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Shooting an Elephant


Today I watched bits and pieces of the testimony of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. I listened to them making their case. We heard precisely what we were told we would hear, what we were prepared to hear carefully over the last several months. The Surge is working, we were told. And although the indicators say the opposite, pay them no mind. Just give us six more months.

It was a spectacle. It was surreal, theatrical. “This isn’t real life,” I kept thinking to myself, “it’s Washington’s political theater.”

But thousands of lives hang in the balance of the decision that’s coming. And the Decider has made up his mind. What Congress thinks or does probably doesn’t matter. It’s a perfect summation of what America’s democracy has become. Not much of a democracy, in fact. What will historians call this in the future? “The new normal?” A “war presidency?”

And as all this went on, as Petraeus presented his clipped and forceful sentences, falling largely on the ears of an audience which had already judged before he started, I thought I saw an elephant being shot. It wasn’t a Republican elephant. It was a Burman elephant—or perhaps not. It was in Moulmein, in Lower Burma, and it was in the last days of the British Raj, in the years before the Second World War. I could identify the man who pulled the trigger. His name was Eric Blair, and he was a British policeman. He later came to be known by a name that stands next to Addison, Hazlitt, Emerson—the great essayists of the English tongue—George Orwell.


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. I was sub-divisional police officer of the town, and in an aimless, petty kind of way anti-European feeling was very bitter. No one had the guts to raise a riot, but if a European woman went through the bazaars alone somebody would probably spit betel juice over her dress. As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter. This happened more than once. In the end the sneering yellow faces of young men that met me everywhere, the insults hooted after me when I was at a safe distance, got badly on my nerves. The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.

All this was perplexing and upsetting. For at that time I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better. Theoretically–and secretly, of course–I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British. 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 Bogged with bamboos–all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East. I did not even know that the British Empire is dying, still less did I know that it is a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it. All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism–the real motives for which despotic governments act. Early one morning the sub-inspector at a police station the other end of the town rang me up on the phone and said that an elephant was ravaging the bazaar. Would I please come and do something about it? I did not know what I could do, but I wanted to see what was happening and I got on to a pony and started out. I took my rifle, an old .44 Winchester and much too small to kill an elephant, but I thought the noise might be useful in terrorem. Various Burmans stopped me on the way and told me about the elephant’s doings. It was not, of course, a wild elephant, but a tame one which had gone “must.” It had been chained up, as tame elephants always are when their attack of “must” is due, but on the previous night it had broken its chain and escaped. Its mahout, the only person who could manage it when it was in that state, had set out in pursuit, but had taken the wrong direction and was now twelve hours’ journey away, and in the morning the elephant had suddenly reappeared in the town. The Burmese population had no weapons and were quite helpless against it. It had already destroyed somebody’s bamboo hut, killed a cow and raided some fruit-stalls and devoured the stock; also it had met the municipal rubbish van and, when the driver jumped out and took to his heels, had turned the van over and inflicted violences upon it.

Blair is presented with a dilemma: what should he do with this elephant? Approach it cautiously to see if it was really crazy and thus a menace? But if it decided to charge him, Blair reasons, he would stand as much a chance of survival as “a toad facing a steamroller.” If he walked away, he faced ridicule, embarrassment in front of a crowd of Burmans. The solution was to fall to the ground, target the great beast and bring it down with a series of shots. And that is what Blair did.

In the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were bringing dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they had stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.

Afterwards, of course, there were endless discussions about the shooting of the elephant. The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing. Besides, legally I had done the right thing, for a mad elephant has to be killed, like a mad dog, if its owner fails to control it. Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie. And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.

I have another name for this great elephant: Iraq. It’s been shot. It’s writhing in agony. It’s not dead yet. But it is doomed. It is the victim of arrogant assumptions and falsehoods. And in the end the man who brought it down just wants to avoid looking a fool.

Once there was a policeman in colonial Burma who shot an elephant and gained some insight from the experience. “It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism–the real motives for which despotic governments act,” he wrote. Today we have an elephant writhing, for years, in agony. But the man who shot it has learned nothing from the experience. He seems incapable of learning. “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.” This is no dream. This is the tragedy a nation is living today. I saw it in the Congressional hearings.

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