Since the end of the war there’s been a great deal of discussion about the number of civilians killed in the last days of the conflict. These discussions, it seems to me, have both the comical and tragic antecedents and both of them illuminating, in one way or another, in their implications. The first example shows how numbers can be distorted to suit one’s heroic claims and the second illustrates how they can be used to further one political purpose another.
The comic antecedent that comes to mind is the way in which Sir John Falstaff kept changing the number of people he and this buddies vanquished when they were attacked by some thieves. Here is the relevant excerpt from Henry IV (1):
What’s the matter?
What’s the matter! there be four of us here have
ta’en a thousand pound this day morning.
Where is it, Jack? where is it?
Where is it! taken from us it is: a hundred upon
poor four of us.
What, a hundred, man?
I am a rogue, if I were not at half-sword with a dozen of them two hours together. I have ‘scaped by miracle. I am eight times thrust through the doublet, four through the hose; my buckler cut through and through; my sword hacked like a hand-saw–ecce signum! I never dealt better since I was a man: all would not do. A plague of all cowards! Let them speak: if they speak more or less than truth, they are villains and the sons of darkness.
Speak, sirs; how was it?
We four set upon some dozen–
Sixteen at least, my lord.
And bound them.
No, no, they were not bound.
You rogue, they were bound, every man of them; or I
am a Jew else, an Ebrew Jew.
As we were sharing, some six or seven fresh men set upon us–
And unbound the rest, and then come in the other.
What, fought you with them all?
All! I know not what you call all; but if I fought not with fifty of them, I am a bunch of radish: if there were not two or three and fifty upon poor old Jack, then am I no two-legged creature.
This excerpt from Shakespeare illustrates clearly that protagonists in one debate or another will play the numbers game to earn admiration and glory for themselves and become heroes in the eyes of their friends and allies—if they can get away with it !In Sri Lanka we have one side claiming heroic status by downplaying the numbers and the other side doing so by “overplaying” them
The tragic antecedent of this debate can be found in the various attempts by the neo-Nazis to deny that the systematic massacre of Jews was conducted by the Third Reich during the course of World War II. Among the many strategies that are used to deny that there was a policy that was aimed to exterminate the Jews of Europe by Hitler and his state is the one that, shall I say, using the current phrase in the Sri Lankan debates, is by playing “the numbers game”. Historians, after studying the events of the relevant period, have come to the conclusion that, “6 million” Jews were exterminated in the various European camps. On the face of it this seems like too convenient a figure. One line of attack against this claim was that 6 million Jews did not live in Germany and the occupied territories at this time. The second line of attack against this claim is that indeed some Jews perished in the camps but they died of disease and malnutrition and 6 miilion Jews were not killed and that there was no systematic policy of sending them to gas chambers. The more definitive of these claims was made in a book entitled, “The Myth of the Six Million” attributed a well-known and dedicated Germanophile called David Leslie Hoggan. He was in fact a historian with a doctorate from Harvard and the author of reputable books before he turned a into a holocaust denier. We, of course, know in Sri Lanka that academic qualifications do not guarantee a commitment to political morality or intellectual probity since so many of them are in the forefront of various racist movements. Hoggan was in fact one of the leading figures in the Holocaust denying movement.
Let us admit, for the sake of argument, that 6 million Jews–obviously too rounded figure, to warrant credibility –were not massacred. Would it be less culpable if only 5,999,999 were so massacred? Would it be less heinous an offense against humanity if only 1 million Jews were exterminated because they were Jews? Would it have been acceptable as civilized political and military conduct if only 100 of them were massacred because they were Jews?
Clearly, the exactitude of the numbers who were subject to systematic and calculated extermination is quite irrelevant. It is that an organized state enunciated the policy of racial exclusion and extermination and carried it through, to some extent or the other,that should be the subject of discussion. On this matter there can be no doubt, the exactitude of the numbers notwithstanding, that Hitler’s state did just that and deserves as much opprobrium as one can visit upon it. And certainly upon those who question it, question it by systematically distorting the evidence and engaging in special pleading.
In the case of the last phase of the war between the Sri Lankan state and the Tigers the exact number of civilians who were killed is not as important as whether many of them were killed wantonly and without any military purpose but rather to exact vengeance and a retribution from the people whose cause the Tigers were espousing. This is in fact the moral issue: whether the rules of war and honorable military conduct in the confusing situation in the field were systematically violated by members of the Sri Lankan Army. Did they deliberately target civilians? If such a thing happened, was it a matter of policy enunciated in Colombo and carried out by the entire army in the field? Or else, was it one rogue regiment who went on the rampage while the rest of the Army behaved as armies do in the field of combat? If in fact a large number of civilians were killed, what responsibility do the Tigers have for this development? Was the death of the civilians caused by the ruthless actions of both the sections of the military and the cyanide-military theories of the Tigers? Can one fight a modern war without civilian casualties? Of course it would have been better for all concerned if the outcome of the war could have been determined by single combat between a Gemunu and an Elara. It certainly would have been more cinematic if we could have arranged a wresting match between a Rajapakse and Prabaharan!
Instead then of debating how many in fact were killed during the last days of the war and poisoning the already toxic waters of the island’s political discourse, with each side producing conflicting numbers, I think the Internet mavens and off the cuff commentators should debate these questions. And find the evidence for it.