This is not another article about Christopher Hitchens.
This may come as something of a relief, given the spilling of ink occasioned by Hitchens’ untimely death last week, with Neal Pollock’s fine parody hopefully bringing this outpouring to an end. After an initial set of hagiographies, it was encouraging to see a number of pieces reminding readers of Hitchens’ role in forcefully and bloodthirstily advocating for the war on Iraq, and for the “war on terror” more generally, as part of a deeply racist and Islamophobic current in his work over the past decade (or more).
What has struck me in the articles that have followed, both those that praise and those that condemn Hitchens’ work, is the recurring use of a phrase to describe Hitchens’ advocacy on behalf of the invasion and occupation of Iraq: he was, we are told by the most perceptive commentators on his work, “wrong on Iraq.” For Hitchens’ defenders, as Corey Robin notes, this was articulated as “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but…” For his detractors, there is no “but”: in Glenn Greenwald’s words, Hitchens was guilty of the crime of endorsing “the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud.”
It seems likely that this focus on Hitchens’ support for the war would have been part of these pieces in any case, since it became one of the defining aspects of his writing over the past decade. But given that his death came in the same week as the much-reported withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the connection was inevitable, even for Hitchens’ admirers. For those who accept the fantasy that the withdrawal of US forces marks the “end” of the war, the Iraq War, like the era of Hitchens, could now be given an end date; indeed, on the front page of its website today, the New York Times features a section entitled “Iraq War: 2003-2011.”
This brief re-entry of Iraq into public discourse in the United States—a re-entry that is intended only to clear the way for a final dismissal, since the war is now, according to this narrative of events, “over”—reminds us of the extent to which Iraq has fallen out of the collective consciousness in the US. It must not be allowed to do so, and the notion that the withdrawal of US troops (leaving behind the largest US embassy in the world in Baghdad and consulates in Basra, Erbil, and Kirkuk, along with at least 16,000 Americans employed by the US government—a large percentage of them “security contractors,” that is, armed mercenaries of the sort that have caused so much carnage in Iraq) should be understood as meaning the “end” of the Iraq War must not be allowed to stand unchallenged. It is an opportune moment, in other words, for some remembering, and, if we can make it happen, some accountability.
As Robin points out, there is something deeply disturbing in the fact that so many commentators were able to “look past” Hitchens’ support for the war in order to praise his prose style or his contrarian nature. I agree with Robin that this fact “tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.” This is true in general, as one of the effects of the War on Terror: it has bequeathed us a population in the US that, while eventually manifesting opposition to the war in Iraq, has shown little sustained opposition to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and little or no sense of shame or outrage over the death by drone bombing of large numbers of civilians in Pakistan, nor over the assassination of US citizens by the Obama administration in Yemen.
The existence of this too-easy conscience is especially apparent when it comes to Iraq. Sinan Antoon has recently reminded us of the Iraq the US is leaving behind in the wake of its illegal war and invasion. By the most conservative estimates, at least 160,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed (I cite this only as one confirmable figure; plausible estimates are that deaths exceed half a million—and part of the difficulty in establishing such a figure has to do with the efforts of the US to hinder any accounting of its carnage in Iraq). Iraq now has the largest refugee population in the world, with six percent of Iraqis—more than 1.5 million people—either located outside the country or internally displaced. There are at least three million Iraqi orphans. At the level of daily existence, Baghdad is now in the top five most polluted cities in the world, and electricity levels in the city still have not been returned to pre-war levels.
One could certainly go on; such facts and figures constitute only the tip of the iceberg. What is certain is that there has been no reckoning within American society with the carnage caused by this war, and certainly no attempt to hold those responsible accountable for their crimes. Indeed, as Gary Younge has pointed out, among the more than seventy percent of Americans who support the withdrawal of troops, fifty-six percent said they thought the invasion had succeeded in its goals. “The cost of doing business always seems more reasonable when someone else is paying the price,” Younge concludes.
In such a context, to return to the discourse around Christopher Hitchens, it is worth asking what it means to have been, and to continue to be, “wrong” on Iraq.
To have been “wrong” on Iraq, if one was a member of the political and/or military establishment that helped to perpetrate the war and occupation, is, simply put, to be a war criminal. If this is not how such figures are currently viewed, this speaks most clearly to the blighted state of international law and institutions, and their inability to hold the perpetrators of the planet’s most horrific acts of violence accountable for their actions.
To have been “wrong” on Iraq, if one was or is a member of the media or the intellectual establishment that argued for, and thus helped to lay the groundwork for, the war, is to be deeply complicit in these war crimes. Again, there has been no attempt to hold any of these individuals accountable for such complicity, although there is a precedent that dates back at least to the Nuremberg Tribunal that would allow for identifying and acting against such media and intellectual complicity in war crimes.
