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Orwell’s Elephant in Iraq
Parading Qusai and Odai Hussein

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Written when he was 33, “Shooting an Elephant” is George Orwell’s first great essay. It describes a morning in small-town Burma, sometime in the mid-1920s, when an elephant goes loose, tramples a bazaar, kills a man and is hunted down by Orwell. He was the town’s imperial police chief, a white man thoroughly despised by the locals, as white men tend to be when they lord over the white-not. But he had the guns, the responsibility to keep people safe. Finding the elephant munching on shrubbery, Orwell realizes that in spite of having stomped a man to death, the elephant’s “attack of ‘must’ was already passing off.” Killing it would be pointless except for a crowd of 2,000, “watching me as they would watch a conjuror about to perform a trick.” They wanted their kill.

“And it was at this moment,” Orwell writes, “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 was I, 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. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. 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. I had got to shoot the elephant.”

So he does. The crowd would have laughed him off had he not.

“And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

Reading the essay Friday, I couldn’t shake a sense of deja vu. Not that I’ve performed tricks for 2,000 Burmese or played cop in a Myanmarian Mayberry. But what Orwell described read like the script to a more immediate futility: The made-for-television killing and parading of Qusai and Odai Hussein by Iraq’s posing dummy of the moment, our very own military.

I’m not suggesting that Odai and Qusai were two munching pachyderms who happened to have trampled an innocent fellow or two. They were sadistic killers, although their resume isn’t significantly different from that of a long line of American allies (ask Henry Kissinger). Nor am I suggesting that the U.S. military is inherently dummylike, any more than George Orwell was inherently a dummy. The U.S. military’s effectiveness, professionalism and so on are not in dispute. But what the military is about in one place doesn’t necessarily follow in another.

Iraq isn’t Normandy. The American military isn’t spreading Jeffersonian ideals in Iraq. It is being asked to play the role of an imperial policeman, which it is not trained for. That it can shoot an elephant with TOW missiles doesn’t change the fact that it is being degraded into a puppet of local circumstances and paying a heavy price for it. The Iraqis wanted Odai and Qusai dead. They wanted their kill. But if Americans think they were doing Iraqis a favor, they misunderstand the nature of the tragic comedy they’re involved in, and the extent to which they - Americans - are being played.

To Iraqis, the killings have played out more like an amusement, proof that if Americans are baited, they’ll react no less savagely than the savages they claim to be hunting and with the same blindness that mired the United States in Iraq in the first place. There was no reason for the assault on the villa where the two brothers had holed up with another man and a 14-year-old. Short of collective suicide once their arsenal of small arms was spent, they had nowhere to go but court for a true display of war-crime justice, what would have been Iraq’s first. (The 14-year-old would presumably have been turned over to Florida’s foster-care system for custom-made punishment.)

Instead, the U.S. military carried out a revenge killing different from that of an Iraqi mob only in so far as the choreography looked more high-tech and the costumes looked more professionally tailored. The parade of the two brothers’ bodies was the most hypocritical instance of the war yet, after the hollow indignation over the parading of American bodies on television back in April. And the consequence, to soldiers who should be downing beers back in their stateside barracks instead of breathing fear in a hopeless war zone, has been an acceleration of the daily-kill lottery. But Americans in Iraq wanted to impress the natives, remind them at every turn who’s their sahib. Never mind that means and ends have nothing to do with each other anymore as hunter and hunted grow alike.

“He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” Even dead, Odai and Qusai are laughing at the white man.

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