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The Truth And Other Casualties Of War




"We are wondering whether past presidents and President Mahinda Rajapakse, just as much they would like to claim credit for military victories would be willing to accept blame for military defeats and all the misery and travails that war brings such as the estimated 120,000 - to 150,000 hapless refugees now wandering without food and shelter in the Wanni jungles."

by Sonali Samarasinghe

(September 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The truth, it is often said, is the first casualty of war. Winston Churchill adopted the strategy of ‘wrapping up the truth in a bodyguard of lies’ in World War II to win his ‘war of deception.’ Raw, bald facts need not be blurted out by warring factions in their attempts to win wars. Nonetheless, credibility is all important to win the confidence of one’s own side and also be seriously considered by the enemy.

In the two and a half decade old ‘war’ in Sri Lanka the truth has suffered the same vicissitudes as in other wars elsewhere. Right now it is happening in the war in the Wanni. The defence establishment and other propaganda organs of the government are making claims which detractors say are highly inflated. The LTTE through its propaganda outlets including several websites is also making similar claims but are disbelieved now by even their erstwhile Western supporters. The belief that government forces have now got the upper hand, the LTTE is on the run and the military conflict may end soon, is gaining ground. Thus all concerned on the side of the government’s armed forces be best advised to maintain credibility in the propaganda war and not make exaggerated claims and kick into their own goal.

In an article in the last issue of The Sunday Leader a report contested statistics cited by the Army Commander Lt. General Sarath Fonseka and official government sources. The article questioned the veracity of some of the statistics quoted by Gen. Fonseka and draws attention to discrepancies of statistics cited by other defence and government sources.

Neither the Army Commander nor government politicians need to take offence over the democratic right of the public to question claims or statistics quoted by government authorities. Such questioning on casualty statistics is done and answered in parliament by government ministers when the extension of the emergency is debated and what is important is for the service commanders to keep above the fray and not wade into the political arena by making pronouncements on casualty figures which can impact on their credibility considering the real progress made on the ground.

Questioning the conduct of a war by legislators and journalists is a right enjoyed in democracies as was evident when the former Chief Commander of the United States Forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, was intensively questioned by US Congressmen and has often been questioned by the media.

At times the success of war strategies which President George Bush crows about, such as the ‘Surge’ strategy has been questioned and the success attributed to other reasons other than the ‘Surge’ in the number of troops sent to Iraq. The interrogators have not been called ‘traitors’ as is wont to happen here.

While in some military conflicts, particularly in guerrilla warfare, the tendency has been to consider the ‘body count’ as an index of success or failure, they are statistics that should be best not aired. Yet in conflicts like in the Wanni we hear talk of the ‘kill rate’ and ‘body bags.’ There is much doubt expressed about some of these statistics because they cannot be independently verified. The belief set in after 25 years of war is that both sides tend to cut down their losses and increase gains while multiplying losses of the enemy. The view among some Sinhala cynics is that if all the statistics of the LTTE casualties quoted by the state controlled media are collated from the very beginning, the total would exceed the entire Tamil population that lived before the conflict commenced!

Military strategists claim that their objective is not to acquire ‘real estate’ (capturing large swathes of land) but to destroy the enemy manpower. While this may be inevitable because of an intransigent enemy who has been insistent in deciding the issue by guns, bombs and bullets, such rhetoric is best avoided particularly when the conflict is among citizens of a country and long term reconciliation is considered. Whether number crunching can win a war is highly debatable.

Another essential feature is to avoid politicising the conflict. Sri Lanka is such a politically polarised country that in almost every institution there are committed supporters of both leading parties.

Officers as well as the rank and file look up to the leadership of the services to be apolitical and devoted to military objectives. The accusation has been made that in the past some major military offensives were launched to suit the political agenda of the ruling party.

The Army Commander has been quoted in an interview in the Sunday Observer saying: ‘The President of the country being the Commander-in-Chief is entitled to get credit for all these military victories. He is the one who takes decisions and responsibilities of launching these major offensives. Wars are launched by governments and credit of its success will naturally go to the government.’

We are not aware whether Gen. Fonseka contributes to the thinking of the famed German war strategist Karl Von Clausewitz: ‘War is a continuation of politics by other means’.

But we are wondering whether past presidents and President Mahinda Rajapakse, just as much they would like to claim credit for military victories would be willing to accept blame for military defeats and all the misery and travails that war brings such as the estimated 120,000 - to 150,000 hapless refugees now wandering without food and shelter in the Wanni jungles.

There is no doubt under Army Commander Sarath Fonseka’s leadership, the security forces have made great strides and have the Tigers on the run though the war is far from over. Therefore it is of paramount importance that the Army Commander maintains his credibility and continues with his good work without having to make political statements which detract from the work at hand and the real progress made against the LTTE. There maybe those sceptics who say that given the nature of Sri Lankan rulers that a little bit of palavering of the political masters is important for even a service chief to survive especially when it comes to getting an extension of service, which in General Fonseka’s case is due by December 17.

That is where the President should step in and without further delay give the Army Commander his extension so that he can finish the job entrusted to him without having to look over his shoulder and make statements of a political nature which detracts from the job at hand. - Editorial of the Morning Leader , weekly news paper based in Colombo.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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