November 4

Deja Vu All Over Again

Do you remember when the party in power intimidated voters, “lost” opposition votes, and stuffed ballot boxes? They lost in a landslide to their opponents, but they refused to let the winners take office. The nation came close to violence that night and in the following days. Only a massive appeal from civil and religious leaders convinced the defeated party to vacate their offices and end the standoff. But that was after five days of a tense, 24-hour curfew.

You don’t remember? Of course not. Because you weren’t in Sri Lanka in 1994, when Chandrika won in a landslide after a courageous campaign that defied death threats and intimidation. (It’s a place where death threats should be taken seriously: her father and her husband had both been assassinated.)

I remember the collective sigh of relief when someone turned on the TV and we watched Chandrika being sworn in as Prime Minister. And I remember thinking, ‘Thank God this could never happen in my home country.”

Or could it? USPS (run by an appointee of the President who has been slashing postal services) has lost 300,000 mail-in ballots– and has defied a court order to find them. Democrats are far more likely to mail their ballots than Republicans. So it’s likely that over a quarter of a million votes for Biden have already been declared missing.

Not only that, but the mail-in preference of Democrats will cause their votes to be counted last, potentially creating the illusion that Trump won even though all the votes haven’t been counted.

And Trump has signaled that he may not accept the election results.

All of which adds up, for me, to deja vu.

I sat with a political activist who supported Chandrika shortly before the election. He told me how, just the night before, someone had come to his home after hearing a rumor that Chandrika had been shot. The activist confirmed that the rumor was false. And he asked the man what he would have done if it had been true. The man replied that he and his friends had planned to kill every opposition supporter in town.

We’ve already seen the violence our nation is capable of in recent protests and counter-protests. I pray that this election goes smoothly. Because what it feels like tonight is that the world is holding its breath. I imagine this is what it felt like in 1936. As songwriter Robyn Hitchcock summarized,

Chamberlain came crawling from Munich
With one piece of paper. He waved at the camera.
Peace in our time, Oh thank you Herr Hitler.
Tell that to the Polish. Tell that to the Jews!

May God be with us this night, and in the days to come.

January 2

My First Vision

I didn’t used to be religious. I grew up Episcopalian, and what I learned in Sunday school never seemed to have much relevance to my life. We learned the Bible stories, but not why they were important or what they meant. By age 13, I decided I wasn’t Christian. But I still went to church with my family because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I accepted Confirmation for the same reason, even though I knew I wasn’t being honest.

I struggled with depression and feelings of being outcast by my peers. By 16 years old, I had found drugs. At 17, I got expelled from high school. I also had what I now would say was a religious experience in which I was promised that things would get better, and that if I did what was put before me I would eventually find peace.

Things didn’t get better for a long time. I moved far from my family to Los Angeles, where I could pursue my habits without interference. My habits grew worse. At 25, addicted to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol, I sought help and wound up (after months of struggle) getting sober in AA.

AA strongly suggests seeking God. I didn’t believe in God, but at the same time I couldn’t say I disbelieved in God. I was an agnostic, and I wanted evidence one way or the other. The fact that many times I’d driven home too wasted to see and somehow arrived safely, or that I survived five overdoses, or even that my unbearable obsession for alcohol and drugs had now disappeared, apparently wasn’t sufficient. I tried churches, but didn’t find any that made sense to me. Eventually I became a Buddhist. That led me to do volunteer work in Sri Lanka.

I had another powerful spiritual experience in Sri Lanka when I was 34 years old. At the time, I was thinking about making that country my permanent home. The vision led me to understand that what I would learn in Sri Lanka I was supposed to take home to the U.S., where it would someday be needed. Both of these visions had a common characteristic: they gave me messages about my life, but they gave me no clues about the source of the messages. I remained an agnostic.

But I wanted to understand Christianity. After working with a Catholic priest in Thailand for two months, I could see that there was more to Christianity than I’d seen in my childhood church, or than the evangelists I’d met over the years (some of whom were drunk themselves) had told me. I attended a Catholic university and majored in Theology and Peace Studies. I began hanging out in Campus Ministry, and a nun became my spiritual director. But I still didn’t feel as though I had any evidence for the existence of a God who was present in my life. In 1998, I began to pray, “If there is a God, let me know you.”

