7 July, 2022


The Similarities And Differences Between The Vietnam War And The Eelam War

By Ruwan M Jayatunge

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge MD

Nations customarily measure the ‘costs of war’ in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded.” But, “rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual suffering –Richard Gabriel

Vietnam War and the Elam War had many similarities and many differences. However, both represent the horrors of war trauma in the 20th Century. Vietnam War was America’s longest war, spanning the twelve-year period from 1963 to 1975. Of the estimated 2.5 million individuals who served in Vietnam, some 58,000 Americans lost their lives. Another 300,000 were wounded. Vietnam War ended with the defeat of the American forces in Vietnam and the Eelam War was won by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The total defeat of the US forces in Vietnam was somewhat controversial and some have suggested, “the responsibility for the ultimate failure of the war lies not with the men who fought, but with those in Congress. (Vietnam War. Retrieved 2009).

Eelam War was the Asia’s longest arm conflict, which lasted for nearly 30 years. Unlike the Vietnam War, the Eelam War had historical roots with hundreds of years of ethnic rivalry. According to some historians, it dates back to the King Dutugamunu era with the South Indian invasion in 205 BC. The ethnic tensions became so intensified during the British colonial rule (1815 – 1948) that followed the divide and rule policy. The repercussions started to emerge after the independence in 1948. A tension between the government and Tamil militant groups had been looming since the 1970s and developed up to a major arm conflict.

There are many definitions and elucidations on the Sri Lankan conflict. Some view it as a terrorist problem and others give multifarious explanations. Jonathan Spence of the Yale University gives his views on the Sri Lankan conflict thus.

In the past decade, Sri Lanka has been engulfed by political tragedy as successive governments have failed to settle the grievances of the Tamil minority in a way acceptable to the majority Sinhala population-(Sri Lanka: History and the Roots of Conflict – Jonathan Spence )

Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo- Kumari Jayawardhana emphasizes that the history of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is the history of emergence of consciousness among the majority community, the Sinhala, which defined the Sri Lanka society as Sinhala-Buddhist, thus denying its multi-ethnic character. The growth of this consciousness impinged on the minorities in Sri Lanka to the extent that internal resolutions of the problems become impossible. (Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Regional Security – Kumari Jayawardhana )

The Late Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, -Former Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed his views on the Sri Lankan conflict in following manner.

“…The whole problem here is not between the Tamil people and the Sinhala people or the Muslim people. They still live very much in harmony and don’t forget a very large number of Tamil people live in the Western Province and the Central province and elsewhere, they get on perfectly well with their brothers & sisters of other communities. This is not a people’s problem at all. It’s not a civil war… ( Lakshman Kadirgamar, at the BBC’s “Hardtalk)

The Eelam war started with the concept of a separate state that was proposed by the Tamil United Liberation Front or the TULF in 1976. However, before 1976 the Tamil militancy was evolving as secret organizations that were formed by the youth in the North. As a result of series of conspiracies, the Jaffna mayor Mr Alfred Doreappa was assassinated in 1975. The leader of the LTTE, V. Prabhakaran, later proclaimed that he himself killed Mr. Alfred Doreappa.

The LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or the Tamil Tigers – a separatist militant organization that was founded in 1976 played a key role in the Eelam War. The LTTE demand 1/3 of the land territory and 2/3 of the seacoast of the island for the country’s Tamil minority of less than 20%. The FBI described the LTTE as the world’s deadliest terrorist group that had intricate worldwide network.

The Elam War officially started in 1983 with Island wide communal riots. It gave the LTTE manpower and the international recognition. At the beginning,India trained and financed the Tamil militant groups. Among the militant groups, the LTTE became more powerful and efficient as a war machine. The LTTE used most daring war tactics to fight the Sri Lankan armed forces for over three decades. Most of the fighting took place in the North and East But the conflict also penetrated the heart of Sri Lankan society with Tamil Tiger rebels carrying out devastating suicide bombings in Colombo.

When the armed conflict escalated, the LTTE captured a large territory in the North and East of Sri Lanka. By the 2002 cease-fire, the LTTE controlled more than 15,000 sq km of territory and had its own system of taxes, roads and courts.

A large amount of money had been pumped to maintain the Eelam War. According to some reports, the LTTE had an annual income over $300 million. The Tamil Diaspora resides in the Western counties financed the Elam War. In addition, the LTTE used extortions, credit card fraud and drug trafficking to collect money to buy arms. The LTTE had been banned by the U.S, the European Union and several other countries as a terrorist organization. The U.S. State Department placed the LTTE on its terror list in 1997. In a January 2008 report, the Congressional Research Service said the LTTE continues to raise an estimated $ 200 to $ 300 million per year despite recent declines in overseas financing.

