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The War Nerd September 8, 2006
Sri Lanka: The Big Hate Mo'
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

FRESNO -- Just like I predicted ("Terrorists with an Air Force," eXile #169), the war in Sri Lanka has flared up again. At least they got it on again with an entertaining premiere series of battles. Instead of the usual boring ambush-intro, the main Tamil guerrilla force, the LTTE, staged a big comeback extravaganza in a harbor near Jaffna, at the northern tip of the island. They sent up to 20 small vessels full speed ahead towards a Sri Lankan naval patrol.

If you've read my column, you know that the LTTE ranks as maybe the only guerrilla force in the world with its own air force and navy. Their air power is nothing much, but their navy, the "Sea Tigers," is another matter. They're serious. In line with the Tamils' proud heritage of kamikaze attacks, the Sea Tigers launched several of their suicide boats -- little one-man speedboats with a nose full of HE.

This time, though, it looks like the Sri Lankan gunners were ready for them. If you believe the official version, it was one of those live video games, with machinegunners on the naval patrol boats lighting up the Tamil attackers, killing "up to 100" Tigers and sinking "up to 12" of their boats.

Come to think of it, the wording of these stories is more important than the fuzzy fake numbers they list. So here's a typical story describing that engagement. As part of your war-nerd training, I'm gonna ask you to read it and see what you make of it.

Accounts Differ in Sri Lankan Sea Battle

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Sept. 2 (UPI) -- Sri Lanka's military says it sank a dozen Tamil Tiger rebel boats in an all-night sea battle Saturday off the northern Jaffna peninsula.

The Navy said about 80 Tigers were killed in the fighting that began with a rebel attack near Kankesantuari harbor while government forces suffered only two wounded, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. However, the pro-Tamil Tiger Web site TamilNet said two Navy fast attack craft were sunk and another damaged. Its sources said about 30 government sailors were missing. The two sides have been in conflict on the peninsula for the past month, but neither side has officially withdrawn from a 2002 truce.

The key phrase here is in the headline: "Accounts differ." Ain't that the truth. In fact, that's why war-nerding isn't as easy as it looks. A true war nerd has to sift through mounds of PR from all sides, as well as their lackey outlets in the mainstream media, to get any sense of what's really going on. Whose version of this battle do you believe? If this is the first and only story you've read about this war, then you've got no hope. Best you can do is look at the news agency that filed it. In this case, it's a UPI story. UPI is an American service (now owned by the Moonie empire), and America doesn't care one way or the other about Sri Lanka (although we have loaned training officers to the Army).

That's good, because it means the hack who wrote the story doesn't have an axe to grind here. It's different when you're reading American reporters' stories from wars we've got a stake in, like Iraq or Afghanistan. Whenever you read AP, Reuters or UPI stories from there, take any claims of victory over the locals with about two tons of salt. Same thing when you read British news-agency stories out of Ulster or Basra, or Colombian army claims about FARC casualties: just assume the body counts are inflated and at least half the "victories" never happened.

But here, thanks to the fact that U and I and UPI couldn't care less how many Ceylonese rub each other out, you don't have to factor in the writer's -- or his editor's -- favoritism. All you have to do is choose between the two sides' versions: the Sri Lankan navy vs. the Sea Tigers.

First clue: the navy is crowing louder and claiming a bigger victory than the Tamils are. (Navy claims it killed 80 Tamils and sank 12 Tamil boats whereas the Tamils are only claiming two navy boats sunk and 30 sailors killed). So it's likely -- not sure, just a good hunch here -- that the navy came out ahead in this one. Especially because if you read that story carefully you get the impression the navy broadcast its version whereas the Tamils just responded on their website, like they'd prefer not to talk about this rumble-on-the-sea at all. Still, you should just lop off about half of the navy's claimed numbers, so figure they actually sank six Tamil boats and killed maybe 40 insurgents.

Decent numbers for these days. We don't get Stalingrads any more, fellas, and we hardly ever get naval battles at all, so be grateful.

We also don't get nice, crisp starts and endings to wars any more. That seems to bother a lot of people, because a lot of readers wrote me asking why the peace treaty in Sri Lanka between the Government and the Tamil Tigers broke down. That's like asking why a Yugo breaks down. It breaks down because that's what Yugos DO. Like I said in my earlier column on the LTTE, these treaties between governments and guerrilla armies are just a time-out, not the end of the game. Usually, neither side expects them to last, or even wants them to. In fact, the only suckers gullible enough to think they're really solving the problem are the do-gooder Jimmy Carters and Scandinavian diplomats who broker the treaties.

