Sarath Fonseka’s performance and American precedents


By Rohana R. Wasala

That ‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away’ was the wisdom that General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) of World War II fame had acquired about the common but uncommonly honourable fate of a retired soldier. He distinguished himself as an army officer in both World Wars fought in the last century. During World War II, MacArthur served as an American five-star general and Field Marshal of the Philippine Army. MacArthur was the formidable US general to whom the Japanese surrendered in 1945 in which year World War II ended.

Despite his rare professional success and fame, MacArthur was relieved of his commands in Korea and Japan in 1951 by his boss US president Harry S. Truman, who was from the Democratic Party, like the current president Barack Obama. As US commander in Korea and Japan, in the first flush of victory, MacArthur seemed to have forgotten his limits. He thought it fit to dabble in a matter that was strictly the concern of the political leaders of the day. He strongly advocated the view that America should attack the newly formed Communist China in pursuance of their policy of containing communism in the world. It is most likely that he was blinded by his patriotic devotion to what he believed was in the best national interest of his country. But president Truman, the astute politician that he was, thought MacArthur’s stand was wrong. He knew that if America attacked the Chinese, they would resist with might and main, initiating an endless conflict. After studying the problem thoroughly, Truman decided against attacking China, and instead relieved General MacArthur of his commands "so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy", the policy being not to waste the "precious lives" of American soldiers, not to jeopardize the security of America and the security of what he called "the free world", and to prevent a third world war. On his return to the US, MacArthur was given a hero’s welcome. In his celebrated farewell speech before the Congress, which he was asked to deliver there as a special honour accorded to him, he quoted this refrain from one of the most popular barrack ballads of the time: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away".

I am no admirer of the West’s neocolonialist domination of the world of which America’s ascendance following its victory in World War II was the high-water mark and I am among the billions of fellow humans including Americans who unequivocally condemn with the deepest repugnance possible the crimes against humanity that the Americans committed then by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing thousands upon thousands of innocent men, women and children, and maiming generations through the resultant radioactive contamination of the environment. General MacArthur was associated with that atrocity as commander. It was he who accepted Japan’s surrender on September 2nd 1945 as mentioned before. But my feelings of disgust and abhorrence as a human being at those American excesses would not detract in the least from my great admiration of General MacArthur as a patriotic war hero who performed his duty towards the country of his birth to the utmost limits of his capacity, and eventually acknowledged the honour and love of his compatriots with "humility and pride" (sentiments that obviously extended beyond the immediate context of his speech on this occasion).

I wish to quote the opening paragraph of General MacArthur’s speech before the US Congress on April 19th 1951, because of its relevance to the subject of this article:

"I stand on this rostrum with a sense of deep humility and great pride -- humility in the wake of those great American architects of our history who have stood here before me; pride in the reflection that this forum of legislative debate represents human liberty in the purest form yet devised. Here are centered the hopes and aspirations and faith of the entire human race. I do not stand here as advocate for any partisan cause, for the issues are fundamental and reach quite beyond the realm of partisan consideration. They must be resolved on the highest plane of national interest if our course is to prove sound and our future protected. I trust, therefore, that you will do me the justice of receiving that which I have to say as solely expressing the considered viewpoint of a fellow American."

During the 2010 election, some of Sarath Fonseka’s supporters compared him (rightly mockingly, I thought) to another American five-star general, MacArthur’s colleague, General Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), who served as the 16th Army Chief of Staff (1945-48), and later as the First Allied Supreme Commander Europe (1951-52); he too held his posts under president Truman. General Eisenhower also held ideas that Truman didn’t agree with. About the apparent ambitions of Eisenhower and MacArthur, president Truman said: "..the nation’s two greatest heroes seem to suffer from either Potomac Fever or brass infection." But neither left any ground for the president to suspect their loyalty to America. In fact, president Truman was eagerly hopeful of having Eisenhower contest the 1952 presidential election as a Democrat at the end of his term, and was in the forefront of a campaign to achieve that aim (the aim of persuading Eisenhower to accept Democratic candidacy). But General Eisenhower very candidly revealed his disagreements with the Democratic Party and declared himself and his family as Republicans. The Republican Party on its part launched within its ranks a "Draft Eisenhower" movement lobbying support for his presidential candidacy against his rival Republican, the ‘non-interventionist’ Robert A. Taft. In the election that followed, Eisenhower beat Democratic contender Adlai Stevenson in a landslide victory. Eisenhower was president from 1953 to 1961, and is remembered as one of the greatest US presidents.

