Innocent Civilians

The news in Sri Lanka is the pending fate of an unknown number of civilians trapped in the shrinking territory still controlled by the LTTE. Estimates of the number of trapped civilians range as high as 250,000 in an area the Sri Lankan government gives as 200 square kilometers (80 square miles). For comparison, this is about the same as the land area within the Seattle city limits. The population of the city of Seattle is 600,000, so the estimated population density of the civilians trapped in the jungles of the Vanni is nearly that (40%) of an urban center in America. The population density of the trapped civilians in the Vanni is 7% of the population density of the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Most significantly, these people are in an area without the infrastructure to support this many people. The area is so rural that it is becoming increasingly hard to follow the progress of the war because the place names mentioned in the newspaper articles are so small as not to be indicated, even on our large scale map of Sri Lanka. The possibility of a humanitarian disaster would be apparent even if there were not also a war going on.

So imagine taking Seattle, removing just over half of the people, removing all the buildings and roads, destroying all water sources and sanitation facilities, covering it all with jungle, and add an guesstimated 10,000 well trained, well armed, LTTE fighters. Now imagine the situation of the government of Sri Lanka. They are bound and determined to eliminate the LTTE and kill, or bring to justice, the LTTE leadership. Future prospects of winning the peace depend heavily on several factors, but two of them are that the charismatic leader of the LTTE, Velupillai Prabhakaran , not escape to organize guerrilla operations from overseas and that civilian loss of life be kept to a minimum. A frontal assault on such a dense population will likely lead to a large loss of life.

Furthermore, despite the fact that the government of Sri Lanka has prohibited independent news reporters from the area, the world is watching the situation very closely. Probably most significantly, India’s state of Tamil Nadu lies just 25 miles away across the Palk Straight and Tamil Nadu’s highest officials are already accusing the Sri Lankan government of genocide. At least two Indian protesters have burnt themselves to death to dramatize the issue. Right now, the Indian central government is supportive of the war against the LTTE in the name of the War on Terror (and revenge for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi), but the 62 million people in the state of Tamil Nadu represents 6% of India’s total population and so is a significant political bloc. Making the politics more delicate is that the leading Indian opposition party, the Hindu Nationalist BJP, is known to strongly support its fellow Hindus, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, in their separatist demands. So a large loss of life among Tamil civilians would likely lead to a big boost of support for the BJP, whose politics of Aryan racial superiority remind one uncomfortably of Nazi Germany.

The EU is also watching. They granted Sri Lanka a huge trade concession some yeas ago that doubled the yearly import of textiles from Sri Lanka, helping to boost the Sri Lankan economy. But now the EU is threatening to withdraw the concession unless Sri Lanka walks a fine line on issues of human rights. The Secretary General of the UN, Ban-Ki Moon, has also spoken out calling on both sides to protect the civilians in the Vanni.

So far, or so far as we can tell without independent reporters on the front lines, the government of Sri Lanka is proceeding cautiously at this stage and is carefully heeding the call of the international community to do what it can to protect civilians. The government declared a region of the LTTE controlled territory to be a “safe zone,” with the understanding that the government would not shell or bomb the area, and called for civilians to move to the safe area. They called a halt to offensive operations for 48 hours to allow time for civilians to move to the safe zone. They have called on civilians to leave LTTE controlled territory, promising camps with water, food, and sanitation, and international observers to prevent human rights abuses. The government has cooperated with the government of India and with the UN to allow food and medicine to be delivered to the LTTE controlled area. With some justification, the Sri Lankan government has groused a bit that they must be the first country in world history that is expected to feed its enemies. Some 300 people hospitalized in LTTE controlled territory were transferred to hospitals in the rest of Sri Lanka.

Of course, the effectiveness of these measures requires the cooperation of the LTTE, whose professed aim is to fight for the rights of the Tamil people. Let me again stress the lack of independent news from the area, but indications are that the LTTE is not only not cooperating, but actively doing everything they can to keep Tamil civilians, the very people  they claim to represent, in the line of fire. The government reports incidents in which the LTTE shot civilians who attempted to escape the area. The government reports that the LTTE has shelled and mined the safe zone to keep civilians from occupying it and the LTTE have moved their own military gear into the safe zone to protect it from attack. The secretary general of the UN, speaking oh so diplomatically, called on the LTTE to “to allow civilians in the conflict zone to move to where they feel most secure, including areas controlled by the Government.”  Perhaps the most telling, independent evidence that it is the LTTE that is primarily responsible for preventing civilians from leaving the battle area is a statement by the so-called Tokyo Co-chairs, a group of countries (Norway, Japan, the US, and the EU) that have been most involved in trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict. Included in the press release is one line, in a document that otherwise diplomatically calls on both sides to protect civilian life, singling out only the LTTE: “International efforts to persuade the LTTE to allow the civilians freedom of movement have failed.”

And so we wait. Fearing the worst, but hoping for the best.

Distinguishing “civilians” from “militants” plays a major role in news reporting on conflicts from around the world. Killing an “enemy combatant” may be justified, but killing an “innocent civilian” is quickly labeled a war crime. But what is an “innocent civilian?” The term conjures an image of a non-political, nuclear family just trying to survive amid a war brought on by posturing militants and politicians driven by ideologies far removed from the need of people to just live their lives. No doubt many of them are.

