Friday, May 20, 2011

William McGowan's "Only Man Is Vile": Book Review

This 1992 account on "the Tragedy of Sri Lanka" lives up (or down) to its title. Grim and dispiriting, nevertheless this American journalist seeks the truth about what, in 1988, already had been India's Vietnam, "in which the world's fourth-largest army was neutralized by a group of teenagers in sarongs and rubber slippers." (307)

Garbed in tiger-stripes, singer M.I.A.'s defended her father's role in the Tamil insurgency, comprised of such a determined cadre. Yet McGowan fills his book with atrocities done by "freedom fighters," against the Indian troops brought in as "peacekeepers" in the civil war fought between Tamils allied to 55 million mainland Indians and a resurgent Sinhalese nation determined to defend this Buddhist heartland against intrusive India. Buddhists confronted with the regime's role in sectarian chauvinism and ethnic cleansing need to admit that the aggression that the Sinhalese campaign by legal and illegal means to defeat the Tamil guerrillas (which took nearly two decades after this book appeared to occur) shows the debased condition-- when ideology cynically detaches from mercy-- of a cherished, yet here degraded, faith. When Buddhism's made a badge of identity and not a force for goodness, it's ugly.

McGowan explores both sides. The Indians caught in the middle, sympathizing with the Tamils often even as they are charged to punish them. The Sinhalese majority for McGowan's an object lesson in betrayal of their Buddhist legacy. On their island, they believe they are the truest heirs to Buddha; they also act as if the Tamils are a fifth column for Indian imperialism. The Sinhalese take over the independent nation as a "majority with an inferiority complex." (112)

Sinhala leaders punish dissent. Secular critics fear death, while schools bow to government dictates. Rather than nonviolent compassion, under post-colonial affirmative action the perils of multiculturalist favoritism emerge: race-normed college admissions, jingoistic curricula, linguistic promotions, and ethnic entitlements. Such "ideas shaped by a romantic infatuation with the idea of distinct cultural identities based on invidious scholarship and demagoguery" (8) display the downsides of identity-based political power and ethnically unethical social reform.

The results can be tedious, lots of names and factions and interviews that seem perfunctory, or insufficient. The book wanders about and sections appear to float untethered to any other chapter. The single map is ridiculously illegible as if photocopied from an Indian atlas.

Earliest colonists devastated native traditions but this got barely an aside in one sentence. I wanted to know the author of a biography of the late-Victorian reformer Dharmapala, but no name was given. The Jayanthi revival in 1956 that sparked the Buddhist resurgence seems under-analyzed. Photos would have been helpful. There's an index but no sources cited.

Many sections may be of more value to historians than casual readers such as myself. Yet, McGowan strives in his time there-- confronted by stonewalling from cowed intellectuals, feared by terrified peasants, under fire, amidst censorship, within rot and inertia-- to show us what he did manage to find. "There was a lot of construction going on almost everywhere, but it was hard to tell which things were being built and which things were falling apart. Everything seemed to slope" (17)

In battle, the fear hits him more than the weary natives. "The sounds of helicopters and shelling in the distance were no more threatening than locusts on a town green in Iowa." (75) As he tries to interview Tigers and the Indians they fight, you feel his terror-- the sense that life comes cheap heightens. Yet, "I found myself going out of peer pressure, an underrated force in the secret history of war correspondence." (83) After an attack in Colombo: "In the middle of a spreading bo tree near the police station was what I thought was an arm or a child's leg." (85)

The Tamils come off no better. The Tigers set off land mines near civilian settlements. The Indian forces or Sri Lankan troops will mount reprisals. As for those caught in the middle? "Better that they were killed, Father," a Jesuit priest is told by a Tiger. "More propaganda for us." (234) Tigers and Sri Lankan soldiers stage a firefight at a Sunday market in Batti. At the morgue, McGowan watches as the civilian casualties get displayed. "One grief-stricken woman was bent over her dead husband, with her fingers delicately placed in his ear, as if in love-making." (248)

The "National Ideology" evolving out of "national feeling" translated into Sinhala as "race consciousness" proves sobering. The JVP terrorizes Sinhalese unwilling to back terrorism and chauvinism as patriotism. I've read a lot about Northern Irish parallels to this insular trap. It shared the emphasis on shibboleths; in names used for people and places and causes; the tangle of political parties and militias; occupation troops from a nearby superpower siding with the paramilitaries they share an ethnic identity with: these contexts add up.

Similarly, it's insightful on the support exacted from those near the crossfire, even if they seek safety. As for grassroots backing of the Tigers: "Like Buddhists in the south who abhorred the slaughter of animals but heartily partook of what the butcher was selling, many Tamils disdained the intimidation and violence of the LTTE but would accept the rewards that violence brought them." na(325)

Finally, in the later chapters, McGowan tries to reconcile his early romanticism about Sri Lanka as a Buddhist paradise or tropical retreat with his harrowing experiences. He befriends "Mr. Crab," a teenaged beggar crippled by polio. Together, they try to climb Sri Pala, Adam's Peak, and through this curious representative of one figure transcending sectarian, conventional divisions, McGowan seeks to explore the loss of Buddhist tolerance and Western complicity. It makes for a thoughtful coda to a story needing the human touch, the moment of recovery, after so much pain. (Posted to Amazon US 5-17-10)

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