A college professor who is planning to teach a course on imperialism contacted me recently, asking for my recommendations for the course’s reading list. If I had only one item to suggest for his class on empire and its discontents, it would not be an essay in history, political science, or economics. Instead, I would propose that he assign George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.”
In case you haven’t read or don’t remember it, Orwell’s story (written in 1936) is a tale told by an imperial policeman stationed in British-controlled Burma in 1926. The narrator is being sent to a bazaar to help tame a rampaging elephant that has trampled and killed local residents. When he arrives at the scene, the elephant seems docile. But the British policeman, who is supposed to be in charge, finds himself trapped in the expectations of the natives, who want him to shoot the elephant—which is what he ends up doing.
The message that the anti-imperialist Orwell tries to convey in this semi-autobiographical story is that the empire doesn’t just enslave those under its authority; those who control and serve it are also caught in the machinery of repression and cannot escape it. They are the victims of imperialism as much as—if not more than—the natives they dominate.
As the narrator of “Shooting an Elephant” puts it, “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing. I was all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British.” He felt trapped, if not enslaved, knowing 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.” In a way, “I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind,” forced to impose strict laws by shooting the elephant. He concludes that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has yet to acquire the characteristics of the British imperial project in Burma (or, for that matter, in Iraq). But the most recent chapter in the American misadventure in Mesopotamia, the so-called Surge—that is, the decision by that Emperor for Poor People, George W. Bush, to dispatch an additional 21,500 to Baghdad (and the Anbar province) to help the Shiite-controlled government to shoot elephants (oops, sorry, Sunnis)—has all the making of the kind of moral predicament in which Orwell’s policeman found himself 90 years ago, where one forfeits his own freedom by ruling over others.
Bush was very, very excited, as I recall, after he had met with Iraq’s new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, for the first time in the Green Zone in Baghdad. “I wanted to hear whether or not he was stuck in the past or willing to think about the future,” Bush told reporters. “And I came away with a very positive impression.” Maliki, Bush said back then, “is a no-nonsense guy that talks about priorities and how he’s going to achieve the priorities. And that’s comforting.”
And now it seems that Bush is the only one who is still taking much comfort in Maliki. Most of his political and military advisors, with the exception of the few surviving members of his new warriors at the American Enterprise Institute and the Weekly Standard (who helped draw up the outline of the Surge strategy), have lost their faith in Maliki and the Shiite clerics and warlords and gang leaders who surround him. It’s not just that the Shiite leader has failed to quell the sectarian violence that contributed to the deaths of more than 34,000 Iraqis in 2006 (according to the United Nations), as well as nearly 600 U.S. soldiers since he took over in May: Maliki, Our Man in Baghdad, on whom Bush’s hopes (fantasies?) are dependent, has been operating like—to use political-science lingo—a “rational actor” who is aware that his political (and physical) survival depends on maintaining strong ties with the radical Shiite players in Iraq (which assumes that there are any “nonradical” Shiite players).
The Iraqi prime minister was put into power with the support of Shiite radical Muqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc (after those free democratic elections) and has continued to sabotage U.S. attempts to target Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. During the most recent U.S. efforts to stabilize Baghdad, he could not or would not provide enough Iraqi troops to make the plan work. And there was his handling of Saddam Hussein’s execution, which was marred by Shiite taunts of the former dictator and pro-Sadr chants. Indeed, serious experts on Iraq note that Maliki, who spent almost a decade in exile in Iran and Syria in the 1980’s, and his Dawa Party are seen by many as an Iranian political satellite that wants to turn Iraq into a Shiite theocracy under Tehran’s sphere of influence.
Maliki’s supporters insist that he is a “pragmatic” figure. But Middle-East-style “pragmatism” is the kind that Don Corleone practices: You are permitted and even encouraged to form ad hoc alliances with “strangers,” but, at the end of the day, your allegiance is to the Family, to those with whom you share “blood.” From that perspective, Sadr is Family, and Bush is not. Maliki and his Shiite buddies view their relationship with the Americans as a one-night stand and the American troops as their foreign mercenaries who, they hope, will help them kill as many Sunnis as possible before being forced by a revolted American public to return home.
Not unlike Orwell’s imperial enforcer, Bush and his troops have become hostage to the sectarian and personal interests of Shiite clerics and militia killers. They will find themselves embroiled in a bloody civil war on the side of the allies of Iran—which, according to Bush, poses a long-term threat to U.S. interests. It’s a lose-lose situation that would probably sound familiar to the tragic figure who shot an elephant in Burma in 1926.