British journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011) of 'The New Statesman', on 19 March 1974. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A Hitch in time

Our Falklands correspondent muses on the importance of the war to the late journalist

Artillery Row

To mark 40 years since the Falklands War, two Critic contributors based in the Southern Hemisphere, A.S.H. Smyth in the Falklands and Dominic Hilton in Argentina, are exchanging letters reflecting on the events of the war, and the differing perspectives on it in Port Stanley and Buenos Aires. Have the two societies moved on? Do scars still run deep? 

Dear “Hilton”,

With consummate irony, there’s been a “major” outbreak of Covid in Stanley (50+ cases, currently; none requiring the hospital) the week before all remaining travel/quarantine regulations were scheduled to be finally lifted. Hey ho.

There’s always some bleeding Tory trying to put a veneer on military rule

So I have been off games, unable to do the Breakfast Show — a pity, since this week would have been my 1-year anniversary — and missing the start of “commemoration season” here in the Falklands. The first event is for the first British casualty of the 1982 war, pilot Lt Nick Taylor of 800 Naval Air Squadron. His grave lies beside the racecourse outside Goose Green, surrounded by a traditional white paling fence, within sight both of the Darwin cemetery (latest occupant, sadly, a young man who drowned only a couple of weeks back, while transporting horses) and of the nearby Argentinian Cemetery (pop. approx. 250, with another 650 commemorated on a wall). Successive Argentinian governments have seen fit to leave their nation’s fallen there, on the grounds that these poor blokes are already on home soil. Great consolation to their families, I’m sure.

Anyway, we’ll catch up on those events over the coming weeks. For now, I’m stuck indoors: so I’ve been listening, once again, to Christopher Hitchens — and not merely to buoy the spirits.

The tenth anniversary of his death came round (too rapidly) in December. As were many others in the latter months of 2021, I was considering Hitchens’ life and legacy when I decided to re-enjoy Hitch-22 — read by the man himself, in that barrel-aged but ever-so-slightly-gulping baritone. I had re-purchased it in a 2-for-1 Audible deal (I own the book, of course; in England) along with The Satanic Verses of his great friend and comrade in literary-political arms, Salman Rushdie.

Three things immediately struck me — and when I say “immediately” I mean within the first 10 per cent or so of Hitchens’ memoir.

  1. That both he and Rushdie mention the Falklands War in their respective (and, in this instance, consecutive) works.
  2. That I had embarked on Hitch-22 for altogether un-Falklands-related purposes, having remembered nothing in it (from the time of the book’s original release) with regard to the Islands.
  3. That on the very day I walked down to look at Stanley’s Battle Day monument — commemorating the Royal Navy’s 1914 sinking of Admiral Graf von Spee’s marauding Scharnhorst et al. — I heard Hitch’s dulcet tones narrate how, on Boxing Day 1943, his father, Commander Eric Hitchens RN, “proudly participat[ed] as the Jamaica pressed home for the kill and fired torpedoes through the hull of one of Hitler’s most dangerous warships, the Scharnhorst [a later and equally ill-fated namesake, obviously]… a better day’s work than I have ever done”.

Apart from this elbowy historical resonance — unknown to Hitchens, by the look of it — Hitch-22 mentions the Falklands, overtly, no fewer than three times (not bad in an extremely well-lived and well-travelled life!).

The first is when, despite his being largely unimpressed by his firstborn’s complete disinclination for sport, and fully aware that he had “some kind of Red for a son”, the perhaps 25-year-old Hitch discovers that his decidedly-Conservative father has been keeping tabs on his career in leftist journalism. He has been giving friends subscriptions to the New Statesman and, one afternoon after Hitch has returned from war-torn Lebanon, calls him “to say that he had admired my article and, while I was still searching for the words in which to respond, he in effect doubled the stakes by saying that he thought it had been ‘rather brave’ of me to go there”.

The Commander “had seen action… in almost every maritime theatre from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, [and] had had an especially arduous and bitter time” during the war; but “in truth,” young Christopher continues, “when in Cyprus or in Palestine or southern Africa or elsewhere, I generally felt myself so much in sympathy with those who had resisted British rule that I thought it better for the Commander and myself to avoid the subject.”

If you had asked me then about the likelihood of the Union Jack flying again over Basra or the Khyber Pass, I would have both mocked and scorned the idea. Yet when the Argentine fascist junta invaded the Falkland Islands in the early days of 1982, just after I had immigrated to New York, I felt a sudden stab of partisanship for the Royal Navy as it sailed out to reverse the outcome. I even wrote to the Commander in fairly gung-ho terms, hoping for a hint of common ground. His response surprised and even slightly depressed me. “I don’t know if it frightens the enemy,” he wrote about Britain’s last war-footing fleet as it found its inexorable way to the South Atlantic, “but it certainly frightens me.”

