Ending Wars and Breaking Eggs

How do you win a war without killing people?

People who follow the international press will have heard that Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, and his two brothers have defeated the Tamil Tigers, which the New York Times called "one of the world's most enduring guerrilla armies" on the battlefield.

The Times described some of the obstacles which the brothers had to overcome:

Together, the brothers Rajapaksa defied international pressure to stanch civilian casualties, squelched dissent, blocked independent reporting of the war and achieved what many had thought all but impossible: they vanquished the Tamil Tigers, who had waged a pitiless war of terror and once ruled swaths of Sri Lankan territory as a de facto state.

The brothers, who come from upper-caste landed gentry, are not part of the English-educated elite of Colombo, the capital.  Snubbing pressure from the West did not hurt them; it helped them consolidate their southern Sinhalese nationalist base. [emphasis added]

It's interesting that not being part of the English-educated elite made it easier for the President to withstand international criticism.

"There was no vacillation as there has been with previous governments," said Nilan Fernando, the country director for an American nonprofit, the Asia Foundation.  "Previous governments were always playing for a draw. This time, they were playing for a win."

They won.

War Is Hell Indeed

As with the conflicts in Palestine, Swat, and Iraq, the world's great and good have complained about the collateral damage inflicted by the Sri Lankan army's attacks on the Tigers.

Like all guerrilla armies, the Tigers mingled with civilians.  When the army approached their last stronghold, the Tigers refused to let civilians leave, preferring to imprison 150,000 of them as shields.  This tactic resulted in noncombatants being killed, as it was meant to do; the United Nations says that some 7,000 civilians have been killed since January and that more than 265,000 are now refugees.

We've pointed out that wars have an unfortunate defining characteristic which is often overlooked - only the loser can ensure that a war is truly over.  No matter how often the winner declares victory, the loser can come back to fight another day unless he concedes defeat or is killed.

President Abraham Lincoln understood this better than recent Western leaders - he ordered a reluctant General Sherman to create a swath of destruction "from Atlanta to the sea" to convince the South that they'd really lost the American civil war.  It worked - contrary to many expectations and secret hopes, the South did not rise again.

The May 19 Wall Street Journal printed a Page A8 time line which shows just how unlikely the Tigers were to accept any sort of compromise that came short of their ruling an independent country occupying about a quarter of Sri Lanka's territory.

The civil war started in 1983 when the Tigers ambushed an army patrol. India sent peacekeeping forces in 1987; a Tamil suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, apparently because of Indian support for the Sri Lankan government, in one of the world's first use of suicide vests.  Another suicide bomber assassinated the President of Sri Lanka in 1993.

Over the years, the Tigers continued to use unorthodox means of warfare, such as packing fishing boats with explosives and launching air raids using private light aircraft.

On May 18, the government reported that the Sri Lankan army had killed Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the man who had led the guerrillas since 1975.  Reuters reported:

Already, the body of his son and heir-apparent, Charles Anthony, and two top lieutenants, intelligence chief Pottu Amman and naval wing leader Soosai, had been identified.

Assuming that the army has killed enough leaders, the remaining Tigers will probably follow the example of other groups and work with the government.  If the last of the Tigers agree, the war will be over, but the army may have to kill or imprison a few more to achieve that.

No doubt the international community will continue to protest at the "concentration camps" used to house these erstwhile enemies while the government sorts the sheep from the goats, but if Sri Lanka finally wants peace, the government has no choice but to ignore the bleating.

How Should We Fight Terrorists?

The Reuters article explains why killing the Tiger leaders was essential to ending the conflict:

The military has long viewed killing Prabhakaran as essential to stopping the LTTE from regenerating, since he has maintained total control over it since founding it in 1976.

He singlehandedly turned the LTTE into one of the best-armed irregular forces, which carried out hundreds of assassinations and suicide bombings, and maintained an army, naval wing and a even a combat air wing of light planes.

International criticism mounted during the final phases of the war.

