Friday, April 18, 2008

Repititions of History, the American and Sri Lankan Civil Wars

It is a difficult thing to see the suffering of war, even if it does not compare to the hardships of those actually living through it. What’s worse though is knowing how peace can be restored and seeing those in power making the mistakes of others in history. Nearly 150 years ago, Northingtons, Nowlins, Simmonses, Harrises, Baileys, and a score more families whose descendent now writes this article fought, killed, suffered and died across the American South. While most of these families fought for the Confederacy, the lesson of history that this article seeks to recall is a failure of a Union general early in the War Between the States. All should remember it and the cost of the many years of war that followed, but, more so than any other, the people of Sri Lanka need this lesson because this same mistake has been made in their civil war and will cost them far more sons and daughters than should have been required.
General George B. McClellan

In mid March of 1862, General George B. McClellan launched an amphibious assault on the Virginia Peninsula and soon had nearly 400 ships and over 120,000 troops under his command. The landing had bypassed the Confederate Army that guarded the capitol of Richmond from an invasion out of Maryland, and so only 13,000 Rebels opposed this massive force. Despite his total superiority in numbers, the cautious Union general ordered that the 13,000 Confederates be taken by siege. Despite being hugely outnumbered, this small force of Confederates occupied the entire Union Army for a month, finally retreating on May 4th. While twice as many Rebels had died as Federals, they had bought precious time for the Confederacy to formulate a capable response to the invasion. For the rest of May the Union advanced slowly, taking their time. When McClellan finally reached Richmond, stiff resistance by a still totally inferior force convinced him to repeat his siege tactics, building a second Forward Defensive Line (FDL) and calling for reinforcements. Edward M. Stanton noted McClellan’s overly cautious attitude and tendency to overestimate the strength of his enemy by saying, “If he had a million men he would swear the enemy had two millions, and then he would sit in the mud and yell for three!”

The Peninsula Campaign (Click to Enlarge)

This cost McClellan the campaign when Confederate counterattacks, forced him to withdrawal, despite suffering greater losses and still never coming close to the size McClellan’s force. Months later, in Maryland, McClellan’s caution prevented him from destroying a retreating Rebel Army that could have ended the war as well. The nation was torn apart by the war that lasted until 1865 because of these shortcomings. It also cost around half a million more lives.

Lt. General Sarath Fonseka

Sri Lanka is now suffering its own Peninsular Campaign. General Sarath Fonseka was looking at the end of the war last August. The East had been totally liberated and the Navy was in the process of wiping out the last of the LTTE’s large blockade running ships. The Tigers had once controlled Jaffna, most of the East Coast, and territory in the West far South of Mannar. The entire Northern part of the island was a rebel stronghold, and to defend it all, tens of thousands of people were put under arms, a brown water navy was created and soon became world famous, and an air force would be born with an air strike on the Sri Lankan capital. However, by last August, the Tamil Tigers were facing supply shortages because of the loss of so many blockade runners, Jaffna had long fallen, territory south of Mannar was lost or falling, and the whole of the East Coast had been overrun. General Fonseka chose to besiege the Tigers now. While the Sri Lankan Army recruited and consolidated their forces, daily skirmishes were fought along the entire border of the Tiger held “Wanni.”
The Sri Lankan Civil War's heaviest fighting is currently centered around Mannar District

There was merit in Fonseka’s decision. The enemy was still full of fight, and supply shortages were getting worse for the Tigers as time went on. Fonseka also had to commit troops to recently liberated territory to ensure it remained so, and to defend strategic areas from an LTTE offensive. Only after five months of waiting and minor fighting did Fonseka finally declare the final offensive to end the war. True to his and McClellan’s cautious strategic nature, the offensive failed to materialize in any form except a painfully slow crawl around Mannar. Plans to push into the Wanni through the East Coast were seemingly abandoned as minor skirmishing continues to be the only action there.

Plans to launch a major offensive on the East Coast along the Weli Oya front, which is defined by the Manal River, has never escalated past minor skirmishes.

