Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011
Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
"One way of describing him, as well as of valuing him, would be to say that he was a man at war.”
A first breath of freedom: Hitchens enters southern Iraq, April 2003
the weekly standard / matt labash
(Hitchens on Orwell,
My career as a military officer began in what could be considered a unique fashion. My first decisive act as a new second lieutenant, in the immediate aftermath of the commissioning ceremony, was to accept the kind offer of a ride from Christopher Hitchens to the bar across town where a small celebration was planned.
I remember being surprised that he drove a car, and I recall being more than mildly concerned that the flask he had been given as a gift for speaking earlier in the year at West Point, and which he had been proudly showing to a few guests at the ceremony, was in his jacket pocket. I can remember mentally totting up the number of military checkpoints between us and the bar, and contemplating the possibility that my career might end up being significantly briefer than I had planned. In the end, I concluded, “Well, it isn’t every day . . . ”
My friendship with Hitchens began some time before my entrance into the military, but the two relationships had been linked nearly from the start. I was invited to dinner at his apartment in Washington on short notice while I was in the midst of applying for a commission. I had an appointment early the next morning with my recruiter, involving physical exercise, that I couldn’t miss; on the other hand, it isn’t every day . . .
The evening was, I understand, a fairly typical performance. Having recently returned from a few years in the United Kingdom, I noticed that there was a sense of bone-dry irony being employed by Hitchens at the ruthless expense of some of the other guests. It involved him assuming a variety of positions designed to outrage the liberal pieties of the dinner party (“Lesbianism is mere affectation” stands out in my memory) and then refusing to surrender despite what was obviously a lack of rigor on his side of the argument. The joke, of course, was that his targets weren’t in on the joke, a type of humor that anyone who has suffered rough verbal treatment at the hands of a former British public school boy could quickly recognize. This, and other less brutal but impious modes of revelry, continued until about three in the morning, when the mortals among us went home to recover for the following day, which I barely survived.
Piety was Hitchens’s great enemy. This tends to get missed in discussions of the particular objects of his ire, but what tied them all together for him—totalitarianism, religion, dishonest writers peddling received opinion—was that their triumph depended on the unquestioning, unearned respect of nominally free men and women. Earned respect or affection, on the other hand, always subject to rational review, he was entirely willing to show. His admiration for the U.S. military—indeed, for America in general—is a case in point.
While most of those with whom he traveled at the start of his career on the left maintained a doctrinal loathing of American power, Hitchens came to believe that so long as that power was aimed at tyrants and murderers and theocrats, and employed in the defense of human rights and liberty, it was worth admiring. That he came to be considered by some a “neoconservative” for this was, I think, amusing to him. The American Revolution was simply the best revolution going, and anyway, once opposing it became a left-wing piety, his falling out with the pious was only a matter of time.
He admired and corresponded with not a few members of the armed forces, partly from genuine respect for idealistic sacrifice, combined with a powerful gift for friendship and, of course, the benefits that having many friends brings a journalist. The experience of sharing emails or meals with him was clarified for me by a passage in his memoir about meeting Isaiah Berlin as an undergraduate: “Having every opportunity to grow weary of undergraduate naïveté and/or enthusiasm, he betrayed no sign of it and managed to answer questions as if they were being put to him for the first time. This I understood as a great gift”—and one which Hitchens, on the evidence, was determined to emulate. His kindness and graciousness were remarkable, and extended to those he inspired but never met: His article in the November 2007 Vanity Fair about Mark Daily, a young army officer killed in Iraq who had gone to war, in part, as a consequence of reading Hitchens, is among his most powerful essays.
If one wanted to be unkind to Hitchens, a claim could be made that, as a natural belligerent and contrarian, he was in the end drawn naturally to soldiers, whose aggressiveness and courage he admired. Less generous formulations of this argument can be encountered among his critics, but all versions of it are essentially false. It wasn’t so much the fighting which was the point, as the fact that there was so much for a free man—if he wanted to deserve the name—to fight against. If -others were unwilling to challenge the slavemasters of the world; well, then, as with Orwell before him, the willing slaves could come in for some rough treatment, too.