This was my quest as, in 1999, the organization I’d worked with in Sri Lanka invited me to help them try to end the civil war there. My first trip witnessed 160,000 people gathering (in the face of political opposition and some fear for safety) to meditate for peace in the capital city in September. During my second trip in December, the rebels had begun an offensive, driving out Sinhalese villagers from what the LTTE considered “their” territory. My team decided to go north to see what these refugees would tell us. We interviewed refugees all day, and that night retired to a compound that our organization ran.

At dusk, the artillery began. It wasn’t a constant barrage, just one shell every five or ten  minutes, landing somewhere to the north of us. Meanwhile, by lamplight because there was no electricity, our local host began telling us stories and showing us photos of what he had seen there. Some of the photos were pretty gruesome. The one that touched me most was of a black lump, which our host said had formerly been a young woman who volunteered as a preschool teacher in one of the villages before the LTTE burned her to death.

In the middle of the night, gunfire erupted outside the compound. I heard machine guns, grenades, and RPGs. I couldn’t sleep through that, so I sat in a chair in the common area in the dark. I was acutely aware that the war was raging outside, and I was powerless to do anything about it. I began to ask, “Why, God, why?”

I got an answer. I saw a net, or a loose cloth, with fibers that stretched infinitely in all directions. Each place the fibers met was an event, and they were interwoven in a way I could not understand. A voice said, “If there was no war, there would be no peacemakers. Blessed are the peacemakers!” At first, I thought I was being told that the war existed for the purpose of calling people to be peacemakers. That seemed horribly cruel. But that was not what it meant. I understood that nothing could happen without God’s consent, and that somehow, in some way far beyond my comprehension, there was a purpose to this war– and it was equally true that we were called to try to end it. And I saw that the ways of God are too incomprehensible for a human mind to grasp.

I want to reiterate that I was at the time coming from a Buddhist perspective in which “evil” can be explained by the Three Poisons: anger, greed, and ignorance. Buddhism doesn’t have a concept of God or Evil. That is a philosophical approach that makes it easier to understand war. Address anger, greed, and ignorance, and the fighting stops. I was comfortable with that. Except we hadn’t yet made any progress.

This idea that the war could somehow be permitted by God went against everything I then believed, and everything I wanted to believe about God. In short, it blew my mind.

I returned to Los Angeles a few days later, but found I could no longer function. I’d graduated by now and was doing accounting work to support myself, but I couldn’t work. I couldn’t carry on a conversation. And I couldn’t explain what had happened. I felt like I’d plugged my 110-volt computer into a 10,000-volt main line, and every circuit was fried.

I didn’t realize at first that part of my distress stemmed from Post Traumatic Stress. I had seen and heard violence and stories of violence that I could not accept. Over the next 15 years, I would undergo various types of therapy for PTSD before I gained some measure of recovery from it.

But I also couldn’t reconcile the fact that I, an agnostic, had prayed to know God, and God had revealed himself to me in a powerful and disruptive way. The line from the T.S. Eliot poem, “Journey of the Magi,” haunted me: “No longer at ease in the old dispensation…” That was me.

I’ll tell you the truth: I ran away. I tried to put as much distance as I could between myself and that experience– between me and God. By 2004, I had given up peace work and moved to rural Utah to make cheese in the middle of nowhere. I dabbled in Christian theology that was based on the teachings of Jesus but had no room for God to be present. God had terrified me, and I wanted no part of him.

But if God wants you to go to Ninevah, chances are you’re going to Ninevah. Just ask Jonah.

In 2012, my second marriage ended, and my fiancee got pregnant. I was ecstatic. I didn’t have any children of my own. I couldn’t wait to hear the baby’s heartbeat. But when we went for the first ultrasound and they put the machine on her, there was no heartbeat. She was miscarrying. In moments, I went from ecstasy and anticipation to despair. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. Then my friend Dave, who’d been undergoing experimental treatment for liver cancer that the doctors said was working, went for a liver transplant, after which he was supposed to be fine. But when they opened him up, they found the treatment hadn’t worked after all. He was full of cancer. They sent him home to die. Once again, hope was crushed into despair. I blamed God. I raged at him. I shouted at him. I demanded to know what kind of God he was.

In doing so, I stopped denying him.

This began my slow journey to becoming a Christian. I started going to church later that year (though my home church was in Denver, 8 hours away). In 2013 I was baptized. In August 2016, I finally accepted forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

The journey wasn’t easy. My wife and I struggled through demonic oppression, mental and physical illness, and financial hardship. Trusting God wasn’t always easy. But that’s what it took for me to be ready. That’s what it took for me to surrender to this simple truth: He is God, and I’m not.