That fact that Hitch has only recently absented himself from his homeland may be more of a factor here, patriotically-speaking, than he is letting on (one’s accent grows stronger, etc. — see below). Meanwhile, I’m inclined to suspect the concern Commander H was raising might actually have been that the under-tested and economically-hampered Royal Navy of 1982 (and by extension, the wider nation) might not encounter a catastrophic humiliation in the rough seas of the South Atlantic winter. Still, who can say, at this distance?

What we can say is that Hitch goes on to discuss how he learned from his dejected father — let go by his beloved Senior Service, denied a decent pension, emotionally adrift without the empire he’d long fought for — “what it is to feel disappointed and betrayed by your ‘own’ side”.

A hundred and fifty pages later, our hero has progressed backward by a couple of years, to a visit to Argentina in 1977. He goes looking for the journalist Jacobo Timerman (disappeared — mercifully only temporarily, in his case — and tortured by the regime for the crime of being a journalist, and for being Jewish, a fact not incidental to his para-Nazi tormentors). Hitch interviews the grotesque dictator General Videla, visits the pampas (where Robert Cox puts him off steak for a few years by telling him another, hideous meaning of “asado”), and has a somewhat uncomfortable interview with the distressingly right-wing literary genius Jorge Luis Borges (“sometimes,” he reflects ruefully, “it was also the right people who took the wrong line”).

As a result of his New Statesman write-up of that trip, he was asked by Denis MacShane to address the National Union of Journalists, “to enlighten all the reporters who would be covering the upcoming soccer World Cup in Argentina, and to encourage them to make inquiries about the human rights situation”. Hitch goes along, says his bit, “and then up got a man in a three-piece suit who in a very plummy accent identified himself with a double-barreled name. Here it comes, I thought, there’s always some bleeding Tory trying to put a veneer on military rule.”

The gentleman proceeded to give high praise to my speech. He underlined the fascistic nature of the junta and went on to call attention to its aggressive design on the Falkland Islands, where lived an ancient community of British farmers and fishermen. In 1978 this didn’t seem to be a geopolitical detail of any consuming interest, but I do remember agreeing with him that when challenged about its own depredations, the Argentine Right invariably tried to change the subject to the injustice of British possession of the Falklands.

Following on directly from this, Hitchens was then invited to a Falkland Islands Committee garden party at Lincoln’s Inn. He “asked if I might bring my father, who had himself briefly been stationed on this desolate archipelago”.

The reception was a distinct success, if somehow quaint in its almost antique Englishness. I have often noticed that nationalism is at its strongest at the periphery [ahem]… but the loyalist atmosphere on the lawn that night, with a Navy band playing and ancient settler families inquiring after one another’s descendants, was of an unquestioning and profound and rooted kind that one almost never encountered in the rest of a declining and anxious Britain. It was a bit much even for Commander Hitchens, who privately thought the islands slightly absurd and probably undefendable [see?]. When the time came when his old Royal Navy was sinking and shattering the Argentine fleet, the cadet school of which was a training camp for torture and rape, I was one of the very few socialists to support Mrs. Thatcher and he was one of the very few Tories to doubt the wisdom of the enterprise. So it goes.

He was in the Big Apple — working for The Nation and hanging out with the “rather contrasting” East-End McNally restaurateur brothers — when the other shoe finally dropped.

Brian it was who woke me very early one morning, sounding almost like a movie version of a Blitz-era Ealing Studios Cockney and inveighing against a ‘fuckin’ diabolical liberty. This turned out to be, once my disordered senses had cleared, the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Far from home and fairly far from being Thatcherites, we were at one in the belief that under no circumstances could anybody put up with being pushed around by a crew of Buenos Aires brownshirts.

The aggression, for which my still-vivid visit to Argentina had helped prepare me, was the occasion for a fascinating division of forces and clash of opinions on both sides of the Atlantic. It seemed obvious to me that the military junta would never have dared attack a British territory unless it had been given some sort of “green light” from Washington. Indeed, it was at once reported that Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s UN ambassador and a leading apologist for anti-Communist dictatorships, had graced an Argentine diplomatic reception on the very night of the invasion. General Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan’s vain, preposterous secretary of state, was also in his usual engorged condition of being crazy for anything that was militaristic, sadistic and butch in a uniform. But the assurances given to Haig’s equivalents in Buenos Aires had all been predicated on the assumption that Britain would not fight for a stony archipelago at the wrong end of the world. I abruptly realized, for reasons that I believed had little if anything to do with my blood and heritage, and despite the impediment placed in the way of my becoming more American, that I would be unable to bear the shame if this assumption proved to be correct.

