July 17

Hospitality: The Cure for Violence

Our guest pastor today made a bold statement.  She called the recent attacks of violence in our country and around the world striking examples of the failure to provide hospitality.

I wrinkled my brow when I heard it.  She’d been discussing Lydia (Acts 16) and her offer to have Paul and his companions stay at her house.  How, I wondered, does that prevent violence?

Then I realized: Too often, violence here at home is committed by lone gunmen who are social outcasts.  Too often, violence against us from overseas comes from miserably poor people whose countries we have manipulated away from democracy.  We have not been a hospitable people to those who most need it.

Last night, I was talking to friend who served in the Army.  I asked him, “Do we have any enemies today that we didn’t create ourselves?”

He thought for a long moment.

“I can’t think of any,” he said.

Is that too harsh?  I don’t think so.  Let’s take Iran, for example.  In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh became prime minister, promising many pro-poor reforms in a nation in which nearly all wealth had previously gone to the royal family.  In 1953, when Mossadegh tried to renegotiate oil prices with BP, the CIA overthrew the government and installed the Shah.  Thirty years of oppression followed.  And many Iranians judged the U.S. to be hypocritical for claiming to support self-determination, but denying it to Iran.

We still claim to support self-determination.  Yet we also wonder why Iran hates us so much.

Then there’s Iraq.  Ohio State University describes U.S. relations with that country 1965-1979 in dismal terms:

U.S. leaders showed little support for democracy in Iraq or the advancement of its people, eschewing any such liberal political goals on behalf of the primary objective of keeping Iraq free of communism.

Following the brutal seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, the U.S. began (in 1982) to support Saddam because he opposed Iran.  Arms and aid flowed freely.  George H.W. Bush blatantly ignored Saddam’s gross human rights violations as he courted Iraq’s loyalty prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  A U.S. call to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslims to rebel against Saddam received no support, and the rebellion was put down brutally, strengthening Saddam’s position.

Following George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2001, the official policy of the U.S. government was that nation-building was not part of the strategy.  As a result, post-Saddam Iraq fell into chaos and violence.  It wasn’t until 2008 that Bush changed his opinion and admitted that a policy of spontaneous democracy wasn’t working.

Here we have a nation whose people we had ignored or betrayed, whose dictator we supported, and in which we allowed chaos to rule for seven years.  Is it coincidence that it was during this period of chaos, in this nation whose people we so badly failed, that ISIS emerged with virulent anti-American views?

Here is something I learned in Sri Lanka.  People who are desperate, who cannot support their own families, and who see no hope, will do anything to ensure that their children survive.  The vast majority of soldiers in Sri Lanka came from the extremely poor areas of the deep south where development was lacking, and which had largely been ignored by the government.  And the vast majority of LTTE cadres and suicide bombers were from extremely poor villages of the northern jungles which had likewise been ignored by the government.  Hopelessness leads to desperation, and those who promote violence prey on desperation.  Note well that Velupillai Prabhakaran, head of the LTTE, never blew himself up.  He found desperate people to do it for him.  The same is true for Osama bin Laden and Al Queda, and Abu Akr al-Baghdadi of ISIS.

There are studies showing that poverty does not cause terrorism.  But many experts agree that poverty is an undeniable factor, even if statistics don’t agree.  Probably this is because there are so many desperately poor people, nearly half the world’s population, who are not terrorists.  It takes a particular combination of desperation, anger, and motivation to cause someone to become a terrorist, and that combination is (thankfully) not universal.

Not all desperately poor people are terrorists, but most terrorists are desperately poor people.

Similarly, not all loners commit mass shootings, but most mass shooters are loners.

Do you see the connection yet?

If we want to stop terrorism, we need to give people hope to replace desperation.

If we want to stop mass killings, we need to reach out to the loners so they are no longer alone.

There’s not much we can do individually to change our government’s foreign policy from supporting dictators, no matter how friendly, to spending that money to help the people who need it.  I wish I could suggest voting for a certain candidate, but both of the two major candidates are likely to continue the current policy.  Just last week, Trump praised Saddam Hussein and said we should have kept him in power.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  Meanwhile, Clinton’s hawkish nature stems, according to one aide, from “a textbook view of American exceptionalism” that the New York Times describes as far to the right of most Democrats. Both candidates will likely pursue policies that are ultimately detrimental to our national security.  They will create even more enemies.

But there’s a great deal we can do individually here at home.  We can become a hospitable people.  We can invite the newcomers and the loners into our home for a meal and a chat.  We can do it more than once.  We can look for common ground, and empathize with their struggles.  And when they say things that we disagree with, and they will, we can treat them with understanding and compassion.

That’s a tall order.  But how far would you go to stop the violence?

July 14

The Value of Eye Contact

In our electronic, virtual world we tend to respond to text and images, not body language. In doing so, we’ve lost an important part of communication, and I would argue that’s one reason we’re so divided. As an illustration, I offer an excerpt from my book, This Thing of Darkness.  It’s a fictionalized account, but this exchange really happened.

