What Would Orwell Say?

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If you're a writer on contemporary events and aspire to immortality, you had better have something special in your pen. George Orwell, whose centenary was celebrated last week, had honesty and clarity of expression. Combined, they enabled a man who was almost always sick to produce a body of work — essays, reviews, novels like Animal Farm and 1984 — that will illumine the next generation's understanding of the world as much as it did those of the past two.

Orwell, who died in 1950, never shrank from the big stuff. "The three great subjects of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism," writes Christopher Hitchens in his wonderful book Why Orwell Matters. Those were Orwell's topics, and he was right on all of them: able to pierce the hypocrisy of imperial adventures, to warn of the deathly appeal of fascism, and — when many were in thrall to the supposed achievements of the Soviet Union — to state baldly that Stalin was a "disgusting murderer." It is because Orwell was unflinching in his opposition to all the totalitarianisms of the past century that he has such a bewildering range of acolytes — liberals unable to stomach the idea that one race should lord it over another, socialists for whom his willingness to fight fascism in Spain is an inspiration, conservatives who are certain that had he lived, he would have become a true cold warrior, determined to roll back communism wherever its poisoned shoots took root.

I wish he were with us now; our times cry out for someone with Orwell's gifts of clear-eyed observation and analysis. What would he have thought, I wonder, of American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, which uses essentially imperialist means to defeat fascist regimes and rebuild nations ravaged by them? Orwell was not a pacifist. He had lived long enough among the poor in Britain and France to understand the inequities of the liberal democracies, but he had a splendid contempt for those unwilling to defend them against a greater evil. If he believed that rogue states or radical Islamic terrorists had the means and motive to threaten Western lives and liberties, he would surely have supported the use of armed force to eradicate the danger.

At the same time, Orwell might have doubted the wisdom of some current policies — the willingness to speckle the Islamic world with American garrisons or award contracts for the reconstruction of wrecked nations to favored companies. His loathing of imperialism was visceral, because he knew, firsthand, what it meant. In the 1920s Orwell had served in the imperial police in Burma, then a British colony, and the experience left him with an almost physical hatred for the behavior — in fact, the very language and look — of the imperialist class. Last week I reread Burmese Days, Orwell's 1934 novel based on his time in Asia. It is not a great book — as a novelist, Orwell had less depth than his near contemporaries, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell — but it is bleakly unsettling, as page after page of racism and cruelty leaves you feeling in need of a shower. Yet Orwell never thought that the evil of imperialism resided solely in its exploitation of "natives." He was just as interested in its corrosive effect on those who claimed to bring civilization to the unlettered heathen. Imperialism, says a British timber merchant in Burmese Days, speaking to an Indian doctor who admires Western modernity, "corrupts us in ways you can't imagine. There's an everlasting sense of being a sneak and a liar that torments us."

Orwell's language was famously spare, but his themes were subtle. He knew that analogy is not destiny, and would surely have resisted the idea that Americans are bound to behave badly in Iraq simply because all previous imperialists have done so when given a chance. He would certainly have noted that the post-imperial experience has often been a miserable one. Since independence from Britain in 1948, Burma, for example, has been raped by a succession of military regimes. Self-rule does not necessarily mean wise rule.

All that said, I think Orwell would have warned against a long-term military presence in conquered nations. Give young soldiers life-or-death authority, far from home, and you should not be surprised if power goes to their heads. "In Burma," Orwell once wrote, "I was constantly struck by the fact that the common soldiers were the best-hated section of the white community, and, judged simply by their behavior, they certainly deserved to be." Americans should not want their young men and women in uniform to be hated, for to hate someone is the first step to killing them. One reason to honor Orwell's memory is that he reminds us of such uncomfortable truths.