In this context, it is important to note that Hitchens was certainly not the only member of the media and intellectual establishment who was “wrong” about Iraq in this manner—that is, who is complicit in the war crimes committed by the US and its allies in Iraq. Hitchens was no doubt responsible for some of the most bloodthirsty words of support for the war; it may also be true, as Alex Pareene has suggested, that “There was no more forceful intellectual voice in support of the Iraq War than Hitchens,” in part because he “was the perfect shill for an administration looking to cast its half-baked invasion plans as a morally righteous intervention, because only he could call upon a career of denunciations of totalitarianism and defenses of human rights.”
But if Hitchens was perhaps the most gleeful cheerleader for the war, I would argue that he was hardly the most influential member of the media in laying the intellectual and emotional groundwork. In a February 2003 article entitled “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” Bill Keller, who was soon to become executive editor of the New York Times and was himself a vocal supporter (albeit in the “balanced, measured, objective” mode favored by the Times) of the invasion of Iraq, helpfully names the names for us: “The president will take us to war with support—often, I admit, equivocal and patronizing in tone—from quite a few members of the East Coast liberal media cabal. The I-Can`t-Believe-I`m-a-Hawk Club includes op-ed regulars at this newspaper and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic, and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek.” In other words, commentators from across the spectrum of the US mainstream media went on record in support of the war in the weeks and months before March 2003. The smugness that has accompanied some of the attacks upon the “wrongness” of Hitchens’ position—sometimes in the very pages of these same publications—should be tempered by this fact.
The Times, not surprisingly, holds pride of place among these media accomplices to war crimes, most directly through Judith Miller’s inflammatory reporting on the supposed existence of WMDs in Iraq in the lead-up to the invasion, which relied largely on patently false information provided by the felonious Ahmed Chalabi and defectors associated with him. Beginning with its famous mea culpa published in May 2004 (in a small sidebar, as compared to Miller’s continuous front-page headlines), the Times’ defense has consisted of the weak tea of “if we had known then what we know now”—despite the fact that grave questions about the reliability of the information provided by Chalabi and his supporters had been raised by members of the intelligence community as early as the summer of 2002, as the Times itself has reported. And, of course, the claim to have acted understandably based on the information then available belies the fact that there were huge numbers of informed commentators who were vigorously opposed to the war—not to mention the literally millions of people around the world who took to the streets to oppose it on February 15, 2003.
More recently, Keller has attempted to defend both himself and the Times on similar “hindsight is 20-20” grounds. Some of this proceeds through a rather bizarre psychological narrative, related, supposedly, to his vexed feelings following September 11, 2001 as well as, for some reason, the birth of his daughter: “By the time of Alice’s birth I had already turned my attention to Iraq, a place that had, in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11, but which would be its most contentious consequence.” (Pareene, who includes Keller on his 2011 “Salon Hack List,” calls out the lameness of this self-justification: “Oh, ‘almost,’ you still say?”) As for the Times more generally, Keller (who, like almost all then-supporters of the war, now completely plays down the fact that the supposed existence of WMDs was by far the most pre-eminent rationale provided for the invasion) shows himself to be a master of the passive-voice “mistakes were made” approach, but then goes on to suggest: “The remedy for bad journalism is more and better journalism”: “Reporters at The Times made amends for the credulous prewar stories with investigations of the bad intelligence and with brave, relentless, and illuminating coverage of the war and occupation.” In other words, not only should the Times not be held accountable for its active role in helping to perpetrate the war; it should be praised for “bravely” reporting on the horrors that it had itself helped to unleash (I do not mean to disparage here the individual courage shown by Times reporters working in Iraq, but rather the outrageous claim that the Times be praised for its coverage of a war that was at least in part provoked by its own coverage).
Keller’s position—one half apology, one half “but we’ve also done some good things”—pretty accurately represents the state of denial that marks not just the self-understanding of the US media, but also of the US public more generally, regarding the willfully carried out destruction of Iraq. Antoon notes that he is often asked by Americans, “Isn’t there anything good that ‘we’ did over there?” There isn’t, he responds, but he also points out that "the question in itself says something about this expectation that somehow our military adventures abroad are supposed to make life better for Iraqis, or anyone else.”
In this sense, it needs to be remembered that large segments of the US anti-war movement (of which I was myself a part, so I do not exempt myself from this criticism) were also, in a certain sense, “wrong” about Iraq. One aspect of this involved not focusing more directly on the effect that an invasion and occupation would have on the people of Iraq—and concomitantly voicing opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein without thereby suggesting that a war against Iraq would be justified—rather than opposing the war based on American “interests.” This problem is well captured in a debate over the war between Hitchens and Mark Danner that took place in January 2003. In Gary Kamiya’s account, “Danner took what might be called the minimalist antiwar position: Confining himself to a bottom-line, what’s-good-for-America analysis….Danner’s invocation of the 100,000 Iraqis killed in the first Gulf War obviously raised moral questions (at what point do casualty figures incurred in liberating a country make the ‘liberation’ meaningless?), but he didn’t return to the subject….Suspending moral judgments, he criticized Bush’s Iraq war mainly because it did not serve America’s self-interest.” This left Hitchens the opportunity to take up the moral high ground, supposedly in defense of Iraqis; he was even able to invoke US support for Saddam in the past as part of an argument for reversing such support through a war that would remove the regime, since, he concluded, “It is our moral duty to strike down evil tyrants like Saddam Hussein whenever we can.”
