“Somewhere Else When the Trigger Is Pulled”: Orwell and War

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits.

 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”[1]

As an opponent of capitalism, imperialism, and tyranny, George Orwell filled his writings with fierce condemnations of various de-humanizing injustices.[2] War was harder for him to condemn, though. Sometimes Orwell supported war—occasionally with shocking callousness. Other times he criticized war’s violence in ways peace advocates would appreciate.

What psychologists call “distancing” may have played a role in Orwell’s ambivalent attitudes toward war. When circumstances forced him to encounter the target of wartime violence up close, his support for violence faltered. He displayed more of his characteristic humanity. This pattern confirms a major theme of his work: how injustice frequently relies on obscuring facts, and how important seeing injustice’s victims clearly is. Advocates for a consistent life ethic can learn a lesson from this.

Orwell’s Embrace of War

Orwell volunteered to fight on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and almost died when he was shot in the throat. Later, after initially opposing a prospective war with Germany, he came to support the British war effort in World War II. He tried to enlist in the military but was rejected because of respiratory health problems (which would ultimately kill him at 46). Orwell instead served in the civil defense militia, the Home Guard, and did wartime broadcasts for the BBC.

In writing about both these wars, Orwell could be extremely savage. Reflecting on the Spanish war, he draws the bleak conclusion “if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother.”

The only apparent alternatives are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with lumps of thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no one has suggested a practicable way out.[3]

During World War II, Orwell defended the British bombing of German cities and resulting civilian deaths.[4] Allowing that “no one in his senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust,” he nevertheless insisted that “there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features…all talk of ‘limiting’ or ‘humanising’ war is sheer humbug.”[5] Yet Orwell clearly felt uneasy about indiscriminate killing, qualifying his endorsement of bombing with “Obviously one must not kill children if it is in any way avoidable” but arguing that relatively few children died in bombing.[6]

These and similar statements show a man who not only accepted war but believed war’s inherent violence justified abandoning even relatively mild restraints.

Orwell and War’s Horrors

Other statements offer a very different picture, though. During his Spanish war experience, Orwell had the opportunity to kill another man—not by dropping a bomb from a plane but by shooting him at relatively close range:

Early one morning another man and I had gone out to snipe at the Fascists in the trenches outside Huesca. Their line and ours here lay three hundred yards apart, at which range our aged rifles would not shoot accurately, but by sneaking out to a spot about a hundred yards from the Fascist trench you might, if you were lucky, get a shot at someone through a gap in the parapet.

As the sunrise threatened to expose them, Orwell and his comrade prepared to leave their position

when there was an uproar and a blowing of whistles in the Fascist trench. Some of our aeroplanes were coming over. At this moment a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran.

I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot “Fascists”; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a “Fascist,” he is visibly a fellow creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.[7]

Orwell draws no lesson from the incident. Perhaps one lesson, though, is that a man who balks at killing an enemy soldier given the soldier’s obvious humanity would balk at killing countless civilians–if he had to do it personally, at close range. That Orwell could write so callously about bombing suggests he was helped by his distance, as a civilian back in Britain, from the actual killing, which was already being conducted by long-range means.

Elsewhere Orwell criticized such psychological distancing from violence. He condemned the poet W. H. Auden for cavalierly referring to politics involving “necessary murder.” The term

could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men—I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means—the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and Stalins find murder necessary, but they don’t advertise their callousness, and they don’t speak of it as murder; it is “liquidation,” or some other soothing phrase. Mr. Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.[8]

One might apply Orwell’s own principles to say that to endorse actions that “burn holes in children” is only possible for someone who is elsewhere when the burning is done.

When visiting Allied-occupied Germany as a war correspondent, Orwell witnessed another journalist undergo a change that could, in different circumstances, have been Orwell’s. The man was Belgian and, having had his country invaded by Nazi Germany, had reason to hate the enemy. Entering a town, he and Orwell saw

A dead German soldier was lying supine at the foot of the steps. His face was a waxy yellow. On his breast someone had laid a bunch of the lilac which was blossoming everywhere.

The Belgian averted his face as we went past. When we were well over the bridge he confided in me that this was the first time he had seen a dead man. I suppose he was thirty-five years old, and for four years he had been doing war propaganda over the radio. For several days after this his attitude was quite different from what it had been earlier. He looked with disgust at the bomb-wrecked town and the humiliations the Germans were undergoing, and even on one occasion intervened to prevent a particularly bad bit of looting.[9]

Such sights did not change Orwell’s attitude toward the war and bombing.[10] Perhaps, though, if the full reality of the violence he had been advocating could somehow have been made more vivid to him he might have undergone a similar change.

Orwell’s Challenge

That someone as decent as Orwell could callously endorse total war, contrary to his tendency to recognize the humanity of so many—the poor, the preborn, even Fascist soldiers—is deeply troubling. Many influences doubtless shaped his attitudes, but the role that psychological distancing can play in someone accepting violence is worth close attention.

Consistent life ethic advocates must constantly struggle against such distancing. The victims of violence and their suffering need to be seen clearly, despite technologies or euphemisms (“collateral damage,” “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “termination of pregnancy”) that might obscure them. The author of “Politics and the English Language” would have appreciated such efforts.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in Orwell: Essays, Journalism, & Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 4, In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), 139-140.

[2] See my piece, “Recognizing Humanity: Orwell and the Consistent Life Ethic.”  

[3] George Orwell, “Review of Spanish Testament by Arthur Koestler,” in Orwell: Essays, Journalism, & Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 1, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), 296.

[4] George Orwell, “Future of a Ruined Germany,” Observer, April 8, 1945, reproduced in the Guardian, May 7, 2005, https://bit.ly/2Ysj9Ri.

[5] George Orwell, “As I Please Column,” in Orwell: Essays, Journalism, & Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 3, As I Please, 1943-1945 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), 151.

[6] Ibid.

[7] George Orwell, “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” in Orwell: Essays, Journalism, & Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 2, My Country Right or Left, 1940-1943 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), 253-254.   

[8] George Orwell, “Inside the Whale,” in Orwell: Essays, Journalism, & Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 1, An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), 516.

[9] George Orwell, “Revenge Is Sour,” in Orwell: Essays, Journalism, & Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Vol. 4, In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950 (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 2000), 6.

[10] Richard Westwood, “Vera Brittain versus George Orwell,” The Orwell Society, February 12, 2012, https://bit.ly/2GDwIq2.

© 2019 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.      

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s