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Day Essay Iraq Significance

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American Revolution

1734

Thomas McKean is born

On this day in 1734, Patriot politician Thomas McKean is born to Scots-Irish Presbyterian parents in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He will eventually serve as president of the state of Delaware, president of the U.S. Congress under the Articles of Confederation and chief justice of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. McKean’s revolutionary involvement...

Automotive

2005

Maverick auto exec John DeLorean dies

On this day in 2005, John DeLorean, an innovative auto industry executive and founder of the DeLorean Motor Company, dies at the age of 80 in New Jersey. In the early 1980s, the DeLorean Motor Company produced just one model, the DMC-12, a sleek sports car with gull-wing doors that...

Civil War

1865

Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina

On this day in 1985, at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph Johnston makes a desperate attempt to stop Union General William T. Sherman’s drive through the Carolinas in the Civil War’s last days; however, Johnston’s motleyforce cannot stop the advance of Sherman’s mighty army. Following his famous...

Cold War

1949

East Germany approves new constitution

In a precursor to the establishment of a separate, Soviet-dominated East Germany, the People’s Council of the Soviet Zone of Occupation approves a new constitution. This action, together with the U.S. policy of pursuing an independent pathway in regards to West Germany, contributed to the permanent division of Germany. The postwar...

Crime

1999

Bodies found in Yosemite serial killer case

On this day in 1999, law enforcement officials discover the charred bodies of forty-two-year-old Carol Sund and sixteen-year-old Silvina Pelosso in the trunk of their burned-out rental car, a day after the vehicle was located in a remote area several hours from Yosemite National Park. Cary Stayner, a handyman at...

Disaster

1971

Peruvian town wiped out

On this day in 1971, an earthquake sets off a series of calamities—a landslide, flood and avalanche–that results in the destruction of the town of Chungar, Peru, and the death of 600 of its inhabitants. Chungar was a mining camp in the Andes Mountains, where workers and their families lived while...

General Interest

1916

First U.S. air combat mission begins

Eight Curtiss “Jenny” planes of the First Aero Squadron take off from Columbus, New Mexico, in the first combat air mission in U.S. history. The First Aero Squadron, organized in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I, was on a support mission for the 7,000 U.S. troops who invaded...

1931

Nevada legalizes gambling

In an attempt to lift the state out of the hard times of the Great Depression, the Nevada state legislature votes to legalize gambling.Located in the Great Basin desert, few settlers chose to live in Nevada after the United States acquired the territory at the end of the Mexican War...

1953

DeMille wins Oscar

On March 19, 1953, legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille wins the only Academy Award of his career when The Greatest Show on Earth takes home an Oscar for Best Picture. The film, a big-budget extravaganza about circus life, starred Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Cornel Wilde.Born in Ashfield, Massachusetts, in...

Hollywood

1953

First Academy Awards telecast on NBC

On this night in 1953, for the first time, audiences are able to sit in their living rooms and watch as the movie world’s most prestigious honors, the Academy Awards, are given out at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, California. Organized in May 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts...

Literary

1842

Balzac botches a publicity stunt

French writer Honore de Balzac’s play Les Ressources de Quinola opens to an empty house thanks to a failed publicity stunt on this day in 1842. Hoping to create a buzz for the play, the writer circulated a rumor that tickets were sold out. Unfortunately, most of his fans stayed...

Music

1957

Elvis Presley puts a down payment on Graceland

In the spring of 1957, Elvis Presley was completing his second Hollywood movie, Loving You, and his first movie soundtrack album. He had two studio albums and 48 singles already under his belt and two years of nearly nonstop live appearances behind him. If his life had taken a different...

Old West

1864

Artist Charlie Russell born

Charles Marion Russell, one of the greatest artists of the American West, is born on this day in St. Louis, Missouri. According to family lore, Charlie Russell displayed an aptitude for art from a young age, reportedly drawing pictures and modeling in wax when he was a small child. At 16...

Presidential

2003

Bush announces the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom

On this day in 2003, President George W. Bush addresses the nation via live television and announces that Operation Iraqi Freedom has begun. Bush authorized the mission to rid Iraq of tyrannical dictator Saddam Hussein and eliminate Hussein’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Operation Iraqi Freedom illustrated...

Sports

1966

Texas Western defeats Kentucky in NCAA finals

On March 19, 1966, Texas Western College defeats the University of Kentucky in the NCAA men’s college basketball final at Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland. This marked the first time an all-black starting five had won the NCAA championship. The top-ranked University of Kentucky men’s basketball team was favored...

Vietnam War

1966

Seoul agrees to send additional troops

The South Korean Assembly votes to send 20,000 additional troops to Vietnam to join the 21,000 Republic of Korea (ROK) forces already serving in the war zone. The South Korean contingent was part of the Free World Military Forces, an effort by President Lyndon B. Johnson to enlist allies for...

1970

National emergency declared in Cambodia

The National Assembly grants “full power” to Premier Lon Nol, declares a state of emergency, and suspends four articles of the constitution, permitting arbitrary arrest and banning public assembly. Lon Nol and First Deputy Premier Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak had conducted a bloodless coup against Prince Norodom Sihanouk the day...

World War I

1916

First U.S. air-combat mission begins

On this day in 1916, the First Aero Squadron, organized in 1914 after the outbreak of World War I, flies a support mission for the 7,000 U.S. troops who, six days earlier, had invaded Mexico on President Woodrow Wilson’s orders to capture Mexican revolutionary Francisco Pancho Villa dead or alive. On...

