Orwell on Libya
Libya: what would Orwell do?
Libya’s civil war falls on the seventy-fifth anniversary of an earlier civil war, one that occurred on a neighbouring shore of the Mediterranean and galvanized the world’s attention: the Spanish Civil War. While the causes and contexts could not be more different, the ideals shared by Spanish loyalists and Libyan dissidents seem very similar. In both cases, they sacrificed their lives to resist despotism and defend democracy. And in both cases, western intellectuals proved far more willing to fight these battles to the last drop of the blood of others.
Few thinkers knew this better than George Orwell. In 1936, his long and ungainly frame clad in a ridiculous makeshift uniform, Orwell lumbered into a friend’s office in London. By way of explaining his attire, he announced that he was going to Spain. When asked why, Orwell replied, “This fascism, somebody’s got to stop it.” The only thing Orwell succeeded in stopping, it turned out, was a bullet: while serving as a corporal in an anarchist brigade, he was shot through the neck. Orwell survived, but the Spanish Republic didn’t, eventually falling to Franco’s forces.
At the very end of his account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, Orwell returns to England. Sitting in the train with “plush cushions under my bum” and gazing through the window at the “sleek landscape” of Devonshire, Orwell found it hard “to believe that anything is really happening anywhere.” And, quite remarkably, he goes on: “Earthquakes in Japan…revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning.”
Switch out Mexico for Middle East and milk for mocha latte, and we see little has changed. This includes the response of intellectuals to desperately complex struggles. In a terse essay titled “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” Orwell has little good to say about war. Long spells of boredom convulsed by a mortar blast; incessant squabbles with fellow soldiers over food; bouts of narcolepsy brought on by fear-filled nights; the omnipresent stink and filth of life in the trenches: this is war. “The essential horror of army life (whoever has been a soldier will know what I mean by the essential horror of army life),” he wrote, “is barely affected by the nature of the war you happen to be fighting in.”
Yet Orwell’s fellow intellectuals who had never fought nevertheless exhorted others to fight. The “sang-froid with which London faced the bombing of Madrid,” he bitterly observed, was all too typical of the times. The most confident, most insistent and most bellicose voices belonged to those who had never known war. While Orwell had learned that neither lice nor bullets bother to distinguish between good and bad people, intellectuals back home remained gladly ignorant of such matters.
In the current frenzy of advice mongering over Libya, there is the same strain of magical thinking among certain intellectuals. In France, Bernard-Henri Lévy, the aging “new philosopher” better known for his dark suits, white shirts with open collar and mane of greying hair than for his strategic acumen, recently went to Benghazi, trailed by a battalion of photographers. When not posing with Libyan rebels in front of a shell-pocked building, BHL has been writing editorials, giving interviews and holding meetings with President Nicolas Sarkozy, urging the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya and use of “surgical strikes” against Qaddafi’s forces.
While “frappes chirurgicales” sounds more compelling than surgical strikes, BHL’s American homologue, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has hawked the same advice. At the same time, by Robert Kagan, the author of Of Paradise and Power, and William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, joined a group associated with the Foreign Policy Initiative in a letter pushing for immediate action to bring down Qaddafi’s regime.
Orwell was merciless on the complacent certainties of intellectuals. “No-fly zones” and “surgical strikes”? How not to think of Orwell’s remark that “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool”? As for the metaphors themselves, Orwell would be equally pitiless: it is this sort of writing that “makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” Military operations advocated by intellectuals would not be carried out in an aseptic space, but instead in a place of extraordinary volatility. In order to guarantee a no-fly zone, NATO pilots would need to fly constantly over Libya. As for surgical strikes, need we look any further than the use of drones in Afghanistan to know the hollowness of such a phrase, be it in French or English.
Would Orwell, then, have sided with those statesmen who continue to make haste slowly on the question of military intervention? Despite his loathing of bellicose intellectuals on the left and right, despite his recognition that the fog of war is far too heavy to allow for certitudes, and despite his awareness that we simply do not know what kind of government the Libyan rebels would form after Qaddafi’s overthrow, Orwell would make the case for intervention. In his essays, Orwell describes war’s reality so carefully in order to force us to understand what, at certain moments, we must accept if we wish to remain true to our humanity. War is squalid and cruel, but all too often peace can be even more fetid and nasty. In most wars, Orwell insisted, “one side stands more or less for progress, the other side more or less for reaction.”
We know which side is which in Libya, just as Orwell knew which was which in Spain in 1936. Needless to say, Orwell was no one’s fool before he embarked for Spain in his mismatching hunting outfit; upon returning to England with a bullet-sized cavity in this throat, he was even less so. In Homage to Catalonia, he reveals the machinations of the Soviet Union and its efforts to control the Spanish unions and Communist party. At the same time, he understood that English and French France arms embargo imposed on both sides in Spain could only push the loyalists more deeply into Stalin’s embrace.
Yet despite all that he had seen, Orwell maintained a kind of enlightened pessimism. Soon after his return to England, he wrote to a friend: “What I saw in Spain did not make me cynical, but it does make me think the future is pretty grim.” The amateurish yet passionate resistance of the Libyan rebels echoes the spirit of the Spanish loyalists under Orwell’s command. In both cases, these accidental soldiers were barely able to shoot a gun, yet were willing to sacrifice their lives in the effort to learn. While the Spanish loyalists fought to save a legitimate and democratic government, the Libyan dissidents are fighting to overthrow a ruler whose willingness to kill his own people at the very least matches the brutality of Franco and his Phalangists.
We do not know what a post-Qaddafi Libya would look like, but it cannot be any grimmer than the current model. Orwell concluded that, at the end of the day, matters were rather simple in Spain. “In essence,” he wrote, “it was a class war; all else was froth on its surface.” It is also a class war in Libya: the few who have everything and are willing to murder and maim in order to maintain their power; the many who are fighting for their dignity. While he would not be surprised, Orwell would be as dismayed by the pusillanimity of the West today as he was seventy-five years ago.