Saying Sorry Is The Hardest Thing To Do

Sri Lanka Army Deeply Regrets..

A ceremonial force once barely capable of defending itself, Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces have fought in cities and villages, in jungles and hills and at sea and in the air. They have mastered the complexities of combined operations and completely annihilated the one of the most effective insurgencies of the last fifty years, the hitherto invincible Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But one indispensable military skill (which has been successfully mastered by all major Western powers), still eludes them. This is how to say sorry when you kill the wrong people for right reasons and kill the right people for the wrong reasons.

During and after the victory over the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces have faced an unceasing barrage of criticism for the manner of their victory including accusations of war crimes, disappearances, executions, torture and human rights abuses. The latest salvo was fired by Channel 4’s polemic documentary, “Killing Fields of Sri Lanka”.

In refuting and countering these charges, one word is conspicuous by its absence. The word is “sorry”. The Sri Lankan military probably believe that saying “sorry” displays weakness to their enemies and critics. Wrong. Saying “sorry” means you’ve acknowledged that mistakes have been made and since Sri Lanka’s war is over, these incidents are unlikely to be repeated – unless another war starts, which is extremely unlikely.

It’s still not too late for Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces to learn from the master practitioners in the fine art of saying sorry, the US/NATO bloc, whose wars look to set to continue indefinitely, giving them even more opportunities to keep saying “sorry”. To help Sri Lanka’s Armed Forces in this unfamiliar terrain, this brief guide shows how US/NATO says ““sorry”.

How to say “sorry” for Avoidable Civilian Deaths during military operations.

Killed a few civilians by mistakenly bombing a wedding party, a village or a civilian bus convoy? No problem.

Sample Apology 1: “On behalf of the coalition, I offer our heartfelt apologies to the families and friends of those killed. Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians.”
Major General John Toolan, ISAF commander, SW Afghanistan.

Sorry about that…..

Note how insurgents can still be blamed for the civilian deaths.

Sample Apology 2: “Nato does not strike anything which is not directly connected with fuelling the Yugoslav war machine.” NATO spokesman after 100 civilians were killed during NATO airstrikes.


Note the subtle shift of responsibility to the victims being in the vicinity of the opposition’s war machine.

How to say “Sorry” For Deliberate Civilian Deaths during military operations.

Killed some civilians who were getting in the way of your military achieving their objective? An easily rectifiable mistake with the correct kind of apology.

Sample Apology: The military wished to express our deepest regret for this incident to the families who have lost loved ones and express our sincerest condolences.”

Note the simple, direct apology without shifting the blame on the victims. A classic.

How to say “Sorry” for Torture during Counter-terrorism operations.

Arrested and tortured the wrong people during a counter-terrorist operation? No problemo. A gift of perfume to the torture victim also helps with the healing process.

Sample Apology 1: “Please accept our apology, and we are sorry that we kept you here for this time.”

Sample Apology 2: “At my release an American colonel apologized to me. He said that they had concluded that I was innocent and that I had worked for the good of Afghanistan. He said that after 2.5 years! They gave me a bottle of perfume, but they did not return my possessions.”

Note the direct apology and acknowledgement that the victim had worked for the greater good and the gift giving. A nice touch.

How to say “Sorry” for Deaths Under Torture during Counter-terrorism operations.

Killed a few innocent and not-so-innocent people during over-zealous torture sessions? With a judicious mixture of reprimands, subtle apologies and immunity from prosecution, the problem vanishes.

Sample Apology: Simply say that the soldiers responsible will be given an “administrative reprimand.” If possible avoid making a formal apology and say that “all detainees are treated humanely,” except for isolated cases.

How to punish your own soldiers for ‘excesses’ – the Western Way
Over 100 people have died under torture in NATO’s War on Terror. Wherever possible punish low ranking soldiers only. Thenpass legislation indemnifying high officials from trials and war crimes charges.

How to say “Sorry” when Journalists are killed by own forces.

Mistakenly or deliberately killed a troublesome journalist who was about to expose unsavoury aspects of your counter-insurgency practices? Deny that the targeting was deliberate and make a simple apology.

Sample Apology 1: I am sorry he lost his life. We regret the loss of any innocent civilians and we do everything in our power to limit these losses in combat operations.”

Note the apology includes the caveat that his life was lost as a result being in the vicinity of a combat operation.

Journalists killed by West & Sri Lanka

99% of the 230 murders of journalists that have taken place since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 have remained unsolved.

How to say “Sorry” When Diplomats Are Killed during military operations.

If your forces deliberately target diplomats who are too close to enemy military targets, a heartfelt apology and compensation almost always does the trick.

“We have been jointly examining this mistake over the intervening hours. It was the result of neither pilot nor mechanical error. Clearly, faulty information led to a mistake in the initial targeting of this facility. In addition, the extensive process in place used to select and validate targets did not correct this original error. A review of our procedures has convinced us that this was an anomaly that is unlikely to occur again. Therefore, NATO authorities intend to continue and intensify the air campaign.”

Extract from the International Journal of Communication’s analysis of NATO apologies (PDF file)

Note the assumption that as they hadn’t done anything wrong intentionally, NATO would continue air strikes.

Fortunately for the Sri Lankan armed forces, the war is over (no diplomats were killed) and the enemy totally vanquished. The apologies must begin now. It’s the last thing its critics will expect.

“Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties.”
Aaron Lazarre, Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and author of “On Apology”.

8 Responses to Saying Sorry Is The Hardest Thing To Do

  1. sbarrkum says:

    Really liked the “Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians.”.

    Nice bit of work here,

    cheers sbarrkum

  2. sbarrkum says:

    It would also help for those who are google handicapped to provide the link to a “reputable source” of the statement like the NY Times.

    For instance the “Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians.” the link provided is from Monsters and Critics. Monsters and Critics may be a reputable website but definitely does mot have the name recognition of the NY Times.

    Here is how I would write this (easy enough since you have done all the hard work)

    NY Times: Quoting Maj. Gen. John Toolan, commander of NATO “Unfortunately, the compound the insurgents purposefully occupied was later discovered to house innocent civilians.”

    keep up the good work.
    cheers sbarrkum

    • Mango says:

      Dear sbarrkum:
      Thanks for that tip and appreciate your kind feedback. You’re correct to say that I should’ve linked to the NYT, the original source of that quote rather than Monsters & Critics which seems to be a news aggregator rather than a source of original journalism, no?

      Also read your blog and look forward to reading about your trip to Jaffna in 2004. Those pictures of the LTTE structures, less than decade old, seem to be of a different reality.

  3. sbarrkum says:

    Mango as in Saturday Night Live ?. Google will give the wiki and You Tube too.

    Not necessary to post this comment. can be deleted.

    cheers sbarrkum

    • Mango says:

      Sorry, dont understand what you meant by ‘Saturday Night Live’. Is there a specific sketch from SNL, you’re referring to, or…?

  4. sbarrkum says:

    Particular character from SNL played by Chris Rattan.

    The character does not jive with whole theme of this blog.

  5. Mango says:

    Ah… OK. Never heard of Chris Rattan, sorry. Err., definitely not male stripper material! 🙂

  6. Pingback: When Pig Fly: Britain Preaching Human Rights to Sri Lanka « The Carthaginian Solution

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