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Love, Poverty, and War
Journeys and Essays
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Also by Christopher Hitchens
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LETTERS TO A YOUNG CONTRARIAN
THE TRIAL OF HENRY KISSINGER
BLAMING THE VICTIMS: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (edited with Edward Said)
UNACKNOWLEDGED LEGISLATION: Writers in the Public Sphere
NO ONE LEFT TO LIE TO: The Values of the Worst Family
THE ELGIN MARBLES: Should they be returned to Greece?
HOSTAGE TO HISTORY: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger
THE MISSIONARY POSITION: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
WHEN THE BORDERS BLEED: The Struggle of the Kurds (with Ed Kashi)
INTERNATIONAL TERRITORY: the United Nations, 1945–95 (with Adam Bartos)
THE MONARCHY: A Critique of Britain's Favorite Fetish
FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT: Essays & Minority Reports
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JAMES CALLAGHAN: The Road to Number Ten (with Peter Kellner)
KARL MARX AND THE PARIS COMMUNE
For Martin Amis
An antique saying has it that a man's life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war. O. Henry, in whose eponymous yet pseudonymous Irving Place tavern I so pleasurably wasted some of my early evenings in New York, once wrote a short story entitled "The Complete Life of John Hopkins," in which a guileless citizen manages to undergo the whole trinity of these phenomena while stepping out of his cramped city apartment in search of a five-cent cigar. O. Henry's considered view was: "It seems that the wise executive power that rules life has thought it best to drill man in these three conditions, and none may escape all three." I haven't the smallest belief in any supreme executive power, let alone in a wise one (I don't believe in Her, in other words) but it would be idle to deny the element of perspicacity here.
Most thoughtful or sensitive people would presumably like to say that we have too little of the first of these "conditions," and a surplus of the second and the third. Both George Orwell and Joseph Heller registered strong disagreement, arguing vigorously that money is far more important than love. (And even that it is more important than health which—as Heller reminded us in Something Happened —"won't buy you money.") This in turn may have been an over-reaction to poverty, itself often falsely praised by the spiritually-minded as something ennobling but now widely marked down for having the contrary effect.
War, too, has a bad press in general yet seems able to win glowing reviews in retrospect: retrospect being the very department where love lets you down the most. One might phrase it like this—and I am sincerely sorry if the address here is too masculine, but there is no help for it. Men wish that they had been warriors, or are proud that they once were. They wish that they were in love now. And they like to view poverty as something that they overcame, or at least could have overcome. The full-time fighter is a rarity (as indeed is the full-time lover). But the man who stresses his early struggles with want and scarcity is to be found practically everywhere, and will go on emptying rooms until the end of time.
To state my own case baldly: I come from a longish line of naval and military types on my father's side, and was brought up on and around bases, and within earshot of tales of stoicism and even courage. I was very glad, during the long peace that followed the "boom" of my babyhood, to be the first Hitchens for a few generations who did not even have to contemplate donning a uniform. Great Uncle Harry, whose ship went down in freezing seas at the Battle of Jutland in 1915, saved not only himself but also the Maltese messwaiter. The bar-bills were lost for ever. I remember being touched to be told that I resembled his oil-painted portrait, but I wanted to hold it right there. I also remember being entirely astonished, several years ago, when my father took the highly unusual step of ringing up to congratulate me on an article I had written. It was about the civil war in Beirut. "Thought it was rather brave of you to go," he said, before hanging up as if he'd thought better of it. I have, since then, been a witness to warfare several times but never in such a way as to leave no convenient avenue of escape. My father's lightly-armed cruiser, HMS Jamaica, delivered the coup de grace to quite a serious Nazi battleship named the Scharnhorst in December 1943, a much better and riskier day's work than I have ever done, or will ever do. I experience the same feeling of mingled reverence and embarrassment when I briefly travel with correspondents and photographers—John Burns, Ed Vulliamy, James Nachtwey, Sebastião Salgado, Isabel Hilton—who consistently and yet modestly expose themselves to the heat and burden of the day.
Concerning love, I had best be brief and say that when I read Bertrand Russell on this matter as an adolescent, and understood him to write with perfect gravity that a moment of such emotion was worth the whole of the rest of life, I devoutly hoped that this would be true in my own case. And so it has proved, and so to that extent I can regard the death I otherwise rather resent as laughable and impotent.
