“The fault is not in our stars; not in Fate, God or the gods but in us, human beings” ~ (Adapted from Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, Act 1, scene 2, lines 141-2).
The recent furore over the throat-cutting gesture by Brigadier Priyanka Fernando in London aimed at demonstrating Tamils led me to the subject of soldiers in general. That the Brigadier pointed to his army insignia and then made the gesture suggests he believes this is what soldiers do: they kill. The gesture can be understood as a synecdoche standing for different forms of violence, murder included.
The word “soldier” etymologically has its roots in “payment”, and payment is related to “professional”. A soldier is a professional; someone paid to endanger his own life while endangering those of others, be they soldiers or hapless civilians – since language is used both to communicate and to conceal, civilian casualties are referred to a ‘collateral damage’. A soldier is paid to attack or to defend by attacking: the Israeli army is named the Defence Force. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), in his Leviathan famously described human life in nature as short and brutish, there being a propensity in humans to be aggressive; to invade, rob and take possession. That being the case, we need an authority. But authority has no authority without the power of enforcement; in short, without armed men and women. Given human nature, society needs armed personnel ready to carry out orders. (Of course, many of us have no inclination to dispossess and dominate others and, if such negative impulses do arise, we restrain them: contrary to Hobbes, John Locke, 1632-1704, argued that we are rational creatures.
Let me begin by asking why men and women volunteer to join the armed forces, thus placing their lives in jeopardy. Many years ago, when the war against the Tamil Tigers was intense, a Sinhalese friend told me his wife was daily and bitterly blaming him for having allowed both their sons to enlist. But, he explained, when they joined, there was no war: “My sons don’t have qualifications, and the armed forces mean food, shelter and salary.” Thomas Hardy in a poem, ‘The man he killed’, imagines himself to be someone who had joined the army because he was unemployed and poor. Perhaps, the man he had just killed was like him, unemployed and poor. Poverty is a downward spiral: perhaps the man, in desperation, had sold his tools and now without tools, he can’t offer his services as a worker with a skill to sell. Of course, there are other reasons why individuals enlist: patriotism, family influence, an immature attraction to uniform, weapons and parades etc. Nor must one forget idealism and the self-sacrifice that goes with it. For example, individuals from Europe and the USA (Ernest Hemingway; Nobel Prize for Literature) volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Earlier, Lord Byron died (though indirectly) supporting the cause of Greek independence. I don’t cite Sri Lankan examples because some readers are prone to misreading and misunderstanding or, easily excited, focus on trivialities and irrelevancies.
An erstwhile friend of mine, because he was a university graduate, was able to join the army as a trainee-officer but I suppose the majority by far join at the lowest rank and then are hammered into shape as soldiers. It is a tough – one would say brutal – process graphically portrayed in ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (1982). I believe the film is still screened to soldiers in various armies. Why trainee soldiers are bullied and insulted, treated “worse than dirt”, I don’t know but presume it has two reasons: to toughen them up and, secondly, to weed out those who cannot be made sufficiently tough and callous. The armed forces being an instrument of government enforcement, its members cannot be soft-hearted and sensitive. On the contrary, they must be ready and willing to be brutal. They are the creation of the state, are meant to serve the state, and reflect both state and the people in whose name and on whose behalf they act. Brutalised in training, many become brutal and the ‘argument’ of force becomes their main, if not only, answer. Harshness is normality. Bullied by those higher in rank, the lowest have only civilians to bully in turn. Even those who have reached high military rank presumably came through a harsh system and carry its marks. The word “callous” now meaning insensitive and unsympathetic (therefore cruel) is derived from a hardening of the skin through repeated friction. In that sense, a callous is a self-protective mechanism.
