Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War Paul Moorcraft – – review
Pen And Sword, pp.184, £19.99, ISBN: 97817781591536
A strain of hawkish thought maintains that if armies were unencumbered by weak-willed politicians, pinkish concerns with human rights and above all the intrusions of the media they could rapidly snuff out the kind of insurrections that, in reality, needled them for years. In the American experience this line of thinking is wheeled out most often in relation to Vietnam — where television pictures did mould domestic public opinion. In the British case, Northern Ireland, with the controversy over the existence or otherwise of a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy’ is the usual test bed.
In this book Paul Moorcraft, whose career has variously encompassed teaching at Sandhurst and roving war zones as a correspondent, suggests a recent historical juncture as an example of just the kind of sledge-hammer counterinsurgency approach vetoed in Northern Ireland and Vietnam. In 2009 the Sri Lankan government ended, through force of arms, almost three decades of rebellion by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who sought an independent homeland in the north and east of the country.
The denouement played out on Nandikadal lagoon, and the last Tiger enclave came to be known as the ‘Cave’. Moorcraft writes that in Sri Lanka between 2006 and 2009 5,224 security personnel and around 22,000 Tigers died.
The war may have ended only four years ago, but the Sri Lankan experience has already become a kind of Rorschach test for outside observers of very different stripes; it is held up by some as an example of the efficacy of full-on military force, and appals others who believe the government’s approach led to widespread violations of human rights. In a telling fact that Moorcraft does not mention, the Sri Lankan military in 2011 invited delegates from 54 countries to a seminar to explain just how they defeated the Tigers. Human Rights Watch called that junket an attempt to ‘whitewash war crimes’.
Moorcraft’s book generally steers clear of these polarised judgments in favour of a narrative approach, tracing the Tamil uprising from its origins all the way to the Götterdämmerung of May 2009. However, the text, not least through its generally martial tone and slightly hagiographic portrayal of the military leadership, does seem to suggest that there are takeaways from the Sri Lankan experience for armies elsewhere. It quotes an Indian ‘defence expert’ who defines Colombo’s approach in the last years of the war as follows:
Go to hell (Ignore domestic and international criticism)
But keep important neighbours in the loop
Control the media
Complete operational freedom
Promote young and able commanders
The problem with this idea is that, while the crushing of the Tigers in 2009 was a major military victory, it was not the concrete end-point that Moorcraft suggests. Peace has held subsequently in Sri Lanka, but it is maintained by an enormous garrison of government troops in the north (up to 200 per every 1,000 inhabitants) and by the continued presence of senior Tamils in government custody. In contrast to the absolutist title of Moorcraft’s book, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Sri Lankan think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests that as things currently stand 2009 was the end only of the war, not the conflict.
The simmering idea that permeates this book, that ultra-violence is a way, albeit a bloody one, effectively to conquer insurgency, is therefore predicated on a false idea that the Tamil issue is now resolved. The actions of the Sri Lankan state have sowed bitterness. Garrisoning can postpone the outbreak of further violence, but it is unlikely to prevent its fermentation. Moorcraft’s narrative suggests that robust military action can obviate the need for a political settlement to insurrection, when the Sri Lankan experience in reality indicates it can merely delay it.
There is another — stylistic — problem with this book. Military history, for better or worse, now exists in a post-Antony Beevor age. The shadow of Stalingrad is long. Beevor’s innovation, as a former novelist, was narrative panache, moving smoothly from the movements of whole divisions to the individual infantryman’s diary.
Moorcraft likewise attempts a narrative approach but lacks finesse; there are too many acronyms here, too much listing of the calibre of weapons systems and too many clichéd quips (‘a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel,’ ‘they now believed their stars were in the ascendant’). This book is a thorough examination of an important issue, but the tone is pedestrian.
* Courtesy The Spectator. This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 April 2013