At the start of the American Civil War, civilians came out to the battlefield to watch the battle for entertainment. The bloody nature of that conflict put a stop to that practice quickly and “Sherman’s March to the Sea” made a point of destroying infrastructure, livestock, and crops creating death and hardship for the civilians in the South. In World War II, the Germans bombed London, the Brits retaliated by bombing Berlin, the Americans formed the “Strategic Air Command,” and the unrestricted bombing of civilians was on. “Highlights” included the German introduction of bombs carried by missiles (the V-1 and the V-2, later to be adopted and improved first by the US), the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and finally the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During World War II, the vital role of civilians in supporting the war effort with food and factory production was recognized. On the American home front, civilians were lauded for their contributions to the war and exhorted to do more. By the same logic, the bombing of civilian targets in Germany and Japan was seen as a valid way to fight the war “strategically,” by denying enemy armies the food and supplies they needed to continue to fight.

So what makes an innocent civilian today? If a US Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile into a house and kills an Al-Qaeda operative and his family, are his family members innocent civilians? If the civilians killed in Gaza by the Israelis voted for Hamas, are they still innocent civilians? If the civilians in the Vanni truly support the LTTE, are they innocent? If some civilians are not innocent, how can we separate them from the innocent? In the United States, we have a tradition of the citizen-soldier. How does that tradition fit with the current mores of war?

And what can be done with an enemy that cares nothing for protecting civilians? Who is committing the war crime if Hamas militants open fire from a school sheltering civilians and the Israelis return fire with lethal results? What is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan government if the LTTE embeds itself in a thicket of people and continues to fight? Or locates its artillery in a zone set aside for the safety of civilians and continues using the artillery in the battle, thereby nearly necessitating return fire?

In fact, I speculate that the LTTE wants as many Tamil civilians as possible to die in the final phase of this (un)civil war. This will maximize the sympathy for the Tamil cause and help recruiting and fund raising efforts for the coming guerrilla war. If Prabhakaran can escape by sea and Tamil civilians suffer massive casualties, the LTTE will survive to fight on. The best chance for winning the peace is for the government of Sri Lanka to capture Prabhakaran and put him on trial for the many crimes he has committed. At the same time, the government needs to minimize Tamil civilian casualties to reduce the public relations boost for the LTTE. Finally comes the hard part. The Sri Lankan government and, indeed, all the people of Sri Lanka, need to convince Sri Lankan Tamils that they are a valued part of a unified Sri Lanka.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not in any way trying to justify the killing of civilians, but I am trying to point out that the issue is not the simple one playing out in today’s headlines. Every dead body, citizen or soldier, is a tragedy. It is a tragedy for both sides in a war, because we have learned that the deaths of our enemies perpetuates the cycle of violence that continues to produce misery and death on into the future. Also, news reports labelling every civilian death as meaningless and thus a war crime, belittles the sacrifice of the many civilians the world over who have sacrificed their lives for causes they believe in. “Civilians” and “combatants” are yet another set of labels we humans are using to divide ourselves into “us” and “them,” often to justify killing “them.”  When will we learn that we are all in this together, that there is no “them,” and that therefore all we are killing is ourselves?




  1. SHANNON Jackson said,

    February 5, 2009 at 12:14 am

    I’m sure everyone of sane mind wishes all the violence in the world would end and hope that is possible. The prospects, in view of human history, are slim. Even chimpanzees, to whom we are closely related, wage wars defending, extending their territories and protecting their reproductive potential or gaining reproductive potential. It is a deep-seated part of our nature to engird ourselves with “us” and identify a “them”. THEM are always considered inferior and having no inherent rights. It is such an ancient characteristic that it probably cannot be eliminated. The best hope is a good education for most and non-violent exposure to “the others”.

  2. Kris said,

    February 6, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    Well said, Tim and Shannon. I would like to reinforce Tim’s reference to the headlines, which oversimplify complex situations and almost always report conflict. In journalism classes students learn that the news formula that sells media–electronic as well as print–includes conflict rather than harmony. It is much more difficult to get people excited about primary school education, for example, than about armed fighting. My hope is also for education, that gives people the vision to see long, sometimes slow change for the better as more important and more interesting than bang bang you’re dead duels. The Christian Science Monitor has long covered these “slow” issues very well, and they were forced to stop publishing their paper version because of economic pressures. Our informed choices make a difference, too. What if the Tamil Sri Lankan diaspora stopped sending money to the LTTE? What if they paid for new schools instead? Or new railroad tracks? Or simply sent their families travel money to join them in Canada or wherever else their new homes are? Would that put the terrorist impulses out of business? One of the challenges of all humanity is to address our internal and external needs, in the present and in the past, without raising arms. We also need to reconsider our tribal habits and be willing to curtail them, in the interest of better relations with other tribes.

  3. March 10, 2009 at 6:53 am

    […] it is not at all established how many of the civilians actually want to be evacuated. Whether because they might actually be loyal to the LTTE or because the LTTE has instilled in them […]

  4. March 21, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    […] that showed no evidence that my email had been read. For example, the reply included the phrase  “innocent civilians” . I argue that using that phrase is a way of framing the issue in a way that hinders thoughtful […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: