Mending the national psyche: Restoring military pride, the first order of business | Sunday Observer

Mending the national psyche: Restoring military pride, the first order of business

It is peacetime, but the armed forces have had to recover from a fight in which this country was divided against itself. In the last five years our military men and women, the hunters that smoked out LTTE terror strongholds and halted the incessant terror bombings of civilians in the bargain, became the hunted.

You read that right. The hunters became the hunted. This sudden attempt at delegitimization of the armed forces in the eyes of the people took many forms.

The former government encouraged a cabal of its supporters to say that the armed forces were not war heroes. Rana viruvo me rate nathe — there are no heroes of war— warriors — in this country, said various part time hit men and moonlighting academic types who later morphed into hirsute folk who spoke about ranaviru gaaya. (‘Warrior sickness’.)

This gut punch was aimed at anyone who had served in the tri forces or who was currently serving. Avant Garde, which used the expertise of ex military personnel to set up floating armories to fight sea piracy and regulate arms storage by those who were engaged in combating such sea piracy, was raided and company personnel jailed on trumped up charges. With that, the writing was thick on the wall …

The process of the delegitimization of the armed forces peaked with the structural demobilization of the intelligence cadre of the military, which led to the general weakening of the security apparatus and had a negative effect on national security in general, enabling the Easter Sunday attacks.

In other words, national security hit a nadir, because the armed forces had been thoroughly delegitimized and humiliated.

The hunters were not only being hunted, they were being baton charged, laughed at and collectively made to look like society’s marginals, or unwanted brigands.

What is unfortunate is that this kind of delegitimization, though it appears to have been haphazardly carried out, was in reality a planned effort to negatively disrupt the Sri Lankan nation, when the armed forces had become a symbol of national unity and national pride after the successful rout of the LTTE.

Liminal state

Though Sri Lanka has successfully transitioned from a warring nation into a peaceful country with a civilian administration that had no overt reliance on military personnel, in many ways the armed forces were very much in a ‘liminal state’ in that right of passage.

Anthropologists rely on the concept of liminality to describe an in-between stage in any right of passage. The Sri Lankan armed forces may have no fight on their hands any more with the LTTE vanquished.

But though the fight was over, in the mass psyche the soldier boys and girls/men and women, were still warriors, they continued to be heroes, and they continued to fire the national imagination about the possibility of achieving certain ends against seemingly impossible odds, if only Sri Lankans agreed to put their mind to it …

It was this unifying character of the armed forces that most annoyed all those who wanted to disrupt Sri Lanka negatively and attack the national psyche to suit their own ends. Many LTTE supporters hated the armed forces for defeating Prabhakaran’s armed campaign, but others who wanted to appease these LTTE cheer squads were aware that the armed forces served a greater purpose than merely being the nation’s fallback when there was an imminent security threat.

The forces were a source of national pride. They were a unifying symbol in a society that was struggling to emerge from years of deprivation and struggle, and was finally coming into its own as a middle income economy that had some hope for its citizens. The liminal image of armed forces as the nation’s aggregated mascot plus good luck charm, was not accidental. It was necessary.

How was the delegitimization of the armed forces achieved by those who wanted to do damage to this positive role that the military community took on in the upkeep of an upbeat, healthy national psyche?

They started with building up a delegitimizing narrative that the armed forces were ghosts from the past that were needlessly scaring Sri Lanka’s minority communities. But the elements of the narrative went far deeper than that.

They painted military youth as uncouth, mostly unwashed, and uneducated.

This has been an old trope of course, with one ex Minister saying infamously that any ox can go to war, but that old trope was revived ...

Festooned windows

All ethics were thrown out the window, and in the mad rush to demonize and finally humiliate military men and women, we became the most ungrateful of nations, with disabled soldiers being forced to protest on the streets to get their just dues. Wheelchairs were met with water cannon, one wag observed.

What’s important to take heed of, is that the ‘armed forces problem’ began in the minds of certain men.

There was no armed forces problem, and on the contrary as in the Rakna Lanka and Avant Garde examples, armed forces personnel and others with previous armed forces experience and expertise, were useful members of society who often had ready solutions to some of society’s more pressing issues.

As for the minorities, weren’t they protected by the armed forces as well?They were, especially during flood situations such as what took place in Mullathivu recently, and other natural calamities.Some very expressive pieces of photojournalism will tell you that.Though there are minority politicians who vilify the armed forces at the drop of a hat, their political motivations in doing so need no special repetition here. However, weren’t Tamil politicians quoted as saying they want more troops in the North, after the Easter Sunday attacks?

Wars in their aftermath have this tendency of unifying and assimilating diverse groups. A joke doing the rounds during WW1 about the US Army, which was constituted of many new immigrants from far flung countries, went like this: When a staff sergeant called the roll on day one at Maryland’s Camp Meade, not a single man recognized his own name – but when the officer sneezed, ten recruits stepped forward. Reason for the yarn was that staff sergeants couldn’t pronounce those ‘alien’ immigrant names properly. As the war progressed however, new immigrant families felt proud to have one of their ‘boys’ in the forces. They festooned their windows with the U.S flag.

So it’s seen that every nation has its own way of inculcating a sense of pride in their armies, especially after a war success, and our country should be no exception.

Army morale

But the delegitimization effort mentioned above was so deliberate, that the armed forces now need a special period of renewal, affirmation and reassurance after that onslaught.

But also, military personnel are needed today, as they were needed before, when the nation faces a massive national rebuilding effort made necessary after five years in which almost nothing constructive was done. Boost the morale of the forces, and the morale of the ordinary folk would be boosted too, as such is the symbolism of the soldiers as heroes in a day and age where champions are hard to come by in society at large, except of the synthetic variety on TV, or the cardboard type fueled through primitive urges displayed on social media.

Society also feels the need to collectively atone after the horrible treatment of the armed forces in the last five years. Though ordinary people were not responsible for flinging forces personnel in jail — or threatening to do so on flimsy pretexts — they felt helpless in the face of such state aided policy. It’s why they feel they have to ‘atone’ now by helping in the rehabilitation of the armed forces after five of the most ignominious years.

You read that right. A certain kind of ‘rehabilitation’ of army morale is necessary after the forces were treated the way they were, often being called names and being made to feel as if they were social outcasts, not rana viruvo but persons with a malady called ‘rana viru gaaya.’ Besides all this, our armed forces need this resurgence as they earned their respect in the trenches. They did so again after the Easter Sunday blasts, by being up to the challenge of maintaining order and allaying anxiety in a trying situation.

They have won again. The delegitimization effort against them never worked. But it did damage.

If the pride of the forces will be restored, the gutted national psyche will assuredly be repaired too.