Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dulce et Decorum Est

I've been away and so not posting, but, on a very long flight recently I read the November Vanity Fair and in it, Christopher Hitchen's latest sentimental abomination, an involuted metafiction wherein he manages to cover himself, a dead soldier and the magazine with shame, yet remain mightily pleased with himself in the aftermath. The occasion is this: someone had pointed out to Hitchens an L. A Times article reporting that some of his high-toned hankering for war had actually resulted in a young man's enlistment for Iraq, and subsequent death there. Hitchens claims to have been touched; as as he himself puts it:

I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very
deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own
son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply
pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped
persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.?
Over-dramatizing myself a bit in the angst of the moment, I found I was thinking
of William Butler Yeats....

He felt a "very deep pang pang of cold dismay" he claims, and this atop the similarly deep pessimism his recent theme-park tour of the war he lusted for had inspired -- how does Hitch shoulder such a burden? Well, surely it helps when the 'angst of the moment' calls up Yeats' immortal poetry.

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?...
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?

And this certainly turns the reader temporarily away from questions like, 'Five years into this pointless, bottomless, needless criminal fiasco and he's just now getting pessimistic...?' And like, 'Did Hitch encourage his son to fight in the war he screamed for?'And like, 'Do people who visit the Green Zone learn any more about Iraq than Disneyworlders do about the Carribean?' But, like any good Armchair-War Correspodent, Hitch keeps us in the moment, staying with the mortal danger of possibly, sorta, kinda, facing responsibility, but manfully throwing off that decadent poetic reflex in an opportune spasm of "journalism":

Abruptly dismissing any comparison between myself and one of the greatest poets
of the 20th century, I feverishly clicked on all the links from the article and
found myself on Lieutenant Daily's MySpace site, where his statement "Why I
Joined" was posted.

Now, with all apologies to Mark Twain, Hitchen's version of events here is about as plausible as Fenimore Cooper's Pathfinder and his superhuman feats of marksmanship. Abruptly dismissing the comparison he has just drawn, but not dismissing it so thoroughly it won't be redrawn in the subequent article, Hitchens goes on to recount how he contacted and then befriended and even bonded with family and beautiful widow ("Snowflake" he had called her) of the dead lad, and how they told him it was all cool, not to worry his little head about any part he might have had in persuading the deceased to go off to this fiasco/atrocity. Here's how he lets himself off the hook:

In the midst of their own grief, to begin with, they took the trouble to
try to make me feel better. I wasn't to worry about any "guilt or
responsibility": their son had signed up with his eyes wide open and had
"assured us that if he knew the possible outcome might be this, he would still
go rather than have the option of living to age 50 and never having served his
country. Trust us when we tell you that he was quite convincing and persuasive
on this point, so that by the end of the conversation we were practically
packing his bags and waving him off." This made me relax fractionally, but then
they went on to write: "Prior to his deployment he told us he was going to try
to contact you from Iraq. He had the idea of being a correspondent from the
front-lines through you, and wanted to get your opinion about his journalistic
potential. He told us that he had tried to contact you from either Kuwait or
Iraq. He thought maybe his e-mail had not reached you … " That was a gash in my
hide all right: I think of all the junk e-mail I read every day, and then
reflect that his precious one never got to me.

The real tragedy here is apparently that this young man died without realizing his dream of contacting Hitchens; what's more he didn't even get to write in support of the war! There apparently was an uneasy moment between Hitchens and the Dailys. The family didn't much care for the way he hinted they should take the death of Mark -- they should buck up like the mother of fellow war-hawk Michael Kelly did when her son bought it in the war he too hungered for. Hitch thought maybe he'd commited an "error of taste" there, because the Dailys pointed this out to him.

Hitch goes on to give us lots of authenticating detail about Mark Daily, and about his own trip with the family to spread Mark's ashes on his favorite beach, but it's all remarkably craptacular -- even by Hitchens' recent standards. It seems Hitch is really slipping, and here he really bloviates about a subject he's much too close to. He goes all sentimental, and that makes for crappy writing and even bad journalism. As he prepares to tell us The Story, and leave the story of getting the story, he warns us either with reflex irony or myopic mawkishness, and probably a bit of both: "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now …."

I was not subsequently choked up. Sentimentality is the kitchiest of emotions (indeed, it is to kitsch what beauty is to art), or rather those various emotions which we congratulate ourselves for having. Wikipedia supplies a splendid definition, one remarkably applicable to nearly every paragraph of Hitchens' article:

Sentimentality is on one hand a literary device that is used to induce an
emotional response disproportionate to the situation, and thus to substitute
heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual
judgments, and on the other it is a heightened reader response that is willing
to invest previously prepared emotions to respond disproportionately to a
literary situation.

Sentimentality applies feelings in inappropriate situations. The
sentimental fallacy is an ancient rhetorical device that attributes to the forces of nature human emotions, such as mourning or anger. Sentimental democracy applies the principles of democracy in situations where they are inappropriate, such as
voting on whether Pluto is a planet, or conversely applies inappropriate depth of response to intrinsically neutral events, such as a first democratic election.

