Christopher Hitchens

Forster’s apparently evergreen remark, about choosing to betray your country rather than your friends, has always seemed to me to be – as well as an exercise in moral casuistry – the father and mother of a false antithesis. I mean to say, who ever is actually faced, or has been faced, with such a choice? In 1917 or thereabouts, Siegfried Sassoon confided to his friend Robert Graves that he was planning to ‘go public’, as a decorated front-line officer, with what he knew about real conditions on the Western Front. Graves had him put away for ‘shell-shock’, for his own good. That was certainly a betrayal of a friend and, I would argue, also a betrayal of the country. Kim Philby, who actually did set out to betray a country as well as a class, was also strikingly disloyal to his friends (though they, almost irrespective of politics, seem to have been loyal to him). In order for Forster’s Choice to come up in your own life, you must be able to plead that there is something tremendously the matter with either a. your country or b. your circle of friends. When Willy Brandt put on the uniform of a country that was fighting his own – the action for which the German conservatives never forgave him – he was not thinking: ‘Pity about my friends, but I feel I have to betray my country.’ Nor, if he had elected to betray his friends, could he have argued that he was doing his country much of a favour.

A third consideration may obtain. What if, as is generally the case, your country has its repulsive and attractive sides, and so do your friends, but there is something wrong with you? Some crucial bit of the moral or the rational animal that is, in your own case, simply lacking? Nobody would be the best judge in their own cause here, but I haven’t talked to anyone in the past week or so who doesn’t believe that this was and is true of Richard Gott.

I don’t say this with any sense or intention of accommodating to the prevailing wind, since Gott has disliked me intensely for more than twenty years and last January wrote a loopy letter to this journal, blaming James Fenton and myself for once queering his pitch at the New Statesman. ‘Effete onanist’ was one of the things he said about me. About himself he wrote with even more feeling: ‘In those days, I had no revolutionary ideology to sustain me, nothing but a simple belief that Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung and Agostinho Neto, were admirable men who had been doing interesting things.’ So I write this in no spirit of revenge. I couldn’t think any less of Gott than I already did, and he couldn’t make much more of an idiot of himself than he already had. Mao Tse-tung as humble land-reformer: the Guardian chronicler as blissed-out idealist with no axe to grind … that’s what the CIA and the neo-conservatives wanted you to say. (You don’t suppose for a moment that – no, forget it.) Worse still, Gott’s memory of these disputes is deficient, since the really bitter quarrel concerned not so much Angola or Vietnam but the Khmer Rouge, whose work James Fenton had observed at close quarters.

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