by Michael Carson
In November 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote a requiem for a soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The piece is titled “A Death in the Family.” I have read the article several times and I am still unclear what “family” Hitchens refers to: is it the soldier’s family? Or is Hitchens implying that the dead soldier is part of Hitchens’ family? Are Hitchens and the soldier part of a universal American family? Or is he simply making use of James Agee’s 1957 posthumous novel about a dying family member to add literary heft? A professional essayist, especially one of Hitchens’ reputation and caliber, would not simply toss off a title because it sounded good on the tongue, would he? The title is in very ways the heart of the matter. So who did the dying and who is the family? And why was Hitchens so interested in family all of a sudden?
Ostensibly, the article is about the death of Mark Daily, a cavalry officer who served with the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division. Lieutenant Daily died in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city, during the height of “The Surge,” when 20,000 extra soldiers were sent to Iraq in an effort to stop its slide into chaos and civil war. A 1,500 pound bomb exploded beneath his Humvee killing Daily, his driver (Specialist Matthew Grimm), an NCO (Sergeant John Cooper), the Gunner (Sergeant Ian Anderson), and their Iraqi Interpreter (anyone’s guess). This event was unremarkable in itself, in the sense that many events like it occurred with a fair degree of regularity, back then during “The Surge.”
Unlike the other deceased, however, Lieutenant Daily had a pronounced respect for Christopher Hitchens’ writing, so much so Daily’s Myspace page described Hitchens’ articles as a causal motivation for being in Iraq in the first place. Daily, we find out later, even sent Hitchens emails asking for patronage. He would be, the tardily opened emails read, his “front-line correspondent” in a war against “everything Hitchens hated.” Though ignored as embarrassing fan correspondence while alive, posthumously the unread email becomes the subject of much guilty consternation for Hitchens, so much so, in fact, he decided to write about the fallen soldier in Vanity Fair.
The article was nominated for the New York University Excellence in Journalism prize. I am not privy to the selection committee’s rubric, but I assume the article merited a second look because Hitchens seemed to be on the verge of asking for something that might be considered forgiveness. Why should that be important? The key to the article is the question of responsibility. After Hitchens “wriggles around in his chair,” he emails Daily’s parents expecting the worst. But the parents, it turns out, are genuinely nice people who do not blame Hitchens for their son’s premature death. They never speak in the article, but the reader is led to believe they embrace Hitchens as a family member, hence one shade of the title’s meaning. Hitchens even speaks at the funeral. And Hitchens, being Hitchens, quotes Macbeth, the only passage “that can hope to rise to such an occasion.” Hitchens explains to Daily’s father, just as Ross did old Siward, that “Your cause of sorrow/Must not be measured by his worth, for then/It hath no end.”
Poignantly put. Hitchens does not leave it there though. A literary critic, and thus professionally predisposed to introspection, he must measure responsibility in other ways as well. When he hears of Daily’s fiery death and understands his connection to the incident, he quotes Yeats lines from the “Man and the Echo:”
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot? …
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?
Hitchens admits his own vitriolic propaganda for the Iraq war is of a different order than that of the Irish poet exploring Irish rebellion. And of course he is correct; Yeats is an artist looking at all sides of a given aesthetic experience. Yeats wrote “Second Coming” and “Easter, 1916.” Hitchens is a controversial essayist turned warmonger; a more apt comparison would be between Hitchens and Hilaire Belloc, the Catholic polemicist who inveighed against the Kaiser’s Germany in tiresomely enthusiastic catechisms from 1914 through 1918. But the juxtaposition between Yeats and Hitchens, however absurd and self-aggrandizing, does hold a kernel of truth: drama is not the only medium capable of influencing young men. Just because Hitchens is no Yeats (by any imaginable standard of aesthetic comparison), it doesn’t mean that Hitchens’ writing is impotent or irrelevant. In fact, it might make Hitchens’ influence more dangerous, as he, of all people, cannot possibly hope to exculpate his rambling fulminations via an appeal to artistic virtuosity.
After quoting Yeats, and laughing off the comparison as an “over-dramatization,” Hitchens tries his hand at historical theory. Causes, he argues, (making use of E.H. Carr’s What is History?) are multiple; no historical event can be considered in the light of a single cause. This observation, according to Hitchens, makes normal causal arguments impossible. To use the Iraq war as an example: should we blame Bush for sending American soldiers to Iraq or Daily’s mother for giving birth to Mark in the first place? Choosing one cause over another, Hitchens implies, is a fool’s errand, an absurdity; there are so many at fault here, and so many events leading up the event in question, any attempt to discriminate between them would be a waste of time. The best thing to do, the more tactful thing, would be to offer an encomium on the dearly departed, praise the country and family that produces such men, quote Shakespeare, and move on as best we can.
Interestingly, in his hastily compiled list of endless causes, Hitchens does not explicitly state the casus belli motivating the article. Hitchens lays out all the varied failures of the administration prosecuting the war he championed. He also spends a couple seconds on the “Bin Ladinst riff-raff” who placed the bomb in the road. Yet he never asks the obvious question: is it Christopher Hitchens, the perspicuous slayer of intellectual and spiritual idols, which threw over a lifetime of dialectically conditioned prose to orgasmically and unequivocally support a “war against all he hated,” who betrayed an easily impressionable aspiring intellectual’s trust? Instead, an unusually self-abnegating Hitchens simply starts a new paragraph on another topic. Does Hitchens recuse himself or is he pointing to the absurdity of the question, as he does elsewhere when challenged to the point of intellectual exhaustion? Or is he simply indifferent to the consequences of a certain unpalatable strain of logic?
