A Short Post about Killing

28 Dec

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

Obviously I’m quoting from a speech by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. It’s quite apposite, but in a way The Hobbit illustrates the point better.

If you haven’t yet read The Hobbit and you plan to do so, or if you’re waiting to see the film, then you might want to stop reading here, because I’d hate to spoil it for you.

The Hobbit borrows heavily from the folk tales and mythology of Northern Europe. Everyone knows that. What might be a little less obvious (And I have to say it didn’t really register with me until someone pointed it out to me), is that The Hobbit is really quite subversive in some ways.

I don’t mean to provide a detailed criticism of The Hobbit here, I just want to look at one point in particular.

Normally, where you have a story about a wicked dragon sitting on a hoard of gold, you would expect that story to reach a climax with the killing of the dragon and after that things would settle down into happy ever after mode. In The Hobbit, however, this is not what happens. Smaug dies as one would expect, but this is not the end of the story. It is the culmination of one sequence of events, but it is also the start of another sequence of events.

The death of Smaug effectively leaves a power vacuum. Someone has to take charge of that hoard of gold and become King under the mountain and this is where Tolkien is very clever in showing quite how badly people who have previously been heroes can behave. (Of course if you’re familiar with Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the Nordic myths that inspired them, you will recall something similar in Siegfried’s story, but I think Tolkien does it better and with far fewer arias).

Given that we’re going to have to wait about a year for the film of The Hobbit, you may wonder what prompted all this.

Well, it’s probably got something to do with the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

My point is that when US and British forces invaded Iraq, it really didn’t take long to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Whatever Blair and Bush loyalists might claim, I think any reasonably impartial observer would be likely to conclude that many in the UK and US governments acted as though they thought that would be the end of the story and we’d soon  be into happy ever after mode.

Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. Saddam was duly hunted down, tried and subsequently executed, but none of that seemed to have much effect on anything. You might argue that Saddam Hussein deserved to die (See above quote from Gandalf if you do), but his death didn’t seem to do much to make anything better for the Iraqi people.

As a matter of fact, by that time Saddam was pretty much irrelevant. There would doubtless have been practical problems if Saddam had lived, he may even have become some kind of figurehead for opposition to the UK and US forces, (and latterly the US and Iraqi government forces) but I’m not so sure about that because he doesn’t seem to have become much of a martyr following his execution.

So in principal toppling Saddam Hussein seemed like a good idea. He really wasn’t a very nice man and he really didn’t make a very good job of governing Iraq. (Although it’s worth asking how someone like Saddam managed to get into power in the first place. And while we’re at it, how did he stay in power, and where did he get all those weapons from? It’s also worth bearing in mind that most of the mass graves that supporters of the invasion point to as evidence in support of the invasion were dug and filled while Saddam was considered to be a valued ally of the West. Similarly the use of chemical weapons on his own people, which the US State Dept initially blamed on the Iranians).

The problem is that deposing and later executing Saddam Hussein didn’t solve Iraq’s problems, all it did was create a whole new set of problems and, eight years (and who knows how many deaths) later, Iraq looks like it’s in about as much trouble as it ever has been.

I hope I’m wrong about that. I hope we are on the verge of happy ever after mode for Iraq, but the signs don’t look too good.

You might ask what I would have done about Saddam Hussein. Well, I’m really not sure, but I like to think I would have remembered the old adage beloved of moral philosophers, ‘you never do just one thing’. (IE everything you do has consequences and it’s part of your responsibility to foresee those consequences and to take them into account before you act).

Maybe the works of JRR Tolkien should become required reading for world leaders in future.

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2 Responses to “A Short Post about Killing”

  1. Edward Fraser 13/01/2012 at 4:34 pm #

    ‘I don’t mean to provide a detailed criticism of The Hobbit here…’ – or anywhere, I’d like to hope!

    This is a very well crafted post. Mr. Hussein was a bad man, yes, but historically speaking things do not go well when one country tries to impose its custom of ruling upon another, however good that first country’s intentions may be. Does the abolition of one wrong justify the persistence of others? And so confusion ensues.

    • fekesh 14/01/2012 at 11:34 am #

      Don’t worry, The Hobbit is safe from any criticism from me. All I wanted to do was use it as an illustration for the more general point I wanted to make.
      Incidently, if you’re a fan of The Hobbit, you might enjoy reading Beowulf, if you haven’t already done so. (Don’t be put off if you didn’t like the recent motion capture CGI film version. They took liberties all over the place). I particularly like Seamus Heaney’s translation. His use of Ulster dialect adds to the texture and accentuates the rythms of the verse. (Couldn’t help that. Ex English student).
      Anyway, thanks for the comment.

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