Hitchens, words and consequences

Baruch, we here on this blog make no secret of our fascination with Christopher Hitchens, whom we previously disinherited for his flawed casus belli re the Iraq war but admitted back into the fold on the literary qualities of his “God is not Great”.

Now Hitchens tries to come to terms with a rather harrowing affirmation of how words can have consequences. Read his article in Vanity Fair about how a young man, Mark Daily, was moved by Hitchens’s writings to enlist, and then to die in Iraq when an IED explode under his vehicle.

In the end, I think Hitchens comes out short. Like some of our friends, he still insist that he is disappointed by how the war was conducted, but does not admit that he was wrong in his initial argumentation for waging the war in the first place. I think I can speak for the both of us that Hitchens and our friends remain in denial. To spell it out:

1. The unintended consequences of war, good or bad, are invariable larger than the intended consequences. Therefore war should only ever be a last, desperate resort.

2. The opportunity cost of a war is invariably wasteful. Containing Iraq and leaving Saddam to kill his own citizens recklessly but spending the USD$ 1 trillion on building hospitals and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan or eliminating a whole host of diseases in Africa would have saved millions of lives and brought millions of people around to the idea that the US is fundamentally good. All at the cost of 10,000 or so Iraqis per year continuing to be killed by their own regime. it’s a somewhat distasteful moral calculation, but I didn’t make it first; Bush did when he went to war.

3. Even if the US’s intentions in Iraq are motivated by altruism, the broad perception of the US in the Middle East as a result of its historical actions (a perception that is not necessarily accurate or well informed) makes it impossible for the US to fulfill its goals here simply because of whose goals they are. I knew this in a profound way when I first heard of the rumors the US would wage a war of choice back in 2002, and was incredulous that people such as Wolfowitz would not know this. This is why I thought the Bush government’s signals that it was considering war, and even Powell’s UN presentation, was all a bluff to get Saddam Hussein to concede to a new containment regime. I thought this all the way to the end, until the invasion actually began.

In the end, Hitchens doesn’t bring himself to admit that the writings that influenced Mark Daily were wrong. He was made blind to the opportunity cost of waging this war because he had Kurdish friends for whom the outcome of the removal of Saddam Hussein would undoubtedly be a good thing. Hitchens lost the big picture view.


2 thoughts on “Hitchens, words and consequences”

  1. Well, Bento my dear prodigal brother in blogging, you touch on something very relevant indeed. I cannot agree with you more of course, and my agreement with you is amplified a thousand-fold by the book I am reading right now, Fisk’s mind-blowing Great War for Civilisation. I have never forgiven Hitchens, by the way. He remains a Stupid Cartesian in my book, his other undeniable gifts notwithstanding.

    While commentators like Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and, as you say, many people we know were congratulating themselves as shock and awe was hitting Bagdad, Fisk was on the receiving end of it, as he has been in Beirut, Algeria, Iran and Iraq during their contretemps, and his point is a clear one; if you could see the actual result of the west’s wars, the effect of supposedly smart munitions on the innocent, then you could see that the end of wars is really death and horror, as opposed to the ends formally and even privately espoused by the statesmen who start them — regional power balancing, preventing islamic resurgence, punishing aggressors, keeping oil prices low etc etc. When you compare the results of the wars with the aims of the instigators, it always gets cocked up anyway.

    Fisk rams this point home over and over again in a litany of soul-sucking descriptive passages describing the real effects on individuals; children killed and maimed, innocents tortured and crippled, economies and lives and opportunties destroyed. I’ve had to stop reading every now and then because it gets too much.

    And so Hitchens gets his hanky out for this dead young man who he persuaded, indirectly, to choose to fight, and who got killed in a war Hitch did his bit to start. But that guy made the choice to go, was trained to survive in that theatre, was armed to the teeth with the latest high tech weaponry and defence technology, backed up by billions of dollars worth of even higher-tech airpower at his beck and call, and surrounded by friends and colleagues to share the experience. At the end of it he could go home if he survived. He had the world’s best medicine a 30 minute chopper ride away. I could go on but you get the idea. . .

    This soldier’s death was a tragedy. But Fisk writes of Reza, a 4 year old girl (the same age as my daughter) lying in a hospital bed who had her legs blown off (or were they paralysed? I can’t remember. Does it matter for these purposes?) by US cluster munitions at the start of the war, who had to put up with medical treatment from a system on the verge of breakdown, crippled by 10 years of sanctions, and who probably died of her wounds.

    Where’s Hitch’s hanky for her? There’s hundreds of thousands of other other Iraqi stories like that as a result of the war that Hitch and our friends wanted. And here’s the thing, all these people died for some THEORY of, among other things, pre-emption; this was a set of calculations about what would happen shared by Hitch and the others based in turn on a set of assumptions about what was true. The whole edifice of foreign policy decision making was based (as it always is) on wobbly towers of often circular hypotheses. I buy stocks on better premises than most foreign policy initiatives can boast. When you know for a fact that kids are going to be killed as a result of your decision, as was glaringly obvious from the nature of the Iraq conflict, your pre-emptive war better have a very, very watertight case indeed, or have a very strong chance of bringing some great, great benefits. If you get it wrong, certainly something horrible should happen to you. The good thing about waiting to be attacked is that sometimes you don’t actually get attacked and no-one has to die.

    In this case, Hitch makes some progress. But his inability to make the leap from this one soldier’s death to the likely million or so innocents who will die as a result of his war is still proof of Stalin’s dictum “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” I don’t know if our friends will ever feel any culpability, though they should, though to be fair to them they never did as much public opining on the subject as Hitch. On balance, Bento, until he comes to terms with his decision in a way similar to, say Andrew Sullivan, then Hitch has to remain a dickhead in my eyes. At weak moments I have fantasies of him having his words on the war translated into arabic, photocopied a few hundred times, and thrown along with him into a crowded Bagdahd market out of the back of a Humvee which would drive off at speed. But I take that back, they would probably kill him.

    Look: what a rant. Privately I get very worked up about these things, Bento. Having kids really makes a diference sometimes.

  2. Excellent, both pieces. Among the most perceptive and well argued of the plethora of Hitchens’ well-deserved criticisms over the last few months. Your commentaries deserve to be widely disseminate. I will do my very small part to that end. Meanwhile, I have bookmarked your site with the expectation, or at least hope, there will be equally incisive posts. So keep up the good work.

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