You said I could preach Ahimsa after the war was over.
So I did as you asked.
I killed them all
For your Dharmishta Society.
Where is the Ahimsa
Unfortunately, much of history is written by journalists. And Gota’s War is no different. If you’re looking for a military history of Sri Lanka’s war, this is not the book for you. In fact, that book has yet to be written. CA Chandraprema looks at the conflict through the lens of the media — the incidents and events that drew the newspaperman’s eye; albeit a rather right-of-centre Sinhalese nationalist newspaperman. Make no mistake, this is an important book; if for no other reason than that it is the first since the end of the war to cover the conflict in its entirety.
Chandraprema’s use of Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s truncated name in the title, and the description, The Crushing of Tamil Tiger Terrorism in Sri Lanka, is slightly misleading, giving the impression that the book is simply about the Defense Secretary’s role in the final few years of the war. In fact, what Chandraprema does is to use Gotabhaya as both a counterpoint and a parallel to the narrative, particularly in the early stages of the war, when Gotabhaya was a young SL Army officer. Gota’s War is both history and biography, but it is not a natural coupling, and Chandraprema’s attempt to do both in one piece, cripples the scope of the book as a historical work.
In order to keep Gotabhaya central to the narrative, Chandraprema is forced to keep the trench-level view of the war narrow, while looking at some events – the JVP uprisings, the political infighting between the Rajapakses and their opponents – with a detail that is superfluous to the war against the Tamil separatists. Naturally, because of this, the early military confrontations between the Armed Forces and the separatists is confined to descriptions of operations carried out by the Gajaba Regiment, the unit Gotabhaya served most of his military career with. Similarly, this focus on Gotabhaya naturally prevents him examining some of the other influential characters that a true history should have. This is particularly clear in the almost non-existence of Gen Sarath Fonseka in Gota’s War. When he does make a rare appearance, he is depicted, at best, to be a rather passive figure and, often, as a hindrance to the dynamic and practical defense secretary. Fonseka, in Chandraprema’s view, is a Montgomery to Gotabhaya’s Patton, plodding and rigid, petty and selfish. In this, the author has done both Fonseka and his book a great disservice, and is akin to writing the history of the Second World War and leaving out Eisenhower or MacArthur. Similarly, many of the other military officers examined – senior to Gotabhaya the soldier and subordinate to Gotabhaya the defense secretary – are largely those who had the most influence on him. While this is acceptable in a biography, it is certainly not in a history.
The converse of this is that Gotabhaya often disappears from the narrative for long periods, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when his character isn’t central to events. We have very little indication of Gotabhaya’s personality, or the motivations that drove him; almost nothing of Gotabhaya Rajapakse the man; beyond the most superficial of sketches. This too is a deep flaw in Chandraprema’s book. At the end of Gota’s War, we know hardly more of the defense secretary than we knew at the beginning.
Chandraprema has also come under criticism, both from within the SL Army and without, for playing favourites in his book; for focusing on the feats of certain military officers, unfairly criticizing others, and completely ignoring still others. I will not dwell on this because every author has his own slant and viewpoint, and is entitled to it. To examine motive would be to review CA Chandraprema rather than his writing, and that is not the point of this article. I have mentioned the treatment of Fonseka simply because it is so glaring and obvious a failing.
One thing Chandraprema can be certainly complimented on is his writing style. Gota’s War is 504 pages long, and looks rather daunting when first picked up. However, it is very readable even if you’re not a history buff. The prose is smooth and conversational, the chapters no more than half a dozen pages in length, as fast paced as a novel, and devoid of the stuffiness, cliché, and archaic language many Sri Lankan authors of histories and memoirs feel obliged to write in. Chandraprema even manages to infuse a certain amount of sardonic humour to his writing. The book is solidly bound, and the cover is attractive, if rather unimaginative. The book could do with some better maps, however, in place of the hand-drawn ones at the back, which give no indication of the frontlines, the Tiger- and government-held areas, or the direction of offensives described by Chandraprema. Continue reading
Use & Misuse of Special Forces in Sri Lanka — Does the SL Army Need to Rethink its Special Operations Doctrine?
One of the more interesting presentations at the recently concluded seminar, titled Defeating Terrorism: the Sri Lankan Experience, organised by the MoD and the SL Army, was done by Brig Nirmal Dharmaratne, the Special Forces Brigade commander, on the use of special operations forces in the defeat of the LTTE. The Sunday Times ran an excerpt of the paper on June 5th.
