Controversial guest speaker causes students to raise eyebrows

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September 23, 2010

7:10 PM

A few weeks back I found out that someone named Christopher Hitchens was coming to campus to participate in a debate on the Iraq war. I had never heard of the man before, but apparently some people thought he was a big deal. I was intrigued when I found out that this former Marxist, militant atheist, anti-imperialist, Kissinger-hater would be taking the pro-Iraq war position.

It is testament to the ideological purity of our two main parties that Americans are skeptical that such positions could ever be held by one person. Because I, too, was curious, I did a bit a reading — not too much, since Hitchens’s literary output is immense — and I found him to be an interesting social commentator. He has the courage to say things others only thinks and his historical and literary allusions remind us that pundits can be learned and witty if they so chose. These recommendations are at times, however, tempered by a nasty pugnacity and some inconsistency in his arguments.

I came away from my brief survey of Hitchens’ writings with several ideas as to how a (former?) leftist can come to support the Iraq war. The Sept. 11 attacks seem to have been a watershed for Hitchens. In an interview, he stated the attacks “were one of those rare historical moments, like 1933 in Germany or 1936 in Spain or 1968, when you are put in a position to take a strong stand for what is right. The left failed this test. Instead of strongly standing against these nihilistic murderers, people on the left, such as Noam Chomsky, began to make excuses for these murderers, openly saying that Bin Ladin was, however crude in his methods, in some ways voicing a liberation theology. This is simply a moral and political collapse.”

Hitchens saw Sept. 11 as an act of war and defined the opposing sides more broadly than most. He admits that the “line that connects Afghanistan to Iraq is not a straight one by any means,” but in his view we were not at war merely with Al Qaeda. Rather, “The government and people of these United States [were] at war with the forces of reaction.” This placed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq firmly in the opposing camp.

He argued for the initial invasion with the usual bag of reasons — the brutality of the regime, suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction, Hussein as a regional threat, non-compliance with United Nations resolutions. For good measure, he spoke repeatedly of the oppression of Iraqi Kurds who deserved their own state — as if we need more dyads for conflict in the region. I, however, got the distinct impression that these arguments were just window dressings. Hitchens’s initial and continuing support for the war stems from a grand world historic view of the situation. Simply, he saw Iraq as a reactionary state — and one that was an enemy of the West; therefore, it was only right to set out to destroy the regime.

This grand view explains why Hitchens’s support for the war has survived in spite of the setbacks to coalition forces before the surge and the discovery that Hussein had very little in the way of WMDs. Furthermore, such a view does not discuss such details as the number of troops killed or the cost of the war to Hitchens’s adoptive nation. In fact, on the matter of troop casualties, Hitchens has specifically criticized emotional pacifism that uses casualty reports to demand an end to the war.

Hitchens’ support for the Iraq war truly seems to come down to this: Hussein was a cruel and perhaps insane dictator who was part of the reactionary forces aligned against the United States, and as a result of the Iraq war, he is dead — and the country is better off.

The upcoming debate may be interesting, but I suspect the participants will spend most of their time talking past each other. The anti-war side will talk about Hussein’s weaponlessness and American lives and treasure, but in Hitchens’s mind these are insignificant details in the grand confrontation of Western progressives and what he calls reactionary “Islamo-fascists.”

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