Memorial Day, 2008: Shooting Orwell’s Elephant

Memorial Day always evokes a sense of irony when the country is involved in war: we honor those who have fallen by leaving others at the same risk. The irony is particularly thick when there is substantial disagreement about whether the risks that are being incurred as we celebrate are worth it.

General David Petraeus and Lt. General Raymond Odierno were in Washington this past week going through the motions of their promotions to commander of CENTCOM and commanding general of American forces in Iraq. Petreaus in particular suggested that things are really going better in Iraq than they have and that he believed that troop reductions would be possible this year. He and Odierno did not specify how many troops could be mustered out or when, nor did they invoke any Vietnam-style “light at the end of the tunnel.” But things are, they assert, improving. Improving from what and to what?

The futility of an occupation that is five years old and counting drew me back to one of twentieth century’s harshest opponents of military occupations (as part of imperialism), George Orwell. Born Eric Blair, Orwell grew up in the British Raj and became a member of the colonial police in Burma during the 1920s. In 1934, he published his scathing critique of colonial practice, Burmese Days. In 1936, he followed that work up with an essay/short story, “Shooting an Elephant.” (  Its thesis remains a useful reminder of the narcissistic folly of military occupation.

The story line of “Shooting an Elephant” is simple and familiar. Summoned by reports of a rogue elephant in a Burmese neighborhood, a British colonial policeman (presumably Orwell/Blair) responds and is entreated to shoot the elephant, who has broken loose and has terrorized the town. By the time Orwell catches up to it, the animal is peacefully eating grass in a soggy field. The policeman understands he should not shoot the elephant, because it is valuable and poses no threat. He also realizes the townspeople who have followed him on his pursuit of the beast expect him to kill it. Ultimately, he complies, and the elephant dies.

Rereading the essay, two observations stood out. One was about the erosive effects of being an occupier. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell wrote, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.” One can hardly avoid allusions to the restrictions on civil liberties that Iraq has spawned. The other observation struck me with particular vigor on Memorial Day: “I had done it,” Orwell said of shooting the elephant, “solely to avoid looking the fool.”

Since it is certainly not clear what Iraqi progress means or whether a continued American presence is contributing positively toward improvement however defined, is it possible that Petraeus and Odierno, and the rest of us, are marching forward in Iraq “solely to avoid looking the fool”? Or is it better to admit shooting the elephant is a bad idea and act on that insight? If we did, there might be a few less fallen to honor next Memorial Day. 


One Response to “Memorial Day, 2008: Shooting Orwell’s Elephant”

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