home > archive > 2003 > this article
A Long Short War
The war for the war
By Steven Martinovich
Christopher Hitchens is an unlikely hero for those who supported the coalition invasion of Iraq earlier this year. Hitchens, a former Trotskyite, had opposed the 1991 Gulf War of George H.W. Bush because he believed the war was conducted for the wrong moral reasons. It came as a surprise to many then when he came out in support of the younger Bush's proposed invasion and provided potent intellectual justification for it. It also drew fire from a constituency that Hitchens has long enjoyed the unflagging support of but has lately abandoned him – and he it.
Some people have attempted to explain away Hitchens' support for the liberation of the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime as atonement for his Marxist past. Others postulated that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 allowed Hitchens to tie his longtime support of Iraqi Kurds to America's war on terrorism. They are charges that may have some validity, only Hitchens knows for sure, but they come across as a little too one-dimensional when you compared them to his passion for regime change.
A number of the essays that saw him argue for the war have been collected in A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Published between November 2002 and April 2003, the collection -- which mostly appeared on Slate.com -- is a powerful case for why he believed the war in Iraq was necessary. It overwhelms the reader, whether they were for or against the war, with a series of moral arguments that often were stronger than the ones that the Bush administration mustered in support of its cause.
Morality played a strong role in Hitchens' arguments for an invasion of Iraq, especially the notion of evil, a concept that many smirked at when Bush invoked the term to describe Hussein and his peers in Iran and North Korea. In a December 31, 2002 essay Hitchens takes aim at those people who managed to separate the evil of the acts perpetrated by the Hussein regime -- atrocities that we are only now beginning to learn the extent of -- from the man himself. Critics of the invasion pointed out that Hussein was far from the only dictator who brutalized the population of his nation. While that's true, Hitchens argues, the Hussein's regime "eagerness to go to the extra mile" by supplying the evidence of torture to the victim's family as a statement of state power and capriciousness makes it worthy of extra condemnation.
"[I]f we are willing to say, as we are, that the devil is in the details, then it may not be an exaggeration to detect a tincture of evil in the excess. We could have a stab at making a clinical definition and define evil as the surplus value of the psychopathic -- an irrational delight in flouting every customary norm of civilization," wrote Hitchens.
Hitchens also took on those who decry America's war on terrorism as unilateral and a signpost on the way to the United States as an imperial power. He points out that the United States has acted imperially in the past and that other nations -- particularly those in Europe -- have taken advantage of that fact to advance their agenda, most notably when the impotent European powers relied on American airpower to force the Serbian military out of Kosovo. Nor is America's status as an imperial power necessarily a concern in Hitchens' eyes as long as incorporates the philosophy of Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson in its actions.
There are few, if any, of the antiwar arguments and their related issues from both the left and the right that Hitchens doesn't convincingly answer in A Long Short War. He managed to casually and compellingly demolish the slogans that were confused for philosophies and clearly spell out why he believed it was necessary to risk so much to remove Hussein and his Ba'athist regime from power. A Long Short War is a withering salvo at the war's critics and Hitchens' incisive commentary is the literary equivalent of an artillery strike. You may not have agreed with him but to fail to answer him was to lose the philosophical war before the real one began.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Buy A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq at Amazon.com for
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2018, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.