Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011
Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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.”