Poverty is relative as well as absolute, as my own case would prove. My parents were haunted by the shortage of money not by the absence of it: I grew up knowing that waste was unpardonable and extravagance unthinkable and education—by means of deferred gratification—probably the solution. (Not a bad way in which to be reared, though not all that much fun, either.) I have often been broke but never been desperate. Now in my mid-fifties, I at last make more income than I require for the immediate exigencies, and I make it by writing and speaking, which are the only things I was ever able to do or desirous of doing. I live in a very agreeable apartment in the center of the capital of the United States. My three children are all beautiful, intelligent, and humorous. (I shall say nothing about their mothers except this: to have been lucky with women is to have been lucky tout court.) I have the ideal parents-in-law. My appearance and physique could benefit from a lot of work, or even from a little, but I have never had a serious illness or injury, and I am wellinsured if such should befall. If I want to express my views publicly, I have more than a fair chance of doing so. I have traveled to several dozen countries. I hold a passport from the European Union, giving me work and residence rights in two dozen democratic and developed nations, and can hope to become an American citizen. Reviewed briefly by any reader, these elements must place me in the most fortunate one percent of all those now living, let alone of all those who have passed on to join the large majority in which my other version of materialism believes. Nobody would have any patience with my complaints, in other words.
And yet, I wake up every day to a sensation of pervading disgust and annoyance. I probably ought to carry around some kind of thermometer or other instrument, to keep checking that I am not falling prey to premature curmudgeonhood. Was it always this way? I ask myself. Did politics always seem to be a sordid auction between banal populists, and did a visit to the movies or the theater most often reward me with a sense of insult? Was publishing always a racket run by the meretricious? I am relieved to find, leafing back through previous collections, that at least I was just as curmudgeonly when I was younger. Since I have now seen more mornings and evenings than I am going to see, it may be that Erich Fromm's concept of "the struggle against pointlessness" is more resonant than it once would have appeared. But the enemies still look and feel much the same—especially that most toxic of foes, religion: the most base and contemptible of the forms assumed by human egotism and stupidity. Cold, steady hatred for this, especially in its loathsome jihad shape, has been as sustaining to me as any love. It deserves a "Poverty" section of its own, not just for the parasitic relationship it bears to disease and ignorance and misery, but also in the sense intended by Marx when he spoke of "the poverty" of some philosophy.
There came a point a few years ago, after I'd published a series of short attacks on such despicable figures as Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and "Mother" Teresa, when nice old ladies in bookstores would ask me worriedly if there wasn't anyone or anything I liked. I was naturally sorry to have given this deplorably negative impression. I haven't exactly set out to correct it, either, but I may hope in what I have written about some authors here to show that I do think there is a gold standard, and that literature establishes and maintains it. I had begun to resolve, after the end of the cold war and some other wars, to try to withdraw from "politics" as such, and spend more time with the sort of words that hold their value. Proust, Borges, Joyce, Bellow—if you ask me why there's no Nabokov the answer is quite simply because I am not ready. This is a love that matures in the cask, if you will, and deepens with time. In common with other loves it is difficult to phrase in words, but I have found the effort worth making, and I'd be happy if I succeeded even slightly in delighting others as well as myself.
Then there is the rather awkward question: Can one love a country? In the England of my youth, this would have come under the heading of the superfluous: some things just don't need to be affirmed publicly and there is something suspect about those who get too strenuous on the point. I'll go this far, though. The United States of America has been very kind and hospitable to this immigrant, and I would calmly affirm that, in case things should ever become desperate enough for anyone to have to care, my adopted country has found a defender in me. This necessarily broad and vague allegiance came to a tungstensharp point in the fall of 2001, when my favorite city in all the world—and a favorite city of the world—was foully assaulted, as was my hometown of Washington D.C., by barbaric nihilists. I at once realized, with somewhat greater force, what I had always known and often lazily said: that there is no refuge from political engagement, and that if you try and hide from public life, it will assuredly come and invade your precious private sphere. I have been slandered here and there for what I wrote at the time, and so have taken care to reprint it, in the raw stages in which it first appeared, so as to try and show how my feelings gradually became more like thoughts. That was a condensed day of love, poverty, and war, all right. The fraternal solidarity helped overcome the damage and the loss, but we received a real glimpse of the horrors of peace, as well, and of the fatuity of letting only one side be ruthless and organized, let alone self-confident. It is civilization and pluralism and secularism that need pitiless and unapologetic fighters.
