George and Syria

An exercise I’ve been recently conducting involves typing “what would George Orwell have to say about…” followed by any random topic into Google. People, it seems, cannot resist attributing opinions on topics such as the Iraq war, ipods, contact lenses and diet cola to a man who has been dead for well over sixty years. One cannot scald these people too harshly, especially in light  of the consideration that Orwell himself was guilty of such conjecture and speculation – once going so far as to compose an imagined interview between himself and the 19th century satirist Jonathan Swift.  The Syrian conflict is perhaps the most divisive and polarizing topic in recent memory and so – as I figured – it was only a matter of time before somebody gave us Orwell’s thoughts on the matter.

In a piece recently publish by the Yale University undergraduate journal, The PoliticAbhimanyu Chandra, uses the essay Shooting An Elephant (which he has retitled Shooting The Elephant) as the foundational for his argument that Orwell would (at least speculatively) endorse a US intervention in Syria. 

In Shooting An Elephant, Orwell recalls an incident in which, while stationed as an Imperial police office in Lower Moumein, he was alerted to an elephant that had trampled and killed a local “black Dravidian coolie”. Followed by a group of a thousand burmese locals, Orwell makes his way toward the paddy field in which the offending elephant has been found to be resting. Against his will, Orwell executes the creature, shooting it five times with an elephant gun. After the shooting, Orwell confesses that he had no desire to ever kill the creature but had done so “solely to avoid looking a fool” in front of the attendant crowd. Contemplating how Shooting An Elephant applies to the US interventional issue, Chandra asks:

What, from this, can be instructive for President Obama? The two contexts, to be sure, are tremendously different. Obama, as President, certainly has a lot more at stake than did Orwell as a colonial police officer. But Obama finds himself with a dilemma — retaining a sense of honor and protecting one’s credibility — similar to Orwell’s. Should he attack the Syrian regime “solely to avoid looking a fool?”

He goes further to outline Orwell’s imagined advice to the Obama administration:

Mr. President, do what you have to do in Syria. But do not situate your decision on the issue of credibility. Sure, credibility and honor are important. Sure, it would be nice to uphold them, and appear resolute. But doing something simply in order to appear strong before others can be self-defeating. You had declared a red line that, if crossed, would invite U.S. retaliation. That line has now been crossed. Do retaliate by all means, if you must. But do not do so simply or chiefly because credibility and honor warrant you to. Do what you, yourself, truly want to.

If you do end up militarily attacking Syria because of the credibility question, then you would be unwillingly shooting an elephant in just the way that I did, some seventy years ago.

There is something marvelously ironic about Chandra’s remarks that seems to have eluded him while writing. In Shooting An Elephant, Orwell’s character is that of an officer of an occupying regime. As he himself admits, he had no personal investment in the affair with the elephant – other than an aversion to looking a fool – and considering that his very presence in the area was a source of great resented among the locals, it is apparent that his intervention as a representative of colonial authority in the matter furnished largely negative results – a point he notes when contemplating the economic repercussions of terminating the elephant which he describes as “comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery.” At its core, eventually terminating the elephant represents an assertion of British imperial power. Orwell wrote extensively on his hatred of empire and his time as an agent of British imperialism, and given the United States’ record of intervention and occupation over the last decade, I find it quite unlikely that he would rally behind further US intervention in Middle Eastern affairs. That is, at least, based on my reading of Shooting An Elephant.

Liberals and conservative commentators are both guilty of selectively interpreting Orwell’s work to justify all manner of contradictory views. For example, the rebellious spirit of Homage to Catalonia, I believe, could provide a service in imagining Orwell’s endorsement of intervention in Syria. On the other hand, Animal Farm presents a razor sharp critique on the implications of betrayed revolution. Orwell still matters, but it is worrying to consider the side to whom he matters most.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. Source says:

    Unquestionably believe that which you said. Your favourite justification appeared to be at the web
    the simplest factor to take into accout of. I say to you, I certainly get irked at the
    same time as folks think about issues that they just don’t realize about.
    You managed to hit the nail upon the highest and also outlined out the entire
    thing without having side-effects , folks could take a signal.
    Will probably be back to get more. Thank you

  2. What’s up to all, how is all, I think every one is
    getting more from this site, and your views are pleasant in favor of new users.

  3. It’s hard to come by experienced people on this topic, but you sound like you know
    what you’re talking about! Thanks

  4. I must thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this website.
    I’m hoping to view the same high-grade blog posts
    from you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing
    abilities has motivated me to get my own site now 😉

  5. says:

    Excellent article. I certainly love this site. Stick with

  6. It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people in this particular topic, however, you sound like you know what you’re
    talking about! Thanks

  7. I simply couldn’t go away your site before suggesting that I extremely enjoyed
    the standard info a person supply to your guests?

    Is gonna be back frequently to inspect new posts

  8. tv blogger says:

    It’s an amazing piece of writing in support of all the internet viewers; they will get benefit from it I am

  9. déménageur says:

    Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers
    and starting a new project in a community in the
    same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to
    work on. You have done a wonderful job!

  10. I like the valuable information you supply to your
    articles. I’ll bookmark your weblog and take a look at again here regularly.
    I am relatively sure I will be informed a lot of new stuff right right here!

    Good luck for the next!

  11. blog sites says:

    hey there and thank you for your info – I have definitely picked up anything new from right here.

    I did however expertise some technical issues using this web site, as
    I experienced to reload the website lots of times previous to I could get it to load properly.
    I had been wondering if your web host is OK? Not that
    I’m complaining, but slow loading instances times will very frequently affect your
    placement in google and can damage your high-quality score if advertising and marketing with Adwords.
    Anyway I am adding this RSS to my e-mail and can look out
    for a lot more of your respective exciting content.

    Ensure that you update this again soon.

Leave a Reply