It should have been easy to demolish such obscene “moral” arguments for liberating a people by bombing, occupying, and destroying them. But the anti-war movement’s strategy of shifting the argument into the realm of America’s self-interest—such as the oft-repeated assertion that “this war will not make us safer”—meant that such assertions were never effectively challenged and refuted. It is striking that even a thinker such as Danner, who has written quite movingly of the destruction committed by the US in Iraq, would take up the strategic argument vis-à-vis American self-interest rather than offer an alternative form of internationalism—one that might voice opposition to Saddam’s regime without thereby supporting a US invasion of Iraq—that would not depend upon the gunboat-liberation model. Of course there were many individuals who maintained such a position, particularly those who had begun their involvement with Iraq during the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the resulting genocidal sanctions regime, but in the US, this was a minority position within the larger anti-war movement. This failure to evolve a new form of internationalism within the anti-war movement was part of a fairly widespread problem on the left in the US in the lead-up to the war, and it continues to haunt the left today; it has been most apparent in the inability to formulate a cohesive position of support for the popular movements against repressive regimes in Libya, Syria, and Iran for fear of playing into the hands of those calling for US intervention.
Indeed, if Hitchens was able to make his argument for the war in the name of a faux-internationalism, it was in part because this ground had been more or less ceded to him by large parts of the anti-war movement. I completely agree with Corey Robin that Hitchens’ supposed internationalism was actually pure narcissism, expressed through his violent rants about taking part in the great global battle against “Islamofascism.” In this sense, it is no surprise that he found the Bush administration’s war criminals to be such good company, since their own doctrine bespoke a similar, and particularly American, sense of narcissism. But it strikes me that a similar sense of narcissism can also be found, in a minor key, in the voices of those Americans who ask whether “we” haven’t done some good in Iraq. That such a question could still be asked after eight years of carnage and crimes suggests something of the resilience of the rescue fantasy embedded in the American consciousness when it comes to the actions of the US government.
The “wrongness” of the Iraq war, for most Americans, to this day still has little or nothing to do with its effects on Iraqis; it has much more to do with the “costs” to the US, whether in American lives or in economic terms—in other words, with American self-interest. As Younge points out, “the most important single factor shaping Americans` opinions about any war is whether they think America will win.” In attempting to sway public opinion against the war by appealing to notions of self-interest, the anti-war movement as a whole lost a chance to undo this form of solipsistic thinking, which might have given way to a form of internationalism that would have understood the war to be wrong first and foremost for, and from the perspective of, the Iraqis were the objects of the US-led attack. Instead, we are left today with a context in which the withdrawal of US forces means, for most Americans, that the war is now over, and with it, any requirement to think further about Iraq—summed up by The Onion, with its usual bitter brilliance, through the satirical headline: “Fifty-four Iraqis Die in Not Our Problem Anymore.”
So in addition to clearly (if belatedly) articulating the demand that those who perpetuated the war and occupation of Iraq begin to be held accountable for their crimes, there needs to be some self-examination among those in the US dedicated to working for justice in the Middle East, including an end to US hegemony in the region. I’ve written elsewhere about the ways that the Occupy movement in the US has attempted to engage with popular movements in the Arab world. Unfortunately, Iraq has been largely absent from these efforts, and indeed, so far as I have been able to tell, a concern with what has happened and is still happening in Iraq is also largely absent from the discourse of the movement more generally—not surprising, given the seeming disappearance of Iraq from political discourse in the US as a whole. Iraq needs to be a much more central part of the political work to come. After all, Iraq was not on the sidelines of the “Arab Spring”: popular movements, particularly youth movements inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, organized protests in Iraq’s own Tahrir Square in Baghdad, and indeed throughout the country. Like so many protesters across the region, they faced violent repression from a government installed and armed by the US, although unlike others, they also faced the double task of trying to carry out a revolution under occupation. There is, and will continue to be, ample room for solidarity with such movements.
One of the rallying cries of the Occupy movement has been a call for accountability, a call for bringing the criminals who make up the one percent to justice. So let this call for accountability extend to the crimes committed by the US government and its supporters against the people of Iraq through years of war and sanctions. And let this be part of the forging of a larger international solidarity on the part of the US left, the making of a popular movement that could both take up the fight to end US hegemony in the Middle East (need I remind readers that the military junta that is currently slaughtering protesters in Cairo is being armed in the most direct way by the US government, and that some of the same war criminals who were the architects of the attack on Iraq are now drumming up support for US intervention to protect “America’s interests” in Syria?) and, simultaneously, find creative ways to work in solidarity alongside and in support of popular movements throughout the region? The legacy of internationalism (including the legacy of Orwell) has for too long been held captive by the likes of Hitchens and his ilk; it’s time to put it back to work.