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Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens on John Kerry’s troubles this week.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
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HH: As is the case on most Wednesdays when we are lucky, we’re joined by Christopher Hitchens, contributor to Vanity Fair, author most recently of a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Hitchens, welcome back. Always a pleasure to have you.

CH: Very good of you to keep asking me.

HH: I hope you’ve had a blessed All Saint’s Day.

CH: I’m so glad it’s behind me…or nearly.

HH: (laughing) I hope you’ll bear with me. I need to set up the Kerry story by playing some audio clips for the audience. And then, we’ll get to the conversation about it.

CH: Sure.

HH: Earlier today, John Kerry appeared on the Don Imus show. He made a couple of stabs at apology. Cut number 2:

DI: Well, why not apologize for the misunderstanding?

JK: Well, I did. I said it was a botched joke. Of course I’m sorry about a botched joke. Do you think I love botched jokes? I mean, you know, it’s pretty stupid.

HH: Cut number 3:

DI: At least apologize for the perception and the misunderstanding of your remarks, and then move on. And please, I’m just begging you, just go home.

JK: Well, I did. I said very clearly to people, I’ve said obviously, do you think I’m happy that they have an opportunity to be able to take something and exploit it? Obviously not. I am sorry that that’s happened. But I’m not, I’m not going to stand back from the reality here, which is they’re trying to change the subject. It’s their campaign of smear and fear.

HH: Cut number 4:

JK: And incidentally, when you say I’ve done something in the past…I’ve told the truth in the past. I’ve never done anything except tell the truth. And I’m not going to take anybody’s comment to suggest that somehow my telling the truth was a mistake. The American people rely on the truth. And when I came back from Southeast Asia, I told the truth. And I’m proud that I stood up and told the truth then, and I’ve told the truth about Iraq every single step of the way.

HH: The last cut is cut number 7, Don Imus and his newsman, Charles McCord:

DI: While I was talking to Senator Kerry, Charles…I’m sitting there watching Charles, and he’s tearing his hair out.

CM: Oh, I mean, somewhere, Rosemary Woods is spinning in her grave, God bless her.

DI: I mean, Charles is saying God, just hand me the shovel and stop digging.

CM: He didn’t have a shovel. He was at the controls of a backhoe. Stop it.

DI: Anyway…

CM: Just…I thought he said he was against torture.

DI: (laughing) :24 ’til the hour here on the Imus In The Morning program.

CM: That wasn’t a tortured explanation, it was mutilated.

DI: Well, I mean…you know, just…it’s just a lot better to say exactly what you mean, and then not try to be cute about it. And for everybody…Rush Limbaugh, him, everybody.

CM: He could end it now. He could have ended it then…

DI: Yes.

CM: …had he simply apologized for what could have been construed as at least an insensitive remark that could have affected morale, military morale and stuff. Just apologize for misspeaking, and then say this is what I meant to say…

DI: Well, he sort of said that.

CM: Sort of, but you couldn’t get him to make that apology.

HH: Late this afternoon, John Kerry posted the following statement on his website:

As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones, my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop. I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any servicemember, family member, or American who was offended. It is clear the Republican Party would rather talk about anything but their failed security policy. I don’t want my verbal slip to be a diversion from the real issues. I will continue to fight for a change of course, to provide real security for our country, and a winning strategy for our troops. End of statement. Christopher Hitchens, your comments?

CH: Oh, good grief. I mean, it’s the sort of thing that drags one down, and makes one feel stupid talking about it, almost. I mean…oh…why didn’t he throw in his plan for victory in Iraq, by the way, while he was about it, which he never quite uncorked, if you remember…

HH: That’s correct.

CH: …the last time he was reporting for duty. It is true that he wouldn’t know a joke if it was handed to him on a skewer with bernaise sauce. And it is, I think, true that he was trying to be funny at Bush’s expense. I don’t think it could be read any other way myself. But if the Democrats, Like Mrs. Clinton, insist on taking him at his word, they show how humorless and discombobulated they are as well. But by golly, what a kind fawning, abject, hapless guy he is, Kerry, I’m talking about.

HH: Yes. Have you, Christopher Hitchens, been following the reaction of the American military to this?

CH: Well, I get e-mails from soldiers in Iraq, most days. And there’s some with whom I’m in regular touch. I haven’t had anyone say that they were offended, or thought it was intended to be a slight on them. And you know, infantrymen often refer to themselves as grunts and dog-faces, as if they were the guys just out there bluntly doing heavy lifting. They don’t need it to be taken seriously. But this is a very solid, all-volunteer army, and the army doesn’t take morons.