As with most of the seminar’s presentations, this too concentrated on the SL Army’s experience rather than that of the defence forces as a whole, and Brig Dharmaratne stuck to outlining the contribution of the SL Army’s two special operations units — the Commandos and the Special Forces, running through their missions and the tactics and strategies employed against the Tigers.
Although both the Commandos and the Special Forces were originally raised with very distinct and individual missions in mind, Brig Dharmaratne’s presentation seems to indicate that both formations were used in mutually interchangeable roles ranging from strategic deep penetration missions to direct infantry assaults on Tiger strongpoints. Therefore, I too am going to simply look at both these elite units together, examining the roles they were used in both in the North and East, before examining them individually and comparing them to similar foreign special operations units and their roles.
Before I do that, let’s take a quick look at the original missions these formations were raised to conduct. When the Commando Regiment was raised back in 1980, the SL Army was a totally different organisation from the one we see today, and more importantly, so were the Tamil militants. The SL army numbered around 10,000 troops, and the terrorists a tenth of that. The soldiers carried unweildy British rifles and obsolete submachine-guns, with little or no armour, artillery or air support. The terrorists were armed with little better than pistols and submachine-guns and rode around on bicycles.
The Commandos were formed as a direct action and counter-terror force, tasked with raiding terrorist bases deep in the jungle that could not be reached by regular infantry units. It was also envisaged that the Commandos would be the dedicated hostage rescue team in the event of a hostage crisis, regardless of whether it happened within the theater of military operations or not. For this purpose, the Commandos were initially trained by former members of the British Special Air Service (SAS), and the Commandos’ role was more or less that which the SAS had had been tasked with during WW2 and in the ’50s and ’60s in Oman, Malaya, and Borneo; basically small unit raids that could not be conducted by larger formations such as the British Commandos and Chindits.
The Special Forces were raised in 1985, and clearly a different role was planned for them that was distinct from the ranger/raider-oriented mission of the Commandos. This was articulated as unconventional warfare operations in both urban and remote rural environments. This was a role closer to that of the US Special Forces, and one which the SAS too had adapted to; that of fighting as guerrillas, saboteurs, and in fact “terrorists”. In WW2, this role had mostly been undertaken by civilian organisations such as the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), mostly because there were no military units trained or ready to carry out such missions. By the ’60s, however, the fledgling US Special Forces and the reinstituted SAS had taken on this role.
In spite of the fact that both the Commandos and Special Forces had seemingly distinct and separate roles to each other, the leadership of both formations ambitiously expanded their roles in the early ’90s, competing with each other for MoD budget allocations, until by the end of the 20th century, both formations were virtually indistinguishable from each other when it came to mission role. The Special Forces had even usurped the SL Navy Special Boat Squadron’s amphibious specialisation, eventually relegating that unit to a support role, much as the Commandos had once done to the SL Air Force’s special operations unit which specialised in air mobility. Both units were running long range sabotage and assassination missions, strategic and tactical reconnaissance, training indigenous units like the National Guard Battalions and the Civil Defence Force, maintaining a hostage rescue capability, and operating with former separatist organisations like the Karuna Group and the EPRLF. They were also often misused as shock troops when regular infantry units were unable to overcome Tiger defences, and this often resulted in heavy casualties among these elite troops. This latter role was very similar to that carried out by the US Ranger Regiments in WW2. As Eelam War IV approached, both the Commandos and Special Forces, either by necessity or ambition, were covering every aspect of infantry warfare, both conventional and unconventional. Continue reading
Was tagged by the End on this Five Words About the SL Situ that RD started. I can’t really put my thoughts into five words. It’s a bit too complex for that. At least for me. So instead, I’ll give you five pictures. You can attach whatever words you think suit them.
When a war ends, it is a time for rebuilding, and a time for reflection, both for the victorious and the defeated. A time to take stock of what has been won and lost in terms of economy, life, opportunity, and even culture. The effect of the 25-year war on the psyche of the population is obviously noticeable; a general aversion towards long-term plans, a breakdown of respect for law and order, and lately, refuge in a newfound nationalism.
Is this also apparent among Sri Lanka’s creative thinkers — the writers, film makers, and artists? Wars often spark a surge in creativity, a catharsis that often invades popular culture and occasionally reaches an audience untouched by the original war and its passions. The films, books, and music that retold the Vietnam War created emotions for a global generation that hadn’t even been born in the ’60s. Sri Lankan culture certainly hasn’t a comparable reach, but what is interesting is that such an influence is hardly noticeable even within the country.