In 1999, I was a member of a team that went to the “border region” of Sri Lanka, the no-man’s-land between the Government and the LTTE.  The LTTE had begun a major push south, and refugees were coming down from villages as the LTTE reached them.  We went to look these villagers in the eye, hear their stories, and thereby better understand what this meant for them and the country.

These villages are incredibly poor.  Buildings consist of two- or three-room mud huts with thatched roofs.  The villagers had left their homes, and were housed in schools that had been shut down to accommodate them.  Because the book is a fictionalized account, I have modified the first excerpt to better fit what actually happened.

The [man] tells us [through a translator] of the LTTE’s effort to expel the Sinhalese in this area from their ancestral lands.

“We have been here for generations,” he says. “They drove us out once, but we came back. We will never again leave.”

“If they drive us from here, we have nowhere else to live,” [adds another], in animated Sinhala which [our guide] duly translates. “Where can we go?  Into the sea?”

Several other villagers tell stories similar to what we have already heard: they were forced from their ancestral home some years ago as refugees, they returned, and they will never leave again.

Then something happened that would change our entire view of the situation.

I hear a low voice call to me.


Not Sinhala, “Mahataya,” but English: “Sir.”

I look to my right and see an old woman, perhaps seventy years of age. She is dressed in white, the color of a widow. I nod to her.

Amma,” I acknowledge, just as softly. The word means “mother,” and is a respectful way to address an older woman.

“May I speak with you?” she asks, politely, gesturing for me to follow her off the street.

“Of course,” I reply…  “How do you know English?” I ask her.

She grins, ruefully.

“I learned in school,” she explains. “Before they stopped teaching it.”

“I hear,” the woman says in a soft voice, “they tell you stories about ancestral lands. I want you to know the truth.

“These people, my village, we lived in Kandy District in the central mountains. But the government came and told us we had to move. They built a dam, a very large dam, and soon our village and many others would be under the water. They sent us here, and they told us we would keep these lands forever.

“Most of these people were children then. They remember the old village, they remember the journey, but they grew up here. They remember, too, that their parents told them what the government said: that these would be our lands forever.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

“’One who breaks the eternal law of truth, there is no evil that one cannot do,’” she quotes. “This is the teaching of the Buddha.”

I consider her words.

“Tell me about your life here,” I ask.

“We came here because they told us to,” she says. “We tried to live as we lived in the old village. But the rains here are not the same. We had much to learn. Some groups helped us, some charity organizations. I was ashamed to accept help, but I had children to feed.”

I notice that a man of perhaps forty has stopped [to listen]. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s obviously eavesdropping.

“Then the LTTE came,” the woman continues. “They told us we could stay, if we followed their rules. Each family gave one child to them. We paid our taxes. We followed their rules and accepted their judgments. They were fair with us, even though we were not Tamil.”

“Sinhalese children got drafted into the LTTE?” I repeat, incredulous.

“They need soldiers,” she says. “They do not care what language they speak. And many of us have learned some Tamil living here. Some have married Tamils.”

“The government came and told us we could not cooperate anymore with the LTTE,” she explains. “The man said, if we cooperate, we are terrorists and we will die. So we stopped paying taxes, and we stopped giving children for soldiers.

“Then the LTTE sent us a message: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“A message?  How?” I ask.

“A piece of paper,” she says. “They wrote on it: Leave, or we will hit you.”

“They signed it?” I ask.

“No, but we knew,” she says. “They did the same to other villages. Some left. Some didn’t. The villages that didn’t leave are gone now.”

The man at the corner suddenly takes two steps closer

Boru kiyanne epa!” he shouts at the old woman.

It is a phrase I know well: “Don’t tell stories.”

The old woman responds with a deluge of Sinhala. All I can make out is the word boru, which means either stories or lies, which she says often and gestures at him.

The younger man makes a dismissive gesture and walks off.

“I must go,” the old woman says. “They do not want you to know the truth.”

“Thank you,” I say, and bow slightly.

If we had not gone to this place and spoken directly to these people, if we had for example read these accounts on FaceBook, it would have been easy to dismiss one or the other of the differing accounts as fictional and therefore irrelevant.  But we looked into these people’s eyes as they told us their stories.

I believe the old woman’s account to be true, and this changed our understanding of the war and the LTTE.

Does that make the villagers’ accounts false?  Yes, and no.  Clearly, if the old woman is correct, the accounts of the other villagers is factually incorrect.

But when you look into their eyes and see their desperation, when you realize that they’ve been kicked off their land twice already, when you see that they literally have nothing but the clothes on their back and they are terrified, then it becomes clear why they’ve adopted their narrative.  They want to feel that they have a right to something in a world where they have nothing.  They long for stability, and their narrative gives them the illusion that they once had it.  Above all, they seek some level of power in a conflict in which they are absolutely powerless.

Does that make their narrative more true?  Obviously not factually.  But it does promote a level of understanding that one could never get from reading a book or following a website.  And this understanding is not just about these people themselves, but about those they have interacted with, both government and rebel, and about the nature of the conflict itself.

If you want to understand someone, look into their eyes.  You can’t do that on FaceBook, or by text, or even on the phone.  Our virtual world has brought many advantages.  But it has also caused division between us, because we have lost an essential element of communication.

Without eye contact, we cannot really understand.

