The uses and abuses of humiliation

Rabindranath Tagore's management of defeat

One year I said I didn’t
Want to be arrested.
Back too frail to be man-handled.

I settled for the dawn peace-vigil:
Candles flickering in the police horse’s eyes.
War can make cowards of poets.

This year I didn’t want to protest
Under anti-SAS banners.
Those young blokes might have been sent to Mt Sinjar

To fight their way up
To show the way down
For the stranded women and children:

Just the kind of war heroes we want.
Now, from my retreat near Swan Island
I hear that they stood on the hands

Of my friends, stripped them
And dragged them along the ground
Took a hessian bag
Put it over their heads
Stood on their backs
Said they would kick a head
If it so much as opened its mouth.
Words fail me when I think of that war
Let alone try to imagine its peace.
– ‘Unspeakable Heroes’, 2014


I WROTE THIS poem last October, when the Australian Hornets joined the American bombing raids in northern Iraq, a step back into a war many of us thought had at last been left – well, more or less. It is a fact of our postcolonial Australia that we don’t pull out of such situations without the compliance of our Master in War, any more than we enter them without being under a bowdlerised banner of necessity. The simple truth is that we live with this species of humiliation as a matter of course.

The experience of humiliation was most acute when the wars started in 2002–03, when Afghanistan was invaded and Iraq was attacked from the air with all that shock and awe – their humiliation, manifestly. But ours too, as we had to face our political impotence as citizens of a democracy: no amount of protest in the capitals of the West could check the war machine, just as no amount of humiliation at our subsequent defeats can deter us from generating the same mistakes all over again. Defeat, of course, is what barely can be mentioned. The denials of defeat energise fresh jingoism, as we swing into another round with all the dubious precautions against killing civilians, mission creep and so on. Now, as we bear witness to the stagy beheadings, we burn at the stake of our own delusions about what constitutes courage.

The round is the thing. Yes, there is light as well as dark to be seen, but the whole experience is a wrecking light, as what counts as ‘complexity’ – worthy of empirical journalism, or a think-piece of judicious ideology – is morally blinding. No one solution seems to offer harmlessness to the innocent, and one of the oldest political observations rings true.

Heaven and Earth are heartless
treating creatures like straw dogs
sages are heartless also
they treat people like straw dogs
– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The event that occasioned the poem was a local incident in Queenscliff, the little old fishing town just inside the heads of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria. For some years now the place has been visited by the Swan Island Peace Convergence, who come to protest at the gates of ASIS – the Australian Secret Intelligence Service – which has its headquarters on Swan Island. The secret base has long served as an intelligence gathering agency and an outfit for covert operations. It trains SAS soldiers, services ASIO and the AFP, and has been in the forefront of Australia’s efforts on behalf of the Coalition of the Willing. Its presence in sleepy Queenscliff was inconspicuous until 1983, when the SAS bungled a training exercise that took the form of a raid on the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne. A sheepish Premier John Cain had to reveal to parliament the whereabouts of the secret base. More recently, in the summer of 2012, three soldiers on leave from the Middle East drowned in the waters of Swan Bay. In the early hours of the morning they left a local pub and drove their car off the road while crossing to the island. I was woken with a sense of flashing lights across the water, and the spot is still alive in my memory every time I sit at the screen in this room overlooking Swan Bay. The loss of those men was a wicked wastage, especially as the wars wound down, when we were still there to save America’s face. The futility of those wars is my line of sight.

The poem has a familiar ideological position. You can take it or leave it, but the point is – as I try to indicate – the present moment seems to be beyond ideology, or misconstrued by it.


THAT IS WHY I felt like a squib not turning up at the demonstration last year. The wrecking light held me back, and I stayed home, content to help in other ways. I lent my kayak to the group. I welcomed one of the main organisers, Jessica Morrison, who had a cup of tea in my kitchen, where an advance copy of Peacemongers (UQP, 2014) happened to be on the table. The Peace Convergence features in its last, homecoming chapter: the reader comes to them after various journeys to the East, where I travelled in the company of those renowned figures of anti-colonial history, Rabindranath Tagore, the great thinker and poet who called MK Gandhi Mahatma – ‘Great Soul’ (and to whom Gandhi was rejoined by calling Tagore India’s ‘Great Sentinel’).

I threw myself into these Eastern journeys after America’s King Kong response to its humiliation from the attacks on New York and Washington. I was pleased to be gone from my home country. I felt like Tagore in 1916: ‘I am not a patriot – I shall ever seek my compatriots all over the world.’

