Thursday, May 5, 2011

Shooting an Elephant

This post is a reprint from November 2008

“As for the job I was doing, I hated it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear. In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.” ~ George Orwell

The past few weeks I’ve been reading Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of Empire 1776 – 2000. It has been quite fascinating. To some extent our nation’s history is inextricably bound to that of Britain, from conception to destiny, much like a child reflects its parent. While unique, we are still offspring.

It was once said “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” Indeed, at one time the power of Britain ruled the high seas and its territories spanned the globe. How long ago this was.

Schama’s book is a three part epic. I’ve only tackled Volume 3. The breaking away of the New World to form first the Colonies, then these United States, is but the beginning. The moral challenges, the dark justifications of maintaining power over unwilling subjects, the internal erosion of confidence in its own national mandate… so many fragments of this story resonate with aspects of our own national experience.

Descartes did not trust history as a basis for truth because no historical situation is identical. This does not mean, however, that nothing can be gained from studying history.

George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” is not only first rate writing, it is a deeply moving account of the problems Britain had to wrestle with while controlling foreign territories with strangely different peoples and cultures. It is Orwell’s first job away from home, a police officer in Burma. The story describes an incident that occurs during that period abroad as a young man. More than just what happens, the young Eric Blair (Orwell was his chosen pen name) reveals the personal angst he experiences.

The essay begins thus: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.”

Essentially, there is an elephant that has broken loose and is causing trouble. The elephant’s owner, due to misinformation, is hours away and the damage has been escalating. Orwell, as a representative of the law, must deal with it.

“The Burmese sub-inspector and some Indian constables were waiting for me in the quarter where the elephant had been seen. It was a very poor quarter, a labyrinth of squalid bamboo huts, thatched with palmleaf, winding all over a steep hillside,” Orwell writes. Anyone who has seen Third World squalor can picture the scene. Orwell is a stranger in a strange land.

It turns out the elephant now has killed a man. It’s a hideous sight for the young officer. Worse, it starts to become inevitable that he will have to do something about it. The following crowd has been growing, and there is an escalating anticipation.

“But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.)”

As Orwell reveals his deepest motivations, we understand that on the pedestal of world opinion, it is not always "right" and "wisdom" that is the driving force behind nations' behaviors. Too often, they simply don't want to play the fool.

“For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone. A white man mustn't be frightened in front of "natives"; and so, in general, he isn't frightened. The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.”

These were the kinds of motivations that led to France invading Mexico during our American Civil War. And perhaps the real motivations behind the nations who engaged in that bitter, futile blood bath called World War I. Perhaps, to some extent, it was a driver for the Pentagon's escalation in Viet Nam. And what was that Somalia maneuver all about? And then, even if you win, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, what do we get? Orwell seems to be saying that you get forced into shooting elephants that you really don't want, or need, to shoot.

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