When we read something on FaceBook that makes your blood boil, we can lash out, or even unfriend them.  Or we can sit down with that person and talk about it.  We may not ever agree with them, but we may realize that the reason for their belief is NOT because they are “stupid.”  People with strong beliefs generally have a powerful reason for them, and understanding that reason can mean the difference between conflict and compromise.


This Thing of Darkness is available in paperback and Kindle editions here.

December 14

Life During Wartime

My parents remember World War II, during which nearly 12 million Americans served overseas.  Out of a population of 133 million, 9% were in the military in 1945.  This caused huge social and economic displacements.  To support them, supplies to civilians were rationed.  Meat, cheese, sugar, and coffee were all rationed, as were tires, fuel oil, and shoes.  The sacrifice of this monumental effort was felt throughout society.

I grew up as the Vietnam War was expanding.   I used to sneak downstairs to peek around the corner and watch the Huntley-Brinkley newscast because I liked the theme music (the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th).  One of my pivotal memories is, at five years old, seeing rows of flag-draped coffins on the black-and-white TV.  I didn’t understand what was happening, and I couldn’t ask my parents because I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I knew something really bad was going on.  The Vietnam War, undertaken against our own experts’ advice and badly executed, also had a monumental impact on society, dividing those who served from those who viewed soldiers as symbols of a government’s failing policy.  I was less aware of the Kent State shooting when I was ten years old, but well aware of the controversy over the draft as I entered my teens.

Ironically, it was during this period that President Johnson declared his War on Poverty, which reduced the poverty level by 38% over eight years.  This metaphorical use of the word “war” would affect our society in different but perhaps greater ways.  Since that time, we’ve engaged in a War on Drugs (1971-Present) and a War on Gangs (2005-Present).  We’ve waged war on cancer, AIDS, and obesity.  Then there’s the War on Terror (2001-Present), which has permeated our lives and consciousness for almost 15 years.  More recently, politicians have accused each other of waging War on Women, War on Energy, War on Religion, War on Jobs, and War on Working Families.  Television shows now include “Storage Wars” and even “Cupcake Wars.”

Apparently, we are a nation at war.  But not really.  Even the War on Terror cannot be compared with wars we’ve fought in the past.  About 1.4 million people now serve in the U.S. military, only 0.4% of our population.  Just over 5,200 American troops have been killed in battle since 2001.  That ranks the War on Terror (including Iraq and Afghanistan) slightly above the Philippine-American War of 1899.  (Haven’t heard of that one?  I hadn’t either.)  We’re a far cry from 53,000 killed in Vietnam, or 290,000 killed in World War II.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying our soldiers don’t go through hell and make appalling sacrifices discharging their duties in the field.  They do.  I’m saying the rest of us don’t.  There’s been an ammunition shortage in civilian markets caused by billions of rounds being fired overseas, about 300,000 rounds per insurgent killed, causing the Pentagon to buy ammunition from Israel because domestic manufacture can’t keep up. Otherwise, there’s very little effect on us here at home.  We aren’t rationed.  We aren’t drafted.  Taxes are low.

But we’re at war.

We’ve shifted from “total war,” in which an entire nation mobilizes to defeat an enemy, to constant war, in which only persistent rhetoric from politicians reminds us that we even have an enemy.

James Childress warns, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.”  We’re being reminded how to hate an enemy, but sheltered from what war really means.  And after 15 years without victory, it would seem that either our leaders don’t know how to win this war, or they don’t want to win it.  Clearly there are advantages to continuing a war that we at home don’t really notice.

But what will the long term cost be?  The power vacuum left  as we destroyed governments in the Muslim world has led to the rise of new and innovative enemies.  ISIS was unknown in 2001, but is now prominent and growing.  Iran has used our intervention to strengthen its presence throughout the region and support other militant groups.  How long will it be before we have a real enemy with whom to fight a real war? And are we really prepared for that?  We talk of being a nation at war, but is that what we really want?  Or can we imagine, now that our major enemies are gone, becoming a nation at peace?

As we contemplate that question, let us never forget that this is what war really looks like after just one battle.  Personally, I vote for peace.

Henri-Chappelle American Cemetery in Belgium, where 17,000 American soldiers were buried after the Battle of the Bulge. Photo taken in 1945.


November 18

This Thing of Darkness – How I Dealt With Nightmares

This Thing of Darkness BookCoverNew

Richard showers first. I sit in a wooden chair by the window and enjoy a soft breeze that blows in off the sea a few blocks away. The mosquitoes aren’t bad tonight; the wind keeps them at bay. The smell of the ocean is mixed with night jasmine blooming somewhere nearby. This, I reflect, is a very pleasant moment. I’ve haven’t been noticing as many pleasant moments lately, and I resolve to enjoy this one for as long as it lasts.

Ten minutes later, Richard returns from the bathroom wearing a sarong, his hair wet.

“It’s all yours,” he says. “But I didn’t leave you any hot water.”

“Jerk,” I reply.

The joke is old and worn. We don’t have hot water. All our showers are cold. After a long day during the hot season, I love a cold shower. But on a cooler evening after the rain, I shiver at the thought.

