The Nature of War – Conclusion (Part 5)
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:
One day during a brainstorming session, my coworker Shariff Abdullah redrew the diagram like this:
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.