E. Valentine Daniel, August 2010
Modern warfare, by any measure, is a display of excess; but the excesses just before the end of wars—the excess of inhumanity, indiscriminate use of force, a frenzy of unmatched cruelty, wanton destruction and devastation, blind firepower, unworldly carnage followed by gratuitous torture as well as generalised infliction of pain—exceed everything that comes before. If this was true at the end of the American Civil War and at the end of the Second Battle of the Marne, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Dresden at the end of World War II,then it was also true in the far less infamous 27-year old war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended on 18 May 2009.
Bavinck with Tiger ‘boys”
The bang with which it ended on the streets of the capital city of Colombo was mightier than the bang with which it ended on the battlefield of Mullaitivu; while all the unwilling and frightened children whom the LTTE, at their final hour, had recruited with bravado, didn’t even have a chance to whimper. They were mowed down. It is worth noting that the OED finds that in American slang, in kinship with the Indian hemp, bhang, “bang”, also describes the effect of a hallucinogenic drug, such as cocaine. Such was the victors’ jubilation on the streets of Colombo after the war had ended: other-worldly.
This war was called a “civil war,” which is an oxymoron, a violence of language upon the common Latin root, civilis, from which have issued citizen, civic, civility, civilization. How paradoxical, obscene, wrong and insulting to both savage and beast that the “civilized” (and who would deny that Tamils and Sinhalese belong to a great and old civilization?) choose to qualify their own extreme indulgences in violence as “brutal” or “savage”. In fearsome symmetry, the end of the war resembled its beginning. Once we discount the hundreds of “first causes” of the civil war, hypostasised and hypothesised by hundreds of scholars, politicians, commentators and citizens, we may mark the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war as the 23 July 1983, the day the display of hatred – a spectacle in its own right, a literal flaring up of violence, arson and mayhem, stoked by a government charged with protecting its citizens, which unleashed a pogrom against the Tamil-speaking minority – that swept through the South as an angel of death. The beginning was as grotesquely carnivalesque as the end. But if there was an excess of cruelty during these moments, there were also extreme acts of kindness. There are many accounts of Sinhalese soldiers refusing to shoot to kill, touched to the quick by the law of karma and the Buddhist concept of karunava. Many are the accounts of priests and nuns, at the risk of being fired at from behind, who secreted children, women and the feeble to freedom from the spit of land where they were trapped with the LTTE. Some LTTE cadres themselves, coming to terms with the odds they faced, protected the stealthily escaping trickles of civilians. Why is it so difficult to admit to one’s own enemy’s virtues? The balanced account of Ben Bavinck’s diary forces us to examine this selfcensure Tamils and Sinhalese impose on themselves. Continue reading