Home Shooting the Syrian Elephant
Home Shooting the Syrian Elephant

Shooting the Syrian Elephant

The majority of Americans do not want to invade or bomb Syria. The majority of American leaders do. Such a disparity between the leaders and the people is not wholly unique, but it arises in this case not from the usual disparities of power or corruption.

Americans don’t want to fight Syria because it is no threat to them. American leaders admit that Syria is no threat to America. They want to bomb Syria because they feel that they ought to do it. And they feel that way because behind the power of the West stands the will of the East.

Long before Animal Farm of 1984, George Orwell wrote a short essay about his time in the east. It’s titled “Shooting the Elephant.”

Orwell’s narrator is told of an elephant that has run riot and he dutifully follows up the report. “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.

“Some of the people said that the elephant had gone in one direction, some said that he had gone in another, some professed not even to have heard of any elephant.”

Substitute chemical weapons for elephant and the story becomes a familiar one.

Eventually, Orwell encounters a dead body and sends back for an elephant gun while a crowd gathers behind him eagerly waiting for him to shoot the elephant. “I had halted on the road,” he writes. “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 – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided.”

It is likewise a serious matter to start a war. But the issue, whether with Obama’s red line or Orwell’s elephant is credibility.

“But at that 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. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it.”

We now have to go into Syria because the crowd expects it of us. They have been clamoring for us to do it forever, listening impatiently to our excuses and dismissing them. And our function in the region has come down to shooting the elephant. It’s what the crowd wants us to do. And our leaders find themselves with no other role in international affairs except the hollow role of puppets.

“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 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.”

The United States, which had never intended to become an empire, now finds itself wearing a mask. Its leaders assert that it has to shoot the Syrian elephant to protect its credibility because the crowd of the Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis and the Turks want us to do it.

They expect us to do it. They have gathered to see us do it. They will see us do it.

Even Obama, for all his complicity with the power plays of the Muslim Brotherhood, seems unenthusiastic about shooting the Syrian elephant. But he knows that it has to be done because what else is there to do? Either we bomb Syria or admit our impotency. Either we play imperialists or get laughed at.

That was the dilemma of Orwell’s narrator. It is also our dilemma. Orwell’s narrator was playing his part in a decaying empire that had lost its sense of purpose. It could do little else except order around the natives only to find that it was the one being ordered around.

America has no sense of purpose. Its leaders want to bomb Syria, but can articulate no sensible reason for doing so. They resort to humanitarian gibberish, but they would never move to stop genocide in Africa. Their motives are not humanitarian, they are conformist. They are conforming to the expectations of the foreign pressures of a region that they hope to order and govern.

"When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys," Orwell warned. In attempting to civilize the Muslim world, we have instead been forced to live by its rulers. We have not brought our order to them. They have brought their order to us.

Our interactions with them take place along the predetermined paths of their choosing. They decide what they want from us and we decide how quickly to give it to them. They decide that we should shoot the elephant and we stand around playing with the elephant gun, hoping that we can avoid this whole mess.

“And afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting the elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool,” Orwell writes.

That is the admission of the moment. We must bomb Syria to avoid looking like fools.

Obama drew his red line and now he must shoot the elephant. Even he doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about it, but he will shoot it.

To buy time, he has turned to Congress, hoping its proceedings will immunize him from the fallout or somehow convince Assad to step down. But he knows better. Despite his anti-colonialist roots and despite his membership in a radically anti-imperialist movement, he has been drafted once again in the cause of shooting elephants, carrying the white man’s burden and the liberal man’s burden to the east.

The question is not whether Syria ought to be shot, but why are we shooting it. And the answer is that it isn’t our choice. That answer reveals a great deal about our dysfunctional international policies and where they have gotten us.

We have been penned up, not by Haliburton or secret oil deals, so much as by our own need to live up to our own image abroad. Americans, who for the most part live insular lives, are unmoved by the elephant-shooting currents that tug at the likes of Obama or McCain. They feel no need to go shoot an elephant in some other country because the natives expect it of them. But our leaders increasingly live foreign lives with little consideration for the natives of the country that they govern. They give in to impulses like amnesty and gay marriage because of a steady pressure from a narrow crowd that insists that they are inevitable. Now they will give in on Syria because of that same crowd.