Now the great theological question: Do we have free will? Absolutely. Then how is it that everything that happens is consistent with God’s plan? I don’t know, you’d have to ask him. Maybe you’ll understand better than I do. But I now accept that to be true. The Bible confirms it. Just read the Book of Job (particularly 1:6-12, 38:1-4, 40:6-9, and 42:1-6; see also Lamentations 3:37-38). This paradox is hinted at by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous saying: “We must believe in free will. We have no choice!”

Did my wife have a miscarriage so that I would find God? Yes. No. Maybe. Partly. The answer is too complex for me to say with any certainty. My human mind can’t possibly comprehend.

A wise man once said, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.”

I used to think he was wrong.

August 18

The Spiritual Journey – Part 1

My spiritual journey began, I suppose, the day I realized I didn’t believe in the God my parent’s church talked about. I was thirteen years old at the time, depressed, and certain that there could be no God or He would have helped me. I became an atheist, searching for answers in the realms of politics, eastern religions, and psychedelics.

I found few answers, and my focus gradually changed to alcohol, stimulants, and opiates, as well as literature (and music) about those same topics. Eventually, miserable and afraid that death had forgotten me, I got sober.

The Twelve Step program insisted that I search for God as an answer to my addictions.  I didn’t know how to search. For a while, it was enough to accept God as mysterious, unknown force that removed my obsession to drink and use. But the time came when I was forced to enlarge my spiritual life. I scanned the Yellow Pages for churches.  (This was long before Google.)  I tried several, including one that promised heavy metal music and long hair. Nothing fit.  They wanted me, at this point an agnostic, to accept that Jesus dies for my sins so I could go to Heaven. I barely believed in Jesus, felt that my sins were beyond forgiveness, and had no interest in everlasting life.

I stumbled into a Buddhist temple one day, and immediately became fascinated. They didn’t tell me what to believe. They said, in essence, “Do this, and you will see what the truth is.”  That I could do.

I studied Buddhism for several years. But again, something was missing. The “truth” they spoke of had to do with my personal salvation. But everything in me cried out for more. There were so many people in the world suffering from injustice, how could there not be an answer in this world as well as the next? (There couldn’t. But I’ll come back to that later.)

I began to pray to a God I didn’t believe in, “If there is a God, let me know You.”  And, as a corrolary, I imagined if there was a God, what would He want me to do.  This led me to volunteer in Sri Lanka and Thailand, helping the poor and hoping to learn something that would make me more useful to those the global economy had overlooked.

In Thailand, I worked with a Catholic priest whose motto was, “Preach the Gospel always; use words when necessary.” He dedicated his life to helping the poor, most of whom were Buddhists. And he opened the door to God for me in a way no one else had. I actually took communion for the first time in two decades.

When I returned to the U.S., I attended a Jesuit university, where I majored in Theology.  I still didn’t consider myself a believer, but I wanted to understand the Bible and somehow make sense out of it. My Old Testament professor, a Quaker, showed me that the focus of the Old Testament is not outlining various sins of individual behavior, but structuring a society that is fair to the poor. He pointed out, for example, that homosexuality is condemned once, while greed and injustice are condemned hundreds of times. Meanwhile my New Testament professor, a Jesuit, began his class with Jesus declaring in Mark, “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”  This made sense to me, and I began to believe in the teachings of Jesus, at least as they applied to this world.

As for God, I remained an agnostic. I literally didn’t know. Then, in 1999, I joined a group in Sri Lanka that was trying to end the decades-long war. My work took me int a war zone, where I felt that I came face-to-face with God. My prayer from so long ago had finally been answered.

But I didn’t like what I saw. My vision asked me to believe in the rightness of things. My peace work, it suggested, was right. And so was the war. In some vast architecture beyond my comprehension all this fit together in the Mind of God. Having seen the suffering the war caused to good people, and to children, I couldn’t accept that.

Later I moved to Utah and began making artisan cheese.  I gave up peace work. I gave up volunteer service. Yes, I was suffering from PTSD as a result of my experiences. But I was also running from God. I wanted to seek Him, but I was terrified because of what He’d shown me. So I hid for twelve years.