The Elam War continued until 2009 with brief ceasefires and by May 2009 LTTE had been militarily annihilated by the Sri Lankan armed forces. More than 100,000 personnel fought against the separatists and were able to declarer victory in May 2009. The LTTE finally admitted defeat on May 17, 2009, with the rebels’ chief of international relations, Selvarasa Pathmanathan stating on the website that “This battle has reached its bitter end … We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer” ( New York Times, May 18, 2009).

Vietnam was a guerrilla war so as the Elam war. The Vietnam conflict wore many faces. It was at once an insurrection by indigenous guerrilla forces and an invasion by the regular army of a neighboring regime. It was a war of snipers and ambushes, booby traps and pitched battles. The location of the fighting ranged from the densely inhabited rice basket of the Mekong Delta to the remote, jungled mountains of the Central Highlands, It included both platoon-level “pacification” efforts aimed at small bands of Vietcong and corps-level operations targeted against main-force North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments and divisions. (US Army in Vietnam by Vincent H. Demma)

There were a few safe areas and the enemy was illusive. In Vietnam, soldiers were exposed to dreadful battle conditions. Likewise, the Sri Lankan soldiers experienced harrowing combat events in the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years. There have been over 25 major operations (1987-2009) conducted against the separatists starting from the Operation Liberation in 1987 to the final combat Battle of Puthukkudiyirippu in May 2009. During these operations, a large numbers of people (combatants / members of the LTTE / civilians) became physically and psychologically wounded.

More than 8.5 million individuals served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Vietnam era, 1964-1973. Approximately 2.8 million served in Southeast Asia. Of the latter number, almost one million saw active combat or were exposed to hostile, life- threatening situations (President’s Commission on Mental Health, 1978). Approximately 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War 15.2 %US Vietnam theater veterans continued to suffer from PTSD (Kulka et al.1990). Overall, in the Vietnam War an estimated 3 million people were killed and over 1 million were wounded.

Prolonged combat environments can create drastic physical and emotional changes in the combatants. Swank and Marchand’s World War II study of US Army combatants on the beaches of Normandy found that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98% of the surviving soldiers had become psychiatric casualties. The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year.

In Vietnam DEROS (date of expected return from oversees) was introduced. Every individual serving in Vietnam knew before leaving the United States when he or she was scheduled to return. The tour lasted 12 months for everyone except the Marines who, known for their one-upmanship, did a 13-month tour. DEROS promised the combatant a way out of the war other than a physical or psychological casualty (Kormos, 1978). Nonetheless, in the Eelam War Sri Lankan soldiers served in the operational areas facing constant hostile attacks sometimes over 12 months. On most occasions, they were exposed to prolonged combat without knowing the date of transfer to non-operational areas or release from the active service. A large parentage of combatants served in the operational areas with uncertainty. There was no Vietnam type DEROS that allowed official release of combat. The desertion rate obviously became higher than the Vietnam War.

Desertion rates in the US Army peaked at 6.3% or that’s 63 per 1,000 soldiers in the World War 2 and during the war, 21,049 soldiers were sentenced for desertion. The desertion rate for the Korean War was 22.5 per 1,000. Approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted during the Vietnam War. A survey by the University of Peradeniya in 2003 indicates that up to 49, 143 Sri Lankan Army personnel including 623 officers have been listed as deserters, amounting to one third of the army’s total strength. In 2003 a general amnesty was given to the deserters by the Defense Ministry and 50,000 army deserters were offered the chance of a legal discharge or to rejoin the army assuming they had deserted within the previous three years and had no criminal record (Harrison, Frances 2003, ‘Amnesty for Sri Lanka deserters’, BBC, 4 March)

In the final stages of the Sri Lankan conflict, nearly 2000,000 military personnel (including the Police) were mobilized and many were in the active combat. The Sri Lankan Army had deployed ground forces comprising thirteen Divisions with 140,000 troops (120,000 active troops).Following the Sri Lankan conflict over 90,000 people lost their lives. The deaths include 27,639 Tamil fighters (according to the rebel sources) , more than 23,327 Sri Lankan soldiers and police officers, 1,155 Indian soldiers, and tens of thousands of civilians. The last phase of the war resulted 280,000 internally displaced persons.

The average age of the World War II combatant was 26 years, the average age of the Vietnam veteran was 19. (some experts challenge Paul Hardcastle ‘s “19 years old and 12,000 miles away”  expression) The average age of the soldiers who fought in the Elam war was 18 – 25. Many of the Vietnam combatants came from the under privileged social layers so as the combatants of the Eelam war. A large number of youth with low education and low-income groups joined the military and their main aims were to build houses or to educate their younger siblings. The most of these young people had never been to the Northern part of the Sri Lanka as civilians. For the first time they went as combat soldiers to fight the enemies.

