Courtey of the Sunday Island, 16 May 2010 where it appeared under the title “What grade would Sun Tsu have awarded Prabaharan?”
If the legendary Sun Tzu (circa 400BC) author of that iconic work, the Art of War, was a rating agency like Standard & Poor’s, the only triple-A ratings he would have handed out are Alexander, Caesar and Genghis; in comparison even Hannibal and Bonaparte would have to settle for AA, though dozens of others have earned an A. America’s greatest soldier was Confederate general Robert E Lee who qualifies for no more than a B+ because of the unmitigated and unwarranted cock-up he made at Gettysburg. In the Twentieth Century’s WWI and WWII there were generals illustrious enough for posterity to frame as icons; but afterwards, Nguyen Giap, an ardent disciple of Sun Tze, did earn himself an A, but no higher as his territorial demesne was small, not continental. Actually Giap did not win a single major battle against a vastly superior enemy, but he won the ultimate prize! He would have done the Master proud.
To descend from the sublime to the ridiculous, where does Vellupillai Prabaharan stand as a military-political leader on the world stage? It is an interesting question since despite his eventual defeat he was our most notable military chieftain since Sitawaka Rajasinghe. Rajasinghe, of course, was much VP’s superior, but I don’t see anyone of that class in between. (I exclude Rajasinghe II because after Gannoruwa, his big victory – like Prabaharan’s Elephant Pass – all his schemes, in alliance with the Dutch, to expel the Portuguese from the island misfired and the Dutch dug themselves in securely for 150 years).
More important, however, is that I chose my words carefully when I said “military-political leader” (Sun Tzu would reverse the order). War is a mere subset of politics and prize fighters without brains don’t get far. This point has been made by latter day strategic thinkers as well; Machiavelli who did not know of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz who may have read him. Allow me to add, that in stature, allowing for the passage of time, neither was his peer. The Art of War is about strategy in the broadest sense; it is used as a text in military academies like West Point and is compulsory reading for corporate CEOs – and for presidents and prime ministers as well, but only the successful ones.
The missing history
The number of scholarly, magazine, cyber and newspaper articles on the social, political and constitutional aspects of Lanka’s ethnic imbroglio is enough to fill a barnyard. Still there has been no systematic military history of the civil war per se. This is surprising given its crucial historical importance. Furthermore, the entirely unforeseen and perhaps unprecedented ending makes it a unique event that should attract scholars of politico-military history. This week marks the first anniversary of the destruction of the LTTE after 30 years of warfare. I do hope someone with multifaceted expertise will undertake to have a well researched politico-military volume on Yapa’s shelves in time for the second anniversary.
In this piece I will set myself only a little task; evaluating Prabaharan’s place against the great canvas that Sun Tzu fashioned for artful war. Let us evaluate him against some of the principles and axioms in the Art of War.
Sun Tzu says: So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
Prabaharan measured up well against this principle during first 20 years of his campaign, in fact very well indeed during the period of guerrilla war and the early period of conventional warfare up to and including the capture of Elephant Pass. Up to that time the faithful called him a military genius. However, in the latter stages he neither knew himself nor understood his enemy. He did not grasp the significance of the internal virus leading to the Karuna split, nor could he prevent it, fatally weakening the LTTE. Secondly, his forces, having turned conventional, forever lost the flexibility to revert to the guerrilla mode.
He did not appreciate that his enemy had immensely improved its land, air and sea firepower, troop morale and training and that he was absolutely outgunned in the conventional mode. He did not appreciate that the Rajapaksa regime had put all its eggs in the war basket, had massaged India, and had sidelined the international community. Nevertheless, VP had twenty good years and less than ten bad ones, so I guess the Master would be generous and concede a B-minus on this item.
Sun Tzu says: The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim; therefore the good fighter will be terrible in his onset, and prompt in his decision.
This refers to technical aspects of warfare and Sun Tzu will not hesitate to award an A+ grade, particularly as the enemy was far more numerous, better armed and commanded all the accoutrements of state power. Technically, Prabaharan was indeed an able and innovative military leader. Don’t forget the huge human capital and technological advances he built around the LTTE; even today the army continues to unearth finds that amazes it.
Sun Tzu says: All warfare is based on deception; never will those who wage war tire of deception.
This is about infiltration, intelligence gathering and spying, and effectively using the information so gathered. The Master will not hesitate to award VP and LTTE the highest grade for success on the espionage item as well.
Sun Tzu says: The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success. Ponder and deliberate before you make a move. He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.
These principles Prabaharan violated repeatedly such as assassinating Rajiv Gandhi, allowing the LTTE to be internationally ostracised as a terrorist and bandit outfit, and eventually globally proscribed. This one is an F for sure.
The moral questions
The political and moral questions are the harder ones. For Sun Tzu, strategist par excellence, neither winning battles, nor winning wars, but the final political victory was the ultimate goal. How does VP rate on these several counts? Let us see.
Sun Tzu says: Therefore one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skilful. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skilful.
What Sun Tzu is saying here is his most important principle. The whole takes precedence over the parts; the political over the military; strategy must be broad and general and in modern times we must add the international dimension within the political and military dimensions. I feel like giving VP an F on this count, but the great Master will be more balanced in his judgement. VP did manoeuvre fairly well politically, though admittedly, it was merely manoeuvre without giving precedence to the political dimension. On the international side too he worked the diaspora well and milked it for plenty of cash. Sun Tzu will balance everything and mark him down to a C but not an F, I think.
Sun Tzu says: There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.
Once again a profoundly significant observation; war is evil and it is justified only under the most extreme situations. Let us grant for argument’s sake that the Tamil liberation movement was justified in taking to arms since the ideology and practices of Sinhala people and state were such that they could never gain their liberty except through the force of arms. Still the question remains; did not the LTTE prolong war for longer than its own people could bear? The answer to this question has to be ‘yes’. The second question is; did war become an end in itself at least to the extent that the LTTE was not interested in a negotiated settlement short of its ultimate prize of a separate state? The jury is out and will stay out for as long as this matter is discussed. Which side is guilty of scuttling a fair and reasonable peace? Sun Tzu is likely to grant the ambiguity in these issues and mark a B on the LTTE’s answer book.
Sun Tzu says: The cardinal factors are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Environment (rain, day-night, etc); (3) Terrain and location; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.
I will touch on the first only; the others are technical. Whatever moral authority the Tamil liberation movement started off with, the LTTE lost the moral high ground after about the first decade. After 1983 the Tamil struggle did hold the moral high ground in the wake of ethnic riots and unabated state terrorism. When the LTTE too adopted terrorism (murdering civilians, women, children), and assassinating Tamil political leaders and all who spoke against it, VP lost the plot and Tamil youth ceased to “follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger”.
It is at this point that the Master would have sighed, drawn up his paper and scrawled either B-minus or C-plus across the top of the page, and I would agree. VP was not a disciple of the Master, he could not be, since then he would have had to give the political-whole priority over the military-particular; but that would have made him a different person.
Use these principles and award your own grading – write in to the Editor, why not? Like an honourable school master, mark the performance, not your own likes and dislikes!