Sri Lanka's triumph was not without controversy. The European Union on Monday urged an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations, mainly over reported civilian deaths. [emphasis added]

The hypocrisy here is breath-taking - isn't terrorism, like piracy, a violation of human rights?  How can any government stop violent terrorists without the use of violence?

Reuters also explained how the Sri Lankan government reacted to international criticism:

Sri Lanka accuses the West of double standards when it comes to civilian deaths, and points to U.S. air strikes that have killed innocent people in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an example.

Sri Lanka has been furious that LTTE supporters have been allowed to vandalize several of its embassies in Western capitals as part of a series of protests against the war.

Sorting the Fish from the Water

Mao Tse Tung said, "The people are to the army [the guerrillas] what water is to fish."  As Hamas fighters mingle with the Gaza population, as Chechen guerrillas mingled with the population in Chechnya and southern Russia, as the Taliban mingle with civilians in the Swat valley, as Somali pirates hide among civilians on land, so the Tigers mingled with the population.

If guerrillas are willing to risk civilian casualties, the only way to defeat them is for the army to inflict civilian casualties regardless of international criticism - as the Pakistani and American armies are doing, and as Sri Lanka did on the road to victory.

The Romans understood this.  In order to separate the fish from the water, they made supporting guerrillas unpleasant.  When guerrillas hassled them, they'd march into town, kill 1 person in 10, and explain that it was up to the civilians to persuade the guerrillas to be nice.

Killing one in ten is called "decimation."  Modern thinkers confuse "decimation" with "annihilation" which means killing everybody, not just 1 in 10.

The Romans didn't do that because dead men pay no taxes.  Hopefully, the surviving 9 would get the message, be nice, and pay their taxes.  If the people didn't get it, they'd march back and do it again.

It can be argued that killing 1 in 10 in one village is a cheaper way to stop a guerrilla war than our technique of sending troops to pacify the whole country.  The Romans seldom had to decimate another town once the word got 'round.

Once when the Gauls were giving them lip, the Romans built a bridge across a river, marched across, burned everything they could find in a 10-mile radius around their landing, walked back across the bridge, and burned the bridge.  "Shock and awe" is an old technique indeed.

Assuming that the UN is correct in claiming 7,000 civilian casualties out of 265,000 displaced, the Sri Lankan army has done better than the Romans - they killed fewer than 1 civilian in 10 and they may have killed enough Tiger leaders to end the war.  Time will tell.

It Isn't Over Until It's Over

Based on recent history, our question for the world's great and good who quite rightly deplore civilian casualties is this: "How do you plan to end a war with a group who won't stop fighting?"

The Tamil Tigers appear to have invented suicide vests.  There were any number of cease-fire agreements, peace meetings, mediation by outsiders, all the panoply of intervention by the great and the good, yet the Tigers fought on.  There is no guarantee that the Tigers would have been satisfied with ruling 1/4 of Sri Lanka, even assuming that the Sri Lankan government could have been persuaded to partition the country.

Abraham Lincoln understood that war is hell, it was his own General Sherman who coined the phrase.  How would Lincoln have reacted to international criticism of civilian casualties during the American Civil War?  How would Churchill have reacted to criticism of civilian casualties during WW II?

At the time, most British thought they'd be fighting the Germans again within a generation or two.  The more civilians the Air Force killed now, the sentiment went, the fewer German soldiers their sons would have to fight later.

How could the Tigers have been stopped short of killing them?  It seems that the great and the good believe that the Tigers would have stopped murdering people if they'd been asked nicely enough, rather like Nancy Pelosi believing that captured Muslim terrorists would tell us what their colleagues were doing if the CIA asked them politely over tea. That didn't work in Roman times; it didn't work in Sri Lanka; and it won't work with terrorists anywhere.

It's nice to be able to live in a country which is peaceful enough that you can hold such an optimistic world view, but is there in fact any way to end a war without breaking eggs, or in this case, killing your enemies?  If so, it has yet to be discovered.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
May 22, 2009 11:43 AM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...