You can’t contemplate the life and work of either figure without wondering at the lack of pacifist resonances in our culture at the present time. Tagore was not, strictly speaking, a pacifist, and Gandhi was not as absolute about non-violence as you might think. But their burning question was how to make something other than war out of powerlessness? Both took this to be a sharply personal question as well as a political one, and while neither ever gave answers that were fully satisfying, I came to feel that their rich domain of thought and feeling was what our legacy lamentably lacked.


WHEN NEWS CAME in of what had happened to the four activists who were taken in by soldiers on Swan Island, several things hit me at once: the captors and the captive were young Australians about the same age, yet they had no relationship other than antithesis. This was especially the case with the soldiers: those they held captive were treated as the enemy. The soldiers took the law into their own hands, or had laws of their own in mind. According to all reports so far, humiliation of the peace activists was their intention.

But there was humiliation for both sides, really. The activists were left with an official inquiry that would calibrate the offences committed against them, while at another level the reality for the young soldiers was a psychological dynamic that was necessarily covert: it involved their inability to accept the humiliating proposition that they were going back to the Middle East, where our forces had experienced a defeat that could not be named. Everything the activists had to say to them (when they were allowed to speak) added up to this: that they, the soldiers, were in denial or ignorant or both, and that their ignorance was historically founded, that they were being, to put it crudely, the mugs of history, which in so many ways most of us are. ‘Man does not reveal himself in his history, he struggles up through it,’ as a line of Tagore’s poetry goes.

In the mirroring waters of Swan Bay, there they were, each side suffering a form of humiliation that seems destined to repeat itself unless it is transfigured.

It is probably too much to ask of young soldiers that they know such things clearly. They have too many other things to learn. But of the peace activists, it’s a different matter. Gandhi’s teachings were designed to instruct. His satyagraha, ‘soul-force’, put a faith in a god-fearing ability for courage in the face of defeat, the better to win a moral battle with one’s enemy. Or to put this another way: battles for peace involved a courage and skill in combat against one’s own cowardice, the better to sustain a human respect for one’s enemy, even in the face of death. How far you take this – one’s willingness to die for peace – soon became the guts of the issue for peacemakers. Gandhi could not coherently resolve it: one only has to recall the optimistic letter he wrote to Herr Hitler in 1939, and of how he thought the English should open the doors to the Nazis rather than take the path of violent resistance, and how the Jews should passively walk into the ovens. Gandhi did, however, think that his compatriots should fight the Japanese. For all his universalism, Gandhi was in the end an Indian pacifist.

Today, more broadly, the forces against pacifist dissent can have the might and ruthlessness of a Hitler – China has no kind face to present to the Tibetans, for instance. Any wonder that the self-immolation of monks is one pacifist stance. At the time of writing, one hundred and forty monks have perished. Who is going to argue against the logic of their actions? Not the Dalai Lama, who praised the monks on ABC’s 7.30 last year: he said they were expressing their anguish at the suffering of others. Their suicides were an act of altruism. He meant also that they were acts of ‘inner-disarmament’.

I can’t help imagining Time’s Arrow in flight over Swan Island. Will the day come when peace activists have to burn themselves to death on the bridge? It is an aberrant thought. But you only have to think of the unspeakable wars we might continue to be in when such acts might make sense.


AUSTRALIA HAS LONG made a cult of defeat at Gallipoli. The battle was even a side battle, a tactical decoy, so in the grand sweep of things the defeat was more humiliating than most. The cult also has its bad objects – the inept British officers, Churchill’s reckless strategic mistake and so on. The depth of humiliation that had to be shrouded has become clearer over the years. It made sense to press humiliation into the bedrock of history, the better to found a legend of warriorship. All of which is the legacy of what our colonised state of mind at the time – our patriotic loyalty to Empire – predetermined: a predisposition for a dignity forged by martyrdom to Empire, rather than a clear grappling with the experience of defeat.

Yet owning up to defeat has the promise of self-respect, if not nobility – spiritually and historically. I was most struck by this when I came upon Tagore’s poem ‘Song of Defeat’. He wrote it in 1916, after his first experience of Japan. As he kept telling his adoring hosts, many of whom received him as the great Poet-Prophet, he arrived as if to a sacred place, given ancient Japan’s Buddhist legacy.

