Reading “Road to Nandikadal” –- Lalin Fernando

Retd Major-General Lalin Fernando, in The Island and Asian Tribune … with emphasis ivia highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

“Great Commanders have mostly been dull writers. Rommel was a born writer as well as a born fighter. The impact that he made on the world with the sword will be deepened by his power with the pen”. (The Rommel Papers- Capt Liddell Hart)….. Major General Kamal Gunaratne ‘s ‘Road to Nandikadal’ is the most comprehensive, credible, incisive, riveting and objective book in English on the entire 26 year old conflict in SL. (It is also available thankfully in Sinhalese and a copy in Tamil would be welcome too). It is the inside story of one who fought the war from its inception to the end and gives an impeccable account of the conflict that took 100,000 lives. While the actions are fast moving and his blunt opinions of various people are delightful, it is the thinking side that is the book’s real value. Frank, with no false modesty but with compelling confidence, what impresses is its highly personal tone. It also describes the many lessons learned which almost all SL political leaders have yet to understand or concede. It is a trail blazing contribution to SL’s Military History.

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It is a book for all citizens of SL from school children to adults and a must read for all officers of the three forces, military academies, staff colleges and all regiments of the army

There are controversial and delicious anecdotes that fascinate in a fairly lengthy book. It covers in flowing detail the battles fought without missing a step or a beat. It also gives deep insights into the background, minds and impact of the Commanders who were responsible for defeat and victory, shame and glory. There is blunt honesty and pent up anger that carries with it vulnerability but it is moderated by genuine respect for his superiors reverentially and repeatedly proclaimed. It hasn’t spared the politicians who started the war, knew not what to do thence and embraced appeasement at any cost as a panacea. They had gambled recklessly with the future of SL for over 30 years

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It is much about the poor unsung infantryman who bore the brunt of the casualties. They were mostly from desperately poor families who joined the Army not out of any sense of adventure or glory but to support their parents and siblings and went on to serve with great courage, loyalty, comradeship selflessness and determination against fearful odds putting to shame even some of their officers.

Gen Gunaratne’s emotions spill over when recalling the last moments of many of his men who until the last did their duty by their comrades for regiment and country, without question. One 18 year old fell on him and died. At the end he tells of a soldier collecting blood soaked sand by Prabakaran’s body. When observed and shouted at, he responded” Sir, do you know I had three elder brothers in the Army… he killed all of them. My father and mother are still alive. Sir, I took the blood to go and show my parents I took revenge for the deaths of my brothers”. The soldier then took the blood soaked bag and disappeared into the crowd. All politicians and many Colombians who were sleeping snugly for 26 years while these village lads were dying all over the North and East, doing their duty by their country, should read this book to understand how much our soldiers endured, in what harrowing circumstances thousands died and why their bodies could not be recovered and how very empty were the politicians’ calls for peace. They were exchanged for thousands of soldiers’ lives and limbs.

If the presence at the book launch of hundreds of Buddhists priests, the wives of many dead war heroes including Lali Kobbekaduwa and Manel Wimalaratne, former military Commanders, the war winning Divisional, Brigade and Battalion commanders and the former C in C, meant anything at the over flowing spacious Kularatne Hall of the premier Buddhist school Ananda, it was that this was a defining national moment. SL is under Western siege where the country’s war heroes face criminal charges while the terrorists they defeated at great cost in life do not.

It is also the first book by the exceptional battle winning commanders who began their military careers at the very inception of the war at the bayonet end. They endured, without flinching, the tribulations of unplanned and shockingly bad led war, disasters, disappointments and when the whole world seemed to be falling, savoured final victory after 26 years. They had been seriously if not critically wounded, left for dead and yet returned to battle but never questioned their belief, in eventual victory. It will certainly inspire other Commanders and maybe soldiers too, to write up their memoires for the sake of the Nation’s history and to protect its future.

The over 6 foot craggy, lean Maj Gen Gunaratne who carries a piece of shrapnel embedded within millimeters from his heart during the battle at Silavatura (1991) among other wounds, was in battle from subaltern to General for the entire duration of the 26 years old conflict. He was in a unique position to convey the true face of this war from beginning to end. He has been a dynamic leader and a great General, a soldier’s general.

In common with equally resolute and brave officers and soldiers who joined the Army post 1980, he and they were the hope of the future and they delivered. They had seen the good and the bad, the evil and the cowardly, the selfish and the dishonest in military and political leadership and faced gross insults from politicians. They were determined that whatever happened they would not yield to terror. They had inspired the nation at its darkest moments by their courage and dedicated leadership. They brought final victory that not only their compatriots but militaries the world over had thought improbable. This book is a tribute to them.

Gen Gunaratne was from the Gajaba Regiment reputedly the steadiest infantry regiment. (With the other Infantry regiments, SL Light Infantry, Sinha, Gemunu Watch and Vijayaba Infantry they had 79% of the casualties and together with the Commandos, Special Forces and National Guard they had about 89% of the Army total of 23,403 killed and missing, presumed dead).

