Colombo Telegraph

War & History: Sharing Some Thoughts

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

I am neither a military analyst nor a military historian. I have read but little on military matters, and what follows are very much the thoughts of a layman. As a student of Literature, my concern has been with the victims, and not with the so-called makers of History. My sympathy has been with the Trojans and not with the victorious Greeks; with devastated Carthage and not with proud, imperial, Rome; with the Native Americans, and not with the Europeans who dispossessed and decimated them; though not at all an anti-Semite, I am with the Palestinians and not with the bullying Zionists. Isaiah Berlin in his ‘An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History’ observed that “history normally deals with important, political, events. The ‘inner’ events are largely forgotten, yet it is they “that are the most real, the most immediate experience of human beings; they, and only they, are what life, in the last analysis, is made of”. (The main title of Berlin’s essay is The Hedgehog and the Fox.)

To glorify war is to glorify death and destruction; to glorify war is to glorify wounds, both of body and mind; to glorify war is to glory in the inflicting of suffering and sorrow. The victorious Duke of Wellington seeing the carnage on the battlefield of Waterloo said that the next saddest thing to losing a war is winning it. In certain circumstances, war can be a sign of failure: the failure of negotiation and compromise; the failure of reason and justice. Sun-tzu (BCE 380-316) in his Art of War writes that the greatest military victory is one that is won without a battle. Given this attitude, it’s not surprising his treatise is also known as ‘a Book of Life’.

If language arises from the wider (external and internal) reality, that reality can also be conditioned by language. Once, some students were taken aback when I asked them whether it was alright to kill fellow human-beings. I then inquired whether it was good to kill the enemy, and their indignation turned to discomfort. Visiting St Paul’s Cathedral in London, a place of religious worship, one finds monuments to those who had killed natives who were defending their homeland: the greater the massacre, the greater the glory. The change in classification from “human being” to “enemy” licenses violence, and can incite cruelty. By way of example, I cite from the Guardian newspaper (London, 25 December 2015) which describes a hall packed with Jews cheering the death of a Palestinian toddler murdered in an anti-Palestinian ‘hate crime’. The video, filmed at a wedding, shows guests “dancing with guns and firebombs and stabling a picture of Ali Dawabshe who died with his parents in an arson attack on their home”. (One is reminded of Sri Lanka’s Black July,1983.) Yet some at that wedding celebration would probably jump into the water or fire, instinctively, to rescue a toddler who was unknown to them.

It’s now a truism that History is written by the victors. It is “written” not only in books and articles but in films, plays and stories. And in this way a myth is created, propagated, repeated and soon taken to be fact, the total truth. In Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the slogan is: Those who control the present, control the past. Those who control the past, control the future. Writing in ‘Colombo Telegraph’ (14 November 2015), I confessed my chagrin when recalling that, as a child, I had enjoyed what were then known as ‘Red Indian’ (Native American) films. I quote: “They were savages bent on rape and given to the horrible habit of collecting human scalps. They charged wildly at the out-numbered whites who heroically stood their ground and, eventually, won. Hiding the truth, falsifying history and manipulating spectator-response, one didn’t realize that the Native-Americans were fighting for very survival on land which had been theirs for centuries, and of which they were being remorselessly and relentlessly robbed through superior weaponry. Ironically, at the end of such ‘Red Indian’ films one had a sense that right had triumphed.” The story of the Native-Americans, their version of history, was buried and lost. They were a defeated and demoralised people, without access to media and publicity; minor casualties in the march of history and ‘progress’. For recent studies of this crime and tragedy see works such as Madley’s An American Genocide and King’s Blood and Land: the Story of Native America. And the Native Americans are but one example from many.

To triumph in war is also to triumph in the making of History. The word “story” is embedded in the term History. In turn, “story” can imply “fiction” – that which is not true: as it has been said, the first casualty in war is truth. To cite another example, the Western version of history is that Napoleon was defeated not by the Russians but by the vicious winter. However, Dominic Lieven, Professor of Russian Government at the London School of Economics, in his book Russia Against Napoleon, 2009, argues that this version is propagated so as (a) not to damage Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius and (b) take credit away from the Russians. Napoleon and his admirers blame the unusually cold winter for the destruction of his army: “This is mostly nonsense. Only in December, after most of the French army had already perished, did the winter become unusually and ferociously cold” (op. cit., p. 265). “One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that her top leaders out-thought him.” (p. 13) “Alexander and his advisers well understood Napoleon’s aims and tactics. In this as in every other way, they sought to impose on him the kind of war he least wanted to fight” (p. 215). Clausewitz is the author of a standard military-text, On War. When Napoleon compelled Prussia to become an ally, Clausewitz crossed over to Russia and fought with them. The book he subsequently wrote, The Campaign of 1812 in Russia, demonstrates that Napoleon was doomed even as he entered Russia. As I have written elsewhere, history can turn the incredible into the inevitable but when it comes to history (story), most believe what they wish to believe. Versions which contradict or demand modification are either ignored or denied. Simplicity is much preferable to complexity. And so we have the good against the evil; the innocent and brave against the perfidious and cowardly; the decent and honourable against evil terrorists.

