Tuesday, August 30, 2005

To Train and To Harden?

One of the more ardent and decent partisans of the Iraq war has been Christopher Hitchens. Among his great gifts as a writer and observer of human affairs is his ability to corner an opponent without appearing the petulant bully or the intellectual tyrant. He is also possessed of a thicker skin than most - it is hardly possible anymore to watch a Hitchens tete-a-tete without feeling as though whatever is at issue will fall away at the first mention of Leon Trotsky or Johnnie Walker (respectively, Hitchens' former and current compatriots). That he presses on is due respect, I think. This essay of his (hat tip Justin Logan) is the most extensive he's written on the matter in a while. I think it's fair to say that whatever high ground exists on the pro-war side has not been better defended than by Hitchens. For what it's worth, as a much weaker supporter of the same war, the points worth arguing are made well here, and I can't say I share Justin's out-of-hand dismissal of the article's argument in toto.

As a fan of Hitchens, I don't mind saying that the argument is just a little convoluted. Just a little. Take this excerpt, aimed at skeptics of both the Iraq and Kosovo wars.

One is not mentioning these apparently discrepant crimes and nightmares as a random or unsorted list. Khomeini, for example, was attempting to compensate for the humiliation of the peace agreement he had been compelled to sign with Saddam Hussein. And Saddam Hussein needed to make up the loss, of prestige and income, that he had himself suffered in the very same war. Milosevic (anticipating Putin, as it now seems to me, and perhaps Beijing also) was riding a mutation of socialist nationalism into national socialism. It was to be noticed in all cases that the aggressors, whether they were killing Muslims, or exalting Islam, or just killing their neighbors, shared a deep and abiding hatred of the United States.

It's not always a great idea to paraphrase, but let me try. I think what he's getting at here is that both Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were dangerous men, with a dangerous arsenal of power and the surplus of depravity needed to do horrible things to many people. As far as incontrovertible assertions go, this is a good example. But as an article of argument or persuasion, it has become par for the Hitchens course as a defense of 'wars of choice'. In this essay he manages both to offer an ostensibly reasonable case for internationalist interventionism:

"One should have no problem in accepting this concept. As they cannot and do not deny, there was going to be another round with Saddam Hussein no matter what. To whom, then, should the "choice" of time and place have fallen? The clear implication of the antichoice faction--if I may so dub them--is that this decision should have been left up to Saddam Hussein."

And inadvertently draw some healthy skepticism toward it:

"It has also induced him to give hostages to fortune. The claim that if we fight fundamentalism "over there" we won't have to confront it "over here" is not just a standing invitation for disproof by the next suicide-maniac in London or Chicago, but a coded appeal to provincial and isolationist opinion in the United States. Surely the elementary lesson of the grim anniversary that will shortly be upon us is that American civilians are as near to the front line as American soldiers."

I can yield to this somewhat - in Iraq, it is my belief that the 'laissez-faire' position was and remains untenable, arbitrarily privileging one disastrous posture hinging on the refusal of certainty (and not the absence of it) over another disastrous policy proceeding at least from a decent, organized view of potentialities and probabilities. Such was not the case in Kosovo. But to Hitchens this is a distinction without a difference, because as with the fatal flaw of his Iraq argument (the Kurd conundrum, which Justin points out), what mattered was the particularly altruistic substance of that war, not in what position it placed the United States. The Kosovo war wasn't simply a war of choice as Hitchens contours the term, but a war of welfarism. Dislodged from this motive, the most salutary principle that can be gleaned by the craven realist from that 'struggle' is this:

The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.

Judging from recent appearances, it looks like Hitchens could benefit from some training and hardening himself (couldn't resist).

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