Monday, 7 April 2014

The horror of ethnic war and the cost of human difference in The Cage

From The Week of March 31st, 2014

Much of the conflict in our modern world is powered by our differences. Yes, economics and natural resources are also wellsprings of human violence, but these battles pale in comparison to the societal discord spawned by the desire of minority cultures to be distinct and free. From Ireland to the Middle East, from the Jews to the Tutsis, we've witnessed cultures deploy their languages and their customs to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, to define themselves as else. Which may be well enough until some form of hardship comes to the region, driving desperate people to find someone to blame for their stumbles. Who better than the other,? Who better than those we do not understand?

Bloodshed of minorities, causing their traditionalists to entrench and hold the ground their fellows have died for, causing them to make virtuous the ultimate sacrifice for their way of life... Leading to radicalization, the hardening of their hearts to those who've stolen from them, beaten them, killed them. Cycles within cycles until all that is left is death and victory... This grim lesson underpins Mr. Weiss' powerful and disturbing work.

Sri Lanka has existed, in some form or another, for 2,500 years. Settled ed by visitors from nearby India, it was, for centuries, a Buddhist kingdom in the heart of one of the world's most beautiful and idyllic regions. One would have expected the centuries to smooth out any significant differences that might have existed between the various social groupings on such a picturesque island. But a series of divisive internal conflicts in the 13th and 14th centuries, profoundly worsened by western colonization in the 18th and 19th centuries, hardened these differences into distinctions worth dying for.

Consequently, Sri Lanka has been, for generations, two island, with the south ruled by the more populous and culturally dominant Sinhalese and the north governed by the minority Tamilese made fearful by colonialist reforms that they believed would deeply favor the Sinhalese. It would be the Sinhalese who would comprise the government, who would receive the important jobs, who would wield all the influence, not the Tamilese who were merely the remnant of a long-dead kingdom. Ignited by political riots in the 1950s, and fanned by widespread killings in the 1980s, the political discord between these two groups would escalate into a civil war that would not only take the lives of tens of thousands, it would introduce into this idyllic place the corrosiveness of modern terrorism which the Sinhalese government would use as a pretext for a vicious crackdown that would finally end the war, but not before the strife had left a permanent scar on a wounded nation staggering into the 21st century.

A detailed history of the last days of this cruel conflict, The Cage is chilling non-fiction. Gordon Weiss, a journalist and a former official with the United Nations, establishes a rough history of Sri Lanka before plunging head-first into its civil war, documenting many of the unfathomable deprivations that characterized it. A firm believer that both sides perpetrated war crimes, the author equally condemns government and Tiger. The former he accuses of concealing the degree to which it allowed its armed forces to butcher, rape and starve-out Tamilese civilians while blaming these attacks on the enemy. The latter, meanwhile, he rightfully criticizes for taking up the virulent and destructive weapons of modern terrorism: forced conscription of civilians, the use of child soldiers, and the deployment of suicide bombings. Worst, however, was the cult of personality created by the charismatic leader of the Tamil tigers who ritualized and elevated martyrdom into a virtuous end, a worthy achievement for a noble cause.

The Cage, though, is far more than a polemic against the various sins of both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. It cares about their schemes, their despotism, their pieces of propaganda, but only as a means of illustrating the suffering of innocents, some of whom are given voice here. Frequently, Mr. Weiss removes himself from the narrative, surrendering it to those who've lost families, partners, and their own health and vitality to a self-destructive war perpetrated by individuals who exercised no restraint and certainly no decency. Their words are alternately terrifying and plaintive, recitations of crimes that no one should have to endure, crimes for which there is no recovery, crimes that leave marks on those who do them as well as those who suffer them. In this, we come to witness the utter madness of war, particularly, war perpetrated by children and conducted like children.

While The Cage does not directly ask the question, the reader cannot help but wonder what any of this suffering is for. Wars do have purposes. They can be means by which wrongs are rectified and newer,b better balances established. Without the chaos of the two World Wars, the European Union would not have existed. Without the deprivations of the American Civil War, the united Union would not have economically accelerated the 20th century. Some good can come of violence. But as inevitable as the Sri Lankan civil war was, its purpose is utterly absent. To what end, all of this torment? So that ethnic groups can preserve their linguistic codes? To protect their religious dogmas? To husband their ethnic foods? Are these differences worth dying for? Are they worth plunging an entire country into madness and agony? The answer, for anyone even moderately steeped in history, must be an emphatic no. And yet, these conflicts continuously crop up, the result of minorities being radicalized, or radicalizing themselves, on the basis of perceived differences. It is a tragedy without peer or end.

Yes, The Cage could have been more thorough with its history of Sri Lanka. It could've included the testimonies of more innocents. It could have been a rallying cry for the betterment of humanity. But these absences are minor flaws in what is otherwise a moving example of a modern nation, of the value of destiny, and the dangers of despotism. Mesmerizing work... (4/5 Stars)

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