July 19

I Met Rosa Parks on the Bus

I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka between 1993 and 2007.  It was a nation at war, which pitted the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL).  The LTTE claimed it wanted a separate homeland for the Tamil people.  In reality, it just wanted to control the Tamils.  The GOSL claimed it wanted to make peace with the Tamil people.  In reality, they mostly just wished the Tamils would go away.

Tamils, especially those in the east which had many cultural differences from the LTTE strongholds in the north, were caught in the middle with no one to turn to.

Fighting was fierce in the East for many years.  In 1998, the government announced it had taken control of Batticaloa District, and I decided to make a trip to this city that had never been safe before.

As it turns out, it wasn’t safe in 1998, either.  The government lied about the extent of its control.  In fact, it controlled three quarters of the city, and it controlled the major roads during daylight hours.  The countryside was still firmly in the grip of LTTE control.  But I didn’t know that until I got there.

My first challenge was to figure out how to get there.  No one knew.  Few in the Sinhalese parts of the country had any interest in going.

I took a bus from the Pettah market in Colombo to Mahiyangana, about two-thirds of the distance.  The Mahiyangana bus was late, and I missed the connection to Ampara and had to spend the night.  Mahiyangana looked like a cowboy town, South Asian style.  The streets were dusty, and the buildings were made of wood and not very sturdy.  Police, troops, and others not in uniform roamed the streets with guns.  And, despite the strong Muslim and Tamil (Hindu) presence, a Buddhist temple at the center of town blasted Buddhist chants through a loudspeaker at an ear-splitting volume.

I caught the morning bus, which left two hours late.  But I had no idea the journey I was in for.  As we approached the Eastern Province, we started passing through checkpoints.  At each checkpoint, everyone on the bus had to get off, pass through security, answer questions, and reboard the bus.  Meanwhile, soldiers with AK-47 machine guns searched the bus for anything suspicious.  We passed through a total of ten checkpoints.  There were no stops between most of the checkpoints, so no one had gotten off or on since the last one.  The same people got interviewed and the same luggage got searched ten times!  Lucky for me, because I was a foreigner, after the third stop they told me I didn’t have to get off the bus at the checkpoints anymore.

Most Tamils do not speak Sinhalese, and most Sinhalese, including the soldiers, do not speak Tamil.  All communication occurred through the bus conductor, a Tamil who also spoke Sinhalese.  I never learned Tamil, but I could follow his Sinhalese explanations.

Two seats in front of me sat a young Tamil woman, probably in her late twenties.  The soldiers payed her extra attention, perhaps because she was good looking.  I had learned from their questioning that the woman was a nurse at the government hospital in Batticaloa who had been to Colombo for training and was now returning home.

At the sixth checkpoint, something happened.  I stayed behind as the passengers got off the bus.  So did the nurse.

The soldiers with their AK-47s boarded the bus to search the luggage for the sixth time.  They looked at me and nodded.  Then they looked at the nurse.

“Why is she not getting down off the bus?” one asked the conductor.

The conductor translated the question for the nurse, and then translated her answer for the soldiers.

“She says she’s tired,” he said, “and she’s done getting down off  the bus.”

I held my breath.  Here was a Tamil woman defying two armed soldiers at a security checkpoint in a country where people, especially Tamils, disappear regularly.

The one soldier looked at the other.  They paused.  Then they shrugged and began searching the luggage.

I could not believe what I had just witnessed.  The nurse had defied authority and won.

She didn’t get off the bus at any of the remaining checkpoints.

I continued on to Batticaloa.  The city is located on an island, and in those days only one bridge was open for access.  We passed under a concrete emplacement bristling with weapons as we crossed it.  I found my hosts and spent the next three days meeting people.  I met a Sinhalese woman who had left her family and learned Tamil so she could counsel families of the missing and disappeared.  I sat with her as a Tamil woman brought in a medical report on her husband, who had been severely tortured while in custody.  I met a man who had been kidnapped by the LTTE and held for ransom.  I met an American priest who had spent decades in the area, and who served the people fearlessly ignoring both combatant parties.  And I met kids who had lost legs, arms, and eyes from grenades, landmines, and booby traps.  One, a fourteen-year-old boy, had two primitive rubber hands.  When I asked him what his plans for the future were, he smiled a huge smile and told me, “I’m training to become a tailor!”

My trip to Batticaloa left indelible images in my mind.  But one of the most poignant is of a young woman who refused to get off the bus because she was tired.

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.

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.