Lalin’s Column: Review -‘Road to Nandikadal’ by Maj Gen Kamal Guneratne WWV, RWP, RSP,USP MPhil
Major General Kamal Guneratne ‘s ‘Road to Nandikadal’ is the most comprehensive, credible, incisive, riveting and objective book in English on the entire 26 year old conflict in SL. (It is also available thankfully in Sinhalese and a copy in Tamil would be welcome too). It is the inside story of one who fought the war from its inception to the end and gives an impeccable account of the conflict that took 100,000 lives.
While the actions are fast moving and his blunt opinions of various people are delightful, it is the thinking side that is the book’s real value. Frank, with no false modesty but with compelling confidence, what impresses is its highly personal tone. It also describes the many lessons learned which almost all SL political leaders have yet to understand or concede. It is a trail blazing contribution to SL’s Military History
It is a book for all citizens of SL from school children to adults and a must read for all officers of the three forces, military academies, staff colleges and all regiments of the army.
There are controversial and delicious anecdotes that fascinate in a fairly lengthy book. It covers in flowing detail the battles fought without missing a step or a beat. It also gives deep insights into the background, minds and impact of the Commanders who were responsible for defeat and victory, shame and glory.
“Great Commanders have mostly been dull writers. Rommel was a born writer as well as a born fighter. The impact that he made on the world with the sword will be deepened by his power with the pen”. (The Rommel Papers- Capt Liddell Hart)
There is blunt honesty and pent up anger that carries with it vulnerability but it is moderated by genuine respect for his superiors reverentially and repeatedly proclaimed. It hasn’t spared the politicians who started the war, knew not what to do thence and embraced appeasement at any cost as a panacea. They had gambled recklessly with the future of SL for over 30 years.
It is much about the poor unsung infantryman who bore the brunt of the casualties. They were mostly from desperately poor families who joined the Army not out of any sense of adventure or glory but to support their parents and siblings and went on to serve with great courage, loyalty, comradeship selflessness and determination against fearful odds putting to shame even some of their officers.
Gen Guneratne’s emotions spill over when recalling the last moments of many of his men who until the last did their duty by their comrades for regiment and country, without question. One 18 year old fell on him and died. At the end he tells of a soldier collecting blood soaked sand by Prabakaran’s body. When observed and shouted at, he responded” Sir, do you know I had three elder brothers in the Army… he killed all of them. My father and mother are still alive. Sir, I took the blood to go and show my parents I took revenge for the deaths of my brothers”. The soldier then took the blood soaked bag and disappeared into the crowd.
All politicians and many Colombians who were sleeping snugly for 26 years while these village lads were dying all over the North and East, doing their duty by their country, should read this book to understand how much our soldiers endured, in what harrowing circumstances thousands died and why their bodies could not be recovered and how very empty were the politicians’ calls for peace. They were exchanged for thousands of soldiers’ lives and limbs.
If the presence at the book launch of hundreds of Buddhists priests, the wives of famous dead war heroes including Lali Kobbekaduwa and Manel Wimalaratne, former military Commanders, and the former C in C, meant anything at the over flowing spacious Kularatne Hall of the premier Buddhist school Ananda, it was that this was a defining national moment. SL is under Western siege where the country’s war heroes face criminal charges while the terrorists they defeated at great cost in life do not. Would this book expose SL’s oppressors?
It is also the first book by the exceptional battle winning commanders who began their military careers at the very inception of the war at the bayonet end. They endured, without flinching, the tribulations of unplanned and shockingly bad led war, disasters, disappointments and when the whole world seemed to be falling, savoured final victory after 26 years. They had been seriously if not critically wounded, left for dead and yet returned to battle but never questioned their belief, in eventual victory. It will certainly inspire other Commanders and maybe soldiers too, to write up their memoires for the sake of the Nation’s history and to protect its future.
The over 6 foot craggy, lean Maj Gen Guneratne who carries a piece of shrapnel embedded within millimeters from his heart during the battle at Silavatura (1991) among other wounds, was in battle from subaltern to General for the entire duration of the 26 years old conflict. He was in a unique position to convey the true face of this war from beginning to end. He has been a dynamic leader and a great General, a soldier’s general.
In common with equally resolute and brave officers and soldiers who joined the Army post 1980, he and they were the hope of the future and they delivered. They had seen the good and the bad, the evil and the cowardly, the selfish and the dishonest in military and political leadership and faced gross insults from politicians. They were determined that whatever happened they would not yield to terror. They had inspired the nation at its darkest moments by their courage and dedicated leadership. They brought final victory that not only their compatriots but militaries the world over had thought improbable. This book is a tribute to them.
Gen Guneratne was from the Gajaba Regiment reputedly the steadiest infantry regiment. (With the other Infantry regiments, SL Light Infantry, Sinha, Gemunu Watch and Vijayaba Infantry they had 79% of the casualties and together with the Commandos, Special Forces and National Guard they had about 89% of the Army total of 23,403 killed and missing, presumed dead).