Aeschylus (known as the father of Greek tragic drama) and his brother fought the Persians at the battle of Marathon, BCE 490. Though his brother was killed, Aeschylus in his play, ‘The Persians’, shows sympathy for the defeat and suffering of the Persians. Euripides, also a Greek, wrote ‘The Trojan Women’, almost entirely from the Trojan perspective. Hecuba thinks she has seen and suffered the worst that life can bring: her royal husband and her son, Hector, are dead; her city is in flames; and she and the other women wait to be taken over the waters into life-long captivity. But then the victorious Greeks take away and kill her only grandson. (It was also the fate of the youngest son the Tamil Tigers’ leader, a boy last seen being given a sweet: a macabre scene.) All that the old woman can do is to perform perfunctory funeral rites over the beloved little body. The play is a sustained lament, harrowing even to read, let alone watch on stage. And it was written by a Greek about the enemy Trojans! In Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, Anthony, acknowledging the courage and loyalty of Lucilius, orders that the prisoner be shown kindness, regretting that such a man was an enemy and not a friend. The “Dying Gaul”, is a famous statue commissioned by Attalus of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Celtic Galatians in Anatolia The statue depicts a dying Gallic warrior, his shield and sword beside him, but the dying warrior appears to be fighting against death, refusing to surrender to his fate. The statue while celebrating victory also shows the courage of the enemy. There are several such incidents from all parts of the world, examples of where the enemy is accorded some measure of regard, grudging or otherwise: “All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry” and even the enemy soldiers “Could scarce forbear to cheer” (‘Horatius at the Bridge’ by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay). Such regard indicates a certain independence of mind and nobility of spirit but in blessed Sri Lanka, similar behaviour is conspicuous by its absence – on both sides.

Moving specifically to ‘the Paradise Isle’, now that the Tigers have been eliminated, they are made out to have been a formidable force. Why? I quote from my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, p. 85: “It is thought that, at their height, the Tigers perhaps numbered 30,000. Towards the end, down to a few thousand (finally, a few hundred), they faced an army of (again, perhaps) 250,000. The Tigers did not have jets and helicopters. Their mono, propeller, planes were slow and clumsy, and of no real military value. Rejected by foreign governments, the Tigers were as isolated internationally as they were totally surrounded in geographic and military terms. In contrast, the government of Sri Lanka received help and advice from several countries, even from those states in competition with, and suspicious of, each other. The Taliban fight in mountainous, inaccessible, terrain, while the Tigers occupied flat land, albeit forested. Sri Lanka being an island (and the government of the nearest country, India, implacably hostile), the LTTE did not have borders over which they could easily slip, regroup, recover and return to continue the struggle. The wonder is not that the government eventually won but that it took so long for final victory to be achieved” (End of quote). Perhaps, an answer to the “Why?” above is that the more formidable the enemy is made out to be, the greater the victory and success. One safely inflates the threat the (dead) enemy posed in order to lavish greater credit on oneself.

At present, there is much talk about a book (which I haven’t seen) on the war by a retired army general titled The Road to Nandikadal. Individuals in other countries have written with a good degree of objectivity and impartiality of wars in which they participated. But a balanced understanding, including a consideration of successive historical events which culminated in war seems impossible in Sri Lanka, particularly when clouds of “war crimes” and “human-rights abuses” cast ugly and shameful shadows. I would suggest The Total Destruction of the Tamil Tigers: The Rare Victory of Sri Lanka’s Long War by Paul Moorcraft, an outsider. (The book, reviewed by me in Colombo Telegraph, 9 June 2013, is included in my Sri Lanka: Paradise Lost?) Moorcraft states that the Tigers were the architects of their own downfall: see Paradise Lost?, pages 89-90. A very senior officer in the Indian intelligence service, now retired, in a personal message to me wrote: When the Tigers killed Rajiv Gandhi, they also killed any hope they ever had of independence.

It seems to me, a non-specialist, that it is unwise to combine political and military leadership in one person, as was the case with Napoleon and Hitler. By way of contrast, when (dictator) Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, the (democratic) President Bush turned to General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The actual military operation was the responsibility of General Norman Schwarzkopf (“Stormin’ Norman”) who studied the situation, and conveyed his requirements in terms of men and equipment to the political leadership. As I have written elsewhere, if Prabhakaran had read The Art of War by Sun-tzu (also known as Master Sun) he certainly did not profit from it. The Master wrote, inter alia, that a true leader never acts out of anger, revenge or spite. To be fixed is to be temporary; to change, to adapt, is to endure. (Chairman Mao’s tactic – “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue” – is taken from Master Sun.)

I suppose I’ll fall foul of those at the extremes, both Sinhalese and Tamil. But if Tamils do not have the courage and the candor to try to evaluate their past honestly, have they the moral right to criticize others? As I have written above, History is manufactured, preserved and assiduously disseminated by the victors. I hope, very much, that someone with personal experience and detailed knowledge will write an account of the war from a Tamil-Tiger perspective. Then posterity can attempt to put the disparate pieces together, and form their own synthesis; their own understanding of events, events whose significance (and resulting tragedy) for Tamils cannot be exaggerated.

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