With 20 years having passed since the start of the Iraq War, it is fascinating to look back at who spoke out against the war and who didn’t, including most surprisingly, left-wing journalist Christopher Hitchens.
OPINION | The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
This year marks 20 years since the start of the Iraq War. Reading some thoughtful journalistic articles on the debacle led me to reflect on those fraught times.
Launched by President George W. Bush, there is much discussion among legal scholars that the war was not solidly based in law. Countries should govern themselves according to the UN Charter and protocols. This includes the United States, despite its claim to be an exceptional nation with superior knowledge of international dynamics.
Instead, the war was likely conceived over a lengthy period by neoconservatives, based on a belief in American exceptionalism and the imperative to dominate various parts of the world, including the volatile Middle East. These hardcore believers had little or no regard for international law or the niceties of fundamental rights. The war was almost certainly an illegal act of aggression and led to an ongoing “War on Terror.” Such a war would undoubtedly be never-ending and would involve the U.S. in untold offensive wars, were one to take the concept seriously.
Looking back at the alarming drumbeat for war in the U.S. in 2003, I note there were a few – but only a few – dissenting and courageous voices.
The confusing position of Christopher Hitchens
As an avid reader of left-wing and human rights-affirming publications, I could hardly avoid thinking of Hitchens this year. While a fascinating left-liberal thinker, Hitchens seems to have lost his way when it came to the disastrous Iraq War.
Two recent books by left-wing writers examine Hitchens’ legacy and offer something of an intellectual biography. These add to a posse of earlier books on Hitchens, including a detailed critique of his championing of the war (see Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman’s Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left).
The brilliant and occasionally controversial novelist Martin Amis, who passed away in May of this year, was a staunch friend of Hitchens. One main theme in Amis’ last book, a lightly fictionalized memoir titled Inside Story, is his combative but ultimately simpatico literary partnership and friendship with “Hitch”.
Particularly poignant is a late chapter where Amis meets with Hitchens. By that point, Hitchens’ cancer had progressed to a very late stage. Amis writes of Hitchens confronting the many political failures he had witnessed in his action-packed, nomadic existence as a journalist, accomplished writer and pundit. Hitchens resolutely faced his coming mortal end with courage and humour.
Amis’ novel does a fine job of vividly portraying his close friend and political maverick. The two engage in several stimulating discussions, during which we get some sense of Hitchens’ internationalism as a confusing mix of ideas. In their last meeting, Amis writes about their talk of Israel/Palestine and how the oppression of Palestinians was a great political sadness for Hitchens. “Like his sloughing of hope in socialism, like his sloughing of hope in the outcome of the war in Iraq…”
Like many liberals, Hitchens became a leading supporter of the Iraq War. One can understand his obvious frustration at the failure of the U.S. and the West to do more to bring about self-determination for the Kurds. His lengthy career of advocating for vulnerable, stateless populations such as the Kurds, the Palestinians and Tibetans, was admirable.
However, it should have been clear from scrutinizing the Bush Administration’s key players that there had been a long-held desire to reshape the Middle East and to ensure greater control of oil and other strategic assets, particularly in Iraq. It is implausible that humanitarian considerations and a deep respect for human rights motivated President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The situation of the Kurds was far down their list of priorities.
Instead, the Iraq War led to hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of deaths if we count indirect deaths caused by the brutal and destructive American campaign, both in Iraq and in nearby Syria. There are also reports of U.S. troops committing a series of shocking human rights violations. For example, the inhumane treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba, which the U.S. seems to think is a legal “black hole”.
Examining Hitchens through the lens of critical works and the more personal account offered by Amis, I think we see that Hitchens changed. Initially, Hitchens valued the political left – the movement that has most consistently spoken up in favour of civil liberties and a commitment to legal equality. When Amis first describes him as an Oxford University student in the 1960s, Hitchens comes across as a thoroughbred racing confidently with long strides. He was guided by his progressive political beliefs, especially his anti-colonial and anti-imperial views.
Over time, Hitchens’ priorities shifted. He ultimately came to support the interventionist stance of the Bush Administration. There was of course no guarantee that Bush would uphold the universal values and commitment to meaningful freedom for all that Hitchens claimed to believe in. While the Kurds in Iraq did benefit from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the resulting sectarian strife and mounting political and legal instability in the country almost certainly made the region and the world a more dangerous place. Extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS proliferated in the wake of the breakdown of Iraq.
Instead of challenging the dominant narrative and the course of the war, however, Hitchens chose to remain a fervent, lead-footed supporter of the ongoing debacle. He had changed from the sleek racehorse of his Oxford days to a black rhinoceros, an animal known to attack first and ask questions later. While thinking of himself as a contrarian, in reality Hitchens risked becoming that cliché – a left-wing thinker who moved sharply to the right as his wealth and influence increased and his overreaction to a single attack led to a reversal of previous political (and legal) positions.
Those who spoke out
During the war, I think there were prominent writers who did maintain their commitment to the left and to an intelligent appraisal of the dangers of the impending war. Some liberal players, like Canadian academic and short-lived Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, initially supported the war but then acknowledged their mistakes in doing so.
I recall reading articles by Canada’s Linda McQuaig when the war started. Through her writing, Linda alerted progressive-minded citizens to the inherent dangers of such an offensive war. McQuaig followed her writings in the Toronto Star with two bestselling accounts of the era: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and Holding the Bully’s Coat.
Another such writer is Gillian Slovo, who has an impeccable record of challenging apartheid in her native South Africa and other systems of apartheid or domination elsewhere around the world. She wrote a play I saw in London with Victoria Brittain called Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. It dramatizes the profound loss of respect for human rights displayed by individuals such as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush, among others in his administration.
Best of all, the play conveys the absurdity of imprisoning individuals at Guantanamo for no valid reason and then denying any opportunity to challenge the ongoing detentions. By throwing out basic rules and procedures of fundamental fairness, serious human rights violations were bound to occur. Surely, we all remember the Torture memo, prepared by a group of high-ranking lawyers in the Bush Administration, including John Yoo. This was a stain on the legal profession itself.
However, it was almost impossible to offer a reasoned critique of the war in U.S. media or in the wider public sphere without severe backlash. Several high-profile figures were targeted. Some, like film producer Ed Gerson, were fired. Others, like Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, saw cancellation of events at which they were to appear. The Dixie Chicks received obscene levels of vitriolic attack. Dissent was made exceedingly difficult just when a meaningful debate was surely needed.
The cause of the suffering
I firmly believe that Hitchens and most political commentators supporting a war that led to so many human rights violations meant the questionable justification for the war was not properly scrutinized.
The committees formed years later to examine the origins and conduct of the Iraq War remind me of Bertold Brecht, the great German playwright and poet (In the Jungle of the Cities, Mother Courage). Brecht recounted a story of a king who was distraught to learn of the suffering in the world. He convened his wise men to seek out the cause of all this suffering and report back to him. They proceeded to do so and returned with a clear answer: the cause of the suffering was the king.
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.