That sense of pressure reveals the hollowness of the men within. Men of strong moral courage do not commit crimes because the crowd expects them to. It does not kill to avoid being mocked. It is the hollow empire of hollow men that is compelled to such final extremities, acting out a farce to avoid the inevitable revelation that the emperor is naked and his empire has run out of pants.

The Republican Party is what it is because it lacks that sense of moral conviction. It takes positions for convenience. Its leaders respond to the pressure of the crowd, whether it is to oppose Obamacare or to support amnesty, they take on positions which they do not believe because they are expected of them.

The Syrian elephant is only one more such position. One more hollow act of political conformity by men with political instincts but no sense of greater direction.

It is not so much that bombing Syria is wrong as that the armed forces of a nation cannot and should not be in the hands of men who take serious steps without any conviction that they are doing the best thing for their country, who act only because they are told that it is expected of them. Nothing rots the morale of an army faster than such commanders and nothing destroys a nation faster than the knowledge that, in the words of Hillary Clinton, nothing truly matters but the politics of it.

If we are going to shoot elephants then we should do so for our own reasons. Once we begin shooting elephants because it is expected of us, we become little better than the masters of a hollow empire waiting to be told by the world what to do.


  1. [Off topic. Something in the code is shoving the type under the right margin. Might be the picture placement coding.]

  2. To draw the parallel between the situation in Syria and Orwell's classic story of so many years is truly brilliant. Made for insightful reading and hope it gives pause for thought to the powers that be ...

  3. Anonymous9/9/13

    I follow your essays, but can not read this one!
    there seems to be some difficulty, for me, to read a lot of words.

  4. Truly an astute piece.

    The hollow men and women thoroughly captures this mentality.

  5. Brilliant post! So Obama gets his orders from the Muslim Brotherhood because that is who he has surrounded himself with. Is there another side to such explanation? Does he do their bidding because he's surrounded by them, or is he surrounded by them because he acts like them?

  6. I guess the proximity of this sudden "Bomb Syria" campaign to 9/11 is not coincidental, as otherwise the unobstructed Benghazi 9/11 anniversary would bring back in clear view all those uncomfortable still unanswered questions.

  7. Anonymous9/9/13

    Something is wrong with the lettering.

  8. Anonymous9/9/13

    There's a lot of truth in your parable.

    I think the crowd in your parable is Saudi Arabia.
    The Sunni Saudi's are in a proxy war with Shiite Iran.
    The Saudi's are trying to get the US to do their work for them.
    Their current field of battle between Sunni and Shiite happens to be Syria.
    The US went off the track in 1975.
    The US surrendered to the Arab oil embargo in 1975.
    We threw in with the Saudi's and made a deal, they supply us with oil without any more threats of embargoes and we become their mercenaries.
    Syria or poison gas is not the problem, Islam is the problem.
    In reality it is not our responsibility, it is the responsibility of the Syrians to see that the cause of their troubles is Islam and then they must have the courage to renounce and reject Islam and begin to act like civilized people.
    The problem is that we allied with the Saudi's, essentially we made a deal with the Devil, with Islam.
    Where we went off the track was not it Syria but in allying ourselves with Islam instead of seeing Islam as the real enemy.
    Instead of trying to count the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin,
    instead of trying to discern the difference between "radical Islam" and just plain Islam we should have seen Islam itself as the enemy and acted accordingly.
    Instead of trying to disuade Bashar from using poison gas we should be figuring out how to eradicate the unholy Evil of Islam itself from the face of the earth.
    Choosing sides in a battle between Muslim and Muslim is not in our interest.
    Eradicating Islam is what would be in the interest of America.

  9. ericcs9/9/13

    Does that Lying Leftist Scum in the White House (LSWH) and his Assorted Buffoons such as Kerry REALLY want the "international community" to "send a message" to Assad? Fine, then here's a suggestion...

    Go to the nearest Western Union office. Compose the following:

    'Dear Bashar,
    Please don't use chemical weapons. Have a nice day.
    The International Community'

    If there are any other banal, meaningless globo-socialist terms I've left out, make sure and put them in, too.