I remember that at our first meeting, a lunch in Dupont Circle shared while I was still a student, an old man came over to our table and hoarsely exclaimed the motto of the Greek Cypriot struggle: “eleftheria i thanatos”—freedom or death. (It isn’t every day . . . ) In the end, Hitchens went to war with death itself. Not just by means of his treatment—a delaying action which was destined to fail in the end—but, characteristically, by going to war in print with the sentimentality and dishonest fluff that attaches to the fact of death. Practicing his craft in a condition in which most of us would be content merely to continue breathing, he went on shattering icons and offending pieties even from his hospital room: a free man, telling the truth about one final tyrant.
* * *
No secrets are being divulged when I report that Christopher Hitchens liked a drink every now and then. Preferably now. He wasn’t sloppy about it. In fact, he always seemed in perfect control. (I once saw him steer a beach bike through the streets of Key West without spilling his Scotch.) He just liked to keep the machine well oiled so he could get on to more important things, like liberating oppressed peoples of the world, knocking out his 1,000 words a day, or starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he didn’t. In some ways, his affection for drink brought us together, setting in motion my most vivid memories of him.
As the Iraq war kicked off in 2003, I was holed up in the Kuwait City Hilton—home to unembedded reporters looking to make their way in. While I’d only briefly met Hitchens once before, word had spread through mutual friends that my hotel room was the last cantina in town. Since the border being sealed meant the black market hooch supply had dried up, we smuggled our amber past customs officials in Listerine bottles. So when Hitchens showed up at my door early one morning kitted for battle with nothing more than his black leather jacket, blue jeans, and a half-smoked pack of Rothmans (he refused to bring Kevlar, saying it made him feel “like a counterfeit”), I offered him a welcome-to-the-war shot of “Listerine,” just to be hospitable.
“I don’t usually start this early,” he said, his glass already gratefully extended, “but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism.” With our soldiers already rolling across the desert, the humanitarian channels to thumb rides were gummed up, stranding hundreds of reporters on the bench. But Hitchens would not be deterred. On assignment for Vanity Fair, he only had a few days to touch Iraqi soil, and watching him get there was a study in forward motion, as he charged just as hard, if not harder, than Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade.
When we missed by minutes a humanitarian convoy some three hours after he’d arrived in Kuwait, he considered it an utter professional failure. “This can’t be happening,” he despaired. When we made the list the next morning to ride into Iraq with the Red Crescent food trucks, I asked if we should commemorate our successful passage with my disposable camera. “No,” he said, hoping to avoid a jinx. “Save it for the bloated corpses. Don’t say anything, or something bad will happen.”
Something bad did happen when enemy booms went off above our bus. The trip was cancelled “due to weather and instability,” as the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information official phrased it. But Hitchens didn’t require a bus. “Convoys are an insult to journalism, I think.” When a producer friend said his driver had a Syrian uncle who worked at the French embassy who could shuttle us around the checkpoints, he suggested Hitchens make him an offer. “What is this, the souk?” Hitchens said, with the impatience of a man whose mission was being pointlessly delayed. “No Hitchens has ever haggled. Tell him to tell me what he’s worth.”
As we fortified ourselves with liquid courage out of Apollinaris water bottles, he assured me we’d be in safe hands. He totally trusted this driver that he’d yet to lay eyes on. The driver, it turns out, charged us 500 bucks to take my truck, because he didn’t want to get his dirty if we ran into a ditch or were shot in our backs. Meanwhile, Hitchens took care of provisions in case we got stranded by our lonesome in Iraq for weeks at a time. His original plan entailed digging into the humanitarian cornmeal supply if needed. But he finally caved in to my caution and retrieved for us two cheese sandwich platters and a couple of bananas. “Bananas!” he exclaimed. “It’s the easiest way to carry food, plus they’re good for you.”
At the first checkpoint, we were turned back by a British Air Force policeman who told us passage was unthinkable for security reasons. Hitchens was incensed. “Security is only a word, but it’s not a reason, is it?” When we wished to talk to the Kuwaiti in charge, our efforts to bribe him were met with cool resistance, and our yellow-bellied driver breached his contract and turned back.