HH: Do you have an e-mail where people can reach you that you’re willing to announce?

CH: Sure, and I’m the only Hitchens in the Washington phone book as well.

HH: No, but I mean, I would like you to be able to get from…the e-mail that I’m receiving by the barrelful, bucketful, wheelbarrowful, from active duty military who were incensed yesterday, and are not less incensed today.

CH: Really? Well then, we must be fishing from a different stream, perhaps, of contacts. But yeah, my e-mail is CHitch8003@aol.com.

HH: At?

CH: AOL.

HH: Now let me read you one…

CH: And I’m in the Washington phone book, and you can look me up in Who’s Who, and all that.

HH: Here’s the one I just got, and I just posted. Hugh, I am the Air Force combat medic who called you yesterday, seething with rage over the esteemed Senator’s comment, as I just returned from Iraq a little over three weeks ago, my second tour of duty. As I see it, Mr. Kerry has effectively non-apologized. He did not say those words in public, but released them via website. Frankly, that’s a chicken $#!^ way to go about it.

CH: (laughing)

HH: It also arrives about 24 hours too late, smacking of the aftershock of a phone call from Bill Clinton, basically telling Kerry to get on the bus or get thrown under it. The damage has been done, in my opinion. And just to think, I used to think John O’Neill was an ideologue. Oh, the times, they are a’changing. That’s just one, and Christopher Hitchens, I think as well, when he incorporated by reference his 1971 testimony this morning on Imus, he may have upped the ante, rather than put out the fire.

CH: Well there, you may be onto something. I hadn’t heard that Imus stuff until just now. But reading the…and seeing, reading the delivery and seeing it, and then seeing the back story, which I don’t think was invented by his equally hapless staff of what I keep on describing to people as the kind of joke that’s now only told by those who have no sense of humor, which is when in doubt, tell the joke about the presidential IQ.

HH: right.

CH: I mean, so funny…you know, and so last year, and all that, so overdone.

HH: Yes.

CH: But I really don’t think it was meant to be any more than that. And I think he must have been astounded…of course, most things come to Kerry as a surprise. But I think he must have been astounded at the way in which it’s been picked up, and I have to say I think it’s contemptible of the White House to have done this, because it is a change of subject. It’s pretending to talk about Iraq, while actually pounded on the last defeated Democrat.

HH: Oh, I couldn’t disagree with you more.

CH: I think that’s absolutely throwing dust in the electorate’s eye.

HH: Absolutely not.

CH: And I feel rather degraded having to take part in this kind of commentary, because we’re all colluding in changing the subject.

HH: Absolutely not. This is the subject, this is the war in the military, and their place in the world, and the justness of the cause. And I think what he is attempting to convey through comments like this is an emotional contempt for the operation, and for the Iraqi people, and for what he views as a failure. I think it’s exactly on point, but I…

CH: Well, he’s…on that, he’s been on the record ever since he’s stopped talking about his victory plan, of course. I mean, he’s one of those who keeps on about are we more safe, which I think is also a contemptible question.

HH: When he referenced his 1971…

CH: But I mean, this fatuous joke that he lost the plot of is saying to students, you know, pay attention, otherwise you’ll end up like Bush, not to pay attention, otherwise you’ll end up shouldering a pack in Iraq. I really do think that he can’t be impugned on that point.

HH: Well, we disagree, because the military disagrees with you, and I think it’s…

CH: No, no.

HH: …I think it’s them…those who are the target of an insult are those who can either accept or reject it, and accept or reject an apology. For example, are you married, Mr. Hitchens?

CH: Several times. Just kidding. Yes, I am, yeah.

HH: Okay, if you’re fighting with your current wife, and you…and she’s really mad at you, and you deliver the sort of apology that John Kerry delivered today, is she going to say okay, Christopher, that’s fine?

CH: Well, certainly not, not if she’s the woman I take her for.

HH: Exactly. It’s not an apology.

CH: No, but he shouldn’t…I don’t think he should have apologized. He should have said screw you if you can’t take a joke, is what he should have said.

HH: When he said today, when…

CH: But I mean now, he’s forfeited all possible sympathy.