It goes without saying that there is no way that a comparison could be made between those two American military men and our Fonseka. He is an epitome of what they were not. This was not unknown to the opportunistic forces that sponsored his candidature. They were content to try to hoodwink the masses with a superficially impressive comparison between him and an unimaginably big name in world military history.

The Fonseka backers seemed to believe that (or at least, to pretend as if) Fonseka was a sure thing in the 2010 presidential race. However, the general public opinion on this score was expressed by Indian military correspondent Colonel Hariharan who wrote in an issue of The Island at that time something to the effect that Sri Lankan voters were not mad to elect Fonseka rejecting Rajapaksa, for hardly anyone of average intelligence could be persuaded to believe that Fonseka as army commander contributed more to the defeat of armed separatist terrorism (that had devastated the nation for nearly three decades) than the multifaceted political leadership provided by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

As we read in the papers of the day, immediately before the 2010 presidential election, unreasonably cocksure of his victory over Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka warned that, on assuming office as the new president, he would prosecute at a military court certain military officers including those who led the final Vanni operation for alleged involvement in politics. However, luckily for his opponents, he lost as expected by all sensible Sri Lankans. Before that, about the time it was rumoured that he was contemplating taking on Rajapaksa in a bid for the presidency, many well meaning people, journalists among them, warned him out of genuine love and respect for his monumental contribution to the war effort that rid the country of terrorism not to engage in politics and unnecessarily tarnish his reputation. It seemed that his newfound friends gave him enough rope to hang himself. Those who still admire him for his soldiery including me genuinely regret his unfortunate incursion into a field that is not worthy of him given his different abilities.

A year or two ago Fonseka was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal under the new government led by the very people who had hypocritically opposed the successful military response to terrorism that he had the opportunity to partly contribute to under Rajapaksa. Recently, he was inducted into parliament through the national list, a move over which still hangs a question mark, though, and he has even been given a minister’s post. His maiden speech in parliament on March 10 left us in no doubt that he is still clueless about what the public would expect of him in his new capacity, except his desire to take revenge of the man who failed to cure him of his Potomac fever somehow. People feel that he seems ready to effectively betray the whole country for his personal satisfaction on that score. Is taking revenge on the Rajapaksa’s the be all and end all of his politics, we feel tempted to ask?

While implicitly claiming all credit for the war victory, he expressed his approval of an international investigation into allegations of human rights violations with the participation of foreign judges (against some of his own team members who fought along with him for the sake of the country risking their life and limb). He reiterated the white flag incident, which, he said took place during the last 2 or 3 days at the tail end of the war when he was out of the country as there was nothing left for a general to do at that stage! We thought that the former government’s military campaign was an extended team effort involving all other services such as the air force, the navy, and the intelligence department, etc., which allows no single participant to claim the whole credit.

Wasantha Karannagoda’s well written book of war memoirs in Sinhala titled "ADHISHTAHNAYA – LTTE parajaya-navika hamuda bhumikawa" (DETERMINATION – the Defeat of the LTTE and the Role of the Navy) devotes a whole chapter – Chapter 19 pp.246-278 – under the heading "Aethulay Yuddhaya" (The War Inside) to the "cold war" between him and Sarath Fonseka, which was an "open secret". Without elaborating, I may say that, though it led to some unwanted friction between the two which sometimes even had damaging repercussions on the war effort itself, this personal conflict had ridiculously trivial childish origins. They were both Anandians, Sarath having been about two years senior to the other. We must read the book to appreciate the monumental role that the Sri Lanka Navy played under the admiralty of Karannagoda in winning the war.

How good it should be for all of us if Sarath Fonseka reflected on his own

true importance for the country and decided to help our mother Lanka out of

the doldrums she has been blown into, without uselessly frittering away his

inexhaustible energy on exacting personal vendetta on his peers! This is

just a friendly thought.

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