Kipling and the “Ungrateful” Iraqis

Matthew Yglesias and other bloggers are chortling at the complaint made by Andy McCarthy that the Iraqis are being “ingrates’ for not appreciating Americans more. Here is what McCarthy wrote in National Review Online:


Thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds have been expended to provide Iraqis the opportunity to live freely. And this despite the facts that (a) the U.S. interest in Iraqi democracy remains tenuous (our interest was the elimination of Saddam’s terror-mongering, weapons-proliferating regime), and (b) Americans were assured, when the nation-building enterprise commenced, that oil-rich Iraq would underwrite our sacrifices on its behalf. Yet, to be blunt, the Iraqis remain ingrates. That stubborn fact complicates everything. 


It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the Iraqis might be “ingrates” (thousands tortured, hundreds of thousands dead, millions turned into refugees).


What worth noting about McCarthy’s idiotic comments is how commonplace they are. Many other conservative pundits have said the same thing. Bill O’Reilly has repeatedly called the Iraqis “ungrateful.” Writing in the Weekly Standard  in 2004, Fred Barnes said that true progress would come in Iraq when the people of that country acknowledged their benefactor: “I’d like to see one other thing in Iraq, an outbreak of gratitude for the greatest act of benevolence one country has ever done for another.”


George W. Bush himself once told the leaders of Iraq that he wants to hear more thanks from them, saying that Iraq needs “someone who’s willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.”


This desire for obsequious expressions of gratitude is a very curious phenomenon. It shows, at the very least, a real inability to understand other cultures, not to say human nature. Even if it were true that America was improving the lot of Iraqis (a highly dubious idea, but one we’ll grant for the sake of argument), it’s common enough for the lowly to resent high-handed efforts at philanthropy.


The old imperialists were much more realistic about the question of gratitude than the neo-imperialists of the current day. Whatever other flaws he had, Kipling didn’t expect Asians and Africans to go on their knees and praise his virtue. Indeed, in “The White Man’s Burden” he accurately noted that resentment was the reward for all efforts at imperial uplift


Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”


Kipling’s view of humanity, based on the idea that good deeds never go unpunished, was dark and reactionary but it was at least more realistic than the childish fantasy of more recent conservatives.

5 thoughts on “Kipling and the “Ungrateful” Iraqis

  1. All too true. I’m reminded of the famous scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the Judean Liberation People’s Front (or whatever) unsuccessfully try to rabble-rouse by invoking the rhetorical question “what have the Romans ever done for us?” — prompting various people in the audience to offer answers like “roads”, “sanitation”, “education”, etc…

    Amusing stuff, sure. But it struck me only very recently how very Kipling-esque Monty Python’s take on this was, the jokes apparently being written for a British audience that still, even in the late 1970s, held certain assumptions about the essentially benevolent “gifts” of empire.

    Life of Brian was released in 1979, the year of Margaret Thatcher’s election. Something in the water?

  2. Yes, the Life of Brian is ultimately very conservative, although also a great film (it’s probably the best movie ever done on the Life of Christ). Richard Grenier once wrote a very interesting analysis of Brian as an example of “Tory Wit”, which ran in Commentary of all places
    (the December 1979 issue).

    Grenier article (if you are a Commentary subscriber) can be found here:

    The movie is basically an attack on all belief systems, including secular hopes for ameloriation. That’s why I’d put it in the Tory nihilism camp.

  3. Tory nihilism? It sounds interesting – off the top of my head I can think of Evelyn Waugh (maybe Tom Wolfe) – do you have any other figures in mind?

  4. Waugh I’d definately say was Tory nihilist, especially in his early (and best) books. Auburn Waugh (the son) is even more of a Tory nihilist. I’d also add David Hume and V.S. Naipaul to the list. Although not really a good writer, John Derbyshire fits the mold.

  5. Not really a big fan of the NRO crowd. Steyn is great, Goldberg isn’t so bad, but the rest of them? It’s like wading through verbal sludge.

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