Hitchens freely allows that, in his new milieu, “the sending of a British naval expedition to recover the islands was mostly greeted with mirth and incredulity”. He admits he wasn’t instantly won over to the ostensibly Thatcherite/neo-imperialist cause (“[I] even wrote an editorial mocking the ‘Rule Britannia’ jingo-ism that seemed to be spoiling the show back home. My cheeks still inflame a bit to remember it”). But he soon witnesses the diplomatic “dichotomies” between “the very ugliest bit of the new American empire, represented by the Haig-Kirkpatrick alliance of uniformed bullies and power-sucking pseudo-intellectuals [who] spoke for the right-wing torturers”, and the likes of British ambassador Sir Nicholas “Nico” Henderson (who, “I dare say… had his doubts about the prudence of sending the Royal Navy so far from home base on an obscure point of principle”): “the most traditional and apparently superannuated but also in a way the classiest bit of the old British Empire…”

Holding his nose at allying with the likes of US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger and “what I regarded as the American cult of Winston Churchill”, “for me the main objective couldn’t be in doubt… Eventually Reagan sided with Weinberger and Thatcher against Haig and Kirkpatrick, and Argentina itself was liberated along with the tiny British archipelago it had tried to steal”.

Despite his (reverse-Borges) conclusion that the gormlessly sly Reagan “might have done the right thing on that occasion”, I wonder if this was not the beginning of a realisation on Hitchens’ part that things did not have to be bad just because Great Britain (and later America) did them. It is intriguing to think that the Falklands War (rather than, as many might these days imagine, either of the Iraq wars, or 9/11) was what really initiated the rift between Hitch and his hard-left comrades. He covered this period, what’s more, from Washington, whither he had been poached by The Spectator — and whence, one feels, much else then also later flowed.

No less tempted by a tasty bit of serendipity than any other writer, Hitch introduced that Buenos Aires trip in 1977 with a chance meeting in the American capital, the day before the inauguration of Barack Obama, with “a good-looking man who extended his hand. ‘We once met many years ago… And you knew and befriended my father… My name is Hector Timerman. I am the ambassador of Argentina.’”

Hitch never made it to the Falklands himself

“In my album of things that seem to make life pointful and worthwhile, and that even occasionally suggest… that there could be a long arc in the moral universe that slowly, eventually bends towards justice, this would constitute an exceptional entry.” He proceeds to remind the reader of the “talismanic” name of Jacobo Timerman, one-time editor of Argentina’s La Opinion newspaper (“a vivid example of the great tradition of secular Jewish dissent”). He also points out Timerman’s own memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, which “clothed in living, hurting flesh” the disgusting reputation of the junta regime, a sub-species of “radical evil, that spanned a whole subcontinent” and defiled the highest offices of a supposedly modern and civilised state.

Hitch never made it to the Falklands himself (isolated and grumpy as I am, I feel immoderately pleased to have one-upped him on that). In a curious echo, late last year I found myself also reading Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner. I had no particular impetus or agenda (don’t think I’d connected it in any way with Hitch), beyond the fact I’d found it in the library sale, where I’m sure Hitchens would have been tickled to think that it had been shelved in the first place.

Published (in English anyway) just the year before the Argentine invasion, the two-page foreword alone covers the Timerman family’s extensive experiences of persecution: in the Netherlands (by the Inquisition), in Ukraine (by the Cossacks, then by the Nazis) and in Argentina (by the Argentinians). Stripped of their citizenship and expelled, they relocated — almost inevitably — in Israel.

I wandered into a coffee shop with the memoir in my hand, and was promptly accosted by a lady I’d never met before (nor think I’ve seen since). She asked me what I thought of it. It seemed pretty good so far, I said, though I’d not made much progress with it.

She said she’d thought that it was excellent, and then went on to tell me just how galling she had found it that Jacobo’s son, Héctor (exile and US citizen, journalist and founder of the Americas half of Human Rights Watch) had in later life become Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Kirchner government. From 201015 he made a major point of reigniting the hitherto fractionally quieter sovereignty argument over the Falkland Islands, announcing that they would “be under [Argentinian] control within 20 years”.

For somebody with that kind of background, my co-caffeinator said in no uncertain terms, you would have expected him to have had more sympathy for small communities and/or oppressed minorities just wanting to be left in peace.

Impossible to disagree, one feels. Timerman Jr died in 2018, while under arrest on charges of covering up Iranian involvement in Argentina’s deadliest terror attack to date. The target a Jewish community centre, no less, it had left 85 people dead. Alas, Hitchens himself — always an outspoken defender of democratic and self-determined government — had also been dead for some years by that point. Hard not to wonder what he would have made of it.


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