Thursday, February 3, 2011

Unlearned Lessons

It’s very much worth your hard-earned (or borrowed, I suppose) cash to buy the issue of the New Yorker with John Lee Anderson’s long account of how the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tiger insurgency. A lot of bad writing is bad when it tells you what to think too much; Anderson’s account is very light on the interpretations, given the material at hand—it is a long account of the ways people are awful to one another. In a sense, that’s too bad, because there are a few conclusions that could be drawn from the facts at hand.

To wit: Anderson notes that the Sri Lankan campaign—which lasted over a period of decades—has been fondly spoken of by various important military figures, and there’s a terrible little scene where he goes to some naval conference and listens to all these admirals and such praising various aspects of the Sri Lankan counterinsurgency campaign. The campaign, by the by, clearly involved the slaughter of thousands of civilians and the systematic oppression of the survivors.

It is, then, not a highly ethical way to conduct a war. And I’m not even sure it’s practical, in our circumstances. Anderson writes that the size of the Sri Lankan army eventually rose to 300,000 people to cover a country that’s 25,000 square miles or so. Compare that to 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, a country that’s ten times as large. Even if you wanted to imitate the methods of the Sri Lankan government, I’m not sure they’d work.

This, by the way, is supposed to be a successful example of counterinsurgency. Typically the successful examples—like the British in Burma—involve brutality and commitment that we should be unwilling to match, which should be a lesson. But it’s one we haven’t learned.

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