I first arrived in Sri Lanka on December 6, 1993.  In honor of International Human Rights Day, Sarvodaya headquarters displayed a collection of children’s art .  The graphic images drawn by young children shocked me.  I had never before visited a place in which such gross human rights violations were a part of daily life.

My first stay took me through the uncertainty and fear of Chandrika’s death-defying election in 1994, the hope for peace that followed once the outgoing government agreed to step down without violence, the assassination by the LTTE of Chandrika’s opposing presidential candidate, and the collapse of the cease-fire in early 1995.  These events were dramatic, frightening, and impacting, but did not threaten me in any direct way.

In 1998, I returned to interview peace workers across the island.  On this trip, I traveled by bus to the eastern city of Batticaloa, which according to government sources was safely in government hands.  In reality, the government held most of the city, and they controlled the main roads in and out during daylight hours.  The rest was controlled by the LTTE rebels.  I saw things on that trip that would haunt me for years.  Soldiers herded Tamil travelers at gunpoint.  A pre-teen boy had lost both hands to a booby trap.  A woman showed me a medical report, in English, graphically detailing her husband’s torture at the hands of the government. A brave Sinhalese woman talked of risking her life in her efforts to support Tamil families who were caught between the two fighting forces.

I came back from that trip changed, acutely aware of the fragility of security.

The following year, I sat in the dark as a battle raged outside a compound near Padaviya in the northeast.  Artillery shells landed not far away, and I realized that people were dying out there and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

That’s when the nightmares started.  I returned home unable to work and afraid of social situations.  I exhibited all the classic symptoms of PTSD.

As the bus revs its engine and departs town, there’s a sinking feeling in my chest, an inexplicable sense of loss. Soon we are in the countryside, and I see why they keep the bus so well-maintained. There’s nothing out here. On either side of the one-lane paved highway, I see only empty grassland. Kebithigollewa really is the frontier. You wouldn’t want a bus to break down on this road.

Occasionally there are stretches of jungle, and even less occasionally abandoned homes. Each home has white Sinhalese letters hand-painted on its front.

“What do they say?” I ask Richard.

“Budu saranay,” he reads from the first one.

We’ve both been here long enough to know that it means “Blessings of the Buddha.”  I consider that for a moment, and realize, just as I see from his change of expression that Richard too has realized, that these are homes where someone has been killed.

I continued to work for peace in Sri Lanka for another eight years, and I sought help from therapists from time to time.

Ten years after the Padaviya trip, one therapist had me write about my experiences.  This helped so much, I wrote a story that sought to express what I saw and felt.  I showed it to a friend of mine, and he encouraged me to publish it.  He even designed the first cover for it.  That’s how This Thing of Darkness came into being.

Reader commentary of the first version convinced me that the story wasn’t finished.  It was a raw look at the emotional struggle of an unprepared man caught in a war, but the story and character development were weak.  Earlier this year, I rewrote the story and republished it.  It’s a much better story now.

This Thing of Darkness is a work of fiction based loosely on that 1999 trip to Padaviya.  Its goal is to convey the emotions I felt during my work there, from culture shock and fascination to horror and fear.  I hope it also conveys some understanding of what war looks like now that we no longer have two or more nations battling each other.  But above all, I sought to make this a good story, and I hope you enjoy it.

“I admire your courage, kid,” the priest says, as my tears begin to run dry. “You’ve got chutzpah, coming out to a place like this. You cry as much as you need to. Then we’ll go back to the others, and you can keep your dignity. You did okay.”

I nod. Then, in a shaky voice, I ask, “Chutzpah?”

McMurphy smiles.

“One of the hazards of working with a rabbi,” he says, “is that I’ve picked up a little Yiddish.”

November 16

ISIS and the Cycle of Violence

Following the ISIS attacks in Paris and around the world, there’s a great deal of talk about retaliation.  (N.B. The organization changed its name last year to IS, the Islamic State, though most of the world still calls it ISIS and this post will follow suit.)  Retaliations suggested include military force, cutting aid to Muslim countries, turning away Muslim refugees, and even declaring war on Islam itself.

These suggested retaliations suggest little knowledge of the structure and goals of ISIS.  We have never fought an enemy like this, and the closest we came (Vietnam) did not go well.  Above all, we have never directly encountered the Cycle of Violence, and too many of us don’t understand how it works.

I saw the Cycle of Violence first-hand in Sri Lanka, where the LTTE effectively used it to grow, prosper, and often triumph.  It began in 1983, when the LTTE was still a fringe group with minimal support among its intended constituency, the Sri Lankan Tamils.  The LTTE attacked an army patrol and killed several soldiers.  The response of the Sinhalese majority was brutal and misdirected: hundreds rioted in Colombo, killing as many as 3,000 Tamil civilians.  There is some evidence that the “rioters” were actually pro-government thugs, yet the response of the Sinhalese majority toward the brutality was not outrage but justification.  The effect was dramatic.  Suddenly, the LTTE had both credibility and support as Tamils, shocked by the killings, looked for someone else to represent their interests.

