11 November 2017

An anthem for Private Sirisena

No, this is not about President Maithripala Sirisena's private life.   This was the editorial I wrote for 'The Nation' (June 11, 2006).

Standing ground in the rain during Independence Day Celebrations is easy....they weathered much more over many years

There is nothing more unhappy for a nation and its front line defender, the soldier, than a war. Both nation and soldier would rather not fight but that, unhappily, is not a choice for a people who are not willing to surrender to invasion.  

It is said, and not without cause, that no one loves war less than a soldier. This is why the likes of Wilfred Owen wrote about the pathos and futility of war. ‘What passing bells for those who die as cattle?’ they ask. And answer: ‘only the monstrous anger of the guns, only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons’. 

War is not a happy thing and no one knows its unhappiness more than the warrior. This is something that the civilian understands only marginally even if he or she is a direct recipient of war-related loss. But even those who are fortunate to be distant to these horrors do understand something and this is why we celebrate the soldier on the seventh day of June, National War Heroes’ Day.  

On such commemorative days we may pause to reflect on the ethic of sacrifice, notions of patriotism, the valour and commitment of the young men and women out there on the outskirts of the earthly hell that is made of landmines, snipers, suicide bombers, RPGs and other terrible instruments of death. And then, more likely than not, we push it all into a little room at the back of our minds reserved for uncomfortable, disconcerting things. 

The true test of appreciation is not what we do on June the Seventh. It is how we think about the soldier and how we respond to the realities that erupt in the war zone, which as we know is not limited to the North and East, not just on this day but every day of the year as we live our relatively happier and more comfortable lives.

Are we capable of or even prepared to put ourselves in the shoes of the unknown soldier, whether he or she is in a bunker (facing sudden attack), in thick jungle (a possible victim of anti-personnel mines and sniper fire), in a patrolling vehicle (target of a claymore mine) or providing security to a VIP (and so the inevitable target of a suicide bomber)?

When a soldier stops us at a security check point, do we curse under our breath for the inconvenience or do we thank the man for doing his best to ensure our security and that of the country? Do we, at such moments, even while conceding that there is no such thing as a comprehensive, all-holes-barred security net (think 9/11 or 7/7), acknowledge that if these men and women were not there the chances of terrorist infiltration and the magnitude of the subsequent attack would be a hundred times greater? Do we murmur a prayer for their safety? Do we feel a pang of shame for not having the guts to do what they do, day in and day out or for having the privilege not to have to do so?

Jayatillake Bandara of ‘sadhu jana rava’  fame is fond of relating a story about a soldier who was loading the bodies of some LTTE cadres killed in a confrontation with the army. Upon seeing one body, that of a girl clearly in her early teens, he had said ‘ane pau.’  There was sympathy there, there was humanity. Wilfred Owen, we must not forget, wrote the poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ for the enemy soldier, but edited it with the help of his friend Siegfried Sassoon to make it universal. 

And yet, Private Sirisena is not invincible. Neither is he a saint. He slips, he errs, and on occasion he succumbs to the dictates of the lowest regions of his sensibilities. He forgets that he has to protect all citizens irrespective of difference. He forgets that he has to exercise a kind of patience that would challenge even the stoutest heart. And we forget too. 

We forget that had we been in his shoes on such occasions, we may be persuaded to do the same, to make the same mistakes, to be less of a human being.  War is an unhappy thing where men and women carry out orders that inevitably result in death and destruction. It is unfair to expect that they come out of it without scars, physical and otherwise.  It is only fair that we empathise. This does not amount to giving him a blank cheque. We trust and honour him, but we expect him to act with civility and responsibility in carrying out his duties. 

This afternoon, you may encounter Private Sirisena on your way to the market or as you return from a party. Private Sirisena may make you a tad late for an important meeting. He may cause you much discomfort as he frisks you when entering a government office. But will you take umbrage if we ask you to tell yourself, ‘Private Sirisena may not be here tomorrow but it is more than likely that I will pass this way again, and in some small way, the reason I am here, the reason my children have me or I have my lover is because he is prepared to go and I am not’? 


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Dr Ranjith Subasinghe said...

Why don't you translate this into Sinhalese and Tamil and publish the article in leading news papers for majority to realise the value of a frontline soldier who swam with big crocodiles to protect the country. Where as those who put crocodile tears about soldier's few mistakes would not dare to even peep into to those water bodies or not even to swim in a protected beach.