Japan had, alas, since lost its way to militarism, including a racist expansionism – habits of mind and conduct that it had learned from the nation-states in the West. Eloquently, Tagore held forth to large, distinguished audiences. Before long he had his Japanese critics, the most indignant of whom said that he should be dismissed. Here was a man who ignored Japan’s new progress, a man who had no right to such opinions because he came from a ‘ruined country’. By ruined, they meant poor, colonised, without a nation-state of its own.

Tagore could only agree with them. For he could appear weak, he knew that. To think otherwise, the Japanese had to know that a decade earlier he’d been at the forefront of the nationalist struggle in Bengal, and that he had a body of work – several major novels which were profound dissections of nationalist thought and feeling. Tagore had never renounced the Indian cause; rather, he had turned back to his creative work instead of investing his later years in political struggle. He had already renounced the terrorist fringe of India’s nationalist movement.

The Japanese experience would heighten Tagore’s conviction that in India hope lay in the educational efforts of the school he had already started, and the university and agricultural college that were to come soon after he came back from Japan. Meanwhile, his country remained ruined, and the poem he wrote as a response to the Japanese was a subtle, pacifist rejoinder, which served to turn warrior notions of heroism inside out.

My Master had bid me, while I stand by the roadside, to sing the song of Defeat,
for that is the bride whom he woos in secret.
She has put on the dark veil, hiding her face from the crowd,
but the jewel glows on her breast in the dark.
She is forsaken of the day, and God’s night is waiting for her
with its lamps lighted and flowers wet with dew.
She is silent with her eyes downcast; she has left her home behind her,
from her home has come the wailing in the wind.
But the stars are singing the love song of the eternal
to a face sweet with shame and suffering.
The door has been opened in the lonely chamber, the call has sounded,
and the heart of darkness throbs with awe because of the coming tryst.

Here, the Poet-Prophet turns to his Muse, the female presence who solicits an open heart. His strength will come from submission, a form of surrender, a wise passivity. Tagore’s grandeur and courage consisted of knowing such things, which he held to – this is also the point – without losing his capacity for acts of resistance to intolerable humiliations. The latter make an impressive list. Thus, in 1921, after the massacre at Amritsar, he renounced his knighthood; in later years he gave strong yet critical support to Gandhi’s strategic fasts; and, as the Second World War began, he supported Subhas Chandra Bose, the Nationalist movement’s strong man, as the next leader of Congress (instead, Bose would go into exile to lead the Indian army on the side of the Japanese).

By then, too, Tagore had consolidated his thoughts about the aeroplane as the harbinger of atrocity in war. He first flew in a plane on his way to Persia in 1932, as a guest of its modernising king, Reza Shah Pahlavi. It was an experience with physical, metaphysical and moral implications. His progress in the aeroplane, he felt, was ‘not in harmony with the wind’: the voice of the machine was that of ‘a raging beast’, and as it climbed higher it reduced the play of senses so that all the signs that made the earth real were wiped out. Yes, it gave man a ‘seat of divinity in the upper air from which comes light’, but were we up to it? The hold of the earth on the mind and heart was ‘loosened’, and a terrible ‘aloofness’ took its place.

Looking down, he asked a question – ‘Who is kin, who stranger?’ – and he thought: ‘It is a travesty of this teaching of the Gita that the flying machine has raised on high.’ Man was not worthy of its powers akin to the air chariot of Lord Indra.

His fear was: what ‘if in an evil moment man’s cruel history should spread its black wings’? If that happened, he warned:

…if man’s cruel history should invade the realm of divine dreams with its cannibalistic greed and fratricidal ferocity then God’s curse will certainly descend upon us for that hideous desecration and the last curtain will be rung down upon the world of Man for whom God feels ashamed.

This was his message to the Iraq Air Force in 1932. By this time in his life he could often sound like this – an Old Testament prophet and Gandhi rolled into one. What possessed him? Partly it was the Manichean dimensions of the machine itself, any machine. More particularly, he had palpable news of those black wings. In Baghdad, where the British air force had a base, he reported:

Its Christian chaplain informs me that they are engaged in bombing operations on some Sheikh villages. The men, women and children, there done to death, meet their fate by decree of the upper region of British imperialism – which finds it so easy thus to shower death because of its distance from its individual victims.

‘So dim and insignificant do those unskilled in the modern arts of killing appear to those who glory in such skill,’ Tagore remarked.

