Love, Poverty, and War

Reading Christopher Hitchens invariably provokes me to a cloudburst of scribbling. The content of his work, whether tackling God, revising Churchill, or casting the Iraq War as one of Kurdish emancipation, is (almost) secondary to the easy conversational brilliance of his style. Imagine a somewhat inebriate professor of letters who spent his youth alternating between a dinner jacket and dungarees, with an occasional sojourn to the front so he might shake hands with revolutionaries and fellow internationalists. Much like listening to live music in my relative youth instilled a desire to pick up a guitar at the immediate cessation, so does curling up with dear Hitch inspire a similar response.

Love, Poverty, and War borrows it’s title from O’Henry, who claimed no man could go through life escaping all three. It is a collection of essays on variable topics, and if there is a common theme to be found in the volume, it’s a general distate for anything approaching totalitarian, and a profound appreciation for irony and courage. Despite being forced on more than one occasion to duck lest a shot fired in anger do better than whine overhead, Hitchens avoided war for the most part, and I believe that in some senses he regrets it.

In both his memoir and in his essay on Churchillian revisionism, he makes mention of his father’s (the Commander, as he is remembered) naval service during WW2. He recounts the day his dad sunk a German warship that far outclassed his own, and chose “a better day’s work than I have ever done” to couch how he feels about his father’s finest hour. Despite the fact that Hitch was like his mom, a woman he looks back on adoringly as the person who instilled in him a love of literature, and the gentle but firm warning to “never be boring,” there is a subtle ache inside him, and perhaps in most men who’s fathers and grandfathers could count Hitler as a personal adversary.

Most of us will feel love and the pinch of hunger at some point in our lives. But war now escapes our personal reckoning. To experience war first hand one must make it their career, and come to the decision relatively early in life. Great conflict, full of sacrifice home and abroad, celebrated by endless books and films, and draped in polarizing but comforting terms like good and evil, is denied us. The greatest generation was not great for their deeds (though great their deeds were) but for the accident of their birth.

Are we right to be envious of blood, loss, and boredom? Surely, the daily life of the average solider is appositely captured by the cliched 90 percent boredom and ten percent terror (often used to describe commercial pilots, and occasionally by me to illustrate the life of a professional poker player). So why would anyone wish to be thrust into those circumstances, even if only temporarily? Because they will do a better days work than we will ever do, and maybe even more than one.

Portrayal of war is often criticized for being romanticized. For failing to convey the true cost, the pain, the senselessness of the destruction, the displacement of innocents, and the psychological consequences felt by the survivors. But the criticism misses a point. War is thrilling. War does facilitate and identify courage. War does foster bonds. There are many accounts of civilian Londoners (et al) in the aftermath of the blitz describing the time as one where they felt the most alive. The most purposeful. The most connected to their neighbours for enduring a common hardship.

There is no contradiction inherent in recognizing war as an unfortunate and evil manifestation of the human failure to resolve differences more pragmatically and morally, and feeling the unsated urge* to pick up a gun and kill a Nazi swell up inside you once in a while. You can exist in that conflicted state, and not have anything to apologize for.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

* I have heard some women describe a feeling of wanting to be pregnant – not have a child (necessarily) but an ineffable desire to be in the state of pregnancy. I think there might be an analogy hiding there somewhere.

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