"One way of describing him, as well as of valuing him, would be to say that he was a man at war.”
(Hitchens on Orwell,
Grand Street, Winter 1984)
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.