We made it onto a humanitarian run the next morning, rolling down the Highway of Death, while being periodically pulled over and delayed for hours as the Kuwaitis—worshipers of all things bureaucratic—kept demanding we fill out more paperwork declaring our affiliations. “Who wants to know?” barked Hitchens, castigating reporter colleagues for complying like sheep, while pointing out particularly egregious offenders: “Look at him, reading the list upside down. Do you sign anything they put in front of you? You’ve got to push back hard or you’ll get too used to being pushed around.”
We finally made it to an impoverished Iraqi border town, watching starving, elbow-throwing Iraqis battle each other in front of the food trucks in desperate displays of aggression in which the strong hoarded and the weak went hungry. Hitch and I passed out Tic Tacs and Marlboro Reds to children begging for smokes as empty goodwill gestures. “Quite a burg, isn’t it?” he said.
Back on the Kuwaiti side, our minder, Yacoub, told us our bus would once again be delayed so the other buses could catch up and we could convoy in safety. “How are six more buses going to make us safer?” protested Hitchens. After a protracted tussle in which Yacoub demanded Hitchens’s press badges, then after a cooling off in which he gave them back, then after a resumption of hostilities when Hitchens decided he didn’t want his Kuwaiti press badge back as the Kuwaitis were proving themselves the tramplers of liberty, Yacoub screamed that Hitchens would “leave Kuwait tonight!” It’s pretty hard to get kicked out of a war. But Hitchens almost managed.
Hitch waved off the threat, and went outside for a smoke, restating his golden rule: “Do something every day against Bastards HQ.” The rest of the press corps, by now, had turned on him, except for one defiant Indian journalist who sidled up to commiserate by whispering, “We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men.” The lines from T. S. Eliot caused Hitchens to flash his pearly yellows. “You see, only in India do people really bother with English literature anymore,” he beamed.
To say literature mattered to him would be like saying he greatly enjoyed inhaling and exhaling. It was necessity, not luxury—a refuge and a brace against randomness and Bastards HQ. So with the void he’s thoughtlessly left, I’m reminded of a few more lines, ones Christopher sent me just a short time after our travels together when his friend and editor, the Atlantic’s Michael Kelly, died near Baghdad. They’re from his beloved First World War poet Wilfred Owen, and Hitchens would probably shudder with horror and humility that I’d dare apply them to this occasion. But if he can witness my crime from beyond, then he has a lot of explaining to do. And so I expect there’ll be silence on his end, sadly:
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk, a drawing-down of blinds.
* * *
I wasn’t a close friend of Christopher Hitchens—more like a friendly acquaintance, and an editor grateful for his occasional contributions to The Weekly Standard. But he was so outsized a presence, had so fertile a mind, was gifted with such a bold personality, and was altogether so much larger than life that I feel his loss deeply. I lack the gifts to convey what Christopher was like, and will defer to others who will undoubtedly do this with great skill. The morning after his death last week, looking at our email exchanges over the last year or so, I thought one—perhaps precisely because it’s about nothing at all grand—captured something of his flair and spirit. Here’s Christopher, writing late in the evening of February 9, 2011:
Matt Labash closes his remembrance with a few lines from Wilfred Owen, ones Christopher sent him shortly after Michael Kelly died, and comments that “Hitchens would probably shudder with horror and humility that I’d dare apply them to this occasion.” Christopher would probably shudder at my mawkishness (and would also mock my limited poetic range!), but it was these lines from Yeats that came to my mind when I heard of his death:
Christopher did not walk that way.
* * *
In February 2009, Christopher Hitchens got into a fight with fascists in Beirut. Visiting the country as part of a delegation of foreign journalists hosted by Lebanon’s pro-democracy March 14 movement, Hitchens was walking through the Hamra district with two colleagues when he saw a plaque commemorating a martyr from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The organization’s symbol is a variation on the swastika, the sight of which prompted Hitchens to pull out a pen and deface the placard. Suddenly a gang of SSNP thugs materialized and set upon Hitchens and the others, who were barely able to make their safe escape in a passing taxi.