It is the most factual history of the war to date. It records accurately and comments professionally on all the most important events and battles of the conflict. The enemy’s mistake was to switch from guerilla /terrorist to conventional warfare. They were up against a rejuvenated, extremely well equipped and brilliantly commanded Army, Navy and Air Force that finally won a just war under an obdurate national leader who never wavered.
It may embarrass some who repeated crucial if not stupid mistakes, committed treasonable acts and those military commanders who were adapt at taking counsel not only of their fears but also of politicians including vote stuffing at elections, were derelict, reckless with the lives of the soldiers, negligent, dishonest and totally unsuited to hold high command. They subscribed to if not initiated the cry that victory was impossible, were involved with manipulating huge contracts for weapons and rations and paying with the soldiers lives. This was all to accommodate a terrorist megalomaniac who had no interest in peace.
It is extremely well researched. It covers in vivid, nerve racking detail his personal experiences of little known gory and painful details of disasters among others (Mankulam -1990) and very close run and deadly battles (Muhumalai-2007-8, and Pudukuduirippu -Feb 2009) that except for this book may have been hidden or forgotten for posterity.
It will be welcomed by those who having often been isolated and surrounded, taking casualties in the Wanni jungles and elsewhere, given up as expendable by their inept commanders, survived, turned tables and then like their loved ones prayed the truth of those terrible dark times would out.
The book is dedicated to all those who bore the burden of the war and made the supreme sacrifice, from military comrades to parents who readily gave their children to fight for what they believed was just and all citizens who silently suffered the agonies of this protracted war. It does not attempt to hide the evils that were committed by all concerned from what caused the war to what happened in battle. It gives a gripping account of all the major battles in the North and the East, factually with tremendous insight.
The thread that runs right through is that his colleagues and soldiers knew well that there would be no peace with the terrorists. Peace talks and cessation of hostilities meant terrorist gains at great cost in life, when hostilities were resumed without warning –four times in all, totaling 100,000 dead. Humiliation from a deadly combination of misled political theorists, failed novices in statecraft, opportunists and effete military high command was their daily bread. If there are only a few compliments to a handful of politicians in the book, few would grieve.
Having been decorated with the second highest gallantry award (WWV) among others, having the very highest professional qualifications, having fought in grueling battles from North to East, and also unusually obtained a MPhil, Gen Guneratne has now produced, hopefully for SL, a game changing book for a lasting peace. It was Gen Guneratne’s 53 division troops that finally got the byproduct of the anti Tamil terror of 1983, the corpulent, unwavering, rigid, genocidal, bestial leader Prabakaran. It signaled the end of what was called an unceasing war.
Nations are founded on the deaths of (and blood) its soldiers (New York Times)
This book is an eye opener to many who saw the war as portrayed by the West guided by nearly a half million overseas Tamil extremists with huge funds, commanding crucial vote banks as well. The belief in a peaceful settlement however attractive was illusory, deceitful and improbable. The prolonged agony of the nation was settled sadly by force as there was no other way to bring peace to the country. Gen Guneratne is however under no delusion that the peace, while complete, may not be challenged in the future.
His strong personal belief in traditional Sinhalese Buddhist values runs through the book, befitting his ancestry and proud Ananda College background that produced so many excellent military leaders among many others famed in every field. It gives heart to all good men. Some of it may however draw criticism from those who failed or did wrong or were not recognized.
The book has no maps and copies of operation orders to interest students of military history. One would believe this is by design. These will no doubt come in the next edition when restrictions are lifted. No such inhibitions affected books authored abroad as SL born Australians Michael Roberts and Sergei de Silva Ranasinghe would admit. Already erratic missiles of what constitutes ‘military secrets’ have been fired though so much is already in the public domain. There are many carefully selected photographs of the conflict, the host of intrepid commanders, the terrorists and except for two significant omissions, the politicians concerned. It could however have been better edited so that for instance Kayts and Kargil (in India) were spelled correctly.
The book pointedly ignores SL’s politically self inflicted injury at Geneva. What is there to deny that there are only two legitimate attack options at Nandikadal-capture or destroy- the enemy? If the open battlefield, and this was not a town, city or village, is also occupied by camp followers, militia, volunteer guards and Labour Corps defying all rescue attempts, who is responsible for their deaths together with the enemy after 26 years of terror?
Paraphrasing and quoting from Field Marshal Rommel’s memoires, it may be said that no commander in SL “has yet written an account of the campaigns he fought in to match the vividness and value” of Gen Guneratne’s. No other SL General “has provided such a graphic picture of his operations and method of command. An outstanding work…… it will spoil the subject for historians who will try later. He is a soldier who can reconstruct battles as brilliantly as he fought them”.
- Asian Tribune -