World War II

1945

General Fromm executed for plot against Hitler

On this day, the commander of the German Home Army, Gen. Friedrich Fromm, is shot by a firing squad for his part in the July plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. The fact that Fromm’s participation was half-hearted did not save him. By 1944, many high-ranking German officials had made up their...

Christopher Hitchens and the Iraq War ended on the same day, December 15, 2011—a historical coincidence that only he might have known what to do with. In the trajectory of his career as brilliant talker and polemicist, man of letters, self-dramatizing personality, and traveller to bad places, Iraq was the turning point. Until then, his work fit roughly within the conventions of the left. Given the deadliness of much left-wing writing in the age of Reagan, Hitchens achieved the rare feat of being dazzling while sticking fairly closely to political orthodoxy.

I read almost every one of his “Minority Report” columns in The Nation from the mid-eighties until he gave them up after the 9/11 attacks, because they were reliably less predictable and more exciting than anything else in the magazine. If, as Hitchens once said, hatred was what got him up in the morning, the first three decades of his career were motivated more than anything by a contempt for American foreign policy and the hypocrites and evil characters who carried it out. As late as 1998, Hitchens hated Bill Clinton much more than Osama bin Laden. When Clinton ordered Cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan after Al Qaeda bombed the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Hitchens wrote a series of columns dissecting the American retaliation: he concluded that Clinton had chosen to kill innocent people (primarily Sudanese) in order to distract attention from Monica Lewinsky. Wag the dog, not Islamofascism, was the cardinal sin, the scandal that got Hitchens to the keyboard.

By 2000, he had embraced Naderism, finding nothing significant to distinguish Bush from Gore, and explicitly refusing to accept the lesser evil. It’s a position from which much thunder can be visited upon the meek accommodations of ordinary political life, but it’s also a dead end of sorts.

Two years later, after 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban, with the U.S. just months from going to war with Iraq, I went down to Washington to interview Hitchens for a piece on liberal intellectuals and the coming war. I hadn’t known Hitchens until then, and what I remember from that long afternoon of drinking (now a cliché of Hitchens eulogies, and one that doesn’t make me smile, since it helped kill him) was the sense of a man who was girding for battle. Hitchens took me on a long excursion through his political life, an account of the Education of Christopher Hitchens, with key stops at the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, which had pitted everything he loved against everything he hated, and the first Gulf War in 1991, which he had opposed. He described driving through the refugee camps in Kurdistan at the end of that war, with peshmerga fighters who had a picture of George H.W. Bush taped to their windshield. The thought of America on the side of a liberation movement occurred to Hitchens then, for the first time. It didn’t change his position on the war, but it planted a seed.

His monologue continued up until 9/11 and the singular insight that the attacks had given him: the American revolution was “the last one standing” and beat pretty much any conceivable alternative in the oppressed corners of the world. He was saying that he had been wrong, something that Hitchens didn’t do often enough—wrong not about anything in particular (he defended every specific political choice he’d made), but about the core question of whether America was a force for good or evil in the world. From there, it was a fairly short and direct line to the late evening, a few years later, when I met Paul Wolfowitz at a party in Hitchens’s D.C. apartment.

Some of his critics on the left, the former devotees of “Minority Report,” accused Hitchens of currying favor with the powerful—specifically, with those in the Bush Administration who were leading the war effort. The idea was that Hitchens had sold out for the sake of celebrity and dinner invitations. I don’t buy it—in spite of his well-established attraction to fame and fortune. So why did he throw himself with complete zeal into the idea of the war, breaking with so many old comrades, often with relish?

One reason was his hatred of religion. September 11, 2001, put Hitchens in touch with the molten anti-clericalism that was one of his elemental passions. It burned so hot that he turned it without a second thought at a secular, totalitarian Iraqi dictator. 9/11 gave Hitchens a sense of purpose like nothing since that early intimation, the Rushdie fatwa. It propelled him straight through the last, most productive, most visible decade of his life.

The second reason is a little murkier. He was, by his own lights and that of his admirers, a thoroughgoing contrarian. (One of his lesser known books was called “Letters to a Young Contrarian.”) And nothing could be more contrarian, in the early years of the last decade, than for a hero of the left to embrace George W. Bush. It breathed new life into Hitchens, his persona, and his prose.

He and I argued a lot about the war. We had both supported it, but as Iraq disintegrated, my criticisms of the policy struck him as weak-kneed and opportunistic, an effort to curry favor with bien-pensant liberals. In turn, his brave talk of sticking by his “comrades” in Baghdad rang false to me. Who were they, after all? Exiled politicians whose sectarian agendas helped take Iraq into a terrible civil war. The only comrades worthy of the name that I knew were those who had risked their lives for the American effort—the Iraqis who were betrayed by Bush, and have been betrayed again by Obama.

Iraq led Hitchens to some of his worst indulgences—the propaganda trip to Iraq in Wolfowitz’s entourage, the pose of Byronic heroism. But perhaps the war and the enemies it made him helped give Hitchens the courage of his last years and months—the atheist in the foxhole. Hitchens was one of the very few people who could slash and burn you in print, then meet for drinks and talk in the true warmth of friendship, discussing a writer we both admired, garrulous to the very last. It was a sign of his essential decency that he didn’t make it personal.

Photograph by Ed Kashi/Corbis.

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