In Sri Lanka, it was the Norwegians who dragged the Tamil guerrillas and Sinhalese government to the table and got them to sign on the olive-branch line. I guess that's what Norwegians do now that going a-Viking ain't an option: sail the seven seas ruthlessly imposing peace treaties with a half-life shorter than some subatomic particles. I bet the Sri Lankans went screaming, fleeing for the hills, when they sighted the dreaded Norwegian banner flying from the mast of some bio-diesel powered Green Peace-frigate carrying Norwegian mediators into the harbor. "Help! Foreign invaders trying to impose peace!"

Eventually, though, feuding tribes like the Tamil and Sinhalese figure out they've got nothing to fear from signing the pieces of paper these blond busybodies shove in front of them, because the EU's guilt-ridden bureaucrats will shovel money at you if you go through the peace-making motions for the press.

Before the ink is dry on the treaty you've got Airbuses full of rice and penicillin darkening the skies. All for free, or rather for profit, because the locals never see any of it. It goes straight into the carefully-guarded warehouses of the guerrillas' wholesale operations. Every guerrilla movement that lasts past its first manifesto has some very cool heads running things behind the scenes, and the most carefully run, orderly places in the country, sometimes the ONLY spic'n'span interiors in town, are the secret storage depots where the Movement keeps all its donated food, meds and weapons.

There's another reason these treaties don't last: hate momentum. That's what I call it anyway. See, people have the wrong idea; they think "violence" starts when the insurgents set off their first bomb. It doesn't work that way. That's just when the violence first makes the press. There was ALWAYS violence in these places, lots of violence. But as long as the government is strong enough to dish it out, nobody notices. When the people getting zapped non-stop suddenly start zapping back, suddenly it's a "man bites dog" story, a big turnaround, and every TV channel in the world is on the story.

Take a look at the way The Hate between Sinhalese and Tamils built up in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese owned the island till the Brits decided they wanted cheaper, more docile laborers running their tea plantations. Boom, they ship over hordes of Tamil slaves from southern India. The Brits also make the Tamil their teacher's pets, putting them in charge of running the lower levels of the colonial admin.

Naturally this pisses off the Sinhalese no end, so when the Brits leave, the Sinhalese start taking every kind of small-time revenge they can, like making their language the only legal one, booting Tamils out of their Brit-designed jobs, and yelling "Tamil, Tamil, smells like a camel" when they go by. (OK, I made that one up but I'll bet there's some playground rhyme a lot like it in Sri Lanka.)

The Tamils' hate boiled over in the 1980s when the LTTE started up its suicide bombings and ambushes. Naturally the Sinhalese responded with artillery and air attacks, and naturally most of the casualties were civvies. They always are. The kill-radius of a 155mm shell is huge, and it's kids and old folks who are the worst at dodging, so they die sooner. And picking up the shredded remains of your sister or cousin makes you an easy mark for the next guerrilla recruiter who comes a-knockin at your door. So you walk into a bank in Colombo, blow yourself up and kill somebody's uncle, and he orders an air strike on your home village, and so on and so on. That's momentum. In fact, you could say tribal hate is the only real perpetual motion machine that works.

Funny how many islands around the world have this kind of hate because of The Brits' habit of importing Indian laborers, pissing off the locals and then picking up and leaving. Take Fiji. The Fijians were happy enough chewing kava and eating anybody who got shipwrecked on their lovely beaches till Queen Victoria decided they needed to put on more clothes, switch from long pork to mutton, and get out of the way while the Brits imported tens of thousands of Indian cane-choppers who'd work for next to nothing. Well, they didn't have much to do after hours except breed, which they did so well that now Fiji is almost 50/50 divided between Fijians and Indians. That's why you hear about coups there every couple weeks. It's all thanks to the Brits' appetite for cheap labor. This was before outsourcing, y'see, so they physically had to drag the Indians to wherever they could under-bid the local labor force.

It takes a long time for the hate-momentum to build between the imports and the locals. And the dominant tribe is always totally shocked when the underdogs finally get it together enough to strike back. The Tamils got walked on for years before they organized. Blacks in the US didn't start hitting back till the 60s; till then, "race riots" were whites hunting blacks in the cities. The Catholics in Ulster didn't hit back till they saw the footage from Watts and Detroit, even though they'd been stomped for centuries. The Israelis walked on the Palestinians and laughed at their feeble little PLO, till the second-generation insurgents like Hamas and Islamic Jihad started playing for keeps.

It's always the same story: it's not "violence" until somebody hits you back. Till then you don't notice your guys hitting the other tribe. That's just normal background noise. It takes blood, buckets of it, to get a person's attention. And not just anybody's blood -- it's gotta be your own, or that of a close relative. Otherwise it's just spots on the sidewalk.

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Gary Brecher
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