To Criticize, To Clarify – The Simultaneity of Hitchens’ Death and the War’s End

Last Thursday night, as I was studying at my desk for a few final midterms, my dad cracked open my bedroom door and told me to check the news: Christopher Hitchens had died.

When I woke up on Sunday morning, still groggy and half-asleep, I grabbed my BlackBerry from my nightstand. I had one new e-mail, from the Obama campaign. “Friend – “ it read, as most of the notes from the DNC begin. “Early this morning, the last of our troops left Iraq.”

There are occasions on which it seems that the universe has a biting wit. This weekend was one of them.

In one fell swoop, we lost the world’s preeminent heretic and brought an end to an almost decade-long war that began primarily as a result of a marked lack of outspoken heretics.

Hitchens would have called it nonsense; I call it a cosmic hint.

Pundits still argue that had the war not been the primary campaign issue in 2008, Barack Obama may have secured neither the Democratic nomination, nor the presidency. A Pew poll conducted just three days before the election illustrated that half of American voters considered an Iraq invasion to have been the “wrong decision,” while the remaining voters split between varying other responses.

Obama used his early criticism of the Iraq decision as one of his strongest campaign talking points. His push for more regulation and more debate over the justifications of war toppled Hillary Clinton’s default vote in favor of the war, and John McCain’s fervent support of its prolongation.

In early May of 2003, President Bush conveyed a message similar to the DNC’s e-mail. “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” he said. Eight years, eight-hundred billion dollars, and nearly five thousand American lives later, it seems that a little Hitchens-esque heresy from within the political arena couldn’t have hurt.

One religious leader – someone who debated Christopher Hitchens – wrote last week that in losing Hitchens, we also lost a watchdog to “scour our less-careful pronouncements.” God is Not Great forced us to debate whether, in fact, God was great. His incessant declarations that “religion is man-made” compelled even the most confident believer to clarify or justify his or her own faith.

A sink that has been checked has fewer leaks, a book that has been proofread has fewer typos, and a war whose truths have been exposed – whose devastating economic implications and more devastating death toll have come to light – can end. There were leaks and there were holes. Few checked the war, few proofread its precipitating argument. More than three quarters of the senate voted to approve a resolution built on faulty evidence and unsound extrapolation.

Iconoclasm has its faults. Critique does not make way invariably for improvement; the type of criticism that pervades today’s vitriolic political scene certainly does not. An attack for the sake of attack leaves us with little more than hostility. Sweeping generalizations about movements or groups (the subtitle of Hitchens’ most recent book was “how religion poisons everything”) evade the necessity of nuance. Thunderous radical pronouncements often put their pronouncers on the defensive and trap them in categorical boxes which they would rarely find themselves in otherwise. Heresy is an imperfect art.

But I think back to my elementary school years: in each class, on each day, the same bushy-haired kid would raise his hand and ask “what’s the point of all this?” or “when am I ever going to use long division?” That raw dissidence – the roots of which can be found no further than a fourth grade math classroom – is a driving force of enlightenment. To ask questions is to clarify intent; to be a heretic is to seek the truth – or another truth. Irony lies in the reality: Hitchens himself was an early supporter of the war. But the Hitchens approach – the notion of criticism for the sake of betterment – remains sound.

The cosmic hint that I take from the simultaneity of these two events is simple: had we a Congress full of lawmakers with a Hitchens mentality, not only would our country have been the beneficiary of eloquent prose and a finer taste in whiskey; without doubt, the war in Iraq would have ended as briskly as it began.

A Watchful Eye, Not a Loaded Gun – America’s Role in Libya

Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that military action in Libya is still on the table.

It shouldn’t be.

America need not and must not act as an imperialist regime. It must be a global humanitarian guardian. Mothers and sons alike are being shot dead in the streets. Children are afraid to go to sleep for fear that they will not wake up. Men who try to document the terror are being discreetly disposed of. And it is painful and irrational to try to put a price on human life.

But when George W. Bush brought us into Iraq, I was seven years old. Now I’m sixteen, and we still haven’t left. If that is not a frightening and persuasive factor in the fight against fighting, then I don’t know what is. Time will kill Ghadafi – but the ever reverberating impact of international military action will kill many, many more.

We are responsible for keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the world. We are responsible for cutting off Ghadafi’s cash flow and crippling his iron grip. We are responsible for setting in motion international humanitarian efforts. We are responsible for helping Libyans end the violence. But the United States simply cannot impede militarily upon sovereign Libyan land.

In 2006, when Barack Obama was a United States senator, he delivered a speech. During the speech, he spoke about precisely this issue – but took a drastically different stance than the one he seems to be mulling over now. If I had a direct line to the oval office, I’d implore him to take some advice from – ironically – himself.

“We should be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy on a country through military force. In the past, it has been movements for freedom from within tyrannical regimes that have led to flourishing democracies; movements that continue today. This doesn’t mean abandoning our values and ideals; wherever we can, it’s in our interest to help foster democracy through the diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal. But even as we provide such help, we should be clear that the institutions of democracy – free markets, a free press, a strong civil society – cannot be built overnight, and they cannot be built at the end of a barrel of a gun.”

When a man set himself on fire in Tunisia a few months ago, sparks flew across a continent. From those sparks came flames, and from those flames, an inextinguishable wildfire of deliverance.

We no longer live on playground where the world’s most powerful can kick their legs up and watch in amusement as their ‘children’ run amok – flailing their arms in a bustle of absolute mayhem. The powder keg has exploded. This is the age of human empowerment.

