ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 4, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 49

“Nothing can justify war, nothing”

By Denzil J. Gunaratne, PC

"I am firmly convinced that our people will gain their India by fighting against the education that teaches them that a Nation is greater than the ideals of Humanity." - Rabindranath Tagore.

Indeed, no nation, language, race or creed is greater than the ideals of humanity. The world has been engulfed in war for countless years on the basis that a nation, race or religion must be protected. The irony is that, because of this, the very fundamentals of religion and humanity have been squandered in the seeming effort to protect them.

"Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," states the Bible. It is amazing how human beings wish to inure themselves so far into the future that it does not even stop within their lifetimes, they want to shape the world and secure it even for their children's children. Hitler said that his regime had defined the future of the German people for a thousand years. His tenure in government is now derisively called the Thousand Year Reich. It lasted twelve years and crumbled in the ashes of a defeated Germany in 1945.

In the same tenor, politicians talk of settling the disputes of a country for the benefit of generations to come. It is as foolish as worrying about how many will attend one's funeral. The Buddha's advice is to seize the moment, not the regrets of yesterday or the daydreams of tomorrow, but life is the moment, the now. But we are waiting and waiting and waiting for peace to come.

War is an absurd device for settling disputes that mankind has invented. It is only meaningful to the man, who after he has lost his ability to argue, pursues the rest of his argument with fisticuffs, little realising that even if he were able to defeat his opponent, his opponent would continue to be unconvinced.

There are no just wars, just as there are no winnable wars. In war there are no victors, only losers. One's mind goes back to World War 2, when Hitler had to be defeated if the world was not to end in slavery to a master race. But in reality there were no victors. A victors' trial brought the war criminals to justice at Nuremburg, but in the process Britain lost an Empire and Russia lost over 20 million men and women. The world consumed a hundred years of its oil supplies in the course of just five years, Europe was left a charnel house and the cultural heritage of the west was lost for ever. Today, the cradle of human civilisation has lost its treasures in Iraq. Tsunamis are bad enough, they are not preventable.

"War is absurd,” according to the last survivor of the First World War, "the life of one man is not worth it. Nothing can justify war, nothing." In the humble home of a dead soldier the utter futility of his death can never be erased. In the heart of the maimed, a young life has been shattered forever, can anyone compensate a young man for the loss of his sight, or his legs? Or can he ever erase from his mind the "tales of sorrow done" and the nightmares he will suffer for the rest of his life.

Have we during the last 20 years of our war done a serious study of the post traumatic syndromes suffered by the demobilised and injured soldiers - their inability to get into the mainstream of life, to live life as normal human beings? To be reminded over and over again the pant-wetting fear and the diarrhoea stained uniforms of the field of battle? The sweat and the filth of combat, of seeing his comrades torn up by shells, blood spattered, disembowelled and limbs with their bones sticking out. The injuries of war are horrendous, the ways in which those injuries are sustained are varied, and the wounds which the men have to carry about, woefully abject. It is beyond compensation when a man loses his buttocks to a landmine or a part of his face to shrapnel at the age of 23. All courage is lost in the storm of artillery and bursts of mines in a minefield and the moans, the cries and the groans of dying boys calling for their mothers. This is the reality of war, not the be-medalled men in pressed uniforms marching in precision with their swords in baldric slung.

Sadly, history has shown that soldiers are mostly never given their due. To become an injured pensioner at 25 is a sadder fate possibly than to have died in battle. We have all heard if not read Tennyson's famous poem about the "Charge of the Light Brigade" which extols the courage and discipline of those who took part in the famous battle during the Crimean war. (Florence Nightingale's war). The later poem by Rudyard Kipling is not as popular; the poem written from the perspective of the few who survived the famous charge. This poem "The Last of the Light Brigade" gives a scathingly acid revelation of how the world treats its war heroes.

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night,
They had neither food nor money they had neither service nor trade,
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

(You can pick up the rest on the Internet)

And after the colossal blunder, the Commander, Lord Cardigan (from whom incidentally the word "Cardigan" is derived) went back to his yacht and had his dinner as usual. What do we do with this soldiery once the war is won? A hundred thousand or more unemployed men, brutalised by deeds of sorrow, limping in the streets, knowing no craft except the art of killing, reduced to beggary and a burden to their kith and kin, demoralised as surely they will be by an unappreciative citizenry, many will turn to crime as certain as night follows day.

All wars are popular. They raise the spirits to heights, the martial songs, the sound of bugles and drums, the sight of flags and banners, the pride of marching regiments, the stories of ancient valour, duty and patriotism, but look a little beyond and you will see the mouth of hell. No soldier will state that a war is unwinnable, because that would amount to cowardice and cowardice is a punishable offence under martial law. Even when the Russian armies were only a few miles outside Berlin, no General dared tell Hitler that the war was lost. It would have cost him his head for defeatism.

War is also propaganda and downright lies. No less a person than Winston Churchill has said that "in wartime, truth is so precious that it must always be attended by a bodyguard of lies". Therefore the authorities downplay their own losses and exaggerate the casualties of the enemy. It was Prime Minister Asquith who stated that the War Office had three sets of figures, one to mislead the public, the second to mislead the Cabinet, the third to mislead themselves. And so it goes on, the sergeant misleads the lieutenant , the lieutenant the colonel and the colonel misleads the General who misleads the government and the government misleads the public. This is for the purpose of an ephemeral state called "good morale”.

