Lost cause

Love, Poverty and War: journeys and essays

Christopher Hitchens <em>Atlantic Books, 480pp, £14.99<

Christopher (don't dare ever call him "Chris") Hitchens loves drama and loves a feud. He refused to speak to his brother, Peter, for nearly four years until, a few weeks ago, they agreed to a public reunion and debate at the Hay-on-Wye festival. The junior Hitchens, also a journalist, but one as associated with the right as Christopher was with the left, had accused his brother of once being a Stalinist and quoted a private joke as evidence. Given that Martin Amis wrote an entire book largely about Christopher's past excuses for the Bolsheviks, yet still gets this book dedicated to him, it is hard to see why Peter was singled out for a sojourn in the deep freeze.

The NS, where Christopher Hitchens began his career almost three decades ago, also suffered an ice age. A few years back, we foolishly printed a piece that cast a mild (and, I am sure, false) aspersion on Hitchens's professional abilities. Hitchens, in the frostiest phone call I have ever received, withdrew a piece of his we were due to publish, and put us all on non-speakers. A rapprochement, arranged by my then deputy, Cristina Odone, and involving much alcohol and mutual clasping of shoulders, eventually took place over lunch. All this from a man who, in this selection of his journalism of the past 20 years, writes: "I am a big boy and can bear the thought of being offended."

These curious little quarrels - there was another with Sidney Blumenthal, an aide to President Clinton - were just practice runs for the biggest quarrel of Hitchens's life: with almost the entire American and European left over its response to 9/11. As this book shows, Hitchens was still, on 20 September 2001, referring to the likes of Noam Chomsky as "worthy comrades" and treating their disagreements as a family quarrel. As his brother knows, however, Hitchens's family quarrels can turn nasty. By October, Chomsky was "soft on crime and soft on fascism. No political coalition is possible with such people and, I'm thankful to say, no political coalition is now necessary." Shortly afterwards, Hitchens resigned as a columnist for the Nation, the left-wing American weekly, and announced that he no longer belonged to the left. Henceforth, he would stand shoulder to shoulder with the neoconservatives against Muslim tyrants and jihadists.

Many left-wing opponents of the Iraq war will therefore want this collection to be bad: full of windbaggery, loose judgements, bad writing, and so on. Hitchens was never that good, was he? We on the left can manage without him, can't we? Alas, no. Hitchens is just too damn good. You will find here the most brilliant anti-capital punishment piece you have ever read; the most thoughtful piece on Israel and anti-Semitism; a marvellously vivid report on North Korea ("I found a class of tiny Koreans solemnly learning Morse code . . . Nobody has told them that the international community abandoned Morse two years ago"); a hilarious account of how Hitchens gave evidence to a Vatican commission on the beatification of Mother Teresa; and a gloriously rude demolition of Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11.

I cannot absolve Hitchens of all charges: he does not wear his learning lightly, his writing is sometimes mannered and self-conscious, and he drops too many names. But the left is not exactly blessed with writers of wit, style and originality, and Hitchens has all these attributes.

So let's be honest: it's a grievous loss. I would argue it is also a loss to him. A piece for Vanity Fair in October 2003 is almost embarrassing in its propagandist justification of the US occupation of Iraq.

When you meet a battlefield officer . . . you are dealing with someone who cut his or her teeth in political-humanitarian rescue in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo or Afghanistan. Their operational skills are reconstruction, liaison with civilian forces, the cultivation of intelligence and the study of religion and ethnicity. They like to talk about human rights and civil society, not body counts or "interdiction" . . . what is happening in today's Iraq is something more like a social and political revolution than a military occupation.

Oh yeah? Hitchens even accepts a military commander's argument that high levels of violence in Iraq "can be a sign of progress", showing that "the enemy is rattled". One would love to know what the old Hitchens would have made of this tosh.

Most NS readers are likely to agree that Hitchens opted for the wrong side after 9/11. (Which is not to say that all his arguments on the subject were wrong.) How did this happen? In an interview, he admitted to "a feeling of exhilaration" that September day: "Here we are then . . . in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate." What he loves most is the idea of America, and particularly of New York, "the magnetic compass point of my life". What he hates most - a "cold, steady hatred . . . as sustaining to me as any love" - is religion, "the most base and contemptible of the forms assumed by human egotism and stupidity".

Once you are into love and hate for abstractions, critical distance disappears. You end up supporting an illegal invasion that kills tens of thousands, just as lovers of the Palestinian cause could hail the courage and indefatigability of odious Middle Eastern tyrants. The old Hitchens was still struggling for life when he wrote in the Guardian a couple of days after 9/11: "On the campus where I am writing this, there are . . . a few . . . willing to venture thoughts about United States foreign policy. But they do so very guardedly, and it would sound like profane apolo-getics if transmitted live. So the analytical moment, if there is to be one, has been indefinitely postponed."

For Hitchens, the analytical moment never came. When we needed him most, the old Hitchens passed away and was replaced by a new one, shorn of political subtlety and insight. To read this collection is to understand the scale of the loss.