In order to sustain and prolong the streak of emancipation that has swept the globe over the past few months, we must not act on impulse, or even out of empathetic rage. It is, admittedly, a challenging balance to maintain, but the United States must remain both an ally of democracy and a staunch opponent of force.

“Only Iraqis”

Sometimes presidential jargon can become confusing and misleading. In fact, that is often precisely the administration’s goal: to say one thing while making it look like they’re saying another. For today’s post, I’ve taken snippet’s from the president’s speech and translated them into layman’s terms in an attempt to highlight some main themes that I think the president was trying to to illustrate.

  • “Because of our troops and civilians -and because of the resilience of the Iraqi people – Iraq has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”

Translation: Take it, it’s yours. But don’t expect it all to be perfect.

  • “The Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country.”

Translation: This is where we drop you off. We’ve given you a clean pallet. I (Obama) got people to finally leave your country– don’t screw it up.

  • “We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We have closed or transferred hundreds of bases to the Iraqis. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq.”

Translation: We have done everything in our power to make sure that you are set up for success. You can’t blame me for the beginning because I wasn’t around; that was Bush. You can just credit me with the end. You are now a sovereign, independent entity, and it’s your responsibility to move forward.

  • “This year also saw Iraq hold credible elections that drew a strong turnout. A caretaker administration is in place as Iraqis form a government based on the results of that election. I encourage Iraq’s leaders to move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative, and accountable to the Iraqi people.”

Translation: To all my critics who claim that we’ve left Iraq too early and without providing them with sufficient help in the leadership-building process, you are wrong. I encouraged and monitored democratic elections in Iraq. Iraq’s people have elected a government and it is in place. The country is being run by elected insiders, which is a vast improvement from the previous arrangement– a country run by American outsiders.

Starting to sense a pattern? The President is saying over and over again: it’s in their hands now. Obama, of course, isn’t just dropping the Iraq issue off his agenda forever. During several parts of the speech, he spoke about out continued commitment to helping His goal is for Iraq rebuild and restart; but he’s trying to distance himself as much as possible from a war that (he will go on to clarify in no uncertain terms) he did not start.

The following, however, is what I would consider to be the most important part of the President’s speech.

  • “Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits.”

Translation: Let’s use the transitive property to figure this one out. (If a=b and b=c, then a=c.) If Bush started the war and the war helped cause the recession, then Bush helped cause the recession. Let’s use it again. If the war helped cause the recession and Obama ended the war, then Obama is helping to end the recession. His writers must be pretty smart guys, huh?

During the segment about Afghanistan, Obama made another important point.

  • “As we speak, al Qaeda continues to plot against us, and its leadership remains anchored in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda, while preventing Afghanistan from again serving as a base for terrorists. “

Translation: Keep in mind that he phrases this entire argument as a fight against Al Qaeda. Instead of making this another “War in Iraq”– aka a war in/with another country– he’s making it very specifically against a group of people– terrorists. Obama is waging a war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda that just so happens to be taking place in Afghanistan.

Hope this helped clear up a little bit of the murkiness of Obama’s speech.

Headline ADD

I have this concept that Americans (and perhaps people all over the world) have, what I call, “Headline ADD”. Often, there’ll be a huge event, and people will become hysterical over it, panic, or just talk about it a lot. The event will take over the airwaves 24/7, and dinner conversation will become, “Hey, what do you think of ______?”. If it’s a natural disaster, people will start to give money, or organize fund raisers. If it’s a human tragedy, people will make their Facebook status’ “RIP ___”, or forward mass e-mails about the event. But then– almost always– Headline ADD kicks in. Clearly, people are influenced by the news stations and papers who stop covering the story after it loses its appeal.

It happened with Katrina– people watched what played out in the south, held some fund raisers, and forgot about it. (I even remember having a lemonade stand in front of my house “for victims of Katrina”.) It happened with the Swine Flu “epidemic”. It happened with the earthquake in Haiti. It happened with the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in iceland. It happened with the car bomber in Times Square.

To an extent, it even happened with 9/11. In a response to the worst human tragedy ever to take place on American soil, people became patriotic, put American flags on their cars, and started saying the Pledge of Allegiance. But, again, people began to stop talking about it (until George Bush reminded them of it when he invaded Iraq and Afghanistan) and other things became more important.

Headline ADD. It’s real.


I’d like to know the origin of the notion that killing people solves problems. Maybe it’s a way of creating a scapegoat, or perhaps it’s just a way of blowing off steam. It could be that they have something that we want, or our desire to round up all of our problems and dump them on someone else. But it seems to me that the value of human life is being overlooked and ignored when four thousand three hundred and ninety seven American troops have been killed in Iraq, and we’re still there. Don’t you read that number and shudder?

Politicians will give us the same answers: we need to think about the “bigger picture”. If we leave, the country will be worse off. They need us there. We need to finish what we started. Well, WE’RE KILLING THEM, AND THEY’RE KILLING US. What’s productive about that? What’s holy about that? What’s honorable about that?

History repeats itself; war and its motives are always the same. Bob Dylan had it right in 1963, when he wrote “Masters of War”:

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

If the “bigger picture” is all you can see, then it’s time for you to look closer. Question: before today (when President Obama met with President Karzai), when was the last time you read an article about either war? Or thought about them? Maybe it’s a war over oil, or maybe it’s a war over ideology, or a war over terrorism, or over a son’s desire to impress his dad, or maybe just a war over patriotism. But regardless of its epithet, it’s still a war. Imagine, for a day, everyone used the term “bloody killing spree” instead of “war.” What effect would that have on the world?

Alas, war exists, and while it exists, it is our responsibility to support our troops– wherever they may be. And the best way to support our troops?

Bring. Them. Home.