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