Colombo, End of war special edition, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Post-War, War Crimes

Soldier: Hero, villain or both?

Each time I see a soldier, my mind shifts into ‘mode chaos’.

When I was a kid, things were black and white. They were my heroes; the guys who were taking the bullet for me, so I could get about with my life as I know it. They were the brave guys who would safeguard our beloved motherland from all that was evil. I would always return their smiles if I ever caught their eye. I’d even quite willingly stop for a chat sometimes, if they initiated conversation. It was the very least I could do to show my gratitude to the guys who had ‘given up their today, for our tomorrow’ right? Everything was so simple then.

As I grew up though, it was not so much that I stopped being grateful to them, but I became aware of many more dimensions to these ‘brave men in cami’s’ than I had known or been exposed to as a kid. Herein lies the chaos. Poor village boy, selfless patriot, unsuspecting pawn, brutal villain… is it really possible for one person to be so many different things to so many different people? In my experience alone, I’ve experienced or witnessed a soldier playing all these very roles, so I guess it is possible.

Nowadays, when I walk past a checkpoint or pass a military person on the road, I try as hard as possible to focus on anything else around me – a lamp post, the pavement, the sky, anything, just as long I don’t have to confront the turmoil in my head. Should I be nice, because I wouldn’t be walking these streets right now if not for the sacrifices he’s made? Should I detest his very existence and the uniform he wears proudly, for giving him the ‘license’ to brutally rape and pillage, or torture citizens in an attempt to abstract information?

We all recently read about the despicable case where six soldiers were produced before court on the charges of raping a nine year old girl. I just couldn’t get myself to imagine what could possibly possess anyone, let alone the Military to do something so inhuman. When exactly and how does absolute power trump a shared humanity? How can that same young, bright eyed boy who probably topped his batch at cadetting, turn into this inhumane monster that molests children? Yes, of course all soldiers don’t do this. But, for those that do, what causes them to become so demented, so depraved that raping a little girl  becomes inconsequential?

Torture has long been one of the most commonly used and ‘supposedly’ most effective tools at their disposal to extract information from the “enemy”. Removing fingernails, shoving barbed wire up private parts, thrashing unmercifully until unconscious have come to be considered all in a day’s work. What I find difficult to grapple with is how much hatred and absolute animosity must harbour, in order to design and partake in such cruelty? Is it that a soldier can remove the ‘human’ status from these people thus, making his job easier? Or has he simply detached himself from feeling any emotion whatsoever.

I am vaguely aware that there’s possibly no such thing as ‘free will’ in the army. I’m also not too sure to what extent the average soldier is able to question the instructions passed down to him, or if the ability to question a command only increases with rank, if at all? As in all stories though, there’s always a ‘flip-side.’ This extract from the UTHR(J) Report released in October 2008 put me right back into ‘no man’s land.’

…Another soldier who had just been trucked to Murunkan south of the northern front asked a Tamil civilian where he was. When the civilian explained to him, the soldier slapped his forehead and exclaimed, “We were told we are being sent to Badulla!”…The officer poured out his heart and told them, “When we see people here with their families, we are reminded of our own homes and families. We hoped that this problem would be solved peacefully, but that was not to be. We will soon be sent to the front. We are anxious and afraid. Please pray for us.”…The young soldiers who spoke to Tamil civilians were very young and barely adults.

Traumatized, maimed, embittered, disillusioned as a result of bloody 30-year war, soldiers have and continue to be served quite a raw deal themselves. Come rain or shine, they’ve had to go days without food or shelter, pick up their best friend’s rifle after having just witnessed him being blown up into smithereens, never knowing when their time would be up.

Many are the soldiers who have once served dutifully, who, due to injury or trauma, been left to fend for themselves. The case of a young Captain we came across on a hospital delivery last year was just one such story. He was nothing but skin on bone; emaciated beyond comprehension, and barely able to speak. His brother told us how nobody from his troop had even dropped by to check on his welfare or offer any support. He had simply been left to die a slow, painful death.  Soldiers are still made to live in squalid little huts (some, mere holes in the wall), a few planks for a bed and bare minimum toilet facilities.

So, is this merely the result of a vicious cycle where oppressor exploits the oppressed; the strong vs. the weak? The State oppresses the forces, thus, the forces oppress the vulnerable?  Each party abusing their power just because they can.

So, is he a hero or villain? I’m still none the wiser.

End of War Special Edition

  • niranjan

    Marissa,

    an interesting article. Sri Lanka has had armed conflicts from 1971 onwards and sections of the armed forces and the police have got used to torturing people to exract confessions, get information etc. The people at the receiving end are mostly the poor and the vulnerable.
    Often the orders come from the higher ups in the military and the police and the rank and file carry them out.
    It is near impossible to change the status quo. The problem may very well become acute in the years ahead.

  • Hiran

    Niranjan,
    You have a good creative ability. You are fit to apply citizenship in a western country. They would love to keep you and your family providing with all possible benefits. Their tax payers will be happy to assist you.

  • Humanist

    Marissa, once again you have posed a complex question in deceptively simple language. These are the kind of soul-searching quesions that need to be asked in post-war Sri Lanka if we are serious about a just peace and reconciliation process – especially by young people, who hopefully will change the course of violence in our recent history.

    The soldier is neither a villain or a hero – he’s just another person who got caught up in the tide of flawed decision-making by our leaders of the last 25 years. If you were born in a village in Sri Lanka, he would have been your brother, cousin or husband. His mirror image is the LTTE cadre, who is also someone’s brother, cousin or husband.

    The difference between the soldier and one of us is that he chose to put his life on the line to fight and kill for a state, and defend it from those who want to destroy it – sometimes only because he could not think of any other way of making a living. The LTTE cadre also performed the same role of defending a quasi-state – sometimes being abducted and forced to do so. If one takes up arms, one does it with the understanding – you live by the gun, you die by the gun. If they survived 25 years of war they became battle-hardened veterans, for whom fighting is a way of life. Some of them are torturers and rapists but like in any given population, not all of them. Good and evil reside within every person to different degrees. It is the specific context that brings out the best or worst in people. The army and the LTTE both had their torture chambers.

    But there are plenty of torturers and rapists outside the armed forces or the LTTE. All the studies we have in Sri Lanka of domestic violence, some pre-dating the war, reveal that up to 60% of married women are abused by their husbands, the majority of them, even while being pregnant. The war has no doubt exacerbated the structural violence that exists in our society. Social change will only come if people understand that violence of all kinds is a problem that cannot be condoned – discussions such as these are vital to this process.

    By demonizing people, whether in the army or outside, we cannot move towards reconciliation. So next time you meet that soldier or the ex-LTTE cadre, look them straight in the eye. They need your compassion to rekindle the sense of humanity they have lost because misguided, power hungry Sinhalese and Tamil leaders have used them as canon fodder for the last 25 years.

  • Observer

    Is it fair to generalise like this? There are doctors who have abused their profession and murdered people. But I don’t feel sick to my stomach when I see doctors.

    There are cops all over the world abused the very laws they have sworn to protect.
    Soldiers all over the world, done dirty deeds.
    Priests all over world who have molested the innocent and vulnerable.
    Mothers who have killed/dumped their new borns.
    List goes on in every role that involves safe guarding innocent and vulnerable.

    There are good apples and bad apples. We get it.. No need to be so perplexed.

  • niranjan

    Observer,

    There are more bad apples than good ones in our society. Perhaps 38 years of wars beginning from 1971 is the reason for that.
    The bad apples need to be picked out so that they will not influence the good apples. That includes the politicians not only soldiers.