Then there’s the element of indoctrination; of building the necessary mind-set. Once having asked a group of students whether it was alright to kill a fellow human being, I asked whether it was alright to kill the enemy. One cannot mistreat, injure, rape or kill so long as others are seen as fully equal human beings. The first step is to change, erase and reclassify the human as the Other or as the enemy. The substitution of the word “enemy” for “human being” does the trick. The US declaration of independence of 1776 solemnly and fervently stated that all human beings are created equal, yet those who drafted that noble, high-sounding, document owned slaves. They did not see a contradiction between their words and their practice; they were not hypocrites: they simply did not see their slaves as fellow human beings. “The Mahavamsa records that King Dutugemunu, having caused the destruction of a great many lives, was concerned he would not attain nirvana. Thereupon, Buddhist monks comforted him, saying he had killed only one and a half men: the one was a Buddhist and the other only on the path to becoming a Buddhist.” The others were but animals (Sarvan, Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Vol 2, pages 25-6). A comrade-in-arms being injured or killed by the enemy creates sorrow and anger. Grief and anger can turn into fury and hatred, in turn leading to the unleashing of gross cruelty. For example, there are reports of American soldiers in Vietnam going berserk; killing prisoners of war and civilians; burning down hamlets. Sun-tzu (BCE 380-316) in his Art of War comments that to glory in war is to glory in destruction and death, misery and sorrow.
I have also pointed out to students that, though we see through our eyes, we really “see” with our minds. It is the mind that determines what we see; how we react and how we treat others. To mistreat, to injure or kill a fellow human being goes against the teaching of all religions but the mind tells us that to humiliate, wound or kill the enemy is meritorious. (Warring armies have been blessed before battle by rival priests praying to the same God!) In fact, the greater the number killed, the greater glory: awards are bestowed, statues erected and plaques set up – even though the “crime” of those at the receiving end of History was that they opposed foreign conquest, occupation and exploitation.
Given the nature and function of the armed forces, certain modes of thought can’t be encouraged; indeed, cannot be permitted. In his poem, ‘The charge of the Light Brigade’, Lord Tennyson writes: “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Sacrificing the rhyme scheme of the Poet Laureate, we could substitute “kill” for “die”. Soldiers shouldn’t pause to reason; they must obey orders and kill. They are indoctrinated; “brainwashed” into believing that right and righteousness are entirely on their side; the enemy totally wrong and evil. Nuance and mental subtlety; an acknowledgement that the enemy may have a modicum of justice, an understanding of reason and cause, cannot be permitted. Like in naïve, simplistic, films and stories, the bad are totally bad; the good purely good. (To help with easy identification, the good character is handsome, while even the laughter of the bad character is unpleasant.) But truth is neither single nor simple but multiple and complex. In the absence of balanced judgement; of granting that the enemy may have something at least of a case on their side, humane treatment is absent. (A student once argued that the word “humane” is a misnomer. Derived from “human”, it implies that human beings are by nature kind and caring.) I repeat: soldiers are the creation of a state and society. They act with the explicit or implicit consent, if not support, of the people. Finally, even if only through indifference, it’s the people who are responsible for the actions of their armed forces. (History shows that even in countries under totalitarian rule there can be populist support for martial actions. Indeed, it’s one way in which such a government distracts attention from fundamental flaws and wins support.) Soldiers do not have their being in a hermetically sealed sphere. In other words, many civilians too are prone to simplistic thinking.
Brigadier Priyanka Fernando momentarily lost control; forgot he was attached to the diplomatic service of the government of Sri Lanka and, provoked, reverted to his deeply ingrained role of soldier. This is in no way to suggest that all soldiers are crude and cruel; are devoid of positives – and not only to their fellow-soldiers and their own folk. An example that comes to mind is of the Duke of Wellington who, seeing the destruction, the human cost, on the battlefield of Waterloo commented that next to the sadness of losing a battle is wining it.
One cannot easily say the Brigadier’s reaction was only because those demonstrating were Tamil. For example, I understand the response of the (Sinhalese) army to the (Sinhalese) JVP uprising was quite vicious. And there have been recent instances of Sinhalese soldiers and policemen falling upon Sinhalese civilians.
I hope it’s clear the above is not about Brigadier Fernando. It’s not an exercise in exculpation but an attempt to understand the incident in a wider context. (Of course, to understand is not necessarily to condone.) The throat-cutting gesture while being no doubt ‘racist’ and arrogant; meant to menace, has a wider and more abstract significance. It returns us to Hobbes; to the need for authority and power, and yet the danger inherent in the latter for, as Lord Acton (1834-1902) observed, power has a tendency to corrupt while “absolute power” (that is, total power) corrupts absolutely. No doubt, there are other, and more perceptive, insights.