It is the most factual history of the war to date. It records accurately and comments professionally on all the most important events and battles of the conflict. The enemy’s mistake was to switch from guerilla /terrorist to conventional warfare. They were up against a rejuvenated, extremely well equipped and brilliantly commanded Army, Navy and Air Force that finally won a just war under an obdurate national leader who never wavered.

It may embarrass some who repeated crucial if not stupid mistakes, committed treasonable acts and those military commanders who were adapt at taking counsel not only of their fears but also of politicians including vote stuffing at elections, were derelict, reckless with the lives of the soldiers, negligent, dishonest and totally unsuited to hold high command. They subscribed if not initiated the cry that victory was impossible, were involved with manipulating huge contracts for weapons and rations and paying with the soldiers lives. This was all to accommodate a terrorist megalomaniac who had no interest in peace. It is extremely well researched. It covers unknown gory and painful details of battles (Muhumalai and Mankulam for example) that except for this book may have hidden or forgotten for posterity.

It will be welcomed by those who having often been isolated and surrounded, taking casualties in the Wanni jungles and elsewhere, given up as expendable by their inept commanders, survived, turned tables and then like their loved ones prayed the truth of those terrible dark times would out.

The book is dedicated to all those who bore the burden of the war and made the supreme sacrifice, from military comrades to parents who readily gave their children to fight for what they believed was just and all citizens who silently suffered the agonies of this protracted war. It does not attempt to hide the evils that were committed by all concerned from what caused the war to what happened in battle. It gives a gripping account of all the major battles in the North and the East, factually with tremendous insight.

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The thread that runs right through is that his colleagues and soldiers knew well that there would be no peace with the terrorists. Peace talks and cessation of hostilities meant terrorist gains at great cost in life totaling 100,000 when hostilities were resumed without warning –xfour times in all. Humiliation from a deadly combination of misled political theorists, failed novices in statecraft, opportunists and effete military high command was their daily bread. If there are only a few compliments to a handful of politicians in the book, few would grieve.

Having been decorated with the second highest gallantry award (WWV) among others, having the very highest professional qualifications, having fought in gruelling battles from North to East, and also unusually obtained a MPhil, Gen Gunaratne has now produced, hopefully for SL, a game changing book in peace. It was Gen Guneratne’s 53 division troops that finally got the corpulent, unwavering, rigid, genocidal, bestial leader Prabhakaran. It signaled the end of what was called an unceasing war.

This book is an eye opener to many who saw the war as portrayed by the West guided by tens of thousands of overseas Tamil extremists with huge funds, crucial as voters as well. The belief in a peaceful settlement however attractive was illusory, deceitful and improbable. The prolonged agony of the nation was settled sadly by force as there was no other way to bring peace to the country. Gen Guneratne is however under no delusion that the peace, while complete, may not be challenged in the future.

His strong personal belief in traditional Sinhalese Buddhist values, runs through the book, befitting his ancestry and proud Ananda College background that produced so many excellent military leaders among many others famed in every field. It gives heart to all good men. Some of it may however draw criticism from those who failed or did wrong.

The book has no maps and copies of operation orders to please students of military history. One would believe this is by design. These will no doubt come in the next edition when restrictions are lifted. No such inhibitions affected books authored abroad as SL born Australians Michael Roberts and Sergei de Silva would admit. Already erratic missiles of what constitutes ‘military secrets’ have been fired though so much is already in the public domain. There are many carefully selected photographs of the conflict, the host of intrepid commanders, the terrorists and except for two significant omissions, the politicians concerned. It could however have been better edited so that for instance Kayts and Kargil (in India) were spelled correctly. It pointedly ignores SL’s politically self inflicted injury at Geneva. Who can deny that there are only two options in the attack-capture or destroy- the enemy. If the open battlefield, and this was not a town, city or village, is also occupied by camp followers defying all rescue attempts, who is responsible for their deaths together with the enemy after 26 years of terror?

Paraphrasing and quoting from Field Marshal Rommel’s memoires, it may be said that no commander in SL “has yet written an account of the campaigns he fought in to match the vividness and value” of Gen Gunaratne’s. No other SL General “has provided such a graphic picture of his operations and method of command. An outstanding work…… it will spoil the subject for historians who will try later. He is a soldier who can reconstruct battles as brilliantly as he fought them”.

Nations are founded on the deaths of its soldiers (New York Times)

 

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3 Comments

Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, Buddhism, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, Rajapaksa regime, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil Tiger fighters, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, war reportage, world events & processes

3 responses to “Reading “Road to Nandikadal” –- Lalin Fernando

  1. Dickie Bird.

    Brilliant.
    Thank You Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne.
    I am astonished of your learnedness to read you have a MPhil.

    YOU ARE INDEED A ROLE MODEL FOR THE SERVICEMEN OF TODAY.
    No kalaveddah’s in your account. Straight off from your strong head.

    Strong must do what they can AND Prevent the weak suffer what they must.
    Sri Lanka does not need Rommels. We need KAMALS.

  2. Asanka

    Great Maj.Gen Please let us know how we can buy this book

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