The cycle continued.  Whenever the LTTE seemed in danger of losing support or legitimacy, it staged a high-profile attack.  The government’s knee-jerk response was to punish Tamils in general with restrictions, random arrests and detention, and even (sanctioned or unsanctioned) massacres.  Their assumption, not entirely incorrect, was that any Tamil could be an LTTE member, even though the majority were not.  This had the effect of alienating the Tamils as a whole and increasing support for the LTTE.

The cycle continued for 23 years, until the Rajapakse government became willing to kill LTTE and Tamil civilians indiscriminately, a strategy that did eliminate the LTTE and brought a temporary end to the hostilities, yet virtually guaranteed another outbreak of violence in the future.

ISIS has learned the game.  I can’t say whether they studied LTTE tactics, but their structure is strikingly similar: cellular structures under an all-powerful leader and a single lieutenant.

ISIS’s success at using the Cycle of Violence is already well established.  The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs notes that one would expect conflict between home-grown ISIS personnel and foreign-recruited fighters, but that is not the case.

“[ISIS] has been so successful in creating an atmosphere of hatred against all ‘heretics’ and all that Western civilization represents that it has succeeded to attract thousands of foreign and Arab volunteers to abandon previous allegiances and apply to the ranks of the Islamic State. By one estimate, ‘perhaps 12,000 foreign fighters’ have joined the IS ranks.”

If 12,000 fighters sounds small compared to, say, the U.S. Army, consider that the LTTE held the Sri Lanka government at bay for more than two decades while outnumbered as much as 40 to one.

Now ISIS has attacked multiple targets around the world.  Everyone’s instinct is to attack, to fear all Muslims, to inflict damage on those we suspect could be ISIS supporters.  But that instinct plays into their hands.  To do so would alienate moderate Muslims, and to whom would they turn?  ISIS would gain yet more power, support, and legitimacy.

Responding to an organization like ISIS or the LTTE takes great restraint, or else the willingness to commit genocide.  Our instincts must be held in check, because they work against us.  If ISIS is to be controlled through military means, targets must be clearly identified as belonging to ISIS.  Collateral damage aids the enemy.

Unfortunately, we in the west have already abused force in the Middle East.  From giving them ridiculous national boundaries that ignored religious and cultural realities, to installing brutal dictators in order to protect our oil interests, to killing women and children with drone strikes, we have a long history of failing to care about the people of the Muslim world.  Against this background, a single error in targeting or strategy can give ISIS incredible opportunities for growth and advancement.

In Sri Lanka, I was part of a team that helped bring about a six-year cease fire.  During that cessation of hostilities, the LTTE began to moderate.  They even considered giving up violence and becoming a political rather than military institution.  The resumption of the war, driven by extremists on both sides, prevented any such transformation.  Yet the potential was there.

Whether such a transformation could happen with ISIS is unclear.  But it won’t happen while they are winning, and our current strategy is helping them grow and triumph.

September 18

The Nature of War – Conclusion (Part 5)

Oct 2 2006 - Event 034

If war is driven by two sets of elite leadership, both of which control the press and dominate the national dialog, how can war be ended?

To answer this question, it may help to examine our beliefs about war.  For example, the Sri Lanka war was often portrayed as two social pyramids in conflict with each other, with the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE at the top:

SL society 1

One day during a brainstorming session, my coworker Shariff Abdullah redrew the diagram like this:

SL society 2

In other words, it’s not Sinhalese against Tamils, but rather the two leaderships against the rest of the people.  The majority of people on both sides don’t want the war, they just want to get on with their lives.  It is the extremists and leaders who make that impossible, serving up a constant dialog of fear and patriotism.

To end the war requires mobilizing this unheard majority.  That’s no easy task.  However, even the most ruthless insurgents have at least some responsibility to the constituents they claim to represent.  Moreover, many who support one side or the other do so because peace seems unimaginable.  Given the option of peace, they would choose it.  Thus, changing the national dialog has tremendous effects.

With the leaders firmly in control of the public dialog, alternative ways of communicating must be found.  In Sri Lanka, over the course of three years, round-table discussions and constitutional forums were held in villages across the country.  The message of peace was carried, quite literally, from village to village.  Sri Lanka was fortunate to have an organization that was already active in about a third of the villages, and well-known and respected throughout the countryside.  The infrastructure for spreading the word was already in place.  But every country has volunteers working on the ground.  For example, in most countries at war, both Catholics and Mennonites have a strong presence, and sometimes a significant network, in addition to (and often supporting) local organizations.  Some volunteers are actively engaged in peace work.  Others provide medical services or distribute food, and while not actively engaged in peace, they strongly support it.

Obviously, campaigning against the government or the insurgents could have undesirable, and perhaps fatal, consequences.  The first step is to realize that neither the government nor the insurgents are the enemy.  War is the enemy.  Neither of the combatant parties would ever claim to be against peace at the risk of losing their legitimacy.  Both sides claim to want peace, despite their actions to the contrary.  Presenting an even-handed message of peace is both healthful and effective, because it forces the parties to do what they claim they want to do (but don’t really).

Likewise, when discussing atrocities, it should be emphasized that both sides have committed them.  (In most wars, they have.)  The problem is not the insurgents’ atrocities or the government’s atrocities.  The problem is atrocities, caused by war.

