Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict

How to kill innocent women and children

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.

In Afghanistan, in 2005, a US Navy SEAL team’s hide was discovered by local goatherds. The team leader decided to let the goatherds go, but the latter then alerted nearby Taliban troops who attacked the team, killing several, including the team commander Lt Michael Murphy. A Chinook helicopter coming in to rescue the team was shot down, killing the eight SEALs and eight Army Special Forces soldiers on board. Back in 1991, the British SAS patrol, Bravo 20, was spotted by an Iraqi goatherd, who alerted the authorities. In the resulting search operation, some of the British soldiers were killed and others captured and tortured.

It all seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it? Kill or be killed; but not quite. Kill, and you might be a murderer, don’t, and you might die. Or not. The unfairness of it all is what struck me most when I first read about Evan Vela. Unfair on the sergeant himself, unfair on his Iraqi victim, and unfair on both families as well. I myself have never had to make that life-or-death decision, mostly because of geography. Elephant Pass was a fairly isolated base, and most civilians who had any sense had left the area, so anything we saw could be killed. When I first arrived in EPS in December 1990, the garrison was securing the base’s perimeters after the LTTE onslaught of the previous months that had started off the Second Eelam War. During this security operation, the base perimeter had been expanded to swallow several small hamlets that, upto the end of the ceasefire, had been populated. The civilians had obviously left in a hurry, leaving most of their stuff behind, and my platoon was detailed to clear the houses. We burned everything we couldn’t use, and watching all those saris and flowery frocks burning, I was also struck by how unfair it all was. Sometime in ‘91, I was spotting for a sniper, and he called in mortars on a Tiger column that was on a road. There were civilians on the road as well, and some of them were hit too. Afterwards, we watched through our scopes as a foreign doctor or medic (we could see his blonde hair even at six-hundred yards) tended to the fallen, including the Tigers. My partner then shot him. Unfair?

They say all’s fair in love and war, but it isn’t in either. We all know that. There are thousands of war stories, millions, and they’re all unfair if you look at them too closely, or from a different angle. So why I am I writing this? This isn’t about the Geneva Conventions or playing by the rules. We know that doesn’t always work. Maybe it’s about conscience, and doing the right thing. Military training, however, strives to first and foremost destroy the conscience and replace it with a value system different to that of the normal world. Following one’s conscience, too, has its dangers, as can be seen in the SEAL and SAS incidents, and in at least one situation, the man with the scruples paid with his life.

One thing the military drills into its recruits, on the other hand, is courage and decisiveness (the Singha Rifles motto, Nirbheetha Vegavath can be translated as With Speed and Courage). Shoot first and ask questions later. Then take your punishment like a man. That seems to be something that Sgt Vela — and perhaps the US Army at large — seemed to have forgotten. Vela’s team was asleep when it was discovered by the two Iraqis, and if they’d had a man on stag, the intruders would have been shot or warned off before they discovered the team. Once captured, the civilians should have been released, or if that was impossible, killed. The latter would still be a war crime, but Evan would have still been dealt with more leniently since his team was at risk. Planting evidence sealed his fate. In other words, dishonesty convicted him. Sgt Vela claims he asked his commanding officer for instructions and was ordered over the radio to shoot the prisoner. The fact that Vela was the only one convicted means that his CO denied this claim and the court believed him. Shades of My Lai — on March 16th 1968, a platoon of the US Army’s Americal Division murdered roughly five-hundred civilians, including old men, women and little children. Only the platoon commander, Lt William Calley was convicted; his company commander, Captain Ernest Medina, who Calley claimed gave the initial orders that sparked the massacre wasn’t charged. Calley received a life sentence, but was paroled after two years of home arrest. And Kokkadicholai — in January 1991 a SL Army platoon massacred between sixty-two and one-hundred and twenty-three civilians (depending on whose version you believe) in the Eastern Province village of Kokkadicholai. The platoon commander and nineteen soldiers were charged with the crime, and all twenty were acquitted. The platoon commander was later found guilty of dereliction of duty and losing control of his men, and dishonourably discharged from the service. No higher ranking officers ever faced charges.

Some would say that this dishonesty is a natural human trait, the desire to escape retribution for one’s crimes, and that’s true enough. However, an army is not a natural organisation. To quote Alfred de Vigny’s Servitude et Grandeur Militaire, “An army is a nation within a nation”. It is a nation in which normal civilian or even human laws don’t apply — there is no freedom of speech, no presumption of innocence, no right to ownership — and it’s citizens are subject to laws that would seem unbelievably draconian to a civilian. Every aspect of life in the Army is governed by official regulations — dress, food, shelter, hygene, language, marriage — and every regulation ultimately has but a single objective: to enable a commander to point his finger and say “Kill” and have that order instantly carried out. Given that focused need, one would assume that honesty would be regulated. And it is.