There have only been two mainstream Sinhalese “war” films on the subject — both directed by, and starring, the late Gamini Fonseka. Both depicted a popularized (if naive) view of the war, and were extremely successful locally. The nineties saw some Sinhalese movies dealing with the war; art house productions that received mixed reactions from Sri Lankan audiences. Some, by directors such as Prasanna Vithanage and Cannes Film Festival winner Vimukthi Jayasundara, have been banned for content that was seen as either culturally objectionable, critical of the armed forces, or just generally unpatriotic. Continue reading
The house smelled damp as he walked in. She was in the bedroom, reading. Though it was getting dark, she was still wearing the tinted, rimless, Bolle glasses. She had a pretty, sharp-featured face and was wearing a short cotton skirt and a sleeveless linen blouse. Everything about her – the tasteful, expensive clothes, her calm dark eyes, shaded by the glasses, her slow quiet voice and easy logic – reflected a life in which there had always been enough money and time and room to move away from anything unpleasant. She had spent three months of the previous year in Cambodia and Laos, where a Montagnard shaman had read her aura.
“You will always have young lovers,” the shaman had told her.
A month after he had left the Army, they had decided to move in together and had rented the house by the beach in Wadduwa three weeks ago, at the beginning of December. Now it was the 31st — New Year’s eve.
The money he had saved in the Army was gone. He had drunk it up, given it away, spent it on taxis and trishaws. The house in Wadduwa had been good at first. He had been glad to be away from Colombo, where there was too much noise, too many people who didn’t pay attention, who talked too much and got in the way. In Colombo, he had provoked fights with strangers whose faces he couldn’t remember, and found himself sobering up in a bus or trishaw, trying to remember what he had done. He would finger the cuts on his faces or suck his skinned knuckles, and try to remember, bruised and hungover. When it did come back to him, he would try to forget again, glad to have got away and not be in jail. Two assault charges, one in the Fort, and the other in Mount Lavinia, were gathering dust in the inactive files of the two police stations, the ‘Suspect Information’ boxes empty except for the words “Male, 5’7″, 150-lbs, blk hair, dk t-shirt, blu jeans”. Another box on the forms queried ‘Weapons/force used’, and was filled in, “Hands & feet”. Continue reading
Long as I remember, the rain’s been coming down
Clouds of mystery pouring confusion on the ground
Good men through the ages trying to find the sun
And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?
I went down to Virginia, seeking shelter from the storm
Caught up in a fable, I watched the towers grow
Five-year plans and new deals wrapped in golden chains
And I wonder, still i wonder, who’ll stop the rain?
Heard the singers playing, how we cheered for more
The crowd rushed together, trying to keep warm
Still the rain kept pouring, falling on my ears
And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain?
— Creedence Clearwater Revival Continue reading
A page from a sniper’s logbook.
It’s easy. You just lead them a little less. It’s an old joke, born in the Vietnam War, and first recorded by Michael Herr, though Kubrick made it famous with his portrait of the crazed US Marine door gunner in Full Metal Jacket. In layspeak, a shooter “leads” a running figure so that he’s aiming at where the target will be when the bullet reaches it. Women and children run slower than an adult male.
It’s not so funny anymore though, when we’re fighting a war in which the uniformed enemy often is a woman or a child. Earlier this week, a US military court sentenced Sgt Evan Vela, a 24-year-old Army sniper, to ten years imprisonment for killing an Iraqi civilian. Funnily/sadly, the reason he was convicted was because he lied about planting a weapon on the dead man. The Iraqi and his teenaged son stumbled into a sniper ‘hide’, where Vela and his team were sleeping. The Americans took them prisoner, and later killed the father (it’s claimed he tried to warn some passing insurgent suspects of the American position) after releasing his son. They then planted a rifle on the body and claimed he was an insurgent. If they had killed the two Iraqis immediately, probably nothing would have happened, as it would have been passed off as a simple case of mistaken identity. Sad, but an inevitable part of a dirty war. Continue reading
The Claymore directional fragmentation mine seems to have captured everyone’s imagination lately as a sort of all-purpose magic weapon. We’ve seen it accused of the attempted assassination of Gota Rajapakse, the attempted bus bombing in Pettah, the Hotel Nippon bombing in Slave Island last week, as well as the Col Charles assassination yesterday (6th January). Google Grenadiers and other armchair warriors wax eloquoent about the mine’s magical capabilities, extolling it as the perfect way to Win The War — the Hind gunship, long-range sniper, and the LRRPs, have all had this supernatural status bestowed on them from time to time. Continue reading