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[casi] Iraq & 'Orwell's first great essay'.

Orwell's elephant and the parading of Qusai and Odai Hussein


Last update: 28 July 2003

Written when he was 33, "Shooting an Elephant" is George Orwell's first
great essay. It describes a morning in small-town Burma, sometime in the
mid-1920s, when an elephant goes loose, tramples a bazaar, kills a man and
is hunted down by Orwell.

He was the town's imperial police chief, a white man thoroughly despised by
the locals, as white men tend to be when they lord over the white-not. But
he had the guns, the responsibility to keep people safe. Finding the
elephant munching on shrubbery, Orwell realizes that in spite of having
stomped a man to death, the elephant's "attack of 'must' was already passing
off." Killing it would be pointless except for a crowd of 2,000, "watching
me as they would watch a conjuror about to perform a trick." They wanted
their kill.

"And it was at this moment," Orwell writes, "as I stood there with the rifle
in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white
man's dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing
in front of the unarmed native crowd -- seemingly the leading actor of the
piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the
will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the
white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a
sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it
is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to
impress the 'natives' and so in every crisis he has got to do what the
'natives' expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I
had got to shoot the elephant."

So he does. The crowd would have laughed him off had he not.

"And my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long
struggle not to be laughed at."

Reading the essay Friday, I couldn't shake a sense of deja vu. Not that I've
performed tricks for 2,000 Burmese or played cop in a Myanmarian Mayberry.
But what Orwell described read like the script to a more immediate futility:
The made-for-television killing and parading of Qusai and Odai Hussein by
Iraq's posing dummy of the moment, our very own military.

I'm not suggesting that Odai and Qusai were two munching pachyderms who
happened to have trampled an innocent fellow or two. They were sadistic
killers, although their resume isn't significantly different from that of a
long line of American allies (ask Henry Kissinger). Nor am I suggesting that
the U.S. military is inherently dummylike, any more than George Orwell was
inherently a dummy. The U.S. military's effectiveness, professionalism and
so on are not in dispute. But what the military is about in one place
doesn't necessarily follow in another.

Iraq isn't Normandy. The American military isn't spreading Jeffersonian
ideals in Iraq. It is being asked to play the role of an imperial policeman,
which it is not trained for. That it can shoot an elephant with TOW missiles
doesn't change the fact that it is being degraded into a puppet of local
circumstances and paying a heavy price for it. The Iraqis wanted Odai and
Qusai dead. They wanted their kill. But if Americans think they were doing
Iraqis a favor, they misunderstand the nature of the tragic comedy they're
involved in, and the extent to which they -- Americans -- are being played.

To Iraqis, the killings have played out more like an amusement, proof that
if Americans are baited, they'll react no less savagely than the savages
they claim to be hunting and with the same blindness that mired the United
States in Iraq in the first place. There was no reason for the assault on
the villa where the two brothers had holed up with another man and a
14-year-old. Short of collective suicide once their arsenal of small arms
was spent, they had nowhere to go but court for a true display of war-crime
justice, what would have been Iraq's first. (The 14-year-old would
presumably have been turned over to Florida's foster-care system for
custom-made punishment.)

Instead, the U.S. military carried out a revenge killing different from that
of an Iraqi mob only in so far as the choreography looked more high-tech and
the costumes looked more professionally tailored. The parade of the two
brothers' bodies was the most hypocritical instance of the war yet, after
the hollow indignation over the parading of American bodies on television
back in April. And the consequence, to soldiers who should be downing beers
back in their stateside barracks instead of breathing fear in a hopeless war
zone, has been an acceleration of the daily-kill lottery. But Americans in
Iraq wanted to impress the natives, remind them at every turn who's their
sahib. Never mind that means and ends have nothing to do with each other
anymore as hunter and hunted grow alike.

"He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it." Even dead, Odai and Qusai
are laughing at the white man.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at

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