  10. ericcs9/9/13

    BTW, there's another good reason why we're in bed with the Saudi's... it's called the petrodollar, which the Saudi's conveniently hold over our head. If they ever decoupled oil from dollars, the rest of the world would no longer be forced to care about the hollow US economy, and Bernanke's insane gyrations with the Fed would be no more effective than pissing up a rope.

  11. can anyone send me a screenshot of the problem they're having with the lettering?

  12. Anonymous9/9/13

    Great Article. Your reference to the Republican(Whig)Party is spot on, they stand for nothing and are a hollow party!


  13. Anonymous9/9/13

    It's scary how Orwell's fiction has become our reality.

    I think Orwell simply understood human nature and warned us of the natural consequences of what happens when man allows only his dark side of his nature to rule his mind, heart and soul.



  14. Anonymous9/9/13

    tyrannover: You expressed the truth simply.


  15. Obama's job is simply to destroy America for the Muslims. That the Liberals bought that agenda and will be slaughtered in their millions after the take over...it doesn't matter to them. They will never admit they are wrong about anything, ever. They will either die or convert. Most will convert, deny any faith or allegiance they had, and watch your families be destroyed without blinking an eye. I haven't seen any statements from guys like George Clooney or Sean Pean on the evils of bombing Syria. War is suddenly good when Democrats start it, which they do with almost all wars involving Americans. No one even had enough balls to prosecute Jane Fonda for being a traitor all those years ago...and now Nam vets like McCain and Kerry side with Obama to fulfill his will. They can't understand why the average Joe doesn't jump on the bandwagon. Feinstein says we don't understand because basically we are peasants who couldn't understand the big picture even if they showed it to us; which is why they don't show us. They don't have to because we are not supposed to have the brain function to disagree. We're supposed to have shotguns, not rifles. Biden says so. And who knows better? He's the VP and we're peasants. I disagree that Obama is being forced to bomb anyone because the culture demands it. He wants to bomb and help destroy America, but he doesn't want the backlash he didn't expect from the American people. He's afraid it may cost him something personally. And guys like him can't afford that. He stills fears us peasants, and doesn't understand anything about us.

  16. Very well done. Our power -- like Orwell's elephant gun -- becomes our weakness.

  17. Anonymous9/9/13

    The beauty of it all is this. Just as the crowd stands behind the imperialist the people stand behind the president. We do not have to have the power of the US abused.

    There is no credibility problem with the American people. The American serviceman has shown he can outfight anyone. The American people are some of the most charitable on Earth. Most importantly we are all entrusted in ensuring that Gov't by and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

    To publicly stand against a bad President like Obama is not to weaken America. Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 did not destroy America. Not trying to let Obama bomb his way out of his own credibility problem will not weaken America.

    It also works the other way. The Berlin Wall fell but the world did not noticeably improve. We are still beset. As long as the American people signal the world that we will not sit down for terror and we will not be led by a narcissist's leash the world will know we are a strong people or face the fates that have happened to those who underestimated us.

  18. Anonymous9/9/13

    US national security leadership wants to take down Assad because too much of their advice comes from the Muslim Brotherhood...and yes, the Saudis

  19. Anonymous9/9/13

    I especially liked the paragraph describing the GOP. No punishment would be too severe for the establishment GOP. At a time when America is in desperate need of brave men, it is cursed with the most despicable cowardly moral midgets ever assembled in one political party. If the country ever emerges from this nightmare of the democrat party platform, I hope that the first to be dealt with by some People's Safety Committee, and the first to hang will be the GOP

  20. Incredible article!

  21. Thank you for the thoughtful and well written article!

  22. Common 'tater10/9/13

    Great reference to Orwell, I had no idea he wrote that! Thanks for fixing the alignment, looks good now. There are two areas I do not quite agree with you though. Please check your spelling. The Saudi's brought no ideas. The BOUGHT our leadership. Also, I doubt that the crowd pushing for gay marriage (Hollywood) is the same crowd pushing to bomb Syria (MB and KSA). However, after reading about young males in Afghanistan and other near eastern practices, there may just be a "connection." Great description of the now useless GOP though!

  23. The thing that does not make sense to me is this: If Syria takes "X" number of civilians,lines them up and shoots them.....that's okay. But if Syria takes "X" number of civilians, lines them up and kills them with gas....that's not okay? You still have "X" number of dead civilians! If one is not our concern, why should the other be?