In fact, it is said that in war the first casualty is the truth. The military cannot be depended on to show their true face in the light of public opinion. They will not, indeed cannot tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It would be like a doctor telling his patient "sorry I cannot treat you, you will die in three months". The professional soldier is a man dedicated to win his wars, any sign of defeatism is condemned by his peers and his blunders must be covered up by prevarication. That is a part of his profession, nay, his duty. It was perhaps in that sense that Georges Clemenceau, the great statesman who brought victory to France during the Great War, stated that "War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men”. If left to themselves, the military men will continue to fight wars till the cows come home, that is the only justification for their existence. It is up to the statesmen to know when to end wars.

In the context of modern times, it is false to believe that an enemy can be bludgeoned into submission. The collateral damage (a euphemism for civilian deaths) would be unacceptable. Likewise, the enemy thinks that by creating havoc among our population it will be able to cow the people into stopping the attacks, but while of course it brings fear, it also generates hatred, and hatred as it is well known, is never appeased by hatred.

We must remember that this applies to the enemy side as well. The greater the number of enemy destroyed, the greater the loathing and greater the thirst for revenge and the bigger the subscription to its coffers. This is an established phenomenon, a diaspora always contribute more to the terrorists in war time than when at peace. They may not all be contributing out of love for the cause, but it is not only due to extortion, but also due to sympathy at the plight of their countrymen, and sympathy is most aroused during times of trouble than when there is peace.

The economics of war shows that eventually the side that produces more in terms of men and materiel will eventually win it. But it must be remembered that in our own long story we find that the government has to subsidise the enemy on many fronts, while the enemy has only to fight a war. Battle groups are far more adept at innovation and improvisation than governments. While nation states like Sri Lanka have to purchase almost every item of equipment, the rebels improvise on almost everything. The government must feed, educate, and medicate its entire people while the enemy have no such burdens. The government is always having the public looking over their shoulder, always concerned about the next election, a dictator doesn't worry about those things. In consequence he can concentrate his entire resources and ingenuity on warlike activities.

During these years of war, it would do us well to remember, that we have had many changes of both political and military leadership, but the Tigers have been under the evil and pervasive influence of just one man or more likely a very few men. He has fought us long and hard, he knows our tactics and our strategy. Even Napoleon pointed out the danger inherent in fighting the same enemy too often or too long.

A retired Air Chief Marshal (vide. Montage Magazine 15th January-15th February 2008) has painstakingly calculated that the government spends 456.4 million rupees on the war every day, yes, each day: and it's rising. What would that amount to, how many schools, hospitals, roads and bridges does that represent?

It is indeed strange to hear of ending the war on some given date or by a given time. Indeed it is the prerogative of Kings and leaders to decide on the date and time on which a war may begin, but it is not within their power to decide when it will end. George Bush is learning that lesson quite clearly, he had forgotten Vietnam. War is like a fire, easy to jump into, but difficult to jump out of. Few leaders have had the courage to do what Anwar Sadat of Egypt did, he flew to Jerusalem and initiated a peace treaty which won him the Nobel Prize, but he was killed because of it. Sadly, this too is the usual fate of courageous peacemakers. After the First World War the military leaders of defeated Germany backed out from signing the armistice, they sent a bureaucrat to do that, the poor man was assassinated. It shows that there needs be little courage to start a war, but to end it, one has to be very brave. Gandhi was killed because a Hindu fanatic thought he was being too generous to the Moslems.

Imagine, if President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to declare an end to the war today! Can he? Is he powerful enough to do that? It is time we gave him the armour to fight for peace. We have the means to do this. Ours is essentially a peaceful society, of a tolerant, un-warlike and smiling people, our hospitality is world renowned. Our literacy and skill is much respected. Our soil is fertile, the beauty of our landscape is the envy of foreigners. We are also, despite a vociferous minority, mostly apolitical. We can and must, harness the faith, courage and discipline of our people as a means to enriching life not generating death.

We hear daily about the advances made by our forces, of this village captured and another about to be, but have we wondered for a moment what happened to the people who once lived in those villages. Did they bring out their armchairs to the compound to sit and watch the war passing by, or did they hurriedly bury their thalikodi and their earrings, bundle up their whimpering and thirsty babies, and amid the fear, the noise and the fury run for their lives into the scrub, with only the clothes on their bodies, leaving their miserable little huts to be set on fire? At such perilous times what do they do with their invalids, their cripples and their old folk? So, we create a desert and call it Peace!

Would this, I ask you, lead to a negotiated settlement or honourable peace? Have these poor folk heard of a Constitutional amendment or something called APRC, or the price of oil, and do they care?

In the course of this discussion on history and war, I have forgotten a minor point the relevance of which seems largely forgotten in today's madding crowd. It is an endorsement of an idea made in the dim history of time and repeated on a hill near the Sea of Galilee by a carpenter's son that "thou shall not kill". An even more ancient Teacher had extended this thought to encompass not only men but all living beings. It may not be realised that those who violate this injunction, those who order its violation and those who conceive and encourage it, are all in the same boat and that "not all thy piety or wit, shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it" from the slate of one's karma. In this we carry a collective guilt. These principles are not restricted to an era but valid for all time, (akaliko- in Pali) because the basic human condition has not changed through millennia.

I write in times like these when the eastern sky seems to light up with pink clouds on the victorious horizon of our hopes; not with a view to discourage or dishearten, but that we may not wail if our aspirations are dashed on the rocks of false hopes and that we may bear these days with equanimity. Wars, like the rain must cease someday, but the peace that comes may be unbearable.

There are many things which discretion has made me leave unsaid, and I am well aware that I will receive few bouquets, and I expect, not a few brickbats, but frankly, I don't care a damn.

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