The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS) was conducted by the U.S. government following a congressional mandate in 1983 to better understand the psychological effect of being in the Vietnam War. Among Vietnam veterans, approximately 15% of men and 9% of women were found to have PTSD at the time of the study. Approximately 30% of men and 27% of women had PTSD at some point in their life following Vietnam. These rates were much higher than those found among non-Vietnam veterans and civilians. The rates are alarming since they indicate that at the time of the study, there were about 479,000 cases of PTSD and 1 million lifetime PTSD cases as a result of the Vietnam War. (Rates of PTSD in Veterans Matthew Tull, PhD).

The Elam war has produced acute and chronic mental health problems due to war trauma. Although there are no extensive, research done to elicit the PTSD rate in the Sri Lankan armed forces based on the rough estimations the PTSD rate could be 8 – 12% (Combat Related PTSD among the Sri Lankan Combatants – Neil Fernando / Ruwan M Jauaunge)

During the Vietnam War and in the post Vietnam era US soldiers had effective psychological support services. Many PTSD research work were initiated after the Vietnam War. Psychiatric evacuations were done effectively when compared to the Eelam War. Unfortunately, psychological support services were not systematically catered to soldiers who fought in the Eelam War. Sri Lankan armed forces had no fully qualified military psychologists throughout the war and most of the psychological ailments were not methodically treated. There were no psychological first aid services at the war front and much attention was paid to the physical wounds. For long years, PTSD was considered as an American illness that had nothing to do with the Sri Lankan combatants. These myths have created a large number of psychological casualties. Still the true numbers are unknown.

The American public did not directly experience the war impact since it was fought 12,000 miles away. The US public experienced the repercussions of war trauma at its end. But the impact of the Eelam war  affected  the Sri Lankan civilian population since its beginning. During these long years of armed conflict in Sri Lanka, civilian communities in the North and the South experienced a collective trauma. There was no safe ground for the civilians in the South due to suicide bombings conducted by the LTTE. The LTTE is responsible for 109 major suicide bombings in which thousands of people died. From 1975 to – 2008, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam assassinated nearly 47 democratically elected politicians.

Both the Vietnam and the Eelam wars represented human tragedies. Although the phenomenon of child soldiers was never a part of the Vietnam War, in the Eelam War it became a heartrending reality. (Following the Vietnam War  when the conflict spread to neighboring Cambodia Pol Pot recruited a large number of children to his Khmer Rouge movement) The LTTE recruited child soldiers despite the international protests. According to a 1996 U.N. report, children as young as 10 were used to kill women and children in remote rural villages,in combat in the 1990s, between 40% and 60% of the dead Tiger fighters in Sri Lanka were children under the age of 18. (2004 Human Rights Watch report)

Demographically, Vietnam veterans comprise only a small minority of America’s largest, most influential generation (Baskir and Strauss, 1978). In this context, the Sri Lankan combatants too play a major role in the society. Many ex Army officers are in the field of politics and in the public service. Even the former commander of the Sri Lanka Army contested in the 2010 Presidential elections.

Unlike the WW 2 veterans, the Vietnam combatants entered the homeland not as heroic victors, but as embarrassed and tired veterans. Although the Sri Lankan veterans were hailed by the society as heroes in the final days of the war, most of the traumatized Sri Lankan veterans are not receiving appropriate rehabilitation and psychosocial support services. This would lead to generate a large amount of stress factors among the combatants. In addition, rehabilitation and social integration of the ex- militants are essential to breakdown the vicious cycle of war. The Sri Lankan society needs resolution, reconciliation and peace-building activities to harmonize the country that was tormented by a prolonged armed conflict.

A number of studies point out that Vietnam veterans subjected to more extensive combat show symptoms that are more problematic during the period of readjustment (Wilson, 1978; Strayer & Ellenhorn, 1975; Kormos, 1978; Shatan, 1978; Figley, 1978b). In the same way, a considerable number of ex servicemen from the Sri Lanka Military might undergo war related readjustment problems and this problem would escalate in the future.

The material costs of the both wars were immense. A Cornell University study placed the over-all total U.S. cost of the Vietnam War at $200 Billion. The cost of the Eelam War was 23 trillion Rupees (According to the statement made by the Deputy Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya in 2010 ) 1 USD = 130.2708 LKR  (The US Dollar Sri Lankan Rupee exchange rate as of November 2012)

The Vietnam War divided the US general public. Some openly criticized the war effort in South East Asia. High-profile opposition to the Vietnam War turned to street protests in an effort to turn U.S. political opinion against the war. Prominent celebrities like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jane Fonda, Muhammad Ali etc openly denounced the Vietnam War. The public outcry was strong and many civil liberty movements seeking social justice backed it. The racial tension became intense and the Vietnam War was overtly called as the white man’s war. (86% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasians, 12.5% were African American, 1.2% were other races. -CACF and Westmoreland papers).

