A nicely provocative, if disparate mix of field notes, book reviews, essays, and appreciations.
“An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war,” the author explains of his title. Polemicist Hitchens (Why Orwell Matters, 2002, etc.) admits to having been fortunate in love, hungry but never starved, and farther away from dangerous action than many journalistic colleagues. Tying together these various pieces from The Atlantic Monthly, The Times Literary Supplement, and other journals is the Orwellian—in the good sense of the word—insistence on the need for writers to stand up and speak against the received wisdoms of left and right alike. Hitchens announces, for instance, a fierce and nuanced patriotism in the wake of 9/11. “One has to be capable of knowing when something is worth fighting for,” he insists. “One has to be capable of knowing an enemy when one sees one.” There’s nothing knee-jerk about his newfound positions. A former but unrepentant socialist, he attacks with equal attentiveness Noam Chomsky on the far left, David Irving on the far right, and a host of unfortunates who lie somewhere in between but are not sufficiently committed to ideas to gain his sympathy. At turns he writes about such heady matters as the historical revisionism now surrounding Winston Churchill (who, Hitchens ventures, made it possible for the US to be a global superpower); the political paradoxes that pepper the writings of Rudyard Kipling; the willful inaccuracies of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11; the mediocrity of contemporary politics, publishing, and media; the hamburgers of Middle America; and the sights and sounds of such uncongenial places as Pyongyang, Podgorica, and Baghdad, to say nothing of such uncongenial people as Mel Gibson and Osama bin Laden.
A well-turned collection with scarcely a false note. A pleasure for Hitchens’s many fans, and certainly no comfort for his enemies.
When he is not being mean and when he is not happy, he can write as well as George Orwell. His witnessing an execution by lethal injection of a man who was suffering from post-Vietnam stress disorder makes for a brilliant, chilling piece of work. "The medical butchery of a helpless and demented loser, the descendant of slaves and a discarded former legionary of the Empire, made neither society nor any individual safer. It canceled no moral debt. It was a creepy, furtive and shameful affair, in which the participants could not decently show their faces or quite meet one another's eye." His essay on the nonteaching of history in the United States, where his own children cannot "tell Thomas Jefferson from Thomas the Tank Engine," is also thoughtful and convincing.
When he travels with a moral purpose, his prose becomes sharper. His long article on the Kurds, in all their wanderings, is a serious piece of reporting. His trip to North Korea belongs both in an anthology of good comic writing and in one of good political reporting. His surprisingly measured essay on David Irving, the historian who denied the Holocaust, has all the hallmarks of Orwell's method -- to be deeply suspicious, first of all, of your own prejudices before you begin to approach the prejudices of others.
The events of 9/11 left Hitchens breathless. He enjoys a fundamental belief in American freedoms; he can use the phrase "our republic" without irony. He can end an essay entitled "Jewish Power, Jewish Peril" with remarks about "the cliché about Jews' being inherently and intuitively smart. . . . Smart enough even to see that the Promised Land may be a secular multiethnic democracy, none the worse for being a second home to many other wanderers and victims, too. America, in a word. The best hope and, yes, perhaps the last one."
In Hitchens's assaults on Mother Teresa, it was apparent that the storm had merely found its teacup; then, after 9/11, he found a worthy subject. His message was clear. These atrocities were not caused by "freedom fighters"; these events were not chickens come home to roost. "The bombers of Manhattan," he writes, "represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's no point in any euphemism about it." He now had two new sets of archenemies, the bombers themselves and those in the United States who took the view that the atrocities were a result of American foreign policy. In the months after 9/11, Hitchens ran a campaign of shock and awe against these people, most of it passionate and, even in retrospect, persuasive.
HE then wrote two articles, included at the end of this book, that represent a low point in his long career. In October 2001, when he visited Pakistan, all his subtlety and street wisdom left him, all his wit was gone. He was simply an arrogant Englishman in a hot country having a snarl at the natives. Watching the local men coming out of the mosques, Hitchens became indignant at them for displaying what he could "only call an attitude." He himself has made his living, and rightly so, out of such displays. "As elsewhere in Pakistan," he says, "there was a miasma of self-pity mingled with self-righteousness." Some of that miasma must have been infectious, since Hitchens exudes his own brand of self-righteousness and vast superiority in his account of his journeys through the country at that time. Evelyn Waugh would have recognized his type.
The other piece, an account of a stay in Iraq, was published in Vanity Fair in October 2003. From one of Waugh's expatriates Hitchens now has become a bit-part figure in a Graham Greene novel. His tone is naïve and simpering. "When you meet a battlefield officer in Iraq," he writes, "as often as not, you are dealing with someone who cut his or her teeth in political-humanitarian rescue in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo or Afghanistan. Their operational skills are reconstruction, liaison with civilian forces, the cultivation of intelligence and the study of religion and ethnicity." He goes on: "Intelligence officers told me even then that they were getting more raw information than they could sift or process, and were being scrupulous in screening out tips that might involve grudges or revenge. This is, in every sense, a smart army."
There was a time when Hitchens would have pounced on the above quotation, enjoying its foolishness. On this trip he was not, he might have been the first to point out, in any sense a smart reporter. His Iraq, after its liberation from Saddam Hussein, was a place Orwell would have been proud of. "In fact," Hitchens says, "what is happening in today's Iraq is something more like a social and political revolution than a military occupation. . . . Local people are getting used to the sight of professional young American women, white and black and Hispanic, efficiently on patrol. Police cadets are receiving instruction in civil and human rights."
Hitchens is brave to reproduce these observations, written in the heat of battle. He will, perhaps, be braver still if he applies his noble mind to how that "study of religion and ethnicity" and that "instruction in civil and human rights" have worked out. Part of his considerable talent is his ability to change; his next move should not be missed.
Colm Toibin's latest novel is "The Master."Continue reading the main story