HH: Yes, because he’s apologizing, but not. When he said today, when I came back from Southeast Asia, I told the truth, and I’m proud that I stood up and told the truth, what do you think he’s referring to?

CH: Well, he’s referring to Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I take it.

HH: Yes. And…

CH: Which I thought was an honorable cause, then and now.

HH: Let me play as we go out…we’ll come back with Christopher Hitchens. One of the things that he said, cut number 5, as we go to break on the Hugh Hewitt Show:

JK: They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in the fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.

HH: I told the truth, he said, and I’m proud that I stood up and told the truth then. – John Kerry on Imus In The Morning.

– – –

HH: Hughhewitt.com has got the e-mail text of what I’ve been receiving and posting. I’ll post Mr. Hitchens’ e-mail there for easy reference as well. Mr. Hitchens, I’m 50. How old are you?

CH: 57. I have as many years as Heinz has varieties.

HH: But you’re still a little young to be doing journalism during Vietnam, or did you?

CH: Only for student papers, that kind of thing.

HH: And so looking back, did I understand you correctly going to break that you believe that John Kerry’s narrative in 1971 was true?

CH: Sure. I’ve talked to soldiers who could tell you far worse than that from Vietnam. Far worse things were done. I did a long article for Vanity Fair recently about the poisoning of the entire Vietnamese ecology by mass spraying of dioxin, which is a major war crime.

HH: But of course, what Kerry was talking about…

CH: For example…

HH: …was the out of control behavior that he attributed to individual GI’s, not the policy that you might be referring to there, or like Agent Orange. He was attributing to the men and women of the armed services in 1971 a widespread war criminality. Don’t you think that’s what he was saying?

CH: Sure, I think he was, yeah.

HH: And do you think that that went on?

CH: Yes, I absolutely…I’m as sure of it as I could be of anything. The guys who told me this stuff couldn’t possibly have lied. They…some of them, they haven’t gotten over being told, for example, I’m just thinking of a friend of mine from Oregon, one of the gentlest guys you ever wish to meet, to be told it was his turn to throw a prisoner out of a helicopter, because he hadn’t done it yet, to dirty him up and implicate him.

HH: So what percentage of American combat veterans from the Vietnam era do you believe engaged in war crimes?

CH: Oh, I wouldn’t care to say about that. But I think that, by the way, the distinction you make between the policy and the execution, or the criminality is a false one, because…or a distinction without much difference, because once body counts were announced, and all bodies could be claimed as enemy casualties, and laid out as for a day’s hunting, bagged to be photographed, which you remember happened, and when certain areas could be declared free fire zones and so forth, it was a direct incitement to elements that remember, were quite often conscripted.

HH: No, I think, though…

CH: …and demoralized and drafted types of the sort that showed up at the trials after My Lai, to do what the hell they liked.

HH: I think, though, by avoiding the question about percentage, you may be doing what Kerry has paid a high price for, but he intended to do, which is to leave open the idea that most, or a huge percentage of American fighting men and women engaged in atrocities. That’s what his ’71 testimony, which he incorporated by reference this very day…

CH: Well, I think it was a war of atrocity, as well as of agression, so I do think that anyone who took part in it is dirtied to some extent.

HH: He’s not saying that.

CH: What I don’t forgive Kerry…

HH: But wait…

CH: He’s trying to have that both ways, and then some…

HH: You’re trying to have it both ways, Christopher Hitchens.

CH: …of a great band of brothers.

HH: He did not say that. He said not that they were by being there, that they were war criminals, but that they engaged in specific behaviors which everyone would recognize…

CH: Yeah, well, I don’t think he made that up. I think he was well informed.

HH: But he was saying that generally about American men, fighting men and women. And are you agreeing that generally, that is true?

CH: I’m saying that the United States Army disgraced itself and the United States in Indochina, yes I am.

HH: But again, that’s not the same thing as saying that individuals routinely broke the laws of war and committed atrocities. Do you believe to be true?

CH: Yes, and encouraged and unpunished, yes, I do think that that’s true.

HH: And what kind of scale are you talking about here? 10? 1,000? 10,000 GI’s?

CH: Well, I think it must have been a lot more than that. I mean, I don’t know how many…look, the illegal, unconstitutional intervention in Vietnam, and you can go look it up on the Vietnam Memorial, begins in 1954 with Lansdale’s soldiers there as covert action, when not even Congress knew about it, and goes on until very nearly 1970, or…I mean, the last casualties on the Vietnam Memorial actually are from the Mayaguez, the crew of the Mayaguez, after the evacuation of Cambodia. So that’s a lot of people circulated through Indochina. And the Vietnamese lost about a million and a half civilians in the course of that war, so you do the math if you want.

