War and Death

I always liked Chandi. He was my cousin’s cousin, not a near relative, but his family and my family and the family of cousins in-between have been close since childhood. Sri Lanka is a small country, which makes it is easy for children to spend a lot of time with one another and thus one became very close with one’s childhood friends. Although Chandi was five years older than I was, and I was closer in age to his younger brother and sister, age gaps among children in Sri Lanka are not as distancing as they seem to be in the US, and Chandi had an easy-going, friendly, warm, and generous nature that made people like him.

On my return from Sri Lanka last year, we stopped for a few days in London and Chandi and his wife Anula (who also happened to be visiting London for a family wedding) came to visit us and we caught up on all that happened to our respective families in the decades since we had last met. Chandi was that same gentle and fun-loving person he had always been. As is usually the case when you meet up with good friends whom you’ve known for a long time, we just picked up from where we had left off and it was as if no time had elapsed since our previous meeting.

Hence it was a shock to me on the first day of my return from Australia last week to learn that Chandi, Anula, and five of their friends and relatives had been blown up by a powerful landmine while they were all visiting a nature reserve in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government alleges that it was the Tamil Tigers who planted that mine in a national park, hoping to discourage tourism. The Tigers deny responsibility, counter-alleging that it was the work of the government.

This is the kind of killing in wartime where the truth will never be discovered, nor the perpetrators punished, just like the case of Rajini Rajasingham-Tiranagama many years ago. Chandi and Anula will join Rajini as another statistic, a ‘casualty of war,’ ‘collateral damage,’ ‘innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire,’ and all the other soothing phrases to lull us into forgetting that wars kill real people, people with families, and children, and parents, and friends. And in modern wars, an increasing number of casualties are innocent people, just trying to make the best of the one life we have.

Chandi and Anula were the latest victims in the long-running civil war, now experiencing a highly shaky and frequently violated truce, between the Sinhala majority government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas, a bitter irony since in their own personal lives (Chandi being Tamil and Anula being Sinhalese) they had seen through the shallowness of ethnic divisions and knew each other as simply human beings.

But the same holds true for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, East Timor. Most people live their lives without thinking of themselves and their families as fulfilling some grand ethnic or religious destiny. They have simple ambitions about creating better lives for themselves and improving their corner of the world . But such innocent people die as part of the schemes and ambitions of so-called leaders and their war-hungry supporters, who make sure that they themselves and their own loved ones are carefully sheltered from the consequences of their actions.

War is a brutal, cruel thing, destroying the lives of people and societies and leaving scars that last generations. I have little patience with those who have never known what it is like to live through war and have no idea what it does to people, and thus find it easy to act as cheerleaders for it, urging others to fight and die as if it were some kind of game, as if it were some clinical strategy exercise rather than seeing it for what it actually is: blood, guts, limbs torn apart, brains scattered, children orphaned and scarred for life, bereaved parents and spouses.

I am not a pacifist. I can see where there can be rare occasions where war may be the only option left. But what appalls me is when decisions to go to war are taken casually, rather than done after much carefully deliberation and elimination of all other options, as the absolutely last resort that it should be.

I do not wish war on anyone. The only positive thing I can see about anyone experiencing war at close range is that it would so disgust them that they would recoil from it and not wish it on anyone else. The US has been fortunate in not experiencing a protracted and bloody war on its own soil since the civil war. Thus people have been spared the sight of war up close, seeing their friends, family and neighbors killed and maimed and their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This may also explain why there is such a casual and unconcerned response here to the frequent decisions of the US government to wage war in other countries. Even as deadly violence occurs on a daily basis in Iraq, it is scarcely even a topic of discussion here. It just doesn’t seem real, except for the families of the US troops who are killed and injured.

Veteran Australian war correspondent John Pilger describes what war really looks like and how the media sanitizes the carnage of war to make it more acceptable;

In Vietnam, where more than a million people were killed in the American invasion of the 1960s, I once watched three ladders of bombs curve in the sky, falling from B52s flying in formation, unseen above the clouds.

They dropped about 70 tons of explosives that day in what was known as the “long box” pattern, the military term for carpet bombing. Everything inside a “box” was presumed destroyed.

When I reached a village within the “box”, the street had been replaced by a crater.

I slipped on the severed shank of a buffalo and fell hard into a ditch filled with pieces of limbs and the intact bodies of children thrown into the air by the blast.

The children’s skin had folded back, like parchment, revealing veins and burnt flesh that seeped blood, while the eyes, intact, stared straight ahead. A small leg had been so contorted by the blast that the foot seemed to be growing from a shoulder. I vomited.

