Things lost in the matter of winning and losing
History is written by the winners, this is well known. In other words, chronicling is an exercise that is framed by power realities. Those who win and those who wield power frequently bend the story in ways that glorify them. It is the exceptional historian that would paint things in colours closest to the truth and resist embellishment as well as footnoting or even blanking out. The author of the Mahawansa, or the Great Chronicle, is an exception.
Today, the business of reporting is exactly that; a business. Those who have power are able to frill as well as well as ignore and thereby offer versions that appear to be true but in fact are a fair distance from accurate reportage.
On the other hand, even the most meticulous chronicler tends to conflate nation or collective with personality and regime, with scarce mention of the complexities contained within broad categories. Wars are won and lost by leaders and nations, not soldiers and populations.
In Sri Lanka, naturally, it is the political and military leadership that won the major share of accolades for ending a 30 year struggle. The troops and many who contributed in non-military ways were duly recognized. Some were honoured with word. Some were rewarded materially, with medal, promotion, house and diplomatic position. In time, these names will fade and only the names of the political and military leadership will be remembered. Unavoidable. Few apart from immediate family and other loved one will remember the dead of the defeated, the names of the leaders being the exception.
There was heroism. It is however not the preserve of the victor. There are those who fight valiantly and die or are maimed on all sides of every conflict. There are courageous people in lost causes too. History generally tends to un-note them or else frame courage or heroism in political terms, i.e. mentioning the ‘treacherous’ nature of the cause and leadership on behalf of whom that heroism found expression.
It is easy to pin ‘lunatic’ on a suicide bomber, for example. An individual ready to die for a cause is certainly not ‘normal’ in that your average citizen would just not put his or her hand up to die, even if there was identification with the cause or the objective. ‘Brainwashed’ is an easy tag too and perhaps not undeserving either. Still.
When I think that 100,000 people died over the last 30 years, that 60,000 did between 1988 and 1999 and that another 20,000 perished in 1971, I feel we have not won anything but in fact lost too much. Even if we assume that just one percent of this number (1,800) were endowed with courage, discipline and other skills, that’s a massive blow to the overall human resources of a nation of our size.
But apart from all this, I am wondering who would ever chronicle the little acts of courage, heroism and humanity that went beyond political and ideological commitment from among those who lost, the vanquished. I remember that even today, among the most memorable moments of the Olympic Games is the determined run by the Sri Lankan running the marathon, even though he was placed last by several laps. That was in 1960, the Tokyo Games. He lost. Vanquished. And yet, Ranatunga Karunaranda’s example continues to inspire. So too the image of Derek Redmond, limping to complete the race after pulling his hamstring in the 400m race in Barcelona.
We learn not just from the heroics of the winners, but the courage of those who lost. They all add colour and beauty to the rocky, flawed, tragic and nevertheless remarkable human story, that tapestry we all weave thread into, whether we like it or not.
I don’t know their identities. I might never know their stories. Perhaps all I will have is the fact that they did exist and must have done something that made someone remember with thanksgiving, even if that someone also perished in the losing cause.
Seven years ago, I asked a question: ‘If the shattered pieces of a human bomb were put together, would we recover a trophy called Triumph or a nondescript shell called Pathos?’
Seven years later, I don’t have a satisfactory answer. Perhaps I am a fool to ponder over questions such as this. All I know is that I feel there’s something missing in the story and that knowing might not hurt, but in fact empower and heal. I am willing to compile, if you are willing to tell. That’s all I need to say about things lost in the matter of winning and losing, as of now.
By Malinda Senewirathne