In Sri Lanka, the Sarvodaya Movement kicked off its peace campaign in 1999 with a peace meditation in the capitol that drew an unexpected 160,000 people from all over the island.  It was, to the best of my knowledge, the largest event of its kind in the world up to that point.  Politicians and the LTTE gave the event tepid praise, while some news outlets scorned it.  But Sarvodaya continued holding peace meditations, large and small, as the visible expression of the growing support for peace.

After a couple of years of grassroots work, Sarvodaya was able to draw more than half a million participants to its peace meditation in Anuradhapura.  Peace was obviously no longer a fringe idea.  The national dialog had changed.

The Norwegians had been trying to negotiate a cease-fire for some time, without success.  In 2001, the war raged on, then in its 21st year.  The LTTE, outnumbered 40 to 1 by the military, fought effectively with child soldiers and weapons stolen from the military.  Both sides believed they were winning.  That’s because the two sides had very different goals.  The government sought to control territory, while the LTTE wanted influence.  Both were getting what they wanted.  So, while both sides insisted that they wanted peace, neither had any incentive to compromise.

But something else was going on behind the scenes.  Sarvodaya had, over the previous three years, mobilized a huge segment of the population to speak out for peace.  In February of 2002, the parties signed a cease-fire agreement that would last for six years.  The Norwegians would later recognize publicly that their efforts could not have succeeded without the grassroots work of the Sarvodaya Movement.

It’s worth considering what happened after that.  By 2004, the LTTE was quietly looking for advice in how to transform its paramilitary organization into a political organization.  Small businesses were booming, and roadside markets appeared throughout the country for the first time in years.  Then things began to change.  By 2007, both sides were skirmishing in remote areas.  By 2008, the war has resumed in earnest.

My coworker, Shariff, once observed that the only way to win a war against an ethnic insurgency is to kill them all.  In 2009, the government became willing to do just that.  It cornered the LTTE in the jungle.  The LTTE had taken as many as 250,000 Tamil civilians with them as human shields, which had always worked in the past.  This time, the government attacked anyway, eventually wiping out the LTTE (despite their attempt to surrender) and killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process.  The war ended because there was no one left to fight it.

What caused the cease-fire to fall apart?  Complacency.  In 1999, Sarvodaya had acknowledged that cease-fire was not the same as peace, and that continuing efforts were needed to resolve the underlying causes of the war.  But after the cease-fire took effect, long-term peace building took a back seat to other, seemingly more pressing issues.  The grass-roots pressure to make peace gradually receded, and first the government and then the LTTE reverted to their old habits.

Ending a war is not an easy task.  Keeping it ended requires ongoing patience and perseverance.

It would be easy to view the Sr Lanka experience as a failure.  However, what happened there is cause for hope.  A small team of strategists guided a grass-roots organization to mobilize the people for peace, and the shooting stopped for six years, That’s no small accomplishment, and is perhaps unique in the context of post-modern war.

No longer is it enough to negotiate peace between parties, because the parties involved benefit from the war.  To end war, as it exists today, requires thorough analysis, careful strategy, and grass-roots work to mobilize those who do want peace.  It’s not easy.  But, as the Sri Lanka experience proved, it can be done.



September 11

The Nature of War – Part 4

Batti Trip Feb 06 011
D. J. Mitchell photo: Old man in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, 2006.

On one side of a war is a government controlled by a small group of elites attempting to consolidate power.  On the other side is an insurgency, struggling for influence within its own subgroup.  Through violence, it rises from an unheard minority to its own elite status.  Neither side has any real interest in ending the war, and neither pays more than lip service to the needs of the people they claim to represent.

Yet both sides claim to be fighting for peace in the name of the people.  This obvious fiction can only be maintained through control of the public dialog.  This control can take many forms, and often takes more than one.

The most obvious method is control of the media.  In Sri Lanka, the government controlled the major newspaper and all the television stations.  It also controlled the information available to independent media sources by limiting access to war zones and releasing only information (sometimes fabricated) that served its purposes.  In 1998, the media reported the eastern province of Batticaloa to be fully under government control.  Based on that information, I made a trip to Batticaloa, and found that the government only controlled 3/4 of the city itself. The LTTE controlled the countryside and had the city under siege.  The government controlled the access roads, but only during daylight hours.  The false reports could be maintained because access to the east was limited, and besides, if anyone (like me) did find out the truth, where would they report it?  During the 1994 elections, the government went so far as to jam a BBC broadcast reporting that the opposition had won the vote.

Similarly, the LTTE maintained its own media outlets, carefully controlling the information available to the people in the areas it controlled.

Intimidation also controls the public dialog.  The LTTE raised this to an art form, assassinating anyone who spoke up against them.  But the government, too, engaged in intimidation, beating or detaining reporters and editors who stepped too far over the line.

One of the most subtle and insidious ways to limit public dialog is through “patriotism.”  Over time, through constant exposure to the message, people begin to believe that it is unpatriotic to speak out against the status quo.  This subtle message is carried not only through the media, but through social pressure from religious and political leaders, through billboards and posters, and even through television shows and commercials.