A historian might respond that the historical discipline consists of choosing from a legion of causes, and that these choices reflect not only politics but carefully researched and considered discernment. This same hypothetical historian might go on to argue that relativism, however upsetting, makes the process and consequences of choosing that much more important. Vitally important. For Hitchens, this task of evaluating from among the different possible paths and choosing – what George Scialabba describes as “excruciating calculations” in his article “Farewell, Hitch” – is just that: too excruciating. Bring on the water-boarding; but humility and sustained dialectical thought? Not a chance. Not for Hitch. Instead, the author, after seven years of verbal excoriations against dictatorship and theocracy, seven years of dreaming up grand adventures and moral revolutions, responds with tears, and tells his readers to do likewise. We have to cry, he says, because Mark Daily could have been great, and based on his thorough investigations, Daily’s might-have-been greatness represents something noble in a fairy tale gone awry.
And who could have known, honestly? What historical precedent could have possibly been used to avoid Mark Daily’s death? If only our culture had possessed a book or series of articles seriously concerned with thinking about the past, and an erudite, renowned thinker with massive moral credibility and great rhetorical powers; that man might have propagated his wise lessons to those well-read youths. Sadly, no such intellectual existed. Whatever the case, we will never know because Hitchens conveniently if somewhat duplicity decides that the question is ridiculous. Better to simply quote young George Orwell’s osmotic assessment of the Spanish Civil War: “I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” Is Hitchens arguing Iraq is worth fighting for, or America, Mosul, or America’s youth? Who knows? Specific questions are beside the point to Hitchens. Hitchens’ pantheon of obscure mystical heroism has embraced a new member. The world moves in mysterious ways, the world’s leading neo-atheist tells us, so let us simply be happy about what is left to us, and praise those who have suffered in its cause – whatever “it” is. Cardinal Ratzinger, Henry Kissinger and Bin Laden – all faithful and serious men who spurn consequences in the name of action – would be proud of their one time detractor’s epistemological sympathy. “I was right and they were wrong” Hitchens said when pressed about his support of the war. Amen.
Hitchens concludes with even more Orwell, falling back on his long cherished belief that if you quote Orwell enough people might begin to think you are humane and honest as Orwell. Unfortunately, for Hitchens, Mark Daily, Sergeant Cooper, Sergeant Anderson, and Specialist Grimm – also America, Iraq and the world – Hitchens is no George Orwell. The Orwell discussed here is 1939 Orwell, lyricizing about the Spanish Civil War and the people he met there. One of those people, an Italian, is admired for his simple-minded adherence to “the flyblown words that make me spew.” Hitchens draws a comparison between Daily and the simple Italian, “born knowing what I learned out of books and slowly.” One can only assume Hitchens sees himself as Orwell in this telling, exhausted, cynical, but still capable of recognizing nobility when he sees it; rest assured, he tells the reader and mourners alike, “no bomb that ever burst/shatters the crystal spirit,” a relief, I am sure, to those who clean up what bombs do shatter.
When quoting Yeats “Man and The Echo” earlier in the piece, Hitchens excises two lines. The full text reads:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot? …
Did word words of mine put too much strain
On the woman’s reeling brain
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?
Hitchens is now dead, just like Daily. He wrote a fine book on facing death called Mortality and the leading literary lights have eulogized him in nearly every relevant English speaking publication. Some of those obituaries are deserved hagiographies, but others harp ceaselessly on his vociferous support for the war. Yet none, as far as I know, have made reference to “Man and The Echo” and the two lines he excised, two lines perfectly applicable to Hitchens’ own war experience, such as it was. Words, arguments, counter-arguments, subtleties, relativity and history overwhelmed him, so he came out in unqualified support of a war against “everything he hated.” The intellectual life simply “put too much strain” on his “reeling brain.” Thankfully, Hitchens’ “crystal spirit,” which no bomb can ever burst, rises above the flyblown words that make those of still alive, and alive to what actually happened in the past ten years, spew.
So, we return to the title. Hitchens wanted us to believe the loss of Daily is a loss for us all, that our national and spiritual family has been dealt a blow. Yet none of this is empirically verifiable of course because Daily did not have a chance to lead his life, and neither did Cooper, Anderson, Grimm or the easily-overlooked and forgotten interpreter. We can speak ill of them or praise them to the skies. But nothing we can do or say can bring them back or let us know anything about their forever-hypothetical future lives, as those futures stopped on a street just east of the storied Tigris. What we can say with some accuracy is that the war broke families apart, the war ruined families, the war tore asunder and unmade families, mostly in Iraq, but even – God forbid – in America too. The war tore Hitchens apart from his spiritual brother Orwell; turned Yeats against lifelong fan “Hitch;” convinced a hysterical Hitchens to spit bile at lifelong polemical peers; and otherwise made a mockery of respectful discourse and the trust required to build an intellectual community. There was no death in the family; it was the death of a family. And while Hitchens was not the cause, no competent jury of historians or peers would declare him innocent either.