28 October, 2020

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War’s End, The Numbers Game And Moral Responsibility

By Robert Siddharthan Perinbanayagam

Prof. R.S.Perinbanayagam

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):

PRINCE HENRY

What’s the matter?

FALSTAFF

What’s the matter! there be four of us here have
ta’en a thousand pound this day morning.

PRINCE HENRY

Where is it, Jack? where is it?

FALSTAFF

Where is it! taken from us it is: a hundred upon
poor four of us.

PRINCE HENRY

What, a hundred, man?

FALSTAFF

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.

PRINCE HENRY

Speak, sirs; how was it?

GADSHILL

We four set upon some dozen–

FALSTAFF

Sixteen  at least, my lord.

GADSHILL

And  bound them.

PETO

No, no, they were not bound.

FALSTAFF

You rogue, they were bound, every man of them; or I
am a Jew else, an Ebrew Jew.

GADSHILL

As we were sharing, some six or seven fresh men set upon us–

FALSTAFF

And unbound the rest, and then come in the other.

PRINCE HENRY

What, fought you with them all?

FALSTAFF

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.

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Latest comments

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    Dear Prof,
    Thanks. “And find the evidence for it.” It was a war without witness. Finding the evidence is very hard. Mannar Bishop has produced some reliable figures. This http://www.warwithoutwitness.com/ has some evidence. Americans and Indians would have some evidence. How to get them? No one was allowed to enter the crime scene and move freely for four years. This is why we need an independent investigation and soon.

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      ‘Mannar Bishop has produced some reliable figures’

      He is hardly an unbiased source. The three Tamil Bishops supported the LTTE and excused their terror.

      I will go further and explain why. The Bishops think of themselves as Tamils first and priests second. In the same way, the BBS think of themselves as Sinhalese first and bhikkhus second.

      Foolish Western reporters place high value on interviews with these priests. They imagine that just because they are priests and have allegience to Rome, they must be unbiased.

      http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=15499

      • 0
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        Please read my comment below. (Anpu – July 22, 2013 12:02 pm)

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    I think the Indian elections were a crucial factor to finish it off quickly.India too would have urged the GOSL to hurry up and that may be the reason India is blocking an international investigation.Nambiar in the UN was working for India in all this and not for the UN at all.

    Ever wondered why the indian elections came at a crucial time like that?

  • 0
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    Hello Prof,

    While you were sleeping for the last 2 or 3 decades the govt of Sri Lanka fed, educated and housed these civilians. There were daily convoys taking essentials to these areas. Given such investment wouldn’t it be rather naive to wantonly kill without reason or care?

    • 0
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      Dear Vibhushana
      The numbers game play a key role at this juncture. The government of Sri Lanka maintained the number of people lived in Vanni during the war as 70,000 despite the Government Agent’s reported over 300,000. Did the Govt of Sri Lanka sent sufficient food, medicine and other basic facilities to meet the requirements of 300,000 or just to meet 70,000? Why the Govt of Sri Lanka maintained 70,000 instead of 300,000. What was the motive? Why the Govt of Sri Lanka kept the war zone out of the reach for journalists and governmental and non governmental organisations?

      I agree with Prof that number game is not important here and we should look into the intentional behaviour of both sides. The intention of Govt of Sri Lanka is well established. The historical evidence of Govt of Sri Lanka’s intentional direct or indirect contribution towards mass scale massacres of Tamil civilians since 1958 has not been changed.

      • 0
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        Hello Ajith,

        I have already done some analysis on this. Please visit here for the conclusion.

        http://vibhushana.blogspot.com.au/2013/03/probably-biggest-hoax-in-history.html

        Thanks a bunch

        • 0
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          Dear Vibhushana,

          You have not answered my question regarding what was the motive of Govt of Sri Lanka maintaining the civilian population remained in Vanni during final stage of the war as 70,000?

    • 0
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      Vibushana:
      I may or may not have been sleeping but you certainly don’t know how to read! I cannot fathom what relevance your comment has to anything I wrote.
      Ah the joys of internet commentary!It allows anyone to mount his own hobby horse and ride it,with neurotic ferocity,without any thought of relevance or a commitment to logic.

      • 0
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        Excellent piece, Prof Perinbanayagam. Yes, the crux of the matter is not how many civilians were killed, but whether they were killed intentionally, or at least by callous disregard for their safety. The reason the numbers game has reached the level of intensity and importance it has, is that those who claim the deaths were deliberate are attempting to show (lacking actual evidence) that the numbers were large enough that they could be nothing but deliberate. Those that argue against such an accusation wish to show that if the vast majority survived (and were allowed to survive), the deaths of the rest could not have been deliberate.