Here’s one of my favorite examples.  The Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are about 95% Buddhist.  The Buddha says, “All beings fear death, all beings fear pain; knowing this, one should neither kill nor cause to be killed.”  One day the city of Colombo was blanketed with posters saying, “To fight the enemy is not to kill, but to save your mothers and sisters.”  The message was both powerful and subtle.  First, the Buddha would excuse the war because killing the LTTE was not really killing.  Second, if they didn’t, the LTTE would overrun the country and rape the women.  The LTTE, of course, never made any claim to Sri Lanka as a whole.  But this subtly-implied overstatement conveyed the urgency and religious justification for supporting the war, and made any discussion of peace unthinkable.

In the middle years of the war, when some 2/3 of the national budget went toward fighting the LTTE, there was little serious discussion of peace.  Rather, the national dialog focused on a choice between the current level of war, or a more intense war to defeat the LTTE faster.

There were dozens of peace organizations operating in Sri Lanka, but they had almost no media access.  One exception, Dr. Jehan Perera, a respected journalist who helped found the National Peace Council, occasionally got editorials published in the independent newspapers.  But his voice was not enough to have any impact on the national dialog as a whole.

We can see similarities in our own conflict with Muslim extremists. Most of our news is controlled by six corporations who benefit from dramatizing the need for war.  In our social media, there is a very clear message conveyed that all Muslims are terrorists.  If that is true, then there can be no peace with the Muslim world.  Of course, it isn’t true.  But many Americans have never met a Muslim, and most of those who have did so in the context of military engagement. And it serves the Muslim extremists to have us believe this.

Likewise, Muslims are bombarded with the message that all Americans want to wipe out their religion.  There are plenty of supporting anecdotes on both sides, and no room for an opposing message.  And it serves those Americans who want war for Muslims to believe this.

When we look at a country, including our own, and wonder how people can believe that war is the only solution, we are likely to see many similarities in how the national dialog is controlled.  And there can be no peace while we can’t talk about peace as an option.

September 3

The Nature of War – Part 3

Sri Lanka anti-war sticker, in English and Sinhalese.
Sri Lanka anti-war sticker, in English and Sinhalese.

My last post considered the most obvious feature of a post-modern war: the insurgency.  Yet there are also common characteristics of the government involved that are common to many wars.

Using Sri Lanka as an example once again, I previously noted the systemic problem of the unitary form of government, which is essentially a dictatorship of the majority.  In Sri Lanka, which is 3/4 Sinhalese, a party can get elected by winning 2/3 of the Sinhalese vote, without a single minority vote being cast.  Campaigning therefore centers on the massive Sinhalese vote.  Pleasing the majority gets a politician elected.  Pleasing the minorities is a sure path to losing.

In Sri Lanka, there are two major parties, each with ties to a traditional leadership.  The United National Party (UNP) represents the commercial class that arose under British colonialism.  In rhetoric, they favor free markets and lean toward free trade and closer relationships with the west.  The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) represents the traditional leadership of monks and village leaders.  Their platform tends to be more socialist, hoping to distribute some of the nation’s wealth beyond the commercial class to the villages.

In reality, the UNP represents a very narrow class of wealthy commercial interests, while the SLFP represents a single family that capitalized on the desire of the poor for representation.  In practice, politics in Sri Lanka pits these two small, powerful cliques against each other, fighting for the support of the Sinhalese majority so they can gain power for themselves and disempower the other side.

In the process, the central government has become more powerful.  The prime minister position was upstaged by an Executive Presidency.  Democratic checks and balances have been dismantled.  The police and military at times have been used by the ruling party to try to influence elections, as well as to terrorize the populace, majority and minority alike.

The LTTE’s war against the government played right into the hands of these two small elites.  With a clearly identified enemy, the party in power could expand the military, creating jobs in the process.  It could accuse its rivals of being “soft on terror” and “unpatriotic,” causing both sides to try to demonstrate that each was tougher and more nationalistic than the other.  It could spy on any perceived threat, including its rivals.  The rival party, if it gained power, used the very same tactics.

The goal of the government thus was not to defeat the insurgency, but to gain and then cement its control over the populace.  (The UNP succeeded in that goal, creating a virtual dictatorship, and only then were they willing to end the war.  The fate of democracy in Sri Lanka is still undecided.)  Throughout the history of the war, every time the LTTE came to the table, one party or the other found a way to sabotage the peace process. As previously noted, the LTTE had no motivation to end the war, either.  With neither combatant having any real interest in peace, it’s no surprise that the war continued for 25 years.

Can these characteristics be seen in governments involved in other conflicts?  Surely in Israel, a conservative minority seeks to retain power, and the war with the Palestinians provides them a useful means.  In the U.S. in 2001, a president elected in a disputed election by the narrowest of margins, whose presidency was seen as floundering, suddenly gained respect and support because of Al Queda’s 9/11 attack.  The resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assault on civil rights, increased surveillance, and narrowing of political dialog to a few key issues, mirrors the Sri Lanka experience quite closely.

When considering a conflict, it is as important to recognize that often the government involved has as little motivation to make peace as the insurgents.  Seen in this light, it is more understandable why wars can be so difficult to end.


