How Hitchens and I Snuck into Iraq

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 16 2011 12:58 AM

Sneaking Into Iraq With Hitchens

And smuggling in booze, too.

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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.

No secrets are being divulged when I report that Christopher liked a drink every now and then.  Preferably now. He wasn’t sloppy about it. In fact, he always seemed in perfect control (I once saw him steer a beach bike through the streets of Key West without spilling his Scotch.) He just liked to keep the machine well-oiled so he could get on to more important things, like liberating oppressed peoples of the world, knocking out his 10,000 words a day, or starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he doesn’t. In some ways, his affection for drink brought us together, setting in motion my most vivid memories of him.

As the Iraq War kicked off in 2003, I was holed up in the Kuwait City Hilton – home to unembedded reporters looking to make their way in. While I’d only briefly met Hitchens once before, word had spread through mutual friends that my hotel room was the last cantina in town. Since the border being sealed meant the black-market hooch supply had dried up, we smuggled our amber past customs officials in Listerine bottles. So when Hitchens showed up at my door early one morning kitted for battle with nothing more than his black leather jacket, blue jeans, and a half-smoked pack of Rothman’s (he refused to bring Kevlar, saying it made him feel “like a counterfeit”), I offered him a welcome-to-the-war shot of “Listerine,” just to be hospitable.

“I don’t usually start this early,” he said, his glass already gratefully extended, “but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism.” With our soldiers already rolling across the desert, the humanitarian channels to hitch rides were gummed up, stranding hundreds of reporters on the bench. But Hitchens would not be deterred. On assignment for Vanity Fair, he only had a few days to touch Iraqi soil, and watching him get there was a study in forward motion, as he charged just as hard, if not harder, than Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade.

When we missed by minutes a humanitarian convoy some three hours after he’d arrived in Kuwait, he considered it an utter professional failure. “This can’t be happening,” he despaired. When we made the list the next morning to ride into Iraq with the Red Crescent food trucks, I asked if we should commemorate our successful passage with my disposable camera. “No,” he said, hoping to avoid a jinx. “Save it for the bloated corpses. Don’t say anything, or something bad will happen.”

Something bad did happen when enemy booms went off above our bus. The trip was canceled “due to weather and instability,” as the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information official phrased it. But Hitchens didn’t require a bus. “Convoys are an insult to journalism, I think.” When a producer friend said his driver had a Syrian uncle who worked at the French embassy who could shuttle us around the checkpoints, he suggested Hitchens make him an offer. “What is this, the souk?” Hitchens said, with the impatience of a man whose mission was being  pointlessly delayed. “No Hitchens has ever haggled. Tell him to tell me what he’s worth.”

As we fortified ourselves with liquid courage out of Apollinaris water bottles, he assured me we’d be in safe hands. He totally trusted this driver that he’d yet to lay eyes on. The driver, it turns out, charged us 500 bucks to take my truck, because he didn’t want to get his dirty if we ran into a ditch or were shot in our backs. Meanwhile, Hitchens took care of provisions in case we got stranded by our lonesome in Iraq for weeks at a time. His original plan entailed digging into the humanitarian corn meal supply if needed. But he finally caved into my caution, and retrieved for us two cheese sandwich platters and a couple bananas. “Bananas!” he exclaimed, “it’s the easiest way to carry food, plus they’re good for you.”

At the first checkpoint, we were turned back by a British Air Force policeman who told us passage was unthinkable due to security reasons. Hitchens was incensed. “Security is only a word, but it’s not a reason, is it?” When we wished to talk to the head Kuwaiti in charge, our efforts to bribe him were met with cool resistance, and our yellow-bellied driver breached his contract and turned back. We made it onto a humanitarian run the next morning , rolling down the Highway of Death, while being periodically pulled over and delayed for hours  as the Kuwaitis – worshippers of all things bureaucratic – kept demanding we fill out more paperwork declaring our affiliations. “Who wants to know?” barked Hitchens, castigating reporter colleagues for complying like sheep, while pointing out particularly egregious offenders: “Look at him, reading the list upside down. Do you sign anything they put in front of you? You’ve got to push back hard or you’ll get too used to being pushed around.”

We finally made it into an impoverished Iraqi border town, watching starving, elbow-throwing Iraqis battle each other in front of the food trucks in desperate displays of aggression where the strong hoarded and the weak went hungry. Hitch and I passed out Tic-Tacs and Marlboro Reds to children begging for smokes as empty goodwill gestures. “Quite a burg, isn’t it?” he said.

Back on the Kuwaiti side, our minder, Yacoub, told us our bus would once again be delayed so the other buses could catch up and we could convoy in safety. “How are six more buses going to make us safer?” protested Hitchens. After a protracted tussle in which Yacoub demanded Hitchens’ press badges, then after a cooling off in which he gave them back, then after a resumption of hostilities when Hitchens decided he didn’t want his Kuwaiti press badge back as the Kuwaitis were proving themselves the tramplers of liberty, Yacoub screamed that Hitchens would “leave Kuwait tonight!” It’s pretty hard to get kicked out of a war. But Hitchens almost managed.

Hitch waved off the threat, and went outside for a smoke, restating his golden rule: “Do something every day against Bastards HQ.” The rest of the press corps, by now, had turned on him, except for one defiant Indian journalist who sidled up beside him to commiserate by whispering, “We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed  men.” The lines from T.S. Eliot caused Hitchens to flash his pearly yellows. “You see, only in India to people really bother with English literature anymore,” he beamed.

To say literature mattered to him would be like saying he greatly enjoyed inhaling and exhaling. It was necessity, not luxury – a refuge and a brace against randomness and Bastards HQ. So with the void he’s thoughtlessly left, I’m reminded of a few more lines, ones Christopher sent me just a short time after our travels together when his friend and editor, the Atlantic’s Michael Kelly, died near Baghdad. They’re from his beloved First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, and Hitchens would probably shudder with horror and humility that I’d dare apply them to this occasion. But if he can witness my crime from beyond, then he has a lot of explaining to do. And so I expect there’ll be silence on his end, sadly:

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk, a drawing-down of blinds.

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

Matt Labash is a senior writer at the Weekly Standard.