Christopher Hitchens really worries some people on the anti-war left. I mean he really, seriously, worries them. How do I know? Well, you can tell. Even though these people - the ones he really worries - profess to have been finding his arguments uncompelling for some little while now, they seem unable to limit themselves to pointing out why this or that argument of his doesn't persuade them, without also throwing in a personal insult or two, relating to his writing style, his alcohol intake or some other such vital matter. Here's a suggestion. Hitchens worries them because he isn't the inconsequential intelligence they affect to think he has become, but rather a formidable anatagonist of their own preferred forms of oversight and evasion.
That's just by the way, however, and preliminary to my taking issue myself, unusually but not quite for the first time, with a piece of his - the one posted yesterday at Slate. I disagree with Hitchens on two things in that piece, one stated in passing, the other implicit in his conclusion.
1. Christopher Hitchens writes of the Abu Ghraib scandal:
One needs to stipulate, once again, that the filthy images from Abu Ghraib are not bad because they look bad, but bad because they are bad. Yet is it as obvious as it seems that only the supporters of the war have any questions to answer here?It is his second (interrogative) sentence to which I'll be taking exception. For, as a supporter of the war, I do not consider myself answerable - not in the slightest degree or the tiniest particular - for the practices of torture, sexual or other humiliations and abusive treatments meted out by US soldiers, contract personnel or anyone else, against Iraqi prisoners. These horrors were not amongst the aims of the war or in the conspectus of its means, and I personally have not, nor do I know anyone (amongst supporters of the war of my acquaintance) who has, condoned or been willing to turn a blind eye to such things. Were they predictable, perhaps? Well, if there are opponents of the war who actually did predict them, then that was most foresightful on their part. All I can say is that I nowhere read predictions of them, and I've read a lot of doomsaying predictions from anti-war writers over the last couple of years.
So I don't believe I have something to answer here - unless Hitchens was only meaning to say that we who supported, and support, the war have an obligation to speak out against what has happened, and to be clear and forthright about what remedial action should be taken. I don't believe it in general, and I especially don't believe I have something to answer for to, or before, all those who favoured a course of action towards Iraq the consequence of which would have been the persistence, the continuation, of tortures and atrocities in that country of a far worse kind and on a much greater scale for who knows what period of time. Note well here (since one can never be too careful about how quick to misunderstand one's meaning people will be who want to be) that I am not criciticizing anyone for their horror over the Abu Ghraib abuses because of the worse things that happened in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Anyone who was horrified, outraged, shocked, upset, was perfectly right to be so. But what I am saying is that I'll take no lessons in this matter from people who were either not similarly outraged by the tortures of the Saddam Hussein regime, or who, even if they were, were rather quieter and more discreet about their outrage (and the horrors that should have given it greater voice) in speaking about the future of Iraq than they are now in speaking about Abu Ghraib. To their sort, whether in the media or on the blogs, who challenge us, 'So what do you have to say now after Abu Ghraib?', I have a number of sharper responses than the one I'll give here, but the one I'll give here is: 'Excuse me? To you I owe no explanation about this.' To others, yes, I'll give an answer and it's simple: the reason I supported the war against Iraq was in the hope of bringing to an end the gross abuses of human rights for which the Iraqi regime was responsible, and nothing I'm aware of in my support for the war has ever implied condoning anything like the shameful betrayal of that hope which the Abu Ghraib abuses represent.
2. Donald Rumsfeld must go. Christopher Hitchens concludes:
[I]nfinite patience and scruple and intelligence are required, as well as decisiveness and bravery. Given this necessary assumption, all short-cut artists, let alone rec-room sadists, are to be treated, not as bad apples alone, but as traitors and enemies. If Rumsfeld could bring himself to say that, he could perhaps undo some of the shame, and some of the harm as well.I think this is insufficient. Rumsfeld should resign, or else he should be required to step down by George Bush. That is for two reasons at least, though I believe the first of them is enough of a reason in itself.
(a) It all happened, as the phrase is, on his watch. Even if he didn't know, he should have known; he should have made it his business to know. But in any case, the thing happened, and it is a moral disgrace and calamity. Furthermore, just in terms of the mission of the war, you could scarcely have devised a more colossal piece of stupidity to set things back. Anyone who knows the first thing about war or about prisons should have had the anticipation to have worried about this sort of eventuality and headed it off. The Secretary of Defence did not.
(b) The evidence building up does rather strongly suggest that, whatever Rumsfeld directly knew, he bears responsibility for decisions and a climate of assumptions and procedures towards prisoners in Iraq that made these horrible incidents more rather than less likely. As Michael Walzer has just written (Hat tip: Jonathan D):
War breeds sadism, and prisoner of war camps are one of the prime breeding grounds. It's not only the heat of battle, the fear and anger produced by combat, that is morally dangerous, but also the unchallenged power that comes with victory. Only a steady effort to maintain discipline and to train soldiers in the rules of war and the rights of prisoners will prevent abuse and atrocity. But that requires the commitment of political and military leaders, and our current leaders are visibly uncommitted. In fact, I think that most regular army officers believe in the rules; they are professionals, and their code of honor, as well as the legal and ethical code of jus in bello, excludes the mistreatment of prisoners. And they understand the reciprocity of the codes; they know that one day they may be prisoners themselves.Rumsfeld should walk.
But the present government in Washington seems to operate without moral awareness and without any sense of the meaning of reciprocity. Rumsfeld's Pentagon put Iraqi prisoners into the hands of reservists who were told nothing at all about the Geneva Convention, and of intelligence operatives committed only to the extraction of information, and of private contractors some of whom, apparently, were already experienced in both prison management and the abuse of prisoners. And the message communicated to these people was one of callous indifference or worse - for some of them concluded from the orders they were given that the humiliation of captured Iraqi men was part of their job. They were supposed to do what was necessary to weaken the men's resistance to future interrogations.