Thursday, February 13, 2020

Churchill and Orwell

At the end of Thomas E. Ricks' Churchill and Orwell: the Fight for Freedom ( he delivers a startlingly Orwellian conclusion: "In most places and most of the time, liberty is not the product of military action."  Ricks continues to expand his point, "Rather, it is something alive that grows or diminishes every day, in how we think and communicate, how we treat each other in our public discourse, in what we value and reward as a society, and how we do that."

But the lives of Churchill and Orwell are a shining refutation of Ricks' point.   Both men believed in the sanctity of the human individual.  Both were were men of letters who committed themselves to battle on behalf of their convictions.  Both men were heroes in the 20th Century's struggle against totalitarianism.  Both men put their very lives on the line in defense of human liberty.  Orwell volunteered to serve with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War.  His Homage to Catalonia ( a classic work on the Spanish Civil War.  In 1937 Orwell was shot through the neck and nearly killed by a fascist bullet.  He writes, "I took it for granted that I was done for.  I had never heard of a man or animal getting a bullet through the middle of the neck and surviving it."  Fortunately for world literature, he did survive his grievous wound and went on to write Animal Farm and 1984.  After the outbreak of WW2 Orwell, despite his poor health, joined the Home Guard.

Winston Churchill Gravesite
Bladon, UK
Winston Churchill, born in Blenheim Palace, grew up playing with toy soldiers.  He attended Sandhurst and became a cavalry officer much to the annoyance of his father Randolph Churchill who resented the fact that Winston did not test well enough to qualify for the less expensive infantry.  In 1898 he rushed off to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War.  Later that same year he joined the 21st Lancers and fought at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan.  He participated in campaigns with the British Army in India and Africa.  In 1899 he was captured by the Boers in South Africa after the armored train that he was traveling on was ambushed.  He managed to escape from captivity and wrote about his many youthful adventures in My Early Life (  This daring escape led directly to his first successful run as an MP for Oldham in 1900 and launched the political career that eventually raised him to the premiership in 1940.  Winston Churchill was truly a Hero of the British Empire.

In 1911 Churchill became first lord of the admiralty in charge of the Royal Navy.  In World War I, after his humiliation in advocating or the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, Churchill would serve as a lieutenant colonel with the Royal Scottish Fusiliers in the trenches on the Western front.  Imagine if Donald Rumsfeld had been busted down to serve as a battalion commander in Fallujah after resigning as Secretary of Defense following his disastrous advocacy for the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.  But Churchill served in the muck and mire of brutal trench warfare.

Ricks makes the point that although Orwell and Churchill sprang from radically different backgrounds and held very different political opinions they had much in common.  Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph, had an aristocratic background while Eric Blair (Later Orwell) was a the son of an officer in the Anglo-Indian Army.  Blair was a scholarship student at Eton.  While most of his peers graduated to Oxbridge Universities, Blair instead went to Burma where he served as a policeman.  In Burma he was exposed to the seamier side of the British Empire.  Blair experienced the seamy side of urban life writing about it masterfully in his 1933 book Down and Out in Paris and London (

Note the African Sailor at Left
Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London 

The British Empire was not without its flaws.  It fought many wars, some of them unnecessary (the Opium Wars in China for example).  It exploited lands (Ireland, India, etc.) and people under its sway.  It was far from perfect.  But it also did do a tremendous service to humanity.  The famous explorer Livingstone called slavery the "open sore of the world."  In 1807, two years after Nelson's triumph at Trafalgar, the British parliament abolished the slave trade throughout the British Empire.  This single act "redeemed it in the eyes of the Africans, and vilified it in the eyes of the Boers." (Source: Hero of Empire: Millard, Candice, p 240, Anchor books, 2016,  Had the Royal Navy not controlled the seas it could never, of course, been capable of enforcing the will of parliament.  It was precisely Nelson's decisive victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar that laid the groundwork for the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.  Nelson Mandela was named in honor of Horatio Nelson.

Battle of Britain statue
"The Few" 
Moreover, the British Empire, in its final days lent all its strength to the destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  In the death agonies of the Empire it truly can be said to have lived "its finest hour" as Churchill so eloquently put it.  In the dark days of 1940 Britain and her Commonwealth Empire stood alone against the Nazi Blitzkrieg that engulfed continental Europe. It was Winston Churchill who provided the essential spark of leadership saying, "I was not the lion, but it fell to me to give the lion's roar."  The British Empire, for all its many flaws, helped to liberate the Nazi death camps and to end the horrors of the Burma Railway in 1945.

We Americans are acutely conscious of the failings of the British Empire.  We had our doubts about George III back in 1776.  My favorite complaint from those listed in our Declaration of Independence is, "For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us."  Bit like a rude AirBnB guest that does not pay!  On the battlefields of Saratoga and Yorktown we Americans learned that liberty is indeed the product of military action.  We taught old Georgie a thing or two...

Abe knew that Liberty could only be purchased with blood
And in the US Civil War, America's costliest war, we paid a blood sacrifice to learn that liberty could only be purchased with blood and sacrifice.  We Americans had a few failings of our own with the peculiar institution of slavery being chief among them.  Slavery was our national birth defect present at our glorious founding.  We had to painfully relearn the lesson that liberty is the product of military action at places like Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Antietam.

Animal Farm reminds us of the Nazi-Soviet Pact
that guaranteed the start of WW2

Following WW2 with the start of the Cold War, Winston Churchill as a private citizen warned that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent."  Meanwhile Orwell's Animal Farm ( and 1984 ( were read avidly by Americans who had fought Hitler's brand of totalitarianism and now faced the challenges of Stalinist Russia, Mao's China  and the Cold War.  "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."  On one side of the Iron Curtain, egalitarianism became a meaningless shibboleth used to club the heads of those who disagreed or stood in the way of the creation of a Socialist Utopia -- in Budapest in 1956, Prague in 1968, in Cambodia's Killing Fields and so on.  Orwell would dub his hero in 1984 Winston Smith -- a tribute to Churchill.

Orwell was a man of the working class Left.  Churchill was an aristocrat with Right-leaning sympathies.  Yet both were passionate advocates for individual liberty who put their very lives at risk in its defense.  Both men committed their lives to the proposition that liberty must be paid for and upheld with blood.  Both men opposed totalitarians of the Left and Right equally.  Hitler and Stalin were two sides of the same totalitarian coin that trampled on individual liberty, slaughtered millions and glorified war for war's sake.

Orwell's grim dystopian vision of endless wars and the surveillance society in 1984 continues to be relevant long after the end of the Cold War.  Apple Computer famously expressed its own non-conformist commercial vision through an Orwellian lexicon in a Super Bowl commercial.

Churchill and Orwell
took up arms for the sake of Liberty

Churchill and Orwell's commitment to fighting for the sake of liberty is not merely an Anglo-American perspective.  How many Algerians today would assert that the liberty purchased from France was ''not the product of military action"?  How many Vietnamese would agree with Ricks' position with regard to the history of their own homeland?

In 1984 Big Brother tells us that, "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."  Yet in the 21st century Thomas Ricks opines that liberty can be won with kind words and without military action...?  With apologies to Aldous Huxley, it seems to me that Ricks would like his readers to slip on a Soma mask and to forget the meaning of our blood stained history.

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