“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom”.
President Abraham Lincoln wrote those words in a letter to a mother who is said to have lost all five of her sons in battle during the American Civil War.
Lincoln realized that his words may not serve to comfort a grieving mother, hence he began it by stating, “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.” However, he nevertheless, chose to thank her on behalf of the Republic for the ‘sacrifices’ she had made in giving up all of her children for the cause.
Lincoln chose to describe the deaths as a sacrifice ‘upon the alter of freedom’. Doubtless he was being his famous eloquent self when he wrote those words. Whether the letter brought any sense of comfort to a grieving mother is debatable. Patriotism is fine for politicians, but words, no matter how eloquent or stirring, cannot bring back the dead.
Sri Lanka’s own civil war ended six years ago. The three decade long conflict claimed the lives of close to 100,000 people by most estimates. These include nearly 25,000 personnel from the Sri Lankan armed forces and police. Thousands more were injured.
Many were scarred for life, both physically and psychologically. If not for the sacrifices of these ‘War Heroes,’ the country would still be living under the cloud of an ever-present war.
The National War Memorial in front of the Parliamentary Complex in Battaramulla is dedicated to the memory of military personnel who have laid down their lives since World War I. It lists the names of all military and police personnel who were killed during the country’s civil war.
The memorial stands proudly at the Parliament grounds, where families come with their children for outings and where the fitness conscious go to exercise. The memorial is gated, but anyone is welcome to enter after signing a book at the entrance and handing over their National Identity Card. However, the memorial remains virtually empty except during the annual State orchestrated commemorations.
The soldiers who were on duty at the location told this writer that families of the deceased visit when they can. Sometimes, people come searching for a name of a friend or acquaintance. However, it is very rare for someone who does not fit these descriptions to visit the memorial. In fact, one can hazard a guess that many of those who frequent the Parliament Grounds for exercise or for outings don’t even take a second glance at the memorial.
The ‘War Heroes’ become necessary to politicians and supporters when an election season is in full swing, as we are seeing now. They are all eager to capitalize on the ‘sacrifices’ made by them.
Not a day goes by without some politician or other mentioning how he she loves and cares for these heroes. The politicians make many promises regarding how they will assist them if they win. However, we know from experience that many conveniently forget these promises once they do win.
There will come a day when all those who endured so much hardship fighting for this country pass into history. Whatever your political views about the reasons for this war or its justifications, one must remember that the soldiers on the ground had no power in taking decisions regarding how or why the war should be fought. They can only obey orders, and for the most part, they did so honorably.
One does not have to wait until they are all dead and gone to appreciate their sacrifices.
There are people, ordinary people, who are making efforts to ensure that the sacrifices of the ‘War Heroes’ are not forgotten. It is encouraging to see events such as the recent #RanaViruMeetup for disabled veterans by Sri Lanka’s young social media users. It shows that there are young people who will take the initiative when it comes to helping these heroes, and that says much about our country.
It would have been hard for the mother who was the subject of President Lincoln’s letter to reconcile with the fact that all her five sons had been killed. This is the same for all mothers everywhere who would have lost their sons in war. Those who survive live on with the scars; physical, psychological, or both. There is a short poem said to have been scribbled on the walls of the Palali Airbase. While it is difficult to say whether this poem does exist, or did exist once, it is perhaps fitting to end this on that note.
“If I should die on the battlefield
Hug me off and send me home
Cover my body with a Lion flag
And tell my mother I did my best”
They all did their best. The least this country could do is to do its best for them and their families in return.