The headlines today have beamed in, half way across the world, as the news of the death of writer and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens spreads. So why should we, naval officers or members and regulars at The Naval Institute, care about the passing of such a figure? The simple fact that the New York Times actually “stopped the presses” in order to reformat and include his obituary (something that rarely happens in todays cost-savvy media world), should at the least make us take notice of the man’s passing. Readingmany of the headlines we are told that he was a “militant writer,” which isn’t really the same thing as being a military writer (though some Americans may confuse it).
Hitchens wasn’t quite as “militant” as the press would lead many of us to believe. Instead he was a self described “contrarian.” That’s something that The Naval Institute recognizes: the importance, the value, the vitality of contrarians. In fact, at the founding of the Institute in 1873 that was pretty much the whole idea…to open up naval thought to new voices and new ideas. The mission of today’s Naval Institute, “to provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense,” is one that Hitchens would have embraced.
When I left for deployment, not knowing that it would be record setting length, I stocked up on some “books” for my e-reader. One of them was Hitchens’ “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Modeled after the work of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Hitchens approached the question “Could I offer any advice to the young and the restless; any counsel that would help them avoid disillusionment?” And he was off and typing, making it appear so easy. Hitchens was a well read man, exceedingly well read, and I freely admit that many of his references sent me scrambling for a Google search as I read “Letters.” He conceded that “It’s too much to expect to live in an age that is actually propitious for dissent. And most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security.” That was all the more reason, he assured his young correspondent, to continue to think outside the box, and to write and talk about it. It is all the more reason, today, to finish that article each of us has been thinking about submitting to Proceedings as well. “Don’t expect to be thanked, by the way,” he wrote, “The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult.”
While inDubai, somewhere south of eight months into deployment, I made the rounds of a few of the media stores at the enormous malls to check out the English language books. Laying on display in a Virgin Megastore was an enormous paperback tome with Hitchens’ mug on the cover, entitled “Arguably.” It is a collection of reviews and essays that he has penned over the past decade. Of course, near the eight month point and with the end of deployment still well over the horizon, I needed more reading material and I purchased myself a copy.
The thing that the essays in “Arguably” have reinforced for me is that every genre gives you an opportunity to communicate your ideas, and sometimes to even have fun. Hitchens book reviews are learned and obviously from a man who consumes the written word voraciously, full of references to other works in whatever field he’s discussing, but also full of ideas. Not just the ideas brought up in the book under review, but counter-thoughts and expansions of those ideas and connections to others. It’s a reminder that we are always learning as long as we are always reading. The first encouragement in the John Adams quotation that the Insitute has embraced, “to dare to read, think, and write,” will help us build the background and the knowledge that allows Hitchensesque connections and the flow of ideas to continue. His essays frequently come at important subjects like international politics from unusual angles, like “Long Live Democratic Seismology” which will make you reconsider the political ramifications of geology. My father, a geologist by education and trade, has been trying to tell me this for years. There are other essays that are just outright fun. His discussion on the proper etiquette involved in refilling wine glasses at a restaurant is fantastic.
Hitchens came from a Navy family. His mother and father met in Scotlandduring the Second World War when they were both serving in the Royal Navy. His father continued serving after the war and retired from the service as a Commander. Hitchens was raised in the style of many Navy brats, moving constantly to stations across the world. I remember watching an episode of the Charlie Rose Show when Hitchens admitted that he had even considered a naval career, but the discipline and silent nature of his father drove him away from the idea. He wrote on naval subjects when they drew his attention, including the discussion of connections between The Barbary Wars and modern day counter-terrorism. There is a part of me that half wonders if he was ever a member of the Institute. He should have been, we would have been a stronger organization with him onboard.
So, put aside your differences with him on the subject of religion, or your disagreement over whether or not women are funny, or whether or not you believe that waiters should refill your wine glass (thus interrupting conversation and trying to guilt you into buying another bottle), and find something by Christopher Hitchens to read. I suggest something controversial or contrarian, it shouldn’t be hard. Because daring to read, think, and write is exactly what he would want us to do, and it is a fitting tribute.