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 13

What the Bible Is Not

Wikipedia photo: The letter P from the Malmsbury Bible.

The Bible is a collection of stories and histories that reflect the understanding, and changing understanding, of a people’s relationship with their God.  It is rich with both history and spiritual guidance.  But sometimes we put expectations on this great book that it cannot fulfill.

The Bible is not a historical document.  Parts of it chronicle historical events.  But the concept of history, as we know it, did not exist until about 200 years ago.  Before that, fact-based, impartial narratives of prior events, based on verifiable sources, simply did not exist.  We cannot hold the writers of the Bible to a standard they never knew.

We are often told that the Bible is the Word of God.  Those who claim this often follow up by telling us that this is so because the Bible says it is. That is, of course, a circular argument.  I may write a book that claims it is the greatest novel ever written.  That wouldn’t make it so.  People would need to read it and decide for themselves if that was true.

Whether we believe the Bible was inspired by God is entirely a personal decision.  But we should make that decision based on our own experience of reading the Bible, not on what someone else tells us, whether they are for or against.

Let’s examine what the Bible does say.

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:1-3)

When the Bible speaks of the Word, it is referring to something far greater than ink on paper.  According to John, Jesus was the Word.  The Bible points to that Word, but it would be absurd to claim that the Bible is Jesus.

I prefer to leave aside titles such as “Word of God.”  I believe the Bible was written by men and women who were moved by God in what they wrote.  The whole of the Bible suggests a developing relationship with God, and it was written by the men and women who were having that experience.

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 9

Domino Theory Began as Something Else

Cover Preview1

Danny had seen a run of bad luck lately.  Two years ago, he’d been gainfully employed, with an apartment and a decent car.  Yeah, he had a little drug problem, but he paid his dealer in cash with the money he earned from his job.  He’d never hurt anyone, never robbed or stolen.  He just liked to get high after work. Then he’d gotten a DUI one night on the way home from a bar.  They had to be kidding!  He’d only stopped in for a couple of drinks, get a little loose, try to pick up on a chick.  He hadn’t even done any drugs!  But the cops claimed he’d failed the field sobriety test.  Hell, he couldn’t walk a straight line dead sober.  Then he’d blown a .24 on the breathalyzer, well over the legal limit of .08.  So not only had he struck out with the woman, he’d gone to jail instead of home to bed. That had been a Friday night.  By the time he’d been arraigned on Tuesday he’d lost two days pay and his job.  Then, just like dominoes, one thing after another had fallen away. 

My second book, Domino Theory, began as something else.  In 1980, I began my first novel, a murder mystery featuring Danny McCabe, a drug addict who’d been clean and sober a few years.  Danny gets called for jury duty, and inadvertently gets involved with trying to clear the defendant, a drug addict who’s been framed.  That book is as yet unfinished, though I hope to finish it this year.

I started Domino Theory around 1990.  As usual, it began with a question: “What would happen if I was drunk and woke up next to a murder victim?”  The result was a mystery about a guy who’s been framed.  He has to dodge the cops and two hit men while finding out who set him up.

I originally planned for the main character to be the defendant from the first Danny McCabe book.  Over the next eight years, I got it plotted and about three quarters written.  Then I stopped.  After all, how can you publish a sequel to a book that isn’t finished?

Domino Theory languished for ten years.  I wasn’t very motivated to work on it because I wasn’t having much luck in the publishing department.

Then came Ordinary World, which sold over 3,000 copies and got great reviews.  That modest success encouraged me to look at my unfinished novels with new eyes.  I thought Domino Theory had a great plot, but it was missing something.  Then it occurred to me to make it the prequel to my Dannny McCabe story.  After all, Danny is a recovering addict.  Why not tell the story of how he got into recovery?

As I began my rewrite, I was strongly influenced by Lawrence Block’s A Ticket to the Boneyard, which I consider the best of the (generally excellent) Matt Scudder series.  It portrays Scudder trying to get sober while facing a brutal opponent.  Despite his need to stay off the booze, Scudder gets drunk again several times.  As a recovering alcoholic and addict, I’ve always though Block portrays Scudder’s struggle well.

I wanted Domino Theory to convey the reality of the insanity a drug addict lives with in his addiction, the constant need, and the ridiculous justifications he believes.  The scenes where Danny struggles with his addiction are as real as I can make them, based on my own ten-year experience.

The misery isn’t as bad now as it was when I kicked.  I’ve been off the sh*t for three weeks.  Well, almost three weeks.  Two and a half, anyway.  My body doesn’t ache any more.  I’m starting to be able to sleep at night, if I drink enough.  Yeah, I drink more, but I’m off the dope.  I’m clean, and that’s something to be proud of. So what am I doing with a bag full of dope in my room?  I don’t want to use it.  Really, I don’t.  It was too hard to get off of it. But the sh*t is calling to me.  That goddamn heroin is calling my name. I drain the third Moosehead and reach for the fourth.  Two thirds gone now.  I’m pretty drunk, but not drunk enough to ignore the dope calling me.  I suck down half the bottle in one swallow. Damn it, I hate that sh*t!  F***ing heroin.  For months I couldn’t not do it.  Now I’m clean, and it still wants me back.  It’s like an evil woman that won’t let go of me, and I can’t say no. That’s the thing: I know I can’t say no.  I always go back to it.  I always have, and I always will.  Yeah, I’m clean right now, but that’s temporary.  I know it.  You know it.  The dope knows it.  It’s calling my name; it knows that sooner or later I’m going to give in.

I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t been there can really understand what goes on in the mind of an addict.  I know some whose friends and loved ones are addicts have stopped trying, and I don’t blame them.  Our actions are as incomprehensible as they are heartbreaking.

Domino Theory is an attempt to bridge that gap, while telling what I hope is an entertaining story.  Danny has no clue who framed him or why.  He knows he he has to get off the drugs to have any chance of staying alive.  With the help of some new friends in AA, he begins to unravel the mystery.  He stakes out drug dealers, tracks a mysterious woman to her home, and identifies several of the people involved.  But who is the mastermind blaming Danny for a string of murdered dealers, and can Danny stay clean long enough to find him before the hit men or the cops catch up with him?

If the internal dialog is too raw, if you can’t understand how anyone could be so crazy, at least take this from your reading experience: People like Danny and me, crazy as we are, do find recovery.  I’ve been clean and sober more than thirty years!  Domino Theory is a mystery, and a look deep into the frightening mind of an addict.  But it’s also a story of hope.

AA, Danny thought, not for the first time, really didn’t apply to him.  He might as well go out and get loaded, because AA wasn’t going to work.  What the heck?  He had plenty of dope.  He could hole up in a motel and stay stoned until they found him.  With enough heroin in his system, he wouldn’t even feel the bullet that killed him. “F***ing AA,” he muttered.  “It’s for pussies, not for people with real problems.”  He took a last hit off his cig and ground the butt into the pavement with his shoe. Then he remembered the guy from Newark who had stolen money from the mob and had to make amends for it.  And the girl, Jamie, who had come to puking her guts out on the floor of a jail cell. “Okay,” he acknowledged.  “They had problems.  So maybe AA does work.  But what am I supposed to do?” The answer came.  It was in Alicia’s voice, almost like she was there in his head responding to his question. “That’s freaky,” Danny said.  Because what the voice told him to do was pick up the phone and call someone in AA and ask them what he should do.

Domino Theory is available in paperback and eBook on Amazon and Kindle, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and from other online retailers.

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.