Hitchens certainly wants "to substitute heightened and generally uncritical feeling for normal ethical and intellectual judgments." To refute the notion that he, as truculent cheerleader for the war should feel the slightest compunction about its hideous cost, Hitchens offers a sophistry about ultimate causation, a sophistry cribbed from another who at least had it shrouded in a badly contrived example. Hitchens of course did not kill anyone, and he asks,
So, was Mark Daily killed by the Ba'thist and bin Ladenist riffraff who place bombs where they will do the most harm? Or by the Rumsfeld doctrine, which sent American soldiers to Iraq in insufficient numbers and with inadequate equipment? Or by the Bush administration, which thought Iraq would be easily pacified? Or by the previous Bush administration, which left Saddam Hussein in power in 1991 and fatally postponed the time of reckoning?
Again, Hitchens doesn't want us asking questions like: 'Who says they're Ba'thists or bin Ladenist [sic] rifraff? Couldn't they be Iraqi Freedom Fighters, people who just hate their invaders?' Nor does Hitch want us to remember his part in hurrying us to the Cakewalk War 'with the army we've got.' Note too how he slips in the assumption that Bush I was wrong in his correct assessment that Iraq would be a quagmire, as well as the assumption that said quagmire was even then or at any time inevitable. He wants us to eschew both ethics and intellect for gut reaction to the loss of an a paragon; that way he did nothing wrong in calling for an inevitable crusade -- which through no fault of his own happened to be botched in the excecution.

It's hard to say how conscious he is of this appeal to sentiment. Probably not very; he thinks it Carrolian "glory," a totally knock-down argument. Like most reactionaries Hitchens is fundamentally a creature of sentiment (and especially ressentiment), a contrarian more than an originator. He's glib, but not really fully aware, certainly not of himself. In any case, as is typical of the self-blind reactionary, he indicts himself with his accusations, and damns with his would-be defenses. Certainly he does Mark Daily no service here.

It is entirely possible that Mark Daily was a wonderful person. At the very least he had the courage to walk the walk, to enact the courage of his convictions. But he hardly comes across, in Hitchens' hagiography, as the person Hitchens wants him to be. Daily would have been better served by a less needy editor.

Hitchens clearly seconds what is alleged to be Daily's idea, that unless one goes to war, whatever war the President decrees, one dies "never having served his country." Again, I wonder if Hitchens applies this rather shallow and delusional notion to himself or his son. No matter, he wants it to stand for Daily's pure and nobile motive for going to war.

But I get another read on Mark Daily. Perhaps, in addition to wanting to serve his country, like many or even most young men, he was very curious about combat, susceptible to the valorizing folklore about war that pervades our militaristic society, and not immune to war's dark glamour and allure. He seems, on Hitch's evidence at least, to be a bit more inclined than most to spout really pompous rationales for his decision, and to broadcast roseate, ennobling notions of the project he was engaged in. Hitch says,

I have a photograph of him, standing bareheaded and contentedly smoking a
cigar, on a rooftop in Mosul. He doesn't look like an occupier at all. He looks
like a staunch friend and defender. On the photograph is written "We carry a new
world in our hearts."

Well, that's certainly one way to look at it. Another way would be -- here's a desperately young man gender-accesorized for the Col. Kilgore pose, striking one of the official postures of the Frat of Masculinity. What is meant to be meant by the meliorist platitude on the back of the photo, we can only guess, but Hitchens seems to think it's up there with Wilfred Owen. Some true conservatives will find the whole Iraq project anything but new, rather just another iteration wherein "the ignorant armies clash by night," but Hitchens isn't a conservative, he's a fantasist, and so this pablum resonates with him. It makes me glad my juvenalia has been consigned to the fire, though I doubt if any would be of use to propagandists.

I am tempted to go through and critique the rest of Daily's woeful writing, since he reportedly aspired to be a writer, in the mode of his idol Ayn Rand, or Hitchens perhaps. But this would be uncharitable; suffice it to say that the passages Hitchens exploits here do not flatter Daily. They echo what Hitchens wants to believe, but they do not convince; they seem implausible, deluded and even in places dishonest. But certainly one ought not fault a young man for desperately believing, for believing as hard as possible, in the thing for which he is risking his life, and even evangelizing about it as a way to bolster his faith. Perhaps Daily would have felt and written differently about it all by the end of his tour, or if given a few years distance, and hindsight. We'll never know, now.

Hitchens, we can be sure, will go on, self-righteously assured that any sacrifice (by others) is just the perhaps-regrettable price of fighting evil. Here he invites us to cry over one death for which he can be definitely absolved -- the 'bin Ladenists' being the proximal agents of Daily's demise. But we and he should note the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the millions of lives ruined by this war, in addition to the wanton destruction of America's credit rating, prestige and honor (perhaps even of the democracy itself) by the war's criminal instigators in the fog of their diversion, and wonder how much of this vast, aggregate responsibilty, this blame, this shame, should be shouldered by each of their cheerleaders their abettors, their collaborators.


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