For rescuing me from curmudgeonhood, I must thank my graduate students at the University of California in Berkeley and at the New School—as I still call it—in New York. They may have been through an intellectually impoverished education system that was designed to bore them to death with second-rate and pseudo-uplifting tripe, but they had apparently managed to conserve their wit and curiosity and tough-mindedness. Then it seems that there are always editors, in publishing and journalism, who live to disprove the prophecy that everything is destined to dissolve into mediocrity. I have been fortunate beyond my deserts with Carl Bromley of Nation Books, who deftly steered this old tub into harbor. Graydon Carter, Aimee Bell, and David Friend of Vanity Fair, Ben Schwarz at the Atlantic Monthly, Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation, Lewis Lapham at Harper's Magazine, Jacob Weisberg at Slate, Jody Bottum of the Weekly Standard, Peter Stothard at the Times Literary Supplement, James Miller at Daedalus, and Simon Winder and Michael Millman at Penguin Books are the sorts of editor that I hope my students are one day lucky enough to meet. I reserve a closing mention for my friend and editor Michael Kelly of the Atlantic Monthly, who in April 2003, while I was skulking in the rear on the Iraq/Kuwait border, gave something like a full measure of devotion to his craft and calling, and lost his life on the outskirts of Saddam Hussein International Airport, a place which was long overdue to be renamed.
THE MEDALS OF HIS DEFEATS
In the fateful spring and early summer of 1940 the people of Britain clustered around their wireless sets to hear defiant and uplifting oratory from their new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. On May 13, having just assumed the burden of office from a weak and cowardly Neville Chamberlain, Churchill promised a regime of "blood, toil, tears and sweat." On June 4, after the evacuation of the defeated British army from Dunkirk, he pledged, "We shall fight on the beaches." On June 18 he proclaimed that even if the British Empire were to last for a thousand years, this would be remembered as its "finest hour." Over the course of the ensuing months Britain alone defied the vast conquering appetites of Hitlerism and, though greatly outclassed in the air, repelled the Luftwaffe's assault with a handful of gallant fighter pilots. This chivalric engagement—"The Battle of Britain"—thwarted Nazi schemes for an invasion of the island fortress and was thus a hinge event in the great global conflict we now call World War II.
The foregoing paragraph could appear without much challenge in almost any English or American newspaper or magazine, and versions of it have recently seen print in the reviews of Churchill: A Biography, by the British Liberal statesman Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. One might, however, call attention to some later adjustments to this familiar picture.
• The three crucial broadcasts were made not by Churchill but by an actor hired to impersonate him. Norman Shelley, who played Winnie-the-Pooh for the BBC's Children's Hour, ventriloquized Churchill for history and fooled millions of listeners. Perhaps Churchill was too much incapacitated by drink to deliver the speeches himself.
• Britain stood alone only if the military and economic support of Canada, Australia, South Africa, India, and the rest of a gigantic empire is omitted. As late as October of 1940, furthermore, the Greeks were continuing to resist on mainland Europe and had inflicted a serious military defeat on Mussolini. Moreover, the attitude of the United States, however ostensibly neutral, was at no time neutralist as between a British versus a German victory.
• The Royal Air Force was never seriously inferior, in either men or machines, to Hermann Göring's Luftwaffe, and at times outgunned it. British pilots were mainly fighting over home territory and, unlike their German opponents, could return straight to duty if they parachuted down. The RAF had the advantage of radar and the further advantage of a key to the Nazi codes. The Royal Navy was by any measure the superior of the Kriegsmarine, and Nazi surface vessels never left port without exposing themselves to extreme hazard.
• The German High Command never got beyond the drawing-board stage of any plan for the invasion of Britain, and the Führer himself was the source of the many postponements and the eventual abandonment of the idea.
