Christopher Hitchens shocked long-time readers and lost many fans with his outspoken support of the invasion of Iraq, though his seeming ideological about-face won him support in quarters previously unknown.
Certainly more than one young person absorbed his writings about moral duty in the face of Saddam's tyranny, but only one, as far as Hitch knows, was so inspired he joined the military, setting him off on a journey that led to his premature demise in an IED attack in January.
Lieutenant Mark Daily joined the Army a week after the US military invaded Iraq, a decision which perplexed many who knew him as a liberal-leaning UCLA political science student.
Daily posted a lengthy essay explaining why he joined the military on his MySpace page shortly after he deployed in late 2006.
I joined the fight because it occurred to me that many modern day "humanists" who claim to possess a genuine concern for human beings throughout the world are in fact quite content to allow their fellow "global citizens" to suffer under the most hideous state apparatuses and conditions. Their excuses used to be my excuses. When asked why we shouldn't confront the Ba'ath party, the Taliban or the various other tyrannies throughout this world, my answers would allude to vague notions of cultural tolerance (forcing women to wear a veil and stay indoors is such a quaint cultural tradition), the sanctity of national sovereignty (how eager we internationalists are to throw up borders to defend dictatorships!) or even a creeping suspicion of America's intentions. When all else failed, I would retreat to my fragile moral ecosystem that years of living in peace and liberty had provided me. I would write off war because civilian casualties were guaranteed, or temporary alliances with illiberal forces would be made, or tank fuel was toxic for the environment. My fellow "humanists" and I would relish contently in our self righteous declaration of opposition against all military campaigns against dictatorships, congratulating one another for refusing to taint that aforementioned fragile moral ecosystem that many still cradle with all the revolutionary tenacity of the members of Rage Against the Machine and Greenday.
Daily's reasoning echoes Hitchens' column "What if We Lost in Iraq," almost as if the young soldier imagined himself leading the vanguard of volunteers the writer had wished would join the fight:
How can so many people watch this as if they were spectators, handicapping and rating the successes and failures from some imagined position of neutrality? Do they suppose that a defeat in Iraq would be a defeat only for the Bush administration? The United States is awash in human rights groups, feminist organizations, ecological foundations, and committees for the rights of minorities. How come there is not a huge voluntary effort to help and to publicize the efforts to find the hundreds of thousands of "missing" Iraqis, to support Iraqi women's battle against fundamentalists, to assist in the recuperation of the marsh Arab wetlands, and to underwrite the struggle of the Kurds, the largest stateless people in the Middle East?
Lieutenant Daily deployed with the "C," or "Comanche," Company of the Second Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment in Mosul, crossing from Kuwait into Iraq in November 2006.
In mid-January, while on patrol, Daily noticed that the lead vehicle in his convoy was not properly up-armored to protect against IEDs, prompting him to switch places and put his own Humvee in the front. A short while later, 1,500 pounds of explosives planted under the road ripped through the vehicle, killing Daily, three other Americans, and an Iraqi translator.
Hitchens learned about Daily's death, and his own influence over the young man's life, in the post-mortem coverage of the soldier's sacrifice, as he writes in this month's Vanity Fair.
I was having an oppressively normal morning a few months ago, flicking through the banality of quotidian e-mail traffic, when I idly clicked on a message from a friend headed "Seen This?" The attached item turned out to be a very well-written story by Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times. It described the death, in Mosul, Iraq, of a young soldier from Irvine, California, named Mark Jennings Daily, and the unusual degree of emotion that his community was undergoing as a consequence. The emotion derived from a very moving statement that the boy had left behind, stating his reasons for having become a volunteer and bravely facing the prospect that his words might have to be read posthumously. In a way, the story was almost too perfect: this handsome lad had been born on the Fourth of July, was a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic, a U.C.L.A. honors graduate, and during his college days had fairly decided reservations about the war in Iraq. I read on, and actually printed the story out, and was turning a page when I saw the following:
"Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him ... "
I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who is 23, as was young Mr. Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an I.E.D.?
Hitchens seems to suppress any feelings of responsibility for influencing the choices that led Daily to his death, particularly after his family wrote that their son had "assured us that if he knew the possible outcome might be this, he would still go rather than have the option of living to age 50 and never having served his country. Trust us when we tell you that he was quite convincing and persuasive on this point, so that by the end of the conversation we were practically packing his bags and waving him off."
Hitchens goes light on his own introspection, saying only that upon reading references to his writings on Daily's MySpace page, "I don't remember ever feeling, in every allowable sense of the word, quite so hollow."
While he successfully combats any sense of guilt, Hitchens does feel a great weight of responsibility to do the fallen soldier justice for his sacrifice, and his piece chronicling the lives that Mark Daily touched deserves a full read--but make sure to keep some tissues handy.