However, the intensity of that regulation decreases proportionately the further up the rank ladder one progresses. Young soldiers are constantly supervised, their every move scrutinised and regulated; right down to how long a daily shower may last — when I was in basic training it was three minutes. The same goes for subalterns; their dress, manners, and language, their leadership skills, are all constantly under close observation for command ability. But as officers and other ranks move up the rungs of rank, this scrutiny lessens, and freedom increases. Obviously, the reasoning is that with age and experience comes responsibility. And ambition; and there we have the rub. In the Army, as in any civilian corporation, there isn’t much room at the top, and ultimately three things decide whether a soldier will be a general — intelligence, ruthlessness, and luck. It’s very difficult to get to the top of a modern army without all of these three traits, and almost impossible without at least two.

Any link to scandal will prevent an officer in a modern army from reaching the top, and this increases the pressure to disassociate himself from the failures of his subordinates. This has been a natural phenomenon in modern armies, and an incentive for officers to cover up scandals. The SL Army, until recently, hasn’t really been a merit-driven force. Promotion came with time in service instead of success. Selection for the very highest of ranks was a political poker game with cards dealt by the political masters. The only thing a potential Army commander had to worry about was failure on his record — it didn’t matter if you’d been successful, as long as you’d not been unsuccessful. The appointing of Gotabhya Rajapakse as Secretary of Defence and the rise of Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka to Army commander has changed the face of the SL Army. Promotion is now very much a case of merit, with battlefield success crucial to upward movement. This, however, will not in any way change a potential general’s inclination to cover up a scandal, for it in fact will increase it as it becomes more of a race for rank rather than an arse-kissing competition.

Some might say that to ensure higher rank doesn’t cover up, is to crack down hard on those that do. Give out sentences on par with those that the the trigger men get. But on the other hand, that might make the brass just better at covering stuff up. So is closer scrutiny of the armed forces the answer? The Army’s notorious for being inscrutable to the outside world, and for this to work, an internal mechanism such as the Military Police might be the best instrument for overseeing the whole cross-section of the Army. In other words, a secret service on the lines of the Soviet GRU. Obviously, a rather extreme measure, and one not really suitable in a democratic country.

In the US and other western nations, atrocities such as My Lai and Abu Ghraib are received with shock by the general population, as something alien to their society. This is less pronounced in the Third World, where violence is something more integral to the civil psyche. The Sri Lankan population is well aware of its Army’s capacity for brutality, particularly after the putting down of the 1987-89 JVP insurrection. This brutality is seen as a necessary evil in order to rid society of a greater evil — separatism, communism, etc. Therefore it’s possible to conclude that in a naturally violent society, or one that tolerates violence, the prepropensity towards atrocity will be higher in the armed forces, which in the end, are a reflection of the civil populace.

Talking to an Indian colleague last year, the discussion turned towards the February 2007 Pakistani train bombing, and he suggested that it was highly likely the act had been committed by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and he didn’t seem to think it was a problem. Whilst reading that online article about Sgt Evan Vela’s conviction, I browsed through the comments forum that followed it, and was struck by the number of people who excused the sniper’s actions, and often defended it, reflecting the increasing acceptance by American society of the need for brutality in war; an acceptance that my Indian colleague, and most Sri Lankans seem to have already arrived at.

So is there any point in lamenting the brutality of war, the atrocities it spawns, and the unfairness with which it treats its victims? Is there any purpose in bringing in new laws for war, or greater accountability in the armed forces? I think not. In the end, the question isn’t whether we can breed a society that will not tolerate atrocities and brutality by its armed forces, but a society that will not tolerate war.

David Blacker was born in Colombo and has lived in Sri Lanka almost all of his life. He served as an enlisted soldier in the Sri Lanka Army in the early 1990s, seeing combat as a nineteen-year-old rifleman at Elephant Pass. He currently lives in Sri Lanka and works in advertising as a creative director.

Blacker’s novel “A Cause Untrue” won the Sri Lankan State Literary Award for Best Novel in 2006, and was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize 2004. It has also been nominated for the Dublin IMPAC Award 2007. It is published by PH Books and is available at all leading bookshops.

This post sent to Groundviews by the author.