Gods and Generals: The Apostle of Imperial War

Not to turn this blog into an outpost of the ever-interesting Hitchens Watch, but Chris Hedges has just offered up a somewhat more substantive critique of Christopher Hitchens than the literary one I wrote a few days ago, and is definitely worth a read. Hedges deals with Hitchens' new book, God is Not Great – an attempt to claw back some of his "contrarian" cred by knocking some of the favorite nostrums of his new bedfellows on the warmongering Right. Hedges' article in the UK's New Statesman (goring the ox in what used to be his home ground) focuses on the intellectual arguments over religious belief, but toward the end, he brings it around to the political side with telling effect. (Full marks also to the New Statesman for its illustration, which looks even more hideous in the full-blown print version.)

Excerpts: The danger, which Hitchens fails to see, is not Islam or Christianity or any other religion. It is the human heart - the capacity we all have for evil…Religion is often a convenient vehicle for this blood lust. Religious institutions often sanctify genocide, but this says more about us, about the nature of human institutions and the darkest human yearnings, than it does about religion.

This is the greatest failing of Hitchens's book. He, like Sam Harris, externalises evil. And when such writers externalise evil, all tools, including violence and torture, become legitimate in order to eradicate an evil outside of them. This world-view - one also adopted by the Christian right - is dangerous. It fails to acknowledge the impulses within us, both dark and seductive, that permit us to carry out evil, often in the name of good.

This externalisation of evil is what allows Hitchens to continue as an ardent supporter of the occupation of Iraq. He, of course, deludes himself into believing that it is reason that requires us to waterboard Muslim detainees in the physical and moral black holes that we have set up to make them disappear. It is reason that gives us the moral right to wage a war that under international law is illegal, indeed a "crime of aggression".

His assault on what he defines as the irrational force of religion permits Hitchens to sanction the abuse and subjugation of others. This is done in the name of his particular version of goodness, which he calls, repeatedly, "reason". But this, too, is a false god: more particularly, the god of death. For once you wage unprovoked wars and embrace torture, for whatever reason, you unleash sadists and killers. You become no better than those you oppose. And as an apologist for the war in Iraq, Hitchens not only has the blood of American and British soldiers on his hands, but the blood of a few hundred thousand Iraqis, too. He is no better than the apologists for radical Islam he so ardently seeks to discredit. His moral certitude is no different and the consequences are as dangerous.

Hitchens's arguments are the mirror image of those used by the fundamentalists he despises. He embraces a self-serving and simplistic view of the world. This allows him to create the illusion of a dualistic world of us and them, of reason versus irrationality. And once this vision has been adopted, as the events of the past six years prove, it is possible to view military intervention, occupation and even torture - anything that will subdue the "irrational" or "dangerous" - as necessary. "Necessity," William Pitt wrote, "is the plea for every infringement of human freedom." This is done in the name of his substitute for God, "reason" - which looks, like all personal idols, an awful lot like Christopher Hitchens.