Christopher Hitchens, best-selling author, polemical powerhouse, Bush Doctrine supplicant and militant atheist, died of cancer yesterday at the age of 62. Perhaps more than any Western intellectual, Hitchens deserves credit for popularizing the framework that the United States was absolutely correct to invade Iraq as part of a “clash of civilizations” against “Islamofascism.” It was quite a journey for Hitchens, who went from fierce polemicist against imperial war to being equally fierce in favor of it, a process anti-war British MP George Galloway described as “evolution in reverse, from butterfly to slug.”
I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer. Its subject was the death of NFL player turned army ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. This was before anyone knew anything about the lies or cover-up following Pat’s death. My piece was more a lament that Pat Tillman—described by friends as a complex, iconoclastic, human being—was already being exploited by the Pentagon in a way he would have despised. I was also at the time a regular marcher and agitator against Bush’s wars, having helped start a group called DAWN (the DC Anti-War Network). I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.
With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Hitchens had been drinking, and about to join a table of 20-somethings who peered up at him like they were tweens at a Bieber concert. I said to him, “Sir, I write about politics and sports for your former employers at The Nation magazine.”
Before I could speak another word, Hitchens interrupted. Cigarette fastened in the corner of his mouth, he said, “Did you write this week’s piece on Pat Tillman?” I was taken aback, a little shocked, and frankly flattered. I stammered a “yes” and Hitchens, out of kindness or sensing weakness said, “That was the finest piece of anti-war polemics I’ve seen since combat began.” Now I was practically blushing. Praise from Caesar.
Then he said four words that soured the discussion dramatically. He said, turning away from me, “You used Tillman brilliantly.” I couldn’t tell if he was still buttering me up or sticking the stiletto between my ribs, but after speaking to people who loved Pat all week, it was more than I could stand.
Before he could walk away, I called out, “Well, he was a great human being. And if it wasn’t for your war he’d still be alive.” There was now a pause and Hitchens turned back around like he was “Wild Bill” Hickok in the Polemicists Saloon. He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”
I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”
Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud. To be spit upon by Christopher Hitchens, for an anti-war activist in 2005, was an honor worth its weight in gold. It also felt real. Most public figures of his ilk are so full of hot air and self-regard, they aren’t even human. For Hitchens, you could see, decades after his days as a student socialist agitator, he was conflicted by what he had become. This is obvious in much of his recent writings: a constant effort to reassure himself that he hadn’t really morphed into what he had once despised. If nothing else, he was consistent in his hatred of Henry Kissinger, and I for one, regret that the aged war criminal outlived his most effective foe.
Christopher Hitchens was a man of prodigious gifts, but in the end, he used those gifts to promote wars that produced a killing field in the Middle East. That, tragically, is his lasting legacy to the world, and no amount of flowery obituaries can change this stubborn fact.