07/06/2010 12:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: A Narcissistic Manchild

Does the thought of preemptive war still give Christopher Hitchens erections? He said it did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. (Actually, he joked that the mere mention of the word "preemptive" would initiate tumescence.) Once, during a debate with Rabbi Harold Kushner, he chided the rabbi for uttering a wisecrack about circumcision: "There is nothing funny about genital mutilation!" he thundered self-righteously. But apparently it's okay to make light of the impending death of thousands.

Of course Hitchens, like other war cheerleaders, didn't expect a high body count. They believed Iraq would be a "cakewalk," as Kenneth Adelman infamously said (Adelman has since regretted supporting the invasion). With the Bush-Cheney co-presidency, Hitchens ignored the warnings against hubris that his extensive reading should have attuned him to. In a chapter on Iraq in his memoir, Hitch-22, he devotes a single paragraph to self-criticism. He concedes he should have pressed Paul Wolfowitz for more details on the occupation plan. And yet, even if he had discovered the truth---that there was no well-organized and viable occupation plan---he wouldn't have turned on the administration. He continued to vigorously defend it long after there was clear evidence it had tragically miscalculated the situation. More damningly, he mocked and dismissed those who had been right from the start; not only the usual leftist suspects he enjoys insulting (Chomsky, Michael Moore, etc.), but sensible voices that recognized Iraq as a dangerous deviation from precedent.

Unlike his friends, Andrew Sullivan and Michael Ignatieff, two intellectual proponents of the war who have done the honorable thing and admitted they were wrong, Hitchens remains unbowed. Ignatieff said that Iraq taught him "specifics matter more than generalities." Hitchens would disagree. Principle above all, he would declare. Principle is potentially heroic; it tests your character, draws a line in the sand. Shortly after 9/11, Hitchens wrote that he found the idea of an interminable war against Islamic fundamentalism "interesting" (his italics). It was thrillingly Manichaean, an indisputable struggle between good and evil. But Hitchens has an almost pathological intolerance of boredom. As soon as the discussion switches to the nitty-gritty of governance, his eyes glaze over. David Runciman put it best, perhaps, when he observed that Hitchens prefers "the occasion to the outcome."

Hitchens wasn't willing to shed his own blood and treasure for the "occasion" in Iraq. Unlike his hero, George Orwell, who was shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, Hitchens has avoided combat. But he was ready to fight to the last GI. In 2005, he listed ten reasons why the war in Iraq should be prosecuted. Here is no. 10: "The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat." In his memoir, Hitchens praises Mark Jennings Daly, a young soldier who died in Iraq. Daly's decision to enlist had been influenced, in part, by Hitchens's columns. With understandable trepidation, Hitchens contacted Daly's parents. They graciously invited him to a ceremony in Daly's honor. Did they know Hitchens considered casualties like their son the unfortunate by-product of an enormous live field exercise that will ultimately build a tougher, savvier military? In other words, Daly sacrificed his life so the army can be all it can be.

Hitchens views the world bichromatically, in black and white. Essential for a polemicist, deadly to poets and novelists. Which is why he can never produce poetry or fiction. He is incapable of negative capability, of "being in uncertainties," as Keats wrote of Shakespeare. Hitchens thrives on certainty. But there have been notable instances when he has demonstrated wishy-washiness.

In his memoir, Hitchens informs us that he resigned his membership in the Labour Party because it would not denounce the use of torture by the British in Northern Ireland. But I don't recall this being a deal-breaker between him and the Bush administration. Yes, he had himself waterboarded---under controlled circumstances and at the suggestion of his editor at Vanity Fair. Then he appeared on talk shows, acting like Captain Renault in Casablanca: he was shocked, shocked that waterboarding was torture. But the procedure has been condemned as such for centuries.

Also, Hitchens claims to hate dictators, but he has been pretty easy on Fidel Castro. This may be because he harbors residual romanticism toward the Cuban Revolution. He first visited the island in 1968, as a teenage Marxist. During his half-century in power, Castro imprisoned and killed untold numbers, and transformed a pleasant nation into a depressing lockup. Hitchens has commented on the rigidity of the regime, but his tone is tepid, as if his heart isn't in it. Compare this with the fiery invective he has directed against Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim-Jong-il. Also, check out the photo in his memoir of him and Castro's protege, Hugo Chavez. Is it my imagination or does Hitchens look like he's having a good time? (Sean Penn sure is; he's beaming in the background.) Lest one think Hitchens doesn't acknowledge Chavez as a dictator, it says "the dictator" in the caption.

Hitchens's narcissism and perpetually adolescent state have been noted by others. As have his opportunism, hypocrisy, and---perhaps his worst trait---incapacity to admit error. On Iraq he still insists, "I was right and they were wrong." He should remember Hotspur's advice in Henry IV, Part I: the way to shame the devil is by telling the truth.

This post was completed shortly before the news broke of Hitchens's cancer diagnosis. I considered not sending it---for a moment. It would have been the Christian thing to do. But I too believe god is not great. Consequently, I asked myself not WWJD but WWHD: What would Hitchens do? His ex-friend Edward Said waged a protracted battle with leukemia. This didn't stop him from attacking Said for his anti-American views. Nor did he refrain from going after Harold Pinter (who was also afflicted with esophageal cancer) and an enfeebled Mother Teresa. Given a choice between silent decorum and engaged expression, Hitchens has almost invariably picked the latter. Victorious ends justify low-down means. "Why would you ever be fair?" he once asked another ex-friend, Sidney Blumenthal, whom he betrayed during the Clinton impeachment trial. I don't wish the man ill. I hope he makes a full recovery. In fact, I hope he and his neoconservative cohorts live well into their 80s and 90s, so they may witness the lasting effects of their folly.