    • 0
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      From DURAIAPPAH to Mullaivaaikaal Who cared .
      Only Few got fatten and Sri Lankan Masses paid from their blood.
      So blood sucking leaches changed,
      and new generation of blood suckers are in control now.

      In Chicken coop There is feeding going on till the slaughter starts.
      and it is the responsibility of the farmer to feed them.

      Same as in a Piggery.
      [not Diyawannaoya Piggery, there they eat our tax money]
      they will feed until the butcher come to kill the pigs.

      so is the Jarapassa governance,

      They, Jarapassa Governance MUST feed the PEOPLE, because they are the blood of innocents from every where.

      they are feeding till the time comes to take revenge / ransoms.

  • 0
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    Thanks. “He is hardly an unbiased source”. Hence we need an independent investigation (http://www.sangam.org/2011/04/Track_Record.pdf.crdownload ) as I said before. I will trust the bishop more than Rajapakses. Regarding the figures Slide 33 of http://transcurrents.com/tc/USTPAC_412_SU.pdf provide some information.

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    Anpu@: “It was a war without witness.” That means there was no one there. No soldiers, no LTTE, no civilians, no cameras, no satellite surveillance, etc. So on one could possibly have died. If the west has produced its holocaust deniers, this statement must be from a war denier.

    The Bishop of Mannar has not produced reliable figures as he has neither proved that the northern secretaries’ figures are reliable and valid, nor has he taken account of the migration of civilians out of the northern region prior to the war’s final stage. What he produced was a an ill-considered statement about “missing people” without any names, bodies, remains or any other sort of credible evidence. Statistics are not people. One trusts he has duly reflected on his unhelpful foolishness.

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      I thought you would be interested in the related articles by MCM Iqbal http://groundviews.org/2010/06/07/mass-graves-nothing-new-to-sri-lanka/ . More from Mr Iqbal at http://groundviews.org/author/mcm-iqbal/

      [GV Editors note: M.C.M. Iqbal was secretary to two of Sri Lanka’s €œtruth commissions”, presidential inquiry panels into the 30,000 or more forced disappearances that took place in the late 1980s and early ’90s in the south, during a dirty war that many believe has yet to run its course. As the South China Morning Post noted in late-2009, Mr. Iqbal knows more than most about the skeletons that are locked away in the government’s closet €“ enough, he says, for him to no longer be safe in his home country.

      We also strongly encourage you to read Still waiting for justice in Sri Lanka and The latest Commission of Inquiry in Sri Lanka: Another Exercise in Deception by the author, published earlier this year, anchored to failed Commissions of Inquiry in Sri Lanka.]

  • 0
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    I know thee(….)old man. The repentant Dutu Gemunu the first was consoled by the Arahats and the Buddhist clergy after the war for the killing of thousands of Tamils but the second received the blessings of the clergy in advance of the massacre of the civilians and hence it is known as the humanitarian operation. As for the wrestling match, it is very doubtful as to whether the rules of the game would have been observed. Bensen

    • 0
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      “I know thee(….)old man”

      I take it that this reference here, from Henry iv(2, is to me.”that I am old, I do confess”

      But I am afraid I don’t know this King who thinks I am Falstaff!

      I hope however,forgetting Shakepeare for the moment,King Bensen will write more clearly about D.Gemenu and the arahats.If I understand any thing at all from his jumbled words, I am constrained to say that he has got this allusion to the incident in the Mahavamsa quite wrong.

      • 0
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        I AM SORRY MR BENSEN FOR THE EARLIER POST. I FINALLY FIGURED OUT YOU ALLUSIONS.

  • 0
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    Just to make it clear to those who may be tempted to undertake simple minded interpretations or inspired misreadings of my essay:Please note the scepticism with which I treat all claims on this issue marked also by the question marks I put at the end of each claim.

  • 0
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    Civilian hostages and photos of even pregnant women digging trenches are all forgotten.

    Tamils forget anything that are disadvantageous to them.

    Just before the war, PRAbhakaran killed vacationing 105 sailors in Dambulla and pabakaran closed Mavil aru and allowed thousands of acres of paddy lands to dry out.

    All that fair game and govt should not put a stop that.

  • 0
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    Rayappu himself is a Tamil born in Tamilnadu. How about Tamil priests transporting Suicide jackets at the end of the wsr because any one else who have caught easily ?

    Do you people talk what is fair and justice or do you people talk what is beneficial to you ?

  • 0
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    dear Robert (Handy)
    I usually do not respond to comments on my observations made herein but in this case in keeping with my deep respect and regard for you I say “thank you” for your kind act of generosity in apologising to your rather hasty comment. Kind regards and all that is best. Bensen

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