HH: Well no, I’m asking you, because I think you’re purposefully avoiding the most significant issue here, which is…

CH: No, I must be stupid rather than…I’m not doing it deliberately.

HH: All right. Let’s get to it. Let’s say 2 million Americans passed through Vietnam in the course of the conflict from ’58 through the retreat in ’75. And of those 2 million, let’s say a million engaged in combat, and a million were back troops. Of those million that engaged in combat, what do you estimate the number of them engaged in what would, if on video, if we had evidence, be judged a war criminal by Americans?

CH: There you defeat me, because I’m very hapless about statistics. But when I think of the gentleman I just told you about from Oregon, what he was describing were things that he still feels he should have reported and did not, that he didn’t have to go out of his way to see, and he’s a fairly typical guy. And he’s not the only one, he’s just the one who I find the most trustworthy, and the one who’s still having the hardest time dealing with it. No, no. Most, I’m afraid…the fact is, it is, and always will remain a terrible blot on the reputation of the United States.

HH: You see, I must not…I must be failing in my job as a questioner, because it’s an obvious question to me of scale, that John Kerry came back and he would say, you could only infer from his comments, that of those million, and that’s a hypothetical number, I don’t know, who saw combat, that 750,000 of them engaged in individual acts that would be judged to be an atrocity.

CH: Well, that to me sounds hysterical, I have to say, if that’s the implication of what he’s saying.

HH: Well, what isn’t hysterical?

CH: Look, here’s the thing. You know if you send soldiers to war, some of them will…

HH: Yes.

CH: …do this. And for example, even if we absolutely knew, which I think I’ve argued this, as you know, against the anti-war movement, that if Iraq had been full of weapon sites of mass destruction, that everyone could see, and if it had been full of al Qaeda training camps that everyone could see, rather than the rather more ambivolent, but I still think conclusive evidence that we do have, there would still have been something like Abu Ghraib. There always is going to be something like that, and anyone who gives the order for soldiers to engage knows something of this…or Haditha, something like that is going to happen.

HH: Well, Haditha’s not adjudicated.

CH: Well, I think you can argue very, very clearly these things are not the pattern of the war, that we’re not fighting the whole Iraqi people, that we’re not trying to subjugate a country that’s striving for independence. We’re not the inheritors of European colonialism in Iraq as we were, or French colonialism in Indochina, and so forth. Nor are we in discriminately spraying the country with napalm, phosphorous and dioxin, which was the case…ecocide is actually the word for it, in Vietnam, where anyone handling those bombs, or those sprays…

HH: But Haditha’s not adjudicated.

CH: …were complicit in a war on a civilian population.

HH: Again, I’m going back. Haditha is not adjudicated. But what Kerry did, and it’s a common law principle of slander at work in our courts everywhere, which is to identify a group, and attribute a group in such an undifferentiated way, slanderous, terrible conduct that is in fact slanderous, if attributed to an innocent person. And that’s why he’s hated, Christopher Hitchens.

CH: Well, I think he’s more, frankly, I think he’s more despised than hated…

HH: Well, both, but…

CH: He hasn’t really got enough character to stir up…

HH: But you’re not condemning his rather…

CH: He hasn’t got enough character to stir up real hatred anymore. I think it’s more contempt, because he then wants to claim credit for serving with a noble band of brothers. And that’s, I think, when people started to snap. I mean, no one came up with that stuff, whether it’s true or false about the Swift Boats, until he tried to pose as a war hero, having said that all his comrades were war criminals. I mean, that is completely unpardonable, it seems to me.

HH: On that note, we’re out of…Do you think he has a magic hat, by the way?

CH: I’m sorry?

HH: He’s often said he walks around with a hat that was given to him by a CIA covert operative when he went into Cambodia. Do you believe that tale?

CH: Well, I mean, didn’t he have Christmas in Cambodia at some point, when he was rear based…

HH: It’s seared, seared in his memory.

CH: Wasn’t it Christmas in Cambodia, when he couldn’t have been there? I mean, look. It’s enough to make a cat laugh, the whole thing.

HH: Christopher Hitchens, we’ll talk again next week. I think you’ll be getting some mail.

End of interview.

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