“Had I really understood what I was doing on my little anti-swastika excursion,” Hitchens writes in his memoir, Hitch-22, “I would not have done it.” On the same street corner the SSNP had previously beaten a local journalist so badly that he was hospitalized for months. Worse, in May 2008 the SSNP had terrorized the neighborhood, killing some of its residents, when its ally Hezbollah attempted a coup d’état. Nonetheless, Hitchens’s considered second-thought beggars belief: He would have scribbled an expletive on that plaque even if the only writing utensil at hand had been his own fingernail. Indeed, one way to understand his career is as an anti-swastika world tour, which has now come to an end.
Hitchens wore his bruises from that beating with aplomb, and he blushed when his hosts, including the country’s soon-to-be, and now former, prime minister, Saad Hariri, teased him. Hitchens understood they were paying him a compliment: Your enemies are ours, too. Walid Jumblatt, at the time a March 14 figure, was an old friend of Hitchens, but it was not the SSNP who nearly stood in the way of their reunion.
The delegation was late leaving Beirut, and one of Jumblatt’s men explained that to reach the Druze chieftain’s mountaintop mansion in time, a journey that normally required an hour along a steep winding road with blind spots throughout would have to be accomplished in half that time. Hitchens rode shotgun and cursed nonstop for 30 minutes.
If the driver knew the roads and the region, as Jumblatt’s aide asserted, it is not clear how much English he knew. His cartoon-sized hands could’ve choked the life out of the journalist, but instead he smiled at every epithet from Hitchens. “It’s not funny,” Hitchens insisted, even as the sight of him sliding from side to side as his face turned pale prompted his colleagues’ laughter. Hitchens was, of course, right: to fall off the side of a mountain rushing to lunch would not be funny, not even to one’s enemies, but as stupid a death as there is.
Hitchens’s death last week was of a different order altogether. He did not die in the streets alongside his comrades fighting fascists. He succumbed to cancer in a hospital surrounded by his family. And death didn’t catch him by violent surprise. He knew it was coming for a year and a half, and he wrote and spoke about it with courage and wit. He was a writer whose life was shaped by the literature of action, and his dying over the last 18 months was also an action, almost classical in its intent, completing a life in which allies and adversaries, causes and fights, were chosen wisely.
* * *
My first encounter with Christopher Hitchens was a memorable one. It was February 2004 and my girlfriend and I were in the elevator at Hitchens’s Dupont Circle apartment building. We’d come from a swank affair at the Hilton hotel nearby, and had been invited to an after-party in the apartment of a dear friend and old colleague. My friend had already informed me that Hitchens lived in his building, reporting with evident pride that he’d met and become friends with the famous journalist. Which only made sense, because my friend is unbelievably well-read and has an obsession with single-malt scotch. One of Hitch’s great talents was that he was an intellectual truffle pig, rooting out anyone in his proximity with an expansive brain or capacious liquor cabinet. Preferably both.
In any event, there he was in the elevator, in the flesh. Since my -mother had handed me a copy of No One Left to Lie To as an undergraduate, Hitchens had been one of my -favorite writers. Momentarily stunned, I had to compose myself before quavering, “Excuse me, but are you Christopher Hitchens?” Hitchens seemed a bit startled and wary. “You know who I am?” he ventured.
His identity established, I honestly didn’t know where to move the conversation. My girlfriend, already a few glasses of wine into the evening and knowing my deep admiration for the man, sprang into action. She hiked up her gown, bounded over to Hitch and said, “Of course we know who you are, silly.” She then wrapped her hand around the opposite side of his head, and planted her lips on the side of his face. It was an ultimately innocent gesture, but something rather more emphatic than a peck on the cheek. Hitchens and I were both so surprised we laughed out loud. He quietly said “thank you” as we exited the elevator.
You have to love a woman like that, and so I married her. I like to think that for about five seconds in an elevator seven years ago, Hitchens loved her, too.
I had a few more encounters with him in the years following, but I can’t claim any of these were special or that he was even all that familiar with me. Mainly I feel blessed to have witnessed him at the height of his rhetorical powers. I saw him rise, unprompted, at a dinner and give a drink-spewingly hilarious and dead-on accurate stemwinder on how the British Empire’s creation of the state of Pakistan might be responsible for all the problems of the world today. When I think about it now, I’m almost angry no one had the foresight to record it.