A close reading of the increasingly voluminous revisionist literature discloses many further examples of events that one thinks cannot really be true, or cannot be true if the quasi-official or consecrated narrative is to remain regnant. Against which nation was the first British naval attack directed? (Against a non-mobilized French fleet, moored in the ports of North Africa, with the loss of hundreds of French lives.) Which post-1940 air force was the first to bomb civilians, and in whose capital city? (The RAF, striking the suburbs of Berlin.) Which belligerent nation was the first to violate the neutrality of Europe's noncombatant nations? (The British, by a military occupation of Norway.) But these details, not unlike the navels and genitalia in devotional painting, are figleafed in denial. They cannot exactly be omitted from the broader picture, nor can they be permitted any profane influence on its sanctity. Meanwhile, who made the following broadcast speech to the British people in 1940?
We are a solid and united nation which would rather go down to ruin than admit the domination of the Nazis . . . If the enemy does try to invade this country we will fight him in the air and on the sea; we will fight him on the beaches with every weapon we have. He may manage here and there to make a breakthrough: if he does we will fight him on every road, in every village, and in every house, until he or we are utterly destroyed.
That was Neville Chamberlain, who (albeit in his rather reedy tones) delivered the speech himself. And how many casualties did the RAF suffer during the entire Battle of Britain? A total of 443 pilots, according to official sources cited in Richard Overy's cool and meticulous revisiting of the story.
I was brought up on the cult of Winston Churchill. In the declining postimperial 1950s and 1960s the Homeric story of 1940, and of its bulldog-visaged protagonist, was at once a consolation for many disappointments and an assurance of Britain's continued value to the world. Even then it was sometimes difficult to swallow Churchill whole, as it were. A sort of alternate bookkeeping was undertaken, whereby the huge deficits of his grand story (Gallipoli, the calamitous return to the gold standard, his ruling-class thuggery against the labor movement, his diehard imperialism over India, and his pre-war sympathy for fascism) were kept in a separate column that was sharply ruled off from "The Valiant Years." But even the many defeats and fiascoes and dishonors added in some numinous way to his stature. Here was a man who had taken part in a Victorian cavalry charge at Omdurman, in the Sudan, to avenge the slaying of General Gordon by a messianic mullah, and who had lived to help evolve the design and first use of thermonuclear weaponry. He was not a figure in history so much as a figure of history. (Invited by Adlai Stevenson to contribute something to the English-Speaking Union, he gruffly replied, "I am an English-speaking union." In anyone else this would have been solipsism, rather than charm commingled with truth.) And because in 1946 he had effectively founded the Anglo-American "special relationship" in its cold war form, at Fulton, Missouri, his enormous specter seemed to guarantee Britain a continued role as a junior superpower, or at least as a superpower's preferred junior.
In the early 1970s I was working at The New Statesman, in London, very near the Public Record Office, when a fresh tranche of Churchill's wartime papers was released. These covered the discussions between Churchill ("Premier," as the official papers called him) and Stalin about the future of postwar Eastern Europe. It was already known that Churchill had proposed, on the back of an envelope, a deal with Stalin for 90 percent British control of Greece in exchange for an equivalent communization of the Balkans. But it was not quite clear whether he had also deliberately traded Poland into Stalin's "sphere of influence." The matter had moral as well as historical importance, since it was in defense of Poland that Britain had finally declared war on Hitler, in September of 1939. A. J. P. Taylor prompted me to examine the documents, but the authorities informed me that the entries for Anglo-Soviet discussion of wartime Polish policy had been unaccountably mislaid. That sort of thing happens a lot in a state with an Official Secrets Act, but this was flagrant; and Poland had recently begun to stir and shift again as an actor for itself in European politics. "They always say that when it's important," Taylor told me about the "loss" of the critical records. I briefly considered titling my New Statesman article "The Churchill-Stalin Pact" but swiftly appreciated that this would make me look like a crank. There was no Churchill-Stalin Pact. There could not have been a Churchill-Stalin Pact. The necessary three words could not be brought into apposition. Heroic and improvised pragmatism—yes. Degraded and cynical statecraft? Not yet thinkable.
