Lessons Learnt from War Memorials

In mythological warfare the fallen is given the rights of burial. Trojan Hector – even though his body was initially mutilated by Achilles – allows King Priam to bear away his son’s body for ceremonial cremation and burial. In Sinhala mythology too we are told that the defeated Elara was provided a stately burial by his counterpart, Dutugemunu. A debate therefore arose when the cemeteries and tombstones of the defeated LTTE were bulldozed by the government soon after the conclusion of the Northern civil conflict. In these demolished memorial tombs – which in the heroic tradition would constitute a sacrilege – were preserved the remains of the LTTE activists who succumbed to their cause.

Priam supplicates for Hector’s body before Achilles

The moral and ethical issues which at that time surrounded this demolishing were to do with the defeated LTTErs’ – by that very definition “terrorists” and “violators” – right to burial. The euphoria of victory which engulfed the Southern Sinhala ethos at that time perhaps did not pave the way for a broad-based discussion of ethics; and more so because this decisive military victory by the Government of Sri Lanka shook the political discourse in a way where power and the ability to dictate reality got sharply tilted on scales of the state. Yet, there are many – especially those who believe in humility in victory, and compromise and allowance in conduct – for whom this singular act left a bitter taste.

Why I reflect on this post-war blotch three years after the “deed is done” is for two reasons. Primary among them is the fact that this unassuming act in the lack of tolerance is symptomatic of the empathy or the allowance the “losing side” in history can be assured to court. It is, in a way, a warning for those who choose to be on the “wrong side of the norm” as to where they will be placed once the dealings are done. This, however, is not unexpected; just that the case at hand is a rare manifestation of the otherwise notion in abstract.

Secondly, however, the demolition of the memorial stones and tombs was brought back to my mind in a recent visit to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kandy. This cemetery is a space provided for and maintained by the Commonwealth War Cemetery Council, based in Greenwich and has 200-odd memorial stones for those who had perished in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) during World War II.  The significance of this arrangement is that the memorial graves belong to both those commissioned to the Allied as well as the Axis Forces. Of the latter, there are tombs dedicated to the memory of Italian as well as Japanese officers who had perished, most probably, during the unsuccessful twin aerial attack. More strikingly, the tomb stones do not state nationality, victory or defeat. The fallen are laid to rest and commemorated as one and equal. Those who fought against the other in opposite camps are commemorated in neighbourly plots.

The memorials are solemn as well as dignified. The well meditated layout without gaudy ceremony or flattering decor more than amply articulate the futility and pity which war, on the whole, resonates on both the victorious and the defeated. The commemoration, therefore, is neither an inhuman condemnation of the “loser;” nor a jingoist beat up of parochial nationalism. In that cemetery the one who lost the war is yet retained as a human being and in dignity too. Complementing the tomb stones are several heads of unidentified/unknown soldiers, who it is carved, were “known unto God.” The commitment of the Commonwealth, therefore, is exemplary; especially since the cemetery is still being maintained and is provided for, 67 years since the war.

Kandy’s Commonwealth War Cemetery

In our unenlightened lives we may trample opposing ideology for it threatens the existence of our deep convictions. Uncompromising and brutal as that may sound, perhaps that can still be rationalized and justified given our predatory and primitive impulses. Yet, if we fail to consider our opponents as humans, and as their causes being stimulated by their core sentiments, we have much to reconsider. I say this because the victorious Commonwealth leadership has set the bar 60 years ago at a level that cannot be snubbed too lightly. Perhaps, this calls for a steady revision as to how decomposed we as an insecure nation have become, where you are not satiated unless your political opponents are razed and vapourized from the face of the earth, and history. This, by application, is not a case solely relevant to the LTTE but an over-arching motif in multiple fronts from petty property disputes to failed love relationships. Are we then at a level, internalizing the “uncompromising” impedes that are naturalized and justified at national fora? When the war victory of the Allied Forces is given a meaningful expression in the commemoration of those fallen it is a pity that as a Common- wealth nation we resort to change into reverse gear; and track back even passing the mythology and legends which we otherwise gloat on and manipulate to our hearts’ desire.

[Initially carried in The Nation]

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