How doth the little crocodile

One detail of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland I have always liked is Carroll’s poem, ‘How doth the little crocodile’:

‘How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

‘How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!’

Carroll was parodying a typical Victorian homily entitled ‘Against Idleness and Mischief’, written by the English theologian Isaac Watts:

‘How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!’

And so on for three more sickly verses.

Last night my daughter Beany, a voracious reader, mentioned that one of the characters in R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End recites Carroll’s poem. If you have not seen it, Journey’s End is a play about life in the trenches in World War One. I do not know what Sherriff meant by inserting this detail, but a contemporary resonance struck me straight away.

The war in Iraq – as previously in Vietnam, Aden, Cyprus and a hundred post-colonial wars – has always been accompanied by shrill nonsense about defending this or that value or principle. Like Vietnam, Iraq is meant to be a ‘shining hour’ for freedom and democracy. But once more such ideals are being dragged in the dust by ignoble individuals like the US and British leaderships, and it is impossible to imagine that the cause of liberty will be advanced one inch by this awful disaster. On the contrary, the very idea of democracy has already been debased so far that in Arab discourse ‘damakrata’ translates as the forced imposition of western ideas.

But what should one expect when the West is led by arrogant and self-serving fools like Bush, Cheney, Blair and Rumsfeld, who imagine that abstractions like ‘freedom’ have any meaning at all in a country we spent a decade blockading and bombing, causing perhaps a million deaths, all in the name of these self-same ‘principles’. What were they expecting? To be welcomed with open arms? Their own experts had told them that they would be anything but welcome. But Blair’s abstractions told him better, and as the Americans managed to demonstrate almost immediately, the only thing they would do with any efficiency was sell the country’s assets to American corporations.

And the military? Having been promised that they would be welcome with open arms, they find that the peaceful cultivation of the beehive they were promised by our ‘leaders’ has turned into fighting with crocodiles. We have so obviously lost that we should get out immediately. Western governments and armies cannot save Iraq from the disaster they have created – they are the disaster. To persist out of sheer arrogance and fear of failure is to condemn tens of thousands more Iraqis, and many soldiers too, to pointless suffering and death.

After World War One they put up statues to Field Marshal Haig, Prime Minister Lloyd George and all the rest, whereas they should have hanged the lot of them. Meanwhile, shortly after the character in Journey’s End recites ‘How doth the little crocodile’, he is killed in a raid. Is that going to be the outcome in Iraq too – until, we finally admit that, in our arrogance and idealism, we are the problem, not the solution?

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