'. Even the hint of such leniency is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge, and it must be halted immediately. Instead of hitting this canard on the head, however, Hitchens wasted his breath averring that 'all the glib talk about My Lai is so much propaganda and hot air'. For the victims, not even a perfunctory word.


STYLE:
On oral sex


The social critic James B. Twitchell one wrote of the United States that 'we live in an age distinct from all other ages that have been called "vulgar" because we are so vulgarized that we have even lost the word in common use, and, in a sense, the aesthetic category.'[8] And it is with this thought in mind that I can barely bring my prudish fingers to type a few comments on Hitchen's monumentally vulgar essay in the superlatively shallow Vanity Fair. His article was entitled 'As American as apple pie: an oral history of the blowjob'.[9] Yes, you read that right. And despite all available euphemisms and his well-stocked vocabulary, that is the noun Hitchens chooses to deploy throughout this piece. Some essays are so awful they can be ridiculed merely by being cited verbatim. I'll therefore let Hitchens speak for himself:

Well, which is it - blow or suck? (Old joke: "No, darling. Suck it. 'Blow' is a mere figure of speech." Imagine the stress that gave rise to that gag.) Moreover, why has the blowjob had a dual existence for so long, sometimes subterranean and sometimes flaunted, before bursting into plain view as the specifically American sex act?
...
Acey told me she was at a party and she said to a man, What do men really want from women, and he said, Blowjobs, and she said, You can get that from men. - From "Cocksucker Blues," Part 4 of Underworld, by Don DeLillo.
I admire the capitalization there, don't you? But I think Acey (who in the novel is also somewhat Deecey) furnishes a clue. For a considerable time, the humble blowjob was considered something rather abject, especially as regards the donor but also as regards the recipient. Too passive, each way. Too grungy - especially in the time before dental and other kinds of hygiene. Too risky-what about the reminder of the dreaded vagina dentata (fully materialized by the rending bite-off scene in The World According to Garp)?
...
And then there's that nagging word, "job," which seems to hint at a play-for-pay task rather than a toothsome treat for all concerned. Stay with me. I've been doing the hard thinking for you. The three-letter "job," with its can-do implications, also makes the term especially American.
...
For many a straight man, life's long tragedy is first disclosed in early youth, when he discovers that he cannot perform this simple suction on himself.
...
Why do we still say, of something boring or obnoxious, that "it sucks"? Ought that not be a compliment?

[And finally, by way of peroration:]

the iconic U.S. Prime blowjob is still on a throne, and is also kneeling at the foot of that throne.

Drowning in his own prurience, Hitchens tries now and again to come up for air by making literary/historical references (to Nabokov, the ancient Greeks, etc). But it's well out of place in such Penthouse prose, and anyway there's just no cerebral way to be oafish. The man who once derided Richard Nixon for his 'incurably dirty mind'[9] has now, by publishing such dreck in Vanity Fair, found a way to crawl into the gutter while hobnobbing with the stars.

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Notes:

1 He was a man of his age. Writing of Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex and his ilk, one historian noted that 'the words "extirpation" and "genocide" were not used then [in Elizabethan times], but they would have liked to rub out the genealogical map of Ireland and start afresh. ... They combined a combined a complete disregard of the "uncivil" Gaels with a dislike of the Catholicism of the old English.' (Sean McMahon, A Short History of Ireland, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1996, p. 65.)
2 Norman Podhoretz, 'The Panic Over Iraq', Commentary, January 2006.
3 The Nation, 19 February 2001.
4 At the time Noam Chomsky noted that:
nothing that had happened before in the occupied territories and in Lebanon had evoked any sadness on [Wiesel's] part, and now the sadness was "with Israel, and not against Israel" - surely not "with the Palestinians" who had been massacred or with the remnants who had escaped. Furthermore, Wiesel notes, "After all, the Israeli soldiers did not kill" - this time at least; they had often killed at Sabra and Shatila in the preceding weeks, arousing no "sadness" on Wiesel's part, even "sadness with Israel."

(Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, London, 1983, p. 386)
5 Hitchens, 'Beating a Dead Parrot: Why Iraq and Vietnam have nothing whatsoever in common.', Slate, 31 January 2005.
6 Hitchens, 'The Hell of War', Slate, 6 June 2006.
7 On a purely technical point, we know that Milosevic would not still be in power now: he would be dead.
8 James B. Twitchell, Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste In America, Columbia University Press, New York, 1992.
9 Hitchens, No One Left to Lie To, Verso, New York, p. 15.