The Nature of War – Part 4
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.