The eyes stared expressionlessly back at me from the fifteen small pictures, some clear, and some blurred; reflections that only hinted at the men behind those eyes. But sharp or soft, they all looked so innocuous, so devoid of any indication of what they had once seen. So normal. To look into those fifteen pairs of eyes, to read their names on the Wall that held thousands of similar names, was to gain no hint of the impossible acts of bravery that their owners had committed. Acts that would now see them join the eight who had gone before. Twenty-three names for twenty-three men. Twenty-three individual acts of supreme courage, selected out of twenty-eight years of war. The faces were tucked away in the second page of the Sunday Times, and I stared back at them for awhile before reading the short paragraph beneath each. The words were trite, cliched, dry; unable to capture the struggle of courage over fear that must have dominated each man’s last moments; the pain, the heat. And of course, that ultimate singularity, as they stepped forward and died. Alone. That solitude was also what singled them out, along with their courage, for none of them had done what they did as part of a whole, or at the order of someone else. They had each decided alone to do what they did, each for his own reasons.
At this year’s commemoration of the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government decided to award the Parama Weera Vibushanaya, Sri Lanka’s highest award for bravery (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross and the American Medal of Honour) to fifteen members of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces for courage displayed in combat and, almost without exception, conducted in the last two years of the war. Fifteen may not seem like a huge number, but to give you an idea of its significance, consider that since the PWV was established in 1981, it had been awarded only eight times in the twenty-one years that preceded the Cease-Fire Agreement between the GoSL and the Tigers. Therefore, for it to be awarded over a dozen times in two years is an indication of the intensity of the fighting after the CFA collapsed, and the sacrifices needed to destroy the Tigers; particularly in the last year of combat.
The Presidential Proclamation of 1981 that brought the PWV into effect states that the medal is to be awarded for … individual acts of gallantry and conspicuous bravery of the most exceptional order in the face of the enemy, performed voluntarily whilst on active service and with no regard to the risks to his own life and security with the objective of safeguarding thereby, the lives of his comrades or facilitating the operational aim of his force.
The twenty-three recipients of the PWV are all men and, with few exceptions, young. These are not generals or admirals. They didn’t command thousands of subordinates, or carry out great acts of strategy that would be recorded in military textbooks. Usually, they were in charge of less than a dozen men. Sometimes, not even that; being the youngest and most junior soldiers in their units. Only eleven of them, less than half their number, were officers. Twenty of them were soldiers. Two were sailors. And one an airman. Twenty-one were Sinhalese, one a Moor, and one a Tamil. And all of them are dead. In the eighteen years since the PWV was first awarded in 1991, not a single one of its recipients has ever lived to feel that medal’s weight on his chest or test the military code that requires even the Chief of the Defense Staff to salute, without regard to rank, the wearer of that 32-mm wide crimson ribbon. Some died leading attacks that would drive the enemy back to ultimate defeat; but many died in desperate rearguard actions to ensure that their comrades and friends retreated to safety; and at least one to save the life of a politician. As many of them died to save someone as those who died whilst killing the enemy. Continue reading