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A Hitchless World

12:50 AM, Dec 16, 2011 • By MATT LABASH
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At the first checkpoint, we were turned back by a British Air Force policeman who told us passage was unthinkable due to 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 head 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—worshippers 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 into an impoverished Iraqi border town, watching starving, elbow-throwing Iraqis battle each other in front of the food trucks in desperate displays of aggression where 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 beside him 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.

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