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.
— from “Shooting an Elephant”
I’ve been reading — and rereading — George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” the past few weeks.
I was directed to it by Fouad Ajami, who was making one of his many post-Sept. 11th “Charlie Rose” appearances on PBS. It was before the military campaign in Afghanistan had been launched fully, and the Johns Hopkins scholar was using “Shooting an Elephant” to help explain the tension between East and West and the coming conflict between the U.S., the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, as we anticipated “going into the East.”
I scribbled a note to myself to find a copy of Orwell’s story. Then I forgot about it.
The note surfaced a few weeks ago, and reminded, I found the short piece posted on a UCLA Web site.
Orwell, the pen name for English writer Eric Blair, best known for the novels, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” skewers the dying British Empire, imperialism in general and Westerners in the East with “Shooting an Elephant,” which was written in 1936.
…I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing…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…But I could get nothing into perspective. I was young and ill-educated and I 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.
The young police officer is called to duty when a village elephant runs wild and its mahout, “the only person who could manage it when it was in that state,” has taken a wrong turn and is hours away.
We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone, and, as usual, failed to get any definite information. That is invariably the case in the East; a story always sounds clear enough at a distance, but the nearer you get to the scene of events the vaguer it becomes.
After finding a dead villager, trampled by the elephant, the officer sends for a rifle as a crowd — anxious to see what happens — begins to grow around him. He works his way to a paddy field where the elephant, now calm, is stuffing grass into its mouth.
I had halted on the road. As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him. It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant…
Despite these thoughts, it is at this point that the English policeman begins to understand his role in the village drama.
But at this moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute.
Doubt begins to creep in. What to do — the right thing or what is expected?
And suddenly I realised that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, 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 I was, 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.
To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.
But I did not want to shoot the elephant.
But he does. He shoots him repeatedly, but the beast clings weakly to life. Unable to stand the slow, agonized dying, the officer leaves, later hearing “that it took him half an hour to die.”
After the shooting, the debate continues. Did he do the right thing, the villagers and the Europeans debate. Orwell takes us back to the “Why?” Why, indeed, was the elephant shot?
I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.
“Going into the East” is no simple task, but we are there now. With a relatively young country and short history compared to the Middle East or Europe, Asia and Africa, Americans are quick to forget the lessons the past offers (except in the South, of course, where we never let history die — although we rarely learn from it either).
As the war against terrorism continues, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration demands U.S. intervention, diplomatically, and perhaps, militarily, as part of a larger European or UN peacekeeping force, we ignore the lessons of history — and literature — at our own peril.
Shooting the elephant is easy; ending the hatred, stopping the violence, making sense of any of it — is not.
If you want to read “Shooting an Elephant,” visit http://englishwww.humnet.ucla.edu/Individuals/turbo4/orwell_text.html
Contact MBJ editor Jim Laird at firstname.lastname@example.org.