Tagore knew such things better than most. The Pathans in India’s north-west were bombed in 1915. Four years later, Dacca and Jalalabad were bombed by squadron chief Arthur Harris, the man who would have much to do with the destruction of Europe after 1941. Outside India, the British were bombing natives in Egypt in 1916, in Afghanistan in 1919 and in Egypt again in 1920. In Iraq, before the events of 1923, there had been the landmark attempt to ‘control without occupation’ – a brilliant cost-saving device that put attacks by aeroplane in the place of battalions of soldiers on the ground. In principle, houses, animals and soldiers were supposed to be targets, not the elderly, women and children. Alas. In one air raid there was such wild confusion among the people that, as the official report noted, ‘many of them jumped into a lake, making a good target for the machine guns’.

Winston Churchill expressed concern about shooting women and children taking refuge in a lake. If such details were published, he thought, ‘it would be regarded as most dishonouring to the air force’. Churchill spoke of court-martials for the officers concerned, but this was no more likely to happen than the bombings of Iraq in 1932, the ones of which Tagore spoke, would not happen.

Admittedly, the British did not invent the bombing of civilians from the air. The honours for modernity in war go to Italy, which dropped bombs into an oasis outside Tripoli in 1911 (when NATO forces bombed Libya in 2011, they were marking a centenary that few in the West seemed to notice).

Before long, the British bombing of villages was part of a fully fledged colonial strategy, which included the heightened moral sense now possessed by the British – something of which, perhaps, the British chaplain had even shared with Tagore in 1932. For what distressed the British staff officer Lionel Charlton was what he called, in his official report, ‘the nearest thing to wanton slaughter’. Charlton had no sooner expressed this in writing than another troublesome sheikh had to be dealt with. From three thousand feet, bombs were released on a crowded bazaar. More than twenty women and children lost their lives. In 1924, Charlton was relieved of his post on the grounds of his conscience. His own heartfelt words were installed in the draft of his report to parliament, ‘Note on the Method of Employment of the Air Arm in Iraq’. Charlton expressed his horror at the tactic, and also offered a pitiless analysis of what bombing meant for the warriors who were the enemy.

Where the Arab and the Kurd had just begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could stand bombing…they now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within forty-five minutes a full-sized village (vide attached photos of Kushan-al-Ajaza) can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.

These words were erased from the final report: it held to the notion that the aeroplane was a humane means of controlling ungovernable peoples.

After Persia, Tagore would often tell this story.

The British air force was destroying from the air a Mahsud village in Afghanistan. One of the bombing planes was damaged and came down. An Afghan girl led the airmen into a neighbouring cave, and to protect them, a Malik remained on guard at the entrance of the cave. Forty men with brandished knives rushed forward to attack them, but the Malik dissuaded them. All the time, bombs were dropping from above and people were crowding in to take shelter in the cave. Some Maliks of the neighbourhood and a Mollah proposed to help the Britishers and some of the women offered to feed them. After some time they at last disguised the airmen as Mahsuds and brought them to a safe place.

Tagore’s implication was that there was something more important than the colonial struggle, conceived in narrow political terms: at stake was the depth of our compassion for each other. Tagore’s sense of common humanity transcended the urgency with which even he opposed imperialism. Struggles there must be, but they were struggles that had a spiritual dimension to which he felt we must attend at our cost. Tagore was anti-imperialist to the core, yet one who could see into, at the worst of times, something other than the mirror of combat.


LESS THAN TEN years later, during the saturation bombing of German towns, Churchill was suddenly interrupted one evening, letting words out of his mouth with what his witness called a ‘start’.

‘Are we animals? Are we taking this too far?’

The great leader was screening a film about RAF bombers in action over the Ruhr. England had already bombed Hamburg, almost razing it to the ground. Watching it with him was Richard Casey, the Australian diplomat who would become the Governor of Bengal, a position in which he maintained good relationships with Gandhi. Casey soothed the conscience of the leader, whose spirit exulted in war. Casey reported: ‘I tell him it wasn’t us who had started all this and that this was what it was about: us or them.’

Casey failed to recognise that the word ‘Armageddon’ had long been on Churchill’s lips: ‘Next time the competition may be to kill women and children, and the civil population generally.’


REGARDING THE AEROPLANE and its inevitable implication in crimes of war, Churchill was, in his own way, as prescient as Tagore. As the Allies began to bomb the German cities, it was the British pacifist, Vera Brittain, who put the most potent arguments against the strategies that were seldom questioned outside England. In her early pamphlet, Humiliation with Honour (1942), Brittain had an epigraph by Tagore from the poem that was included in early editions of Nationalism (1917), the essays that set him against the militarism of all nation states.

