Shooting the Elephant
June 25, 2014
I am currently reading a very interesting book, No Good Men Among the Living, by Anand Gopal. This is about, as noted in an earlier post, the American war in Afghanistan and how and why it went awry. Gopal argues that the Americans went about pretty much as blind persons insofar as they did not understand – and showed little interest in understanding – the situation as it existed in Afghanistan in reality. Consumed by the desire to conduct and win “the war on terror,” deluded by the thought that those who were “not with us were against us,” the Americans, who were greeted originally as liberators, ended up being seen as no better than and in some ways worse than the Russians, to say nothing of the Taliban.
Two paragraphs should suffice to illustrate the blindness of the Americans. To wit:
“Dr. Hafizbullah, Zurmat’s first governor [and supporter of the Karzai government], had ended up in Guantanamo because he’d crossed Police Chief Mujadid. Mujadid wound up in Guantanamo because he crossed the Americans. Security Chief Naim found himself in Guantanamo because of an old rivalry with Mullah Qassim. Qassim eluded capture, but an unfortunate soul with the same name ended up in Guantanamo in his place. And a subsequent feud left Samoud Khan, another pro-American commander, in Begram prison, while the boy his men had sexually abused was shipped to Guantanamo.
“No one in this group had been a member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Some, like Abdullah Mujadid and Samoud Khan, should have been brought to justice – but that was not Guantanamo’s purpose. Others, like Commander Naim, were precisely the sort of pro-government figures that Washington had wanted to see at the helm of the new Afghanistan. Instead, Zurmat’s mood of hope and reconciliation was rapidly giving way to one of rebellion.” [p. 138]
With the help of this book, I have finally, after some time of being puzzled, figured out George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting the Elephant.” Here is a summary of that story, with the some nice commentary.
“Despite Orwell’s aversion to shooting the elephant, he becomes suddenly aware that he will lose face and be humiliated if he does not shoot it. He therefore shoots the elephant. The death itself is sustained in excruciating detail. After three shots, the elephant still does not die. Orwell fires his two remaining shots into the elephant’s heart. He sends someone to get his small rifle, then pours “shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.” Still, the elephant does not die. Orwell, unable to stand the elephant’s suffering and unable to watch and listen to it, goes away. The elephant, like the Burmese people, has become the unwitting victim of the British imperialist’s need to save face. No one is stronger for the experience.”
“No one is stronger for the experience.” Yes, indeed they are not. Nor is anyone better for “the experience.” And note should be taken too of the sentence: “Orwell, unable to stand the elephant’s suffering and unable to watch and listen to it, goes away.” Just as the United States will, sooner or later, leave Afghanistan, with no one the stronger or the better for the war. As Gopal put it: There are “no good men among the living.”
But it should also be noted that Orwell was forced to confront his illusions because he was on the scene. He was present, as some might say. And this presence forced him to see that what he was doing was futile and inhuman. We Americans, however, are not all that present in Afghanistan and, thanks to our advanced technology, we can go on “shooting the elephants” without ever having to confront, to be present for, the results of our actions. We “shoot the elephants” without actually ever seeing them, except of course as blurs of heat on video screens. We do not hear the screams; we do not witness the suffering of those we are shooting. And as Gopal illustrates so well, we don’t even know if we are actually shooting terrorists or just some people we choose to label “terrorists.”
And, still, we go on believing that we are the better because we are more technologically advanced than those who lived long ago and some of those who are alive today. It is a most interesting state of affairs.
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