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Christopher Hitchens, Despite Criticism And Casualties, Defended Iraq War To The End

Christopher Hitchens

First Posted: 12/16/11 04:35 PM ET Updated: 12/18/11 12:23 PM ET

NEW YORK -- The New York Times led Friday morning's paper with a headline over eight years in the making: "U.S. Marks End to a Long War for an Uncertain Iraq."

Further down the front page, below the fold, was the obituary for Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant polemicist and an unwavering supporter of a war he considered effectively over in his June 2003 collection, "A Long Short War."

It was a striking juxtaposition -- the war's official end coinciding with the death of the its most articulate supporter -- and also a reminder that Hitchens' assumptions about a "short" war in Iraq turned out to be wrong.

In the years that followed, the United States would spend trillions of dollars, while the U.S.-led coalition forces lost over 4,800 troops. There were also over 100,000 Iraqi fatalities since the first bombs dropped on Baghdad, including 66,000 civilians, to say nothing of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and life-altering injuries suffered by soldiers and civilians alike. And although the U.S is withdrawing its troops, the country remains far from stable.

But Hitchens, who leant his intellectual heft to the Bush administration's rush to war, never apologized for his staunch advocacy, saying it was justified because of a single death that resulted from the invasion: that of Saddam Hussein. Late last year, Hitchens could be found still defending his pro-war stance, telling the BBC that he "couldn't support any policy that involved the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power -- the private ownership of Iraq, in other words, by him and his crime family."

"I thought you couldn't give your support to any policy that supported that," Hitchens continued. "So to that extent, I'm not apologetic."

An outspoken atheist, Hitchens wouldn't give in to religious critics by suddenly acknowledging God's existence after being diagnosed with cancer. Similarly, the feisty journalist wasn't about to satisfy Iraq War critics, some of whom harshly criticized him in the lead-up to the war, by admitting he may have been wrong in any way. While Hitchens acknowledged the costs in blood and treasure -- and bungled post-war plans -- he maintained that military action had been the right step to take because it removed Hussein from power.

Invading Iraq, he argued, was justified for historical reasons stretching well before the Sept. 11 attacks or the election of George W. Bush. Hitchens considered Hussein a brutal dictator, which he was, and argued that the U.S. -- which helped push Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991 and still maintained a no-fly-zone to protect the Kurds in the North and Shia in South -- had never been fully removed from conflict with Iraq. So the invasion, in his view, was not preemptive, and the "short" war to remove Hussein was essentially the continuation of an ongoing struggle. Indeed, he subtitled the 2003 book, "The Postponed Liberation of Iraq."

But even if Hitchens could make sweeping historical arguments to justify the invasion, he inevitably hitched his wagon to Bush's star. While Hitchens pressed for war in pieces he wrote for Slate, Bush administration officials were busy talking up the threat of weapons of mass destruction and raising the possibility of Hussein acquiring a nuclear weapon. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned on CNN. Of course, it would later be revealed how the Bush administration began considering the invasion right after 9/11 -- despite the attacks having had nothing to do with Hussein -- and cherry-picked evidence, ignored U.N. inspectors, made a bogus case for WMDs in the media, and rushed to war without adequate post-invasion planning.

Hitchens, however, never lost sleep over the lack of WMDs, the supposed existence of which was a central tenet in the Bush administration's case for war. "If I could have had it proved to me beyond doubt that he did NOT have any serious stockpiles on hand, I would have argued -- did in fact argue -- that this made it the perfect time to hit him ruthlessly and conclusively," Hitchens wrote in his 2010 memoir, "Hitch-22." "It would both punish the previous use and prevent any repetition of it."

WMD's or not, Hitchens defended the war -- and his role in promoting it -- as being on the right side of history, saying it was an appropriate response in a post-9/11 world. He dubbed the attacks "fascism with an Islamic face" in his post-9/11 column for the Nation.

"I don't quite see Christopher as a 'man of action,' but he’s always looking for the defining moment -- as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy," his friend, Ian Buruma, told the New Yorker's Ian Parker in a 2006 profile.

Parker wrote that just as Orwell, who took up arms during the Spanish Civil War, "got it right on the greatest questions of the twentieth century -- Communism, Fascism, and imperialism -- so Hitchens wanted a future student to see that he had been similarly scrupulous and clear-eyed."

As the Iraq War dragged on, some war supporters -- especially among the so-called "liberal hawks" -- began penning mea culpas. But Hitchens wasn't one for self-flagellation. In March 2008, Hitchens joined other war supporters in contributing to a Slate series intended to answer the question, "Why did we get it wrong?" Hitchens' lead sentence says it all. "I didn't," he wrote.

Again, Hitchens made a philosophical argument that hostilities with Iraq didn't begin when Bush gave the go-ahead to drop bombs. He argued in the Slate piece that the U.S has been involved in Iraq at least since 1968, when the CIA played a role in the coup that later brought Hussein's Baath Party to power. In the decades that followed, Hitchens noted, came the Gulf War, sanctions, and the passing of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.

"We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons," Hitchens wrote. "This must, and still does, count for something."

Hitchens not only continued to assert he was right, but from the start of the war, he openly mocked its critics -- in an April 2003 Slate piece, "Giving Peace a Chance," and in the weeks and months to come.

On stage at Pace University in June 2003, the week "A Long Short War was published," Hitchens took his polemical victory lap. He not only defended the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, but dismissed the arguments of those opposed to it as being on the wrong side of history, according to a Nation write-up of the event. If the antiwar contingent had had its way over the years, Hitchens argued, "Kuwait would still be the nineteenth province of Iraq, the ethnic cleansing of Kurdistan would have gone unpunished, Bosnia would now be part of Greater Serbia, Kosovo would be another cleansed howling wilderness and the Taliban would still be the government of Afghanistan."

For another eight years -- long after the "short" war was supposed to have ended -- Hitchens argued that the invasion was the right thing to do and justified given the history of the United States and Iraq. If decades from now, historians view Hitchens favorably when it comes to his arguments for war in Iraq, it will no doubt be an outcome he expected.

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