Fred Kaplan on the Day Hitchens Taught Him About Every War in the World

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 11:49 AM

Hitchens Teaches Me About Every War in the World

Fred Kaplan on Hitch’s dizzying knowledge of international relations.

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Christopher Hitchens, 1949 - 2011

Photograph by Christian Witkin.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens.  Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

I met Christopher Hitchens in the early 1980s, soon after he first moved to America. We were both in D.C. I was friends with a few expat British journalists, who of course were old chums of “the Hitch,” so it was natural that we’d be introduced.

Around this time, a magazine commissioned me to write thumbnail sketches of every war going on in the world. (I recall there were 36.) The idea was to compile them into a booklet, which would be given away as a bonus to new subscribers. (By the time I finished, the magazine had hired a new business manager, who properly decided this was a stupid idea; I got paid in full, but the piece was never published.)

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It was a hideous project to research. Several of these wars were small and obscure, and it was hard, in the pre-Internet age, to find any useful material about some.

So I called Hitchens, knowing that he’d actually reported from a few of these battlefields. He said he would be glad to help, and we made a lunch date.

I went to his house on Capitol Hill around noon. He answered the door with a drink in hand. We sat in his living room and talked about various random things for a half hour, during which time he refilled and emptied his glass again. We walked to a nearby restaurant. The waitress said, “Can I get you boys something to drink?” Christopher answered, in that insouciantly charming tone of his, “I think I’ll make an exception on this occasion, and order a scotch.” He had two more over the course of the lunch, and still another when we returned to his house midafternoon.

Many have written of his extraordinary capacity in this regard. But the points I’d like to make are these:

First, he remained completely lucid throughout. You would never have known for a moment that he’d touched a drop. This was true, by the way, for the entire time I knew him. He'd built up (or his brain had, anyway) some preternatural resistance to the stuff.

Second, his knowledge of these wars and the countries that bred them—their political structures, social fabrics, cultural peculiarities—was dizzyingly deep. I particularly remember him waxing lyrical, and in detail, on the revolutionaries of the Polisario Front, fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara from Morocco.

Third, he was almost dumbfoundingly generous. Jacob Weisberg has written of Hitchens’ kindness to younger journalists. I didn’t exactly fall in that category. He was only five years older, and toiling in only slightly less obscurity, than I was. Yet he shared everything he knew about every war we discussed, without hesitation or expectation of reward (apart from the cheap lunch).

He shouldn’t be sentimentalized. Hitch could be a real shit if you fell on the wrong side of his favor. Among our mutual friends, he had fallings-out, in some cases multiple ones, with almost every one of them. And yet, at some point, they always fell back in. He was too irresistible and, in a pinch, too good a friend.

See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens.  Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.

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