I am being purposely graphic. This is what I saw, and often; yet even in that “media war” I never saw images of these grotesque sights on television or in the pages of a newspaper.

The response to the recent killing of al-Zarqawi in Iraq illustrates the callousness to death that has overtaken us. (This report by Patrick Cockburn, one of the best journalists covering Iraq, gives the background on the rise and fall of this “little known Jordanian petty criminal turned Islamic fundamentalist fanatic.”) One of the contributors on the website DailyKos wrote this:

CHEERS to finding a really evil needle in a really big haystack. U.S. forces rocked terrorist Abu Musab “Dick” al-Zarqawi’s world last night when they tossed a thousand pounds of explosive whupass down his gullet. They found his body in the bedroom. And the kitchen. And the den. And the garage. And the neighbor’s apartment. And I think I found an eyebrow in my Cocoa Puffs this morning. My only regret: he didn’t know what hit him.

What causes people to respond in such a gleeful and barbaric manner? Even though al-Zarqawi himself is charged with appallingly violent and brutal crimes that were committed with no respect for human life, how can anyone respond to another’s death with such frivolousness? The writer is clearly reveling in his ghastly descriptions in a manner that makes me suspect that for him these are just words, that sudden violent death is nothing that he has seen personally or had happen to anyone he knew.

Contrast this with the response of Michael Berg (the father of Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded by al-Zarqawi) on hearing the same news:

Well, my reaction is I’m sorry whenever any human being dies. Zarqawi is a human being. He has a family who are reacting just as my family reacted when Nick was killed, and I feel bad for that.

I feel doubly bad, though, because Zarqawi is also a political figure, and his death will re-ignite yet another wave of revenge, and revenge is something that I do not follow, that I do want ask for, that I do not wish for against anybody. And it can’t end the cycle. As long as people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence.

The incredulous CNN interviewer tries to get a more vindictive and bloodthirsty response by reminding Berg of the brutal way his own son died, and asks him “[A]t some point, one would think, is there a moment when you say, ‘I’m glad he’s dead, the man who killed my son’?” Michael Berg replies “No. How can a human being be glad that another human being is dead?”

Michael Berg’s reaction to the death of his son’s murderer will be incomprehensible to many people because we have got so used to thinking that revenge killing is an honorable thing, something to be excused, or desired, even exulted over. The targeted killings of political enemies is now routinely celebrated, and the possibility of capturing them alive is not even considered, dismissed as a sign of pusillanimity. ‘Real men,’ it is believed, kill the ‘bad guys’ and ‘evildoers’ and then laugh and boast about it. Our childish language matches our cartoonish attitude towards grave issues of life and death.

But let’s pause and think about this for a minute. If we celebrate and justify summary executions when it is done by our own government, how can we condemn it when it is done against us by suicide bombers? Just as much as the level of our commitment to free speech is truly measured by how willing we are to protect the speech of those whose ideas we despise, so is our humanity measured by how we respond to the deaths of those whose actions we loathe.

Each war has its iconic pictures and the ones that affect me most are not the headshots of the corpses of well known figures like Saddam Hussein’s sons (Uday and Qusay) and al-Zarqawi that are splashed in large color photographs across the front pages of newspapers, as if they were trophies. What moves me are the pictures of children affected by war. The picture that I will always remember about Vietnam is the one that shows a crying young child running away with others from the scene of a bombing, her clothes and skin burned from the napalm dropped on her village, smoke from its ruins billowing in the background.

For Iraq, the picture that haunts me is the one that shows a blood-spattered terrified Iraqi child just after US soldiers had killed her parents as they were traveling in their car near a checkpoint. I have seen some truly grisly and stomach churning pictures of the casualties of the car bombings and shootings and bombings of the Iraq war, of children and old people, men and women, their dead and mutilated bodies captured in indelible images that have never been seen by most people. But there is something about this picture of a grief stricken little crying child, cowering under the gun of a heavily armed soldier, her upturned supplicating hands stained with the blood of her parents, that fills me with an almost unbearable sadness.

I will never forget these pictures. They are seared in my memory as symbols of the atrocity of war. Each time I see or remember them I feel sick at the level of brutality to which we have sunk.

War is not a game. It creates monsters while at the same time destroying people and societies in unspeakable ways. The cycle of killing and counter killing, death and retribution, revenge and counter-revenge usually ends up with mostly the innocent dying.

And now it has taken the lives of my friends Chandi and Anula. Ordinary people. Living ordinary lives. Just like you and me.

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