The Churchill cult in England, however, is mild and reflective in comparison with the Churchill cult in the United States. (I don't think any British school would be so artless as to emulate the Winston Churchill High School in the upscale D.C. suburb of Potomac, Maryland, which has a yearbook titled Finest Hours.) The aftermath of September 11 only reinforced a series of tropes that were already familiar to students of ready-made political rhetoric. "We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail," President Bush proclaimed as the bombing of Afghanistan began. "We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire," Churchill said—somewhat more euphoniously—sixty years before. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has outdone even his Churchill-obsessed predecessor Caspar Weinberger, announcing to the staff of the Pentagon on September 12, "At the height of peril to his own nation, Winston Churchill spoke of their finest hour. Yesterday, America and the cause of human freedom came under attack." Only a week earlier, this time speaking in favor of a missile-defense system, Rumsfeld had informed a Senate committee, "Winston Churchill once said, 'I hope I shall never see the day when the forces of right are deprived of the right of force.' " On September 25, asked whether the Defense Department would be authorized to deceive the press in prosecuting the war, he unhesitatingly responded, "This conjures up Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he said . . . sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, later to be described as an American Churchill, laid the groundwork for his own plaudits by announcing, just after the aggression of September 11 against his city, that he was reading a book about Churchill's wartime premiership "and nothing is more inspirational than the speeches and reflections of Winston Churchill about how to deal with that." Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Churchill in the Situation Room of the White House soon after taking power; the first President Bush allowed Jack Kemp to compare him to Churchill during the Gulf War; the second President Bush asked the British embassy in Washington to help furnish him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now holds pride of place in the Oval Office. The legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton can only whimper at the lack of Churchillian analogy to his own tenure, but the rest of us might wish that if the United States is going to stand for something, it (or its overpaid speechwriting class) would try to come up with some mobilizing rhetoric of its own.
This prevailing line, which teeters between grandeur and kitsch, is followed with reasonable fidelity by American historians and commentators. A few weeks before September 11 a fairly banal development earned a front-page story and an editorial in the New York Times. It became known that William Manchester, debilitated by two strokes, would not be completing his trilogy on the life of Churchill. This trilogy, generically titled The Last Lion, had run to two volumes, Visions of Glory and Alone. If these titles are insufficient to convey the flavor, one might cite, as did the New York Times in its editorial, the closing staves of the second and now-to-be final book: "And now, in the desperate spring of 1940, with the reins of power at last firm in his grasp, he resolved to lead Britain and her fading empire in one last great struggle worthy of all they had been and meant, to arm the nation, not only with weapons but also with the mace of honor, creating in every English breast a soul beneath the ribs of death."
Never in the field of human biography can metaphor have been more epically mixed. Yet the New York Times regarded the lack of a sequel as a cultural event worthy of reverent coverage and a deferential editorial. The latter, unsigned, described the incomplete work as leaving "Churchill somehow suspended, poised in the midst of a great arc whose outcome we know but whose details we would like to savor over again in Mr. Manchester's words." Or, to put it another way, there can never be too much reinforcement of a familiar and useful morality tale. In the quite recent past at least two books have been published to general acclaim—Churchill: A Study in Greatness, by Geoffrey Best, and Five Days in London, May 1940, by John Lukacs, which assist in this ramming home of an already near unassailable myth. And these, together with Lord Jenkins's tome, only continue a process begun by Churchill himself when he annexed the papers of his time in office to write his own version of events. He could emerge as a historic figure—as he put it in one of his many and likeable moments of self-deprecation—by making sure of writing the history himself. The names of his early research assistants and drafters—Alan Bullock, F. W. Deakin—are testimony in themselves to what might fairly be called a conscription of the historians' professional mainstream. Yet upon reflection one might perhaps decide that the term "conscription" is unfair. "Churchill the historian," said the late Sir J. H. Plumb, "lies at the very heart of all historiography of the Second World War and will always remain there." Donald Cameron Watt commented dryly seven years later, in 1976, "For the bulk of the historical profession in America, Sir Winston Churchill's view of British policy before 1939 has hardly required a moment's critical examination." It would be no insult, then, to describe certain authors not as conscripts but as volunteers.
- On Sale
- Nov 24, 2004
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Bold Type Books