Fans of Christopher Hitchens, assuming such creatures still exist, may want to change the channel.
A recent Hitchens piece in Slate was, well, typical of his work. Which is to say, unimpressive except it its ability to rationalize, self-justify, and demonstrate Hitchen's tireless ability to pat himself on the back. Now, you might think he was going to address an unexpected subject, or demonstrate a bith more thoughtfulness than usual, as he explores the unfortunate shooting of Iraqi news correspondents by U.S. troops. But... well, you know better already, don't you.
But the truly sobering reflection is that crimes and blunders of this kind are committed, in effect, by popular demand. It is emphasized every day that Americans do not want to read about dead soldiers. So it is arranged that, as far as possible, they will read (or perhaps not bother to read) about dead civilians instead. This is the price that a "body-bag" mentality exacts.See - it's in no way the fault of the military that innocent people die as a result of military policies that emphasize troop protection. It's the fault of lily-livered Americans who can't stomach the notion that our troops might be injured or killed. But for these weak-kneed Americans, presumably our soldiers would be proudly dying all over Iraq in order to present a friendlier face to the locals. If only liberals would share Hitchen's apparent belief that troops are pawns - cannon fodder, if you will - the Hitchens vision for Iraq might come to fruition.
But wait a minute. It isn't the liberals Hitchens is impugning. It is the conservatives and their "liberal hawk" peers (even if he doesn't want to come right out and say it). Why do I say that? Because if the government and military were playing to the sensitivities of people who thought this war was a bad idea from day one, we wouldn't be in Iraq. Hitchens is accusing the military of conforming its policies to the expectations of people who supported the war, but expected it to be quick and easy, and (like the liberals he loves to impugn) don't like the idea of Americans coming home in body bags.
Hitchens tells us, surprise, that Hussein and his fellows were nasty people, they did nasty things, and that they hoped that high troop casualties would weaken American resolve. Well, how do I say... duh? But last I checked, Hussein was in prison, his buddies weren't running the show, and the easy victory that was all-but-promised by the war's strongest supporters has faded into a violent insurgency that the Bush Administration would like us to believe is in its "last throes"... even if those "last throes" might last, oh, ten or twelve more years. (It is curious that Hitchens, after depicting a Machiavellian Hussein, plotting to undermine popular support for the war through suicide attacks on troops at checkpoints, can't resist undermining his own argument with a gratuitous addendum to his column, describing Hussein as "deluded and deranged during the final days of his despotism". He always wants to have it both ways)
Military and civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan are a test of something beyond themselves. They are part of a design, by those who boastfully claim to be unmoved by killing or by being killed, to evoke in us an emotion that they themselves negate. This terrible quandary cannot be escaped by leaving our civilian allies unprotected, let alone by shooting them if they don't wave quickly enough.Well, yes, it would seem that leaving our allies unprotected, or shooting them, would be bad policy. It is hard to believe that we have been unable to formulate a system by which our allies can be better identified by our troops, so as to avoid unfortunate "friendly fire" deaths. But as for the rest... what the heck?
Military and civilian casualties are not a test of our fortitude, or of our commitment to a cause. Also, military and civilian casualties caused by enemy activity should not be confused or conflated with military and civilian casualties caused by our mistakes. We are to believe that there are people "who boastfully claim to be unmoved by killing or by being killed", and they are testing our fortitude by somehow forcing our military to respond to domestic political concerns by creating policies of self-protection which at times result in unnecessary civilian casualties? Even if I accepted that argument, how does it support Hitchen's thesis? (Perhaps he hopes his readers will, by this point, forget that the deaths under discussion weren't caused by suicide bombers?)
I don't want to seem like I'm being unfair to Hitchens - I do understand the points he is trying to make. I am simply astounded that he makes them so poorly and that, with even the slightest reflection, he should realize that he is undermining his own past and present positions. Hitchens would also do well to address the public relations strategies that made many of the war's most vehement supporters believe that the Iraq invasion would be a quick, easy war with few casualties, and candy and flowers for everyone.
As for his comments on Professor Ellis? It's hard to speak to them without seeing the letter at issue. But I do think it is fair game to ask, of all the nations in the Middle East, and of all the nations which have well-documented connections to anti-U.S. terrorism or more specifically the 9/11 attacks, why did we choose to attack Iraq? You can easily regard the attack on Afghanistan as a frontal attack on Islamic fanaticism in its own homeland, and as being in retaliation for the attack on ours. Iraq? C'mon. If that's in fact what we wanted to do, shouldn't a considerable number of other nations been way ahead of Iraq on our "to invade" list?
Slate would do well to dump Hitchens in favor of, say, Paul Craddick, who (whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions) obviously puts a great deal more thought into these issues for a weblog than Hitchens is willing (or perhaps capable) of extending even when paid.