Although some NGOs conducted protests against the Eelam War, it did not make a huge impact on the public. People believed most of the NGOs that were funded by foreign sources were a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, as well as to the national security. Most of the protests that were carried out against the war were biased and showed the one-sided picture. Such protests condemned the attacks carried out by the Government forces but did not highlight the atrocities committed by the LTTE. Some antiwar protests were funded by the pro LTTE organizations and people have lost faith in numerous anti war demonstrations.

Many people questioned the hidden motives of such NGO s and their true agenda. Therefore, people became silent observers. Only a very few spoke for the sake humanity underlining the dark side of the war and the human tragedy beneath it. But they were called traitors by the ultra nationalists and their voices were unheard. There was no effective public protest against the war in the South or in the North during the 30-year war in Sri Lanka.

With the end of direct American troop involvement in Vietnam in 1973, the number of veterans, presenting neuropsychiatric disorders began to increase tremendously (President’s Commission on Mental Health 1978). The Vietnam War teaches many lessons. The Korean War had produced lesser amount of psychological casualties when compared to the Vietnam War due to the work of Dr. Albert Glass who pioneered psychological mode of management of the war-affected combatants. Unfortunately, his recommendations were not taken in to considerations during the Vietnam War and the Veterans and the American society paid an immense prize. Sri Lankan society will defiantly face the challenges of combat stress and the Islanders have already started experiencing some bitter lessons in the post war era.

The psychological damage caused by the Eelam War is greater than the Vietnam War. As Daya Somasundaram Clinical Associate Professor in Psychiatry University of Adelaide, points out the long-running armed conflict in Sri Lanka caused more mental health problems and social breakdown than the catastrophic 2004 tsunami.

Due to two decades of armed conflict in Sri Lanka, victims of terror have been profoundly affected psychologically and socially. The impact is seen at the individual, family, and community levels. Epidemiological surveys show that civilians have experienced widespread traumatization, with high levels of somatization, anxiety, depression, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), relationship problems, and alcohol abuse. At the community level, the cumulative effect of terror is collective trauma, with a general tendency to mistrust, dependence, silence, withdrawal, passivity, and lack of motivation. Socially, there is evidence of deterioration in values and ethics with marked increases in child abuse, violence against women, crime, and brutalization. (Short- and Long-Term Effects on the Victims of Terror in Sri Lanka- Daya Somasundaram )

The repercussions of combat trauma will definitely affect the Sri Lankan society as the Vietnam syndrome affected the American society. The Vietnam War was an imported war to America. It never occurred on the American soil. But the Elam war took place on the Sri Lankan soil and psychological devastation is larger than the Vietnam War. The health authorities, government policy makers, the political hierarchy must realize this impending danger and must take preventive measures to minimize the psychosocial damage of the Eelam War.

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    “The Sri Lankan society needs resolution, reconciliation and peace-building activities to harmonize the country that was tormented by a prolonged armed conflict”. Is it possible to bring harmonization after decades of war with the current government, which is ignorant and enjoys treating the Tamils as second class citizens? The systamatic division imposed by the British, then the genuine freedom struggles hijacked by the Indians for their own interests. The Tamils and Sinhalese have gong through indescribable agony, pain and hatred for decades. Would those wounds ever heal?

    On the other hand, I have seen the Tamils’ divisions. The battles among the Tamil armed groups, the disagreements among the Tamil political parties, TGTE, Tamil world congress etc. Would they ever unite as one? It appears to me that the Tamils have no way out whether they choose to go with the Sri Lankan government or decided to have their own country. I believe the Tamils have caused most of the damages to themselves to be in this situation, surely the Indians, Westerners and Sinhalese may have caused some damages. I believe the Tamils have to take responsibility to help themselves, rather than waiting for the Indians, Rajapaksa brothers and the world to come and help them.

    “The psychological damage caused by the Eelam War is greater than the Vietnam War. As Daya Somasundaram Clinical Associate Professor in Psychiatry University of Adelaide, points out the long-running armed conflict in Sri Lanka caused more mental health problems and social breakdown than the catastrophic 2004 tsunami”. It i very true. I have left Jaffna, Sri Lanka in 1988, but visited in 1999 and 2012. The people are not the same as I have known in the 80’s and 90’s. The psychological damage is huge, but the government is not doing enough to address the problem. The Sri Lankan government is enjoying humiliating the Tamils rather than addressing the psychological damage.

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