August 27

The Nature of War – Part 2


D. J. Mitchell photo: Members of rival Tamil organization EPDP (Baticaloa, 2006).
D. J. Mitchell photo: Members of rival Tamil organization EPDP (Baticaloa, 2006).

The most obvious feature of a post-modern war is the insurgency, a para-governmental or non-governmental force that seeks concessions from an established government.  Most media reports portray the war just that simply.  But if it was that simple, the fighting would not continue for years or decades.

I studied the Sri Lanka civil war in great depth for exactly that reason: if it’s that simple, why can’t they end it?  Of course, it wasn’t that simple.

The war in Sri Lanka pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it was fighting for a Tamil homeland because of decades of abuses by GOSL against Tamils.  The history of abuse is well documented, stretching back to the 1960 violent suppression of a peaceful protest by Tamil activists, and even further.  But that’s not enough to explain the LTTE.

Sri Lanka is a unified state, meaning that all power rests with the central government, which is elected through a simple majority.  State and provincial officials are appointed by the central government.  The country is about 3/4 Sinhalese. while the Sri Lanka Tamils, the second-largest majority, make up just over 12%.  In a simple-majority system, the Tamils have no chance at influencing the central government or its appointees to state and provincial office.  So Tamils are at a severe political disadvantage to the extent that one might say they are denied self-determination.

But the problem does not lie solely with the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils.  Both Sinhalese and Tamils have a caste system.  Unlike India, in Sri Lanka in both ethnic groups, the upper castes are the largest.  Thus, the lower castes have little influence even within their own ethnic groups.

The founders of the LTTE came from the lower Tamil castes.  They were a double minority, unheard by either the government or their own people.  And while their nationalist message initially appealed to intellectuals and some upper caste Tamils, as the war began in earnest, LTTE turned to the Tamil lower castes for support and recruits.  Though they claimed the war was for the benefit of the “Tamil people,” their real motive was to gain power for themselves and the unheard low-caste minority within Tamil society, as well as from the Sinhalese-dominated government.  Over the years, they mercilessly quashed competing Tamil groups, intellectuals, and high-caste leaders.  Their claim to represent the entire Tamil people was true only insofar as they had eliminated any other possible representatives.

One factor in the LTTE’s success was its development of international support.  There is evidence that they received some support from India in the early years, but their support primarily came from the tens of thousands of Tamils living abroad.  Sometimes voluntarily and sometimes under coercion, the Tamil diaspora provided money and publicity for the LTTE’s efforts at home.  LTTE supplemented this support with global enterprises, smuggling guns and drugs all over the world.   Thus, LTTE had a stream of foreign support that no other Tamil group could match.

LTTE shares characteristics common to many insurgencies in post-modern wars.  They originate in a voiceless group of people with at least some legitimate grievances.  They compete successfully within their larger group identity for leadership, often offering para-governmental services such as education and health care that no one else makes available.  They develop support networks beyond their immediate constituency.  And they use the war skillfully to cement their position.

Similar characteristics can be seen in Hamas in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, ISIS in Iraq, and many other insurgencies.

One of the most important keys to understanding a conflict is this: under the existing systems, the insurgency’s leaders would have no chance of getting elected through a democratic process.  They hold power only so long as the government in question has no control over them.  Thus, whether they can win the war or not, they need to keep fighting, because they could never gain or retain power during a time of peace.

August 21

The Nature of War – Part 1

Tamil Guardian photo: LTTE soldiers pictured in Vanni training with 120mm heavy mortars.

There are many reasons not to try to understand war.  It’s ugly.  It’s inevitable.  It doesn’t concern me.  It only matters who wins.  Let them all kill each other.  My country, right or wrong.  If the leaders would only be reasonable!

Yet there are good reasons why we should try to understand war.  The most important is, if we don’t understand a war, we cannot end it.  And, if we don’t understand a war, getting involved with it in any way can have adverse and unexpected consequences.

War in the 21st century is far different from war in the 20th.  No longer do we see nations fighting nations for territory or resources.  These days, we see governments facing off with para-governmental or non-governmental forces over what sometimes seem trivial issues.  Yet the issues over which these forces fight are often far removed from the ones they claim publicly, making post-modern war more difficult to understand than ever.

Here’s an example of the complexity of post-modern war, and of the danger of getting involved without a thorough understanding.  In 2001, the Bush administration believed that if the U.S. invaded Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power, the country would be spontaneously transformed into a peaceful democracy.*  The war would be over in months.  However, Iraq was a far more complex society than they anticipated.  The doctrine of Spontaneous Democracy failed, and fourteen years later, Iraq is still far from democratic—and far from peaceful.

For me, the most important reason to understand war is because of the suffering of civilians.  These days, civilians are regularly targeted.  In Iraq, Palestine, and Sri Lanka, noncombatants have died in far greater numbers than combatants.  An astounding number of those killed are children.

These are ordinary people who just want to get on with life.  Most did not choose war, and many did not support it.  These people and their suffering compel me to study war for one purpose: to end it.

This series of posts will explore the unique nature of war in the 21st century.  It will examine its common features and explore how it differs from war in the 20th century.  And it will briefly examine how an understanding of war help those who wish to end the violence.


*See, for example, The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11 by John Brenkman, p. 169.