Love, Poverty and War, review by:
Love, Poverty and War
Journeys and Essays
By Christopher Hitchens
The late Christopher Hitchens instantly won me over years ago when I first encountered his enormous talent while he was still a contributor to Vanity Fair. This extensive collection of pieces he wrote for several publications is divided into three parts, as the title suggests, that collectively span many topics—from poets to pre- and post-9/11 politics to religion. His insights on the latter are impressive, considering Hitchens was a staunch atheist because his knowledge of world religions is deeper than some of their adherents.
One of the most compelling pieces in the book is titled “Scenes from an Execution.” Hitchens, who opposed the death penalty, realized his opinions on capital punishment could never be fully formed if he kept “getting off the train before the last stop.” So he attended a Missouri execution as a “designated State’s witness” and was dismayed by what he learned. “Every attempt, in other words, to make this ‘procedure’ more rational, more orderly, and more hygienic succeeded only in calling attention to something that I’m now firmly convinced is inescapable—namely that it’s irrational, random, befouled, and besmeared with the residues of ancient cruelty and superstition.”
The inmate to be executed was drafted to Vietnam. While serving, he witnessed three quarters of his company get wiped out, one by one. He was stranded for five days behind Vietcong lines. He was awarded many medals. Psychologists diagnosed him with a classic case of Post-Vietnam Stress Disorder. His platoon commander gave excellent testimony on his behalf, but this was oddly outside the presence of the jury that decided to have him killed.
“The medical butchery of a helpless and demented loser, the descendant of slaves and a discarded former legionary of the empire made neither society nor any individual safer. It canceled no moral debt. It was a creepy, furtive and shameful affair in which the participants could not decently show their faces or quite meet one another’s eye.”
After the blinds were lowered, Hitchens “was supposed to sign a book saying everything had been kosher. It was, by definition, too late for that. What if I didn’t think so and wouldn’t sign? The shrug I got in response only proved that we were, all of us, spending an off-night in Absurdistan.”
By his own shame, his humanity shines as he admits to feeling “permanently degraded and somewhat unmanned by the small part I played, as a complicit spectator, in the dank and dingy little ritual that was enacted in that prison cellar in Missouri. . . . I don’t know if I shall ever excuse myself, even as a reporter who’s supposed to scrutinize everything, for my share in the proceedings.”
He best sums up the crux of the matter as follows: “The can deny it’s cruel, they can certainly make it less unusual, but they are still stuck with the task of running a premeditated state killing: Big Government at its worst.”