Life and Death for SL Army Infantrymen on the Vanni Battlefront

Sinha-Raja Tammita Delgoda[1]

As a layman who blundered into a war of his own volition and someone who has lived in and worked in the Weli Oya border region for 6 months,[2] I think you are absolutely right in your stress on the difficulties encountered by infantry soldiers and the critical relevance of specific landscapes. Let me quote relevant segments from one of the Manekshaw papers published by India’s Centre For Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).

A layman is absolutely clueless unless and until he has walked the lay of the land, seen it, felt it and been with the men who have. Only then will he see it their way. This is the basic problem with most of our commentators. Most of them have still not walked this land. Listening to soldiers of all ranks is also very important– interviews/questionnaires with generals and civilian pundits do not suffice. Very few foreigners had access to this area during this period so their accounts. The accounts of many of the diplomats, journalists and other commentators who appear to be authorities must be measured in this light. As with General Mehta, the lack of access to first hand sources and primary material had a critical effect, it often meant a complete dependence on second and third hand sources, clouding the analyst’s understanding, and sometimes leaving them vulnerable to LTTE propaganda.

Example 1: p.11: However, instead of a launching a frontal assault, the army attacked through the Madhu jungles,These were mostly secondary jungles, full of little trees and scrub with dens e, tangled undergrowth. These small trees made it much more difficult to see and the thick undergrowth made the going very difficult. Interspersed with the stretches of jungle were paddy fields, patches of chena cultivation, marshy land and scrub. All of these different natural features posed their own challenges as the defenders had prepared each one to their own advantage. It was the transition from one to another which proved the most dangerous for the advancing troops.

Example 2: p.13: the great Andakulam forests, which stretch from Weli Oya to Mullaitivu were] were very different in character to the jungles of the Vanni. They were mostly primary forests, which had never been cut or cleared. Here, great trees grew close together, shutting out the sky and forming a thick canopy overhead. The ground was carpeted with crackling twigs and fallen leaves and sound here carried much further.41 Unlike the Vanni jungles, there was very little undergrowth and the going was much easier.42 The lines of vision too were much clearer and from the tops of trees, you could see for great distances.

Example 3: pp.15-16: A closer look merely underlines the enormous difficulty which the troops faced in distinguishing between bona fide civilians and fighting cadres. In the fast-moving circumstances of a running battle, the challenge this posed does not seem to be appreciated. The LTTE frequently used children and suicide bombers as offensive weapons, almost like tanks. Charging ahead, they would blast a way through the defenses. The cadres would then pour through the breach.

Civilians fighting as soldiers, wearing T shirts and trousers. The first you see is when they are running towards you. Young boys and girls. You have only a few moments to think. And then it is too late.

In these circumstances, restraint was dangerous; hesitation often fatal.

The details of close combat infantry fighting, against utterly reckless and suicidal opponents, is surely worth closer study. It is a scenario which is difficult for a conventional infantry force to imagine. One particular story vividly illustrates the challenges which had to be faced:

We were advancing in a line. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a suicide truck appeared. It came full speed at us, bumping across the ground. We didn’t have time to think. The sergeant shouted “RPG, RPG!” It gave us time. The sergeant was blown up but we stopped the truck. Clarity of thought combined with speed of action; these were the qualities which the infantryman relied on to keep himself alive. His life depended on his reflexes and his reactions; he had to think on his feet in order to survive.

***  ***


Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2009 “The Casualties of Sri Lanka’s Brutal Civil War,” 16 April 2009,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2009 “Sri Lanka: The Last Phase in Eelam War IV. From Chundikulam to Pudukulam,” New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare, Manekshaw Paper No. 13,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2010 Review essay:  Manekshaw Paper No 22 [being a review of] Ashok Mehta’s work How Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict: How Eelam War iv was Won,

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014a “Crossing the Lines: Tamils Escapees from the Last Redoubt meet the Army,” 21 September 2014, php?post=13751&action  =edit&message=6&postpost=v2

Tammita-Delgoda, S. 2014b “Reading Between the Lines in April 2009: Tammita-Delgoda takes apart Marie Colvin’s jaundiced propaganda article in British newspaper,” 26 September 2014,

NOTE: the highlighting emphasis is the work of The Editor, thuppahi

[1] BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Sinha-Raja Tammita Delgoda has completed a History Ph.D in UK on 18th century England and I consulted him on the etymology and vocabulary of the concept “nation” when I was working on my book Sinhala Conscious ness in the Kandyan Period (2004). I gather he has travelled widely in India and crafted a travel book. In any event his capacities in war studies must be substantial because he was invited to present a paper at the Indian Defence Centre (see Bibliography). For this reason I asked him to comment on my response to Mark Salter.

[2] In response to my inquiry Tammita-Delgoda said that on his own initiative In 2002 he spent six months as a volunteer in the border area of the Weli Oya region, based at Sripura Raja Mahavihare, Padaviya, teaching English to school teachers, students and army officers from the surrounding area.

Weli Oya (or Manal Aru) in Tamil has been a border village during the war and I presume that Tammita-Delgoda’s SL Army links 9 his father being a retired officer) enabled him to work with the Army camp in that area during the 2002 ceasefire period.



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