  24. Anonymous10/9/13

    Superb piece. I have been critical in the past and I shall now be effusive with praise when you have so neatly framed the issue. You are supremely curious in a truly intellectual manner, placing your pieces on the board and always seeking the metaphoric bridge with an astuteness I dearly envy.

    Well said-- Kerry IS the Hollow Man, headpiece filled with straw...

    Thank you again-- just... superb!

  25. Anonymous10/9/13

    Well-written article for the most part. However, the paragraph about the Republican Party seemed rather shallow, and almost written as if it was expected and therefore you must write it (like bombing Syria). Don't get me wrong; there are plenty of venal people in the Republican party leadership. But first, not all; Rand Paul in particular seems to have convictions. Second, Obamacare is turning into a disaster, and opposing it may very not be simply venal for many Republicans. Third, the paragraph would have been much more tolerable if you had added the word "also" early. Is not the whole post an implicit condemnation of Democrats in general, and Obama in particular? Why single out Republicans?


  26. Orwell knew quite well where the world was headed.

  27. Porchlight10/9/13

    "It’s titled 'Shooting the Elephant.'"

    It is actually titled "Shooting an Elephant." Not to be nitpicky, but it is Orwell after all, and he had strong opinions about precision in language.

    I don't agree with your argument, though. The elephant will not be shot. The elephant was never going to be shot. The public will be informed that the elephant will be placed in elephant timeout for an unspecified period of time. (Although even this will not really occur, as there are no forces to put him in timeout and no will to marshal those forces. And there never was.) Then victory over the elephant will be declared.

    The difference between the Obama administration and the British colonials is that for better or for worse, the British actually shot the elephant. Obama, after having stated his intention to shoot the elephant, will now merely declare, without any further action or explanation, that the elephant has been sufficiently punished and no longer needs shooting.

  28. We did shoot the Libyan elephant

    1. Anonymous10/9/13

      Brilliant analogy.

      I would send this article to everyone I know if the paragraph about the Republicans wasn't included. It could be improved by substituting RINO, i.e., Republican in name only, or, by substitutiing politicians.

      Why, because a consummate politician might worry about what the press will focus on when the anniversary of 9/11 comes this year. He would worry about Benghazi, and the original rage of the crowd vis-a-vis Al Quida and whether we are winning the war on terror. Questions about how we are doing in Afghanistan, how Iraq is since we departed, and whether Al Quida is stronger or weaker would want to be avoided. That would bring up foreign policy, and that would include our "resetting of our relationship with Russia;" our changing of perception in the Muslim world; whether the Nobel Peace Price was appropriate; and all the other failures. But wait, if we could get everyone focused on whether we should shoot the elephant, we wouldn't have to account for all the BS that was put out about how the elephant was going to get domesticated simply by the election of the right person -- you know, CHANGE.

      Nothing has changed - we should be saying, "I'm not in the elephant business - solve your own elephant problems." That would be change I could believe in...

  29. Anonymous10/9/13

    to Porchlight

    You paint a picture of Obama as someone who has other than a firm grip on reality, as a congenital liar, as someone impelled to lie by mental defect.
    Read "Obama's America: Unmaking the American Dream" by Dinesh D'Souza. He presents a chilling description of Obama's father as a compulsive liar who lives in a delusional fantasy world that revolves around him, Barack Obama senior. And then you have to ask yourself, does insanity run in families?

  30. Anonymous10/9/13

    Outstanding aricle.

    But I'm pretty sure that John Kerry has promised that he is only going to slap the elephant, with a velvet glove, across the buttocks.

  31. Orwell had to shoot the elephant because he was the only British official "in charge" of 5000 natives. England's empire had gotten so enormous, it no longer had enough men to truly rule their empire.

    Because of this lack of numbers -- if the natives had been angered or unimpressed with the "Britishness" of their overseers, they could have turned on them and wiped out all traces of British rule in an instant; hence the need to act as the "sahib", the enlightened big brother

    And so Orwell's point is "Why are we doing this; what's the point." The colonies owned the British as much as England owned the colonies.

    BTW, aside from 1984, I always thought this was Orwell's finest bit of writng


Post a Comment

You May Also Like