This article from the Sri Lankan military blog “DefenceNet” shows this lack of progress as clearly as could ever be done. An article from March 25th of last year discusses LTTE forces successfully defending the same church that is being fought for today. Thirteen months later, this Church remains in Tiger hands, and the only sign of progress is the inching forward of Sri Lankan soldiers that gives some hope that the Church will be free of separatists before the fourteenth month is out. A soldier can likely see from his frontline position today
, all the places he has been for the past year, and he wouldn’t need binoculars. The church and a small town called Adampan, desired only because it is at a crossroad between two highways forced into disuse by war, have been the objectives of the Army since before the fall of the East and the likelihood of either of them falling by the end of the month is about as good as they were last April.

The price of this refusal to commit to a major offensive has been heavy. It has been nearly as heavy, actually probably more so, than the cost of a major battle would have been. While the LTTE were facing critical ammunition shortages in the end months of 2007, resupplies from India using smaller ships have bolstered the LTTE armories
. The loss in soldiers is more difficult to determine, but nearly 300 Sri Lankan soldiers and police have died since the would-be offensive began in January. Adding those dead to at least 500 (probably more) soldiers, militia, and police who died since last August, a minimum of 800 people have died on the side of Sri Lanka in this intentional stalemate. Because of the difficulty in determining casualties, it is possible that the death toll for Sri Lankans under arms exceeds 1,000 by this point. LTTE losses are also hard to determine, but are probably in the rage of 4,000-5,000. Ironically, most of those dead were drafted to participate in these very skirmishes and the loss of the weapons they carried have been as great a hurt to the Tigers as the loss of their lives. The real strategic damage caused to the LTTE in this time of attrition is actually likely to be in the same range as the losses of Sri Lanka.

Fonseka’s lack of action gave the LTTE time to find new methods to smuggle supplies into their territory, negating last year’s victories by the Sri Lankan Navy. This failure to act also allowed the LTTE time to prepare stronger defenses, train more fighters, including some more hardcore fighters, and whittle away at the Sri Lankan Air Force and Navy with suicide missions and by mining coastal waters.

Even worse is that General Fonseka declared that the Wanni would fall by the end of the year. At the time, this was actually quite possible. The Tigers were at their low water mark when the general made this bold promise. Unfortunately, Fonseka has refused to push a major offensive. His numbers, technology, supplies, morale, and training all greatly exceeds that of the LTTE, and he can strike literally anywhere he desires. His refusal to use these advantages is ensuring a longer, more costly war against a better-prepared enemy. More Sri Lankans will die in this creeping advance against an enemy that always is given t
ime to recover, regroup, and rearm. The failure to end this war by the end of the year will hurt public opinion on the war and in the worst-case scenario, will force an unfavorable end to the conflict. More likely though is that the war will be won, but only after years of continued fighting and great loss of life that could have so easily been avoided.

General Fonseka has served his country with distinction. His tactical successes are legendary and many soldiers owe him their lives. For the Midnight Express alone, Sri Lanka owes him a debt of gratitude. He has also been a great reformer, leading the way in making the Army a larger, more capable, better-trained force. Just Like McClellan, he is perhaps best suited for training an army more so than for using one. It is little wonder that these men were so unwilling to enter a fight that would force a portion their masterpieces to be sacrificed.

Fonseka was also in charge during the Liberation of the East, though the effect of the Karuna defection was a great boon to his efforts. Still, his current inaction is hurting the nation and armies exist to serve their countries. Fonseka’s unwillingness to launch a real Northern Offensive and instance on making excuses for delay is now a detriment to Sri Lanka. He should either be made to act or replaced if he refuses.

President Lincoln meeting with General McClellan after the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam)

When McClellan let the Confederate Army escape from Maryland, President Lincoln traveled to meet with him. After much urging, the general still insisted on inaction. The president relieved him of his command with a famous line that the people of Sri Lanka should repeat to General Fonseka.

“If you are not using the Army, I should like to borrow it for a while."