Be not ashamed, my brothers, to stand before the proud and the powerful
With your white robe of simpleness.
Let your crown be of humility; your freedom the freedom of the soul…
And know that what is huge is not great and pride is not everlasting.

Brittain then offers as lucid a definition of pacifist faith as anybody has given.

Pacifism is nothing other than a belief in the ultimate transcendence of love over power. This belief comes from inward assurance. It is untouched by logic and beyond argument – though there are many arguments both for and against it. And each person’s assurance is individual; his inspiration cannot arise from another’s reasons, nor can its authority be quenched by another’s scepticism.

Brittain was not wanting to echo Gandhi. Nor was she being religious, her ‘spiritual’ insight notwithstanding. Much of her argument in Humiliation with Honour is designed to separate pacifism from sainthood. She grants the whole-hearted Christian’s rights to martyrdom. She appreciates that such suffering can ‘ennoble’ an individual, ‘for its secret is a love that can neither be destroyed nor conquered, whatever penalty it may be called upon to bear’. ‘Not by power, nor by might, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.’ In other words, she is fully in tune with those who would use, ‘like Gandhi in India, only the weapons of the spirit against the powers of darkness, and direct those weapons first against sin in themselves’.

But her stress is not on this course, necessarily. It is rather a compulsion to fortify the dissenter in the polis. She wants to give them brave heart. Good heart. The honour she seeks has much more to do with the wherewithal of pacifists who must resist the temptation to fall into ‘permanent resentment, ingrowing hatred, antisocial conspiracy’. This requires a special civic courage – an ability to throw away any need to be ‘respectable’, for one thing. Self-discipline, for another. Selflessness also. She says to the pacifist: ‘Your road to salvation lies through pain and dishonour, for which there is no competition.’ This path, obviously, still has a Christian overtone, as it calls on the pacifist to be with the ‘outcasts’, the ‘sorrowful and the oppressed’. But the salvation to which Brittain refers is not ‘spiritually’ Christian. It is the salvation of a citizen’s common humanity. It is the path leading away from ‘hatred and vengeance’.

In other words: ‘the humiliation with honour – the honour of self-discipline and of new wisdom wrought out of bitter experience’.

Brittain’s Seeds of Chaos (1944) was her tour de force against the war-makers. Nothing as sustained has ever been published here. It articulates the patriotic and internationalist case against ‘obliteration bombing’. Pacifism could no longer be a force to defeat Hitler, but it could help men and women ‘to keep their heads’ and possibly avoid another and even worse war in the future. If England were to be defeated, it would be ‘humiliation with honour’. Meanwhile one could seek to ‘enlarge the scope of mercy’.

The subtitle of Seeds of Chaos was What Mass Bombing Really Means. ‘So the grim competition goes on, until the mass-murder of civilians becomes part of our policy – a descent into barbarism which we should have contemplated with horror in 1939.’ Brittain hastened to add that most British people did not have firsthand experience of being bombed: if they had they surely would not be party to the leadership’s moral descent. In the bombed parts of London in 1941, a survey showed that 47 per cent of people disapproved of reprisals. The same in Coventry, where British civilians were worst hit. The largest vote in favour of retaliation in kind came from those in the safe areas to the north and west. The United Kingdom had more ‘kindly people’ than the official war effort could afford to admit.

‘Nor do I believe,’ Brittain went on, ‘that the majority of our airmen who are persuaded that mass bombing reduces the period of their peril really want to preserve their own lives by sacrificing German women and babies, any more than our soldiers would want to go into battle using “enemy” mothers and children as a screen.’ But she was not, essentially, addressing those in the heat of battle. She wrote down facts and opinions for citizens struggling to understand the information they had in wartime conditions.

They are given in order that you who may read may realise exactly what the citizens of one Christian country are doing to the men, women and children of another. Only when you know these facts are you in a position to say whether or not you approve. If you do not approve, it is for you to make known your objection – remembering always that it is the infliction of suffering, far more than its endurance, which morally damages the soul of the nation.


TAGORE DIED A few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but everything he thought and wrote anticipated how the war in the Far East could end. Not so much with the tower of skulls that Japan was accumulating with its savage war in China, but with the West’s enactment of technological fanaticism in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After that there was a peace, trials for war crimes, and a refusal by the West to speak of its own crimes even-handedly. Gandhi was, of course, the one who remarked that a peace created by such blood-stained means was hard to imagine. In seeking to make peace, the ends demand consistency with our means.

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