That said, while I never stopped appreciating Hitchens’s skill with words, I found him frequently exasperating in his final years. I’m thinking here of the atheism thing. As an adult convert to Christianity, I’d given a great deal of thought to religious matters and having someone whose moral clarity I’d previously considered a model inveigh so definitively against God was something of a gut punch. More than that, his arguments, while rhetorically precise, were more wearying than novel.
Which brings me to the night I tried to save Christopher Hitchens’s soul. Well, to be fair, it was a team effort. It happened almost a year ago. My wife and I know a couple, mutual friends of Hitchens, who were then expecting their first child. My wife and another friend of the mother-to-be had volunteered to host a baby shower. Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, generous as always, agreed that their large apartment, with its spectacular top-floor views of Washington, should be the venue.
My wife went early to prepare the hors d’oeuvres and giddily informed me that before my arrival a polite older gentleman had made a point of introducing himself to everyone right before he left. It turned out to be Tom Stoppard, another literary hero of mine. Regrettably, she failed to kiss him for me.
The party was a smash. The food was delicious, the bar bottomless, and Carol, who is witty and worldly (in the best sense of that word), was a revelation all her own. The crowd was full of close friends and the mood was joyous. The only thing that cast a pall was Hitchens’s health. His esophageal cancer had taken its toll, and he was losing his voice.
At some point in the evening, I noticed the crowd had thinned but the coats were still all by the door. I poked my head around a corner and found Hitchens smoking a cigarette and nursing a drink in the adjoining apartment, which had been recently acquired so as not to sully the primary residence with smoke. (His was a fatal diagnosis, so why not puff away? seemed to be the rationale.) He was surrounded by a coterie straining to suppress the usual lubricated revelry so they could hang on his every raspy word. I pulled up a chair.
Another journalist whose work I greatly admire was arguing with him about God. I had no previous indication that this was the case, but Hitch’s sparring partner turned out to be a fervent Christian who was not afraid to be evangelical. It probably helped that he’d climbed halfway inside a bottle of very expensive scotch before he decided to challenge the world’s most famous atheist on matters of ontology.
I jumped in where I could to challenge Hitch’s lack of faith; even two against one with no voice, it was still a fair fight. He may have been deprived of volume, but he was as intense and brilliant as ever.
Meanwhile, girded by faith and single-malt whisky, my brother-in-Christian-arms was ever more emphatic in his pronouncements. It was both comical and inspiring, like watching Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo attitude deployed in defense of C. S. Lewis’s faith.
“Damn it, Hemingway! I need the red letters!” he roared, pounding his fist on the table. The words of Jesus in many a New Testament are printed in red ink, and he was overcome with a desire to read from the Sermon on the Mount. A more studious catechumen might have memorized it; I reached for my iPhone. Preach the Gospel always; when necessary use a Bible app, as St. Francis must have said. Alas, Hitchens’s apartment had terrible reception. Put your trust in God, not AT&T’s 3G coverage.
The debate was friendly enough. It helped that where most atheists are quick to assert empirical certainty, Hitchens would readily admit the limits of his own knowledge. In fact, he amusingly reported that when he appeared with such fellow celebrity atheists as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, they were frequently irked at his response to inquiries about the after-life: “I don’t know.”
In the end, Hitchens’s animosity to religion was palpable. He related the story of how he was told by a group of Presbyterians that because he had been so vocal in attacking his former faith, he would have to get himself “unbaptized” lest he risk even greater damnation than he was already courting.
By now, my wife had joined the argument. She was something of a ringer; she’s an accomplished religion journalist and the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Immediately, she laid into Hitch and told him she highly doubted the Presbyterian story for lots of obvious reasons that she eagerly detailed. And even if he had been told that, it’s heresy that he should dismiss out of hand. I realized I’d seen that look in Hitchens’s eye before. Once again, she had left him speechless.
After the news of Hitchens’s death, I opened my email and found the following note in my inbox:
I’d tell my friend the same thing he tried so hard to tell Hitchens around that fateful kitchen table: You’ve got to have faith. December 15, 2011, may be remembered as the day Christopher Hitchens died, but I prefer to think of it as his red letter day.
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