Orwell and Kipling and the Battle of Burma
Or Why I Care

It is interesting that two different English writers traveled to Burma. One returned asserting the same Weltanschauung that he had before going there. The other returned with a different worldview. I am an American attempting to write who also traveled to Burma, which is now called Myanmar. I did not return like the former but returned like the latter...a changed man.

Rudyard Kipling Rudyard Kipling
The first writer and traveler to Burma was Rudyard Kipling. Now, to be honest with you, I did not start off liking Kipling and his poetry. When I was in high school, we had to memorize several hundred lines of poetry or prose each year. I never memorized any of Kipling. I had read Mandalay but did not enjoy it even if it was "where the flyin'-fishes play."

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

However, my disenchantment with Kipling has grown over the years far beyond my trivial dislike for the sound of his poetry. What Kipling was in my eyes was everything that the British colonial empire was. He possessed the British colonial mindset of being haughty, aloft, arrogant, better than thou, and a pompous royal air. While not royalty, Kipling was the personification of what Margaret Thatcher was a generation later. Thatcher used the Royal We even though she was royalty. Kipling was everything that I disliked in a person.

Another poem Kipling wrote was The White Man's Burden. Now, I am a white man, but that poem was at best white racism. This is the first stanza.

Take up the White Man's burden-
Send forth the best ye breed-
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild-
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

That racist notion affected advertisements like Pear Soap a century ago.

Presumptuousness of Pears' Soap

Presumptuousness of Pears' Soap

Well, at least as racists, Kipling and the rest of them could be counted upon having clean white hands while they were doing the work of the devil.

George Orwell George Orwell
The second writer and traveler to Burma was George Orwell. I do not know of any poetry of Orwell, but I know Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. I read and reread both novels and get at least half his message even when I was young and liberal. I am now an old liberal, and I admire his guts and honesty. Orwell says Kipling was a "prophet of British imperialism."

George Orwell's passport photo while in Burma

George Orwell's passport photo while in Burma

While Kipling was watching the "flyin'-fishes play," Orwell was wrestling with reality...the reality of British colonialism. He was not happy about what he saw. For several years, he was a police officer in Burma in the mid-20s. Interestingly, he was located in Moulmein, which is now called Mawlamyine. Moulmein is in the southern part of Burma called Lower Burma. It was once the capital of Burma. Also, Moulmein was where Kipling wrote Mandalay several decades prior to Orwell arrived there.

Orwell's short stories Orwell's short stories
Orwell, instead of writing watching the flyin'-fishes play, wrote a short story while in Burma about Shooting an Elephant. It is a true story about an elephant that has gone on a rampage and trampled to death a local. Orwell finds himself in a catch-22. He hates the British colonial rule of Burma, and he his hated by the Burmese because he is viewed as a British oppressor. The question is how can he function caught between the two groups. This situation causes him to say about himself that "He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it." Nevertheless, he gets a Winchester rifle but tells an orderly to bring an elephant rifle knowing that a Winchester rifle was designed to kill elephants.

Orwell finds the once rampaging elephant now just standing quietly in a field. Orwell again faces another catch-22. He does not want to kill the elephant for a couple of reasons. The elephant seems to have settled down, and elephants are used in the local timber industry to move logs around. However, the people want him to kill the elephant that killed one of their people.

What has intrigued me about these two English writers, Kipling and Orwell, is that I have known that they came from the same country, both went to the same other country, and returned their country seeing the world from radically different points of view. Just being aware of that is an interesting historical note. However, that is the end of the story nor the reason for this essay.

I returned from Burma and that country changed me. I did not go to Burma or Myanmar, which is the name of the country now, indifferent to social and political issues. Back in the early 60s while in college, I was a liberal and upset with racism and segregation in the States. From that time on to the present, I have been far to the left. Name a social issue from racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., you will not find many further to the left than me. Having said that, I am different today than I was prior to my trip to Burma/Myanmar.

In various essays, I have included a video of Steve Jobs' commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. In his speech, he uses the allegory of connecting the dots. We journey through life creating dots, but it is only as we look back upon the dots do we connect them. The speech has helped me to see the light better. However, I am still searching for the why. Why have I changed? I am 71-years old, and I have danced with death a couple times already. So why do I care?

Years ago, I read something that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that helps but does not explain it not enough to satisfy me. Emerson while facing problems, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."

Steve Job's commencement speech at Stanford:

This is a reading of Shooting An Elephant:

Christopher Hitchens discussing Orwell:

Burma flag

Burmese independence flag

Visit the Burma Independence page to read more about this topic.

On Seeing the Light

On Seeing the Light

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Connecting The Dots

Connecting the Dots

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Forrest Gump Film Poster

Forrest Gump, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Visit the Stupid is As Stupid Does page to read more about this topic.