Gota’s War is a deeply biased book on a fascinating subject – Sri Lanka’s civil war. It mixes compelling detail (how the LTTE used lightbulbs to trigger underwater mines, for example) with absolutely biased and generally misleading opinion (Tamil leaders were to blame for almost everything, including riots). As such I found it only half readable. I could skim it for the war detail parts, but G.A. Chandraprema’s analysis itself was so narrowly biased (towards political conditions right now) as to be completely useless as a history.
David Blacker has read the whole book (and fought in the war) and has a much more comprehensive review. Blacker says it’s a book worth reading, and I guess so, but he also points out that the book scrubs out General Sarath Fonseka (except obliquely blaming him for killing Lasantha Wickremetunge), whitewashes every government decision, and blackguards any action by Tamil politicians or leaders.
Chandraprema takes a broad point (war necessary, LTTE bad) which even I could agree with and uses it to color what was in fact a nuanced and conflicted history. The war was all the more interesting because the good guys weren’t clear, the bad guys did noble things, and none of the players knew what was going on or how it would end up. By framing this around a central heroic figure (of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) Chandraprema strains the historical record to the point of disbelief. His analysis is basically shit and makes you stupider if you believe it.
For example, this is one of the dumber sentences in the book, and quite possibly the English language:
The fact that this form of protest makes a moralistic pretence of being peaceful and non-violent may irk those at the receiving end of a Satyagraha even more than an honest and straight forward riot. (pg 31)
I mean, WTF, is an honest and straight forward riot? I can somehow picture a Britisher standing in some ruins saying ‘By gosh, that was an honest and straightforward riot’, except I can’t, because it’s ridiculous. Here as in many places you can see Chandraprema straining to fit reality into his pre-conceived narrative and IT JUST DOESN’T FIT. In many ways Chandraprema is trying to write a Ramayana rather than a modern history, which necessitates turning your enemies into demons and even some of your supporters into monkeys and bears.
At the same time, however, the book has a lot of very interesting detail. For example, how Muammar Gaddafi bailed out the government with a $500 million loan at the end of the war (pg 464). Or how the Army used a tea factory method to turn containers into dryers to keep the troops in decent clothes during the monsoons (pg 436). There was also a story about how the US defence attache gave black and white satellite images that showed where LTTE arms ships were hiding. Some of the most compelling stuff was the little innovative things both the LTTE and Army did. What stuck with me was that the LTTE laid sea mines that would be detonated by an ordinary light bulb. When a ship hit the bulb it would break and salty seawater would flood in, completing the circuit and detonating the mine. Then you get the story of how Army divers had to cover the bulb and delicately tow the mine to shore. The amount of sacrifice by soldiers is incredible, honestly on both sides.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but it has only extractive value. Chandraprema’s story as a whole is so biased as to be absurd at times and it’s completely misleading unless you have other sources or memory to refer to. I’ve heard that the Rajapaksas are passing the book around, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a first time read. It covers an interesting time with some interesting detail, but the book itself is as farcical and biased as the title would suggest. It wasn’t Gota’s War and the book only expands on and inflates that erroneous view. As such only the parts where Gota was a major player (Eelam War IV) are even moderately insightful and the book as a whole is bogged down by its narrow-minded focus on selling a point rather than telling a story.
I would, however, recommend Blacker’s review.