“Are you a socialist?”asked the African leader.
I said, yes.
“People have been telling me,” he said lightly, “that you are a liberal....”
(Conor Cruise O’Brien, quoted in Christopher Hitchens, “Hitch-22” p.186).
About a month before Christopher Hitchens died in December, I happened to be reading his memoir Hitch-22. It was a book I had in my possession for over 12 months before I read it – It was sent to me by Crikey as part of their bribe to make me renew the subscription. Hitchens was never someone who had impinged strongly on my conscience so I was in no hurry to read him. Hitchens was a prolific essayist but other than his support for the Iraqi war, his strong atheism, and his waterboarding experiment, I’d never really remembered anything he wrote. I also knew he was suffering from cancer, which I knew from the fatalistic tone in Hitch-22 was likely terminal.
Yet when I heard he’d died just before Christmas, I felt an ineluctable sense of sadness on the passing of someone I felt I knew. The memoir was responsible. For months, I had Hitch-22 on my ‘to do’ list but the picture on the cover of a young hipster Hitchens smoking a cigarette never really threatened to excite my imagination. But a time came when I was on holidays on the beaches of NSW in November when there was no other book handy and I picked up Hitch-22. I quickly found it engrossing reading.
It is a rich exploration of a peripatetic journalist's fully-lived life made interesting for me because I had no real understanding of its trajectory before reading it. Hitchens' parents were both British archetypes, his stiff-upper-lipped father the remote “Commander” who gave his life to the Navy rather than family and his attractive Freudian mother who Hitchens preferred to call Yvonne rather than mum. Yvonne hated the life of a Navy wife and eventually left her husband for another man. In November 1973 she committed suicide in a pact with her lover in Athens. Hitchens flew to Greece to identify her body.
Apart from the obvious grief of losing his mother, the place of her death gave additional strains. Greece was then ruled by a right-wing military junta and being there was galling for a young left-wing radical. Hitchens had a typical middle upper-class upbringing, kept away from his parents and learning the value of compulsory games and a flogging at Leys School in Cambridge. He stayed in Cambridge to do his university education at Balliol where he joined the United Nations Association and the school committee, moves he described as shrewd. Hitchens was the classic 1960s hard left revolutionary, addicted to every socialist cause. He described himself as a Trotskyist, which was safe given that Trotsky never led Soviet Russia long enough to have his reputation thrashed.
Hitchens’ ideological purity was tested with a visit to Cuba which co-incided with the 1968 Prague Spring rebellion against the Soviet Union. Hitchens was there while Cubans held their breath wondering which side their leader would come down on. Castro knew which side his bread was buttered and going on radio he supported Brezhnev much to Hitchens’ disgust. Hitchens remained convinced Stalinism could be overturned from the Left and turned his attentions from the “great hopes of 1968” to the edges of Europe. He witnessed the end of Salazar’s fascist regime in Portugal and saw at close hand how Poland managed its communist contradictions in the 1970s.
The communist in Hitchens – something he never admitted to - wanted to iron out those contradictions. America was the place where such a thing was possible and a place where despite its conservatism, Hitchens could be “as free as possible.” The man to whom the book Hitch-22 is dedicated to - his friend the poet, James Fenton - told Slate, Hitchens became American because there was always something holding him back in England.
Hitchens forged a second identity as an American despite his antipathy to Nixon and Reagan. He also hated the Bushes and Bill Clinton, whom Hitchens thought a fraud. Hitchens knew the midtown Manhattan skyscrapers he landed in were an illusion but it was an illusion always accompanied by profound happiness and an exhilerating sense of freedom never experienced in England. When he saw some of those skyscrapers come down in 9/11, it instilled a deep and personal sense of horror against what he called the “cult of death”.
Hitchens supported the Afghan invasion – which was relatively uncontroversial in October 2001. It was the subsequent Iraq war that was to see the greatest cleavage with fellow leftists. Hitchens had been to Iraq in the 1970s and knew it as an artificial creation of British civil servants. His sympathies lay with the nationalists who put Iraq first not the Ba’athists who put the regime first. It was, Hitchens called, a "Republic of Fear". He was there as in the 1991 Gulf War to see Saddam’s Republican Guard get off scot-free while army conscripts were vaporised on the Highway of Death. The outcome left the people of Iraq worse off, but still condemned to suffer Saddam as leader. In a secret visit across the border Hitchens saw Saddam’s eco-catastrophes and Kurdish and Shiite massacres. “I recognised at once it was a state of affairs worth fighting for,” he wrote. “The idea of ‘Reds for Bush’ might seem incongruous but it was a great deal more wholesome than ‘pacifists for Saddam’”.
Hitchens’ anti-Saddam rhetoric was music to the ears of PNAC-influenced Defence deputy Paul Wolfowitz and the pair hit it off when the politician invited Hitchens to meet him. Hitchens became a salesman for the Iraqi war as the debate intensified. His support for the WMD theory was half-hearted. What he really believed was that Saddam was facing a meltdown moment that would lead to Rwanda-like consequences unless the west intervened. What Hitchens could not, or would not believe, was intervention would have similar consequences.
In the final chapter of his book, Hitchens argued it was the responsibility of intellectuals to argue for complexity and insist ideas should not be sloganised. But he also felt things should be simplified where possible. It was this paradox which led him into his highly-evolved yet deeply flawed Iraqi position. “Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self criticism,” he wrote on the final page. Nothing wrong with that, except it looks for Marx for succour when introspection should be without a muse. The only reference to Heller’s masterpiece in the Hitch-22 title comes in the second last sentence of the book. Hitch’s Catch-22 was the impossible balancing act between his Marxian uncertainty and his desire to emulate the assured and dutiful life of his father. This paradox drove his endless creativity.