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Shooting a Tiger

“The owner was furious, but he was only an Indian and could do nothing…Among the Europeans opinion was divided. The older men said I was right, the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie…And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right.”

George Orwell

On September 20th an unidentified American soldier shot dead the rare Bengal tiger in the Bagdad zoo. In an interview with AFP, the zoo’s curator, Adel Salman Musa, said it happened like this:

“One of the soldiers, who the Iraqi police said had drunk a lot, went into the cage against the advice of his colleagues and tried to feed the animal.”

It was at this point, according to Lieutenant George Krivo, “the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq,” that “the tiger then engaged the soldier’s arm.”[1]

Three days later, soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, attacked a farm in al-Jisr in the middle of the night, killing three farmers and wounding three others, including two children. The surviving members of the family sleeping in the farmhouse told The Guardian that the soldiers “opened up a devastating barrage of gunfire lasting for at least an hour.”

Eventually the shooting stopped, the soldiers pulled back and then they called in the air strike. At least seven missiles were fired but only one hit the house, tearing through the ceiling of an unoccupied storeroom.

In Bagdad, military spokesman Nicole Thompson later stated that the soldiers had only fired after being fired upon by “unknown forces.”[2]

* * *

One of the more remarkable transformations in American public life over the past twenty five years is how the military has evolved from a corrupt, bloated, inefficient bureaucracy–those thousand dollar toilet seats–to the institution that Americans claim to have more faith in that any other. In the most recent Harris poll, 62% of respondents said they had a “great deal of confidence” in the Military; more than the White House (40%); more than Organized Religion (19%); more than the Press (15%).[3] Unsurprising when one considers that for the past twenty five years the military has been able to repeatedly display its overwhelming force in a series of quick, painless, relatively bloodless campaigns: Granada, Kosovo, Iraq (part I), Afghanistan. Has not, in other words, had to prove itself in anything like a seemingly indefinite occupation in which it was under almost-constant attack.

So while it may be too soon to know whether or not the occupation of Iraq will crumble into “quagmire,” this is certain: the last time the American public got to see its soldiers in this kind of action, they were fighting a similarly shadowy guerilla war, in a similarly far-away place, for similarly inscrutable reasons, with similarly disproportionate force.

* * *

My generation is too young to remember Vietnam, yet its memory continues to linger in popular imagination, in cultural totems: Kent State; the Tet Offensive; Jane Fonda; the smell of napalm in the morning. We remember, or think we remember, former soldiers, like John Kerry, protesting the war by throwing away their medals. We remember, or think we remember, young woman greeting the return of other soldiers, less contrite: spitting in their faces, scratching at their eyes, calling them “baby killers.”

* * *

In a similar Harris poll, conducted in 1966, confidence in the Military was at 61%. By 1971 it had dropped to 27%.

* * *

We’ve been told, more than once, that the United States has the greatest military force in the whole glorious history of the entire world since the dawn of creation. But I believe that a distinction has to be made between this military’s technological superiority (unquestionable) and the character of its troops. This is a distinction that few seem willing to raise, let along honestly discuss. These days, any one even tempted to criticize the military finds himself compelled to offer the usual caveats: that one is cognizant of the enormous pressures that the soldier in the field faces; that one understand how easy it is to decry the policy of “shoot first and ask questions later” when one is sitting in a place thousands of miles away where no one is shooting. True enough. Yet it is curious how seldom this kind of sympathetic consideration is extended to, say, politicians, or spies, or aid workers, or engineers, or just about anyone else in, around, or involved with Iraq. Commentators of all political stripes, both mainstream and backwater, show no such deference towards other groups in which they are similarly inexperienced: the Administration, the French, the Provisional Authority, the UN, the CIA, Haliburton. But on the issue of the military’s conduct in Iraq, even the war’s harshest critics are conspicuously silent. Are, if anything, mostly sympathetic: “Stretched Thin, Lied to & Mistreated,” as a recent cover of The Nation would have it. Perhaps this consideration is due to the fact that, unlike the politician, the soldier must daily make split-second decisions which can cost him his life. Perhaps it comes from an unmentionable sense that he is doing a job that few would want and most would do their best to avoid. But if, as in Vietnam, this occupation continues to drag on, if more and more civilians are killed, and in ways that seem increasingly reckless, increasingly wanton, this question will have to be asked: do the dangers of occupation and the perfidy of politicians absolve the soldier in the field from all responsibility? Does it mean that, no matter the situation, his self-preservation automatically trumps any sort of reasonable expectation of restraint, or common sense?

* * *

From 1922 to 1927 George Orwell got to experience at first-hand the kind of moral displacement caused by Empire. “I was young,” he later admitted in his classic essay ‘Shooting an Elephant,’ “and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East.” During those five years, Orwell served as a police officer in the place that used to be known as Burma. What most perplexed him was that while he was secretly sympathetic to the Burmese, and antipathetic to all the trapping of British sahib culture, as a member of the ruling class he was automatically despised by the natives, so much so that he ended up despising them in turn. This tension, he discovered, made him act in ways he couldn’t recognize, or understand. “All I knew was 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. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny…with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.” “Feelings like these,” he concluded, “are the normal by-products of imperialism.”

* * *

We know, now, that this is a war of volition: there are no weapons; there was no “imminent threat”; there never has been any credible link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa’ida. “Against the advice of his colleagues,” the soldier has gone into the cage. The tiger attacks.

SHYAM OBEROI lives in New York.

[1] AFP, “U.S. Soldier Kills Tiger at Baghdad Zoo,” Sept. 21, 2003.

[2] Rory McCarthy, “Iraq: the reality and rhetoric,” The Guardian, Sept. 27, 2003.

[3] See http://www.harrisinteractive.com/

 

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