The Deadly Power of Persuasion
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The writer Christopher Hitchens recently had to face the possibility that his words got a man killed. Hitchens is a prolific author who has written powerfully in favor of the war in Iraq. His words got attention in part because he was seen as a leftist who supported the same cause as President Bush. Then Hitchens found out that his words helped to inspire an American soldier to volunteer for duty. Hitchens writes about what happened next in the magazine, Vanity Fair. He's on the line.
Welcome again to the program.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Writer): Nice of you to have me.
INSKEEP: I'm looking here at a photograph of Mark Daily at age 21, taking the oath to join the U.S. Army. What happened to him when he went to Iraq?
Mr. HITCHENS: He was deployed with cavalry to the Northern Iraqi town of Mossul. And out on patrol one day, he notice that the Humvee in front of him, the one that was taking the lead position, was insufficiently up armored against IEDs and other bombs.
INSKEEP: Improvised explosive devises, the roadside bombs.
Mr. HITCHENS: The roadside bombs. So he insisted on putting his own Humvee in the lead position, and very shortly afterwards drove over an enormous mine in the road and was killed with three other crew members and an Iraqi interpreter.
INSKEEP: What went through your mind when you read the obituary of this young man whom you've never met and then learn that your articles helped to inspire him to go?
Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I felt an awful pang, really, because I thought of his family. I thought I better be in touch with them. And I thought, well, I wonder if they'll resent me, if they'll wish he'd never come across my stuff. It was a rather confused set of feelings all at once.
INSKEEP: Well, why did you decide to reach out to the family?
Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I thought it was the very least I could do, really. And well, how should I put it? They've - in the middle of their grief, they took time out just to reassure me and say, don't worry, he was absolutely convinced about the rightness of the war in Iraq. He was very, very determined to serve his country in uniform even though he was a very, very accomplished young man who was - who could have done any number of other things. He was determined to serve.
INSKEEP: Although, wait a minute. When you say, I felt it was the least I could do, what you're saying is that you felt guilty in some way. You felt responsible in some way for perhaps saying (unintelligible)…
Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I wanted to (unintelligible). I wanted to find out if I was responsible. And I quote, perhaps rather pretentiously, from a worry that the Irish poet Yeats had when he found that some Irish rebels had gone to their deaths quoting from his play, "Cathleen ni Houlihan," and he said did these words of mine send out certain men the English shot? Now, of course, slightly absurd to compare myself to Yeats but I - I've - yes, I wanted - both, if you like, to accept the compliment, but I wanted to find out if it was true.
INSKEEP: Was it?
Mr. HITCHENS: Not really. I mean, I don't think that it was I who made up his mind to go. It's true that he admired a couple of the things I had said in debates and he quoted a couple of them on his MySpace site. But it would be absurdly exaggerating, I think, the role I played in his life to say that I -I'm the one who called him to the colors.
INSKEEP: I actually want to quote here from some of these writings just so you get a sense of this young man's voice. I was having a conversation with a Kurdish man, discussing whether or not the insurgents could be viewed as freedom fighters or misguided anti-capitalists - this is Mr. Daily writing now from Iraq - he cut me off. The Kurdish man cut me off and said the difference between insurgents and American soldiers is that they get paid to take life, to murder, and you, the American soldiers, get paid to save lives.
Quite eloquent letter, quite eloquent description.
Mr. HITCHENS: Yes, and if I could just add something. I was very, very stirred by that.
INSKEEP: Would you hope there might be another young American who would read your words or listen to them here on NPR and be inspired to enlist and go to Iraq?
Mr. HITCHENS: Well, the way I'd rather put that - I've had to think about this a lot - is that I am very happy with the e-mails that I sometimes do get from young men in Anbar province who say, you know, we are kicking al-Qaida and we're very glad to be doing it. And so, keep up the good work.
INSKEEP: But if you were in that influential position of writing for some young person, would you say: go to the Middle East, young man?
Mr. HITCHENS: No. I'll tell you why. Because they're old enough to make up their minds about this. It's like antiwar people who say, would you you're your own son? I actually have taken my own son to Iraq - but I couldn't have made him come with me. So I think it's a bogus point, really - this one about would you send - because we don't send people, we have the amazing good fortune to be able to attract to our colors, volunteers the caliber of 2nd Lieutenant Mark Daily.
INSKEEP: Christopher Hitchens' article in Vanity Fair is called "A Death in the Family."
Thanks very much for speaking with us.
Mr. HITCHENS: Thanks so much for asking me.
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