REVIEW: Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa (Margaret Trawick)

DAVID LANCY reviewing

Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa, by Margaret Trawick. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2007. xii+308 pp.
Reviewed in Ethos 35.4 by David F. Lancy, Professor of Anthropology, Utah State University

The title and subtitle reflect the fact that this work has two foci. The first theme—[Behind] Enemy Lines—is a journalistic account of the lives of Sri Lankan villagers who live in the shadow of an intermittent civil war. Trawick’s history of this war is thorough and meticulous. While I was aware of the general outlines of this conflict, her account reveals a much greater complexity on the ground. For example, while there are sectarian differences between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority, many of the rebel supporters are, in fact, Christian. Sectarian differences seem, in other words, to be much less central to the conflict than the issue of Tamil disenfranchisement.

Trawick’s research is centered in the Paduvankarai area of the Batticaloa District. Her subjects support—to varying degrees—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE maintains a well-entrenched shadow government in this area. LTTE’s dominance was achieved not only through successful resistance to Sri Lankan military and police, but also through success in internecine battles with other rebel groups. LTTE has also been internally riven by the murderous attacks on rivals instituted by the charismatic leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran. Trawick finds herself simultaneously attracted to the cause of the Tamil rebels and repelled by the atrocities they commit.
The bulk of the narrative is set “Behind Enemy Lines;” at no time does the author become involved—even accidentally—in any armed conflict. The lengthy transcripts of her interviews and two first-person accounts focus on the impact of the conflict, its evolving history, and on the agonizing individual decisions regarding involvement in the conflict. It is a poignant and moving history as viewed through the memories of those most affected. There are two sub-themes which emerge, one explicitly, another more implicitly. The author asks whether women’s status and freedom have been changed by the cultural changes the civil war has wrought. The data appear to be mixed. One female informant declares her intent to sacrifice her life to combat rather than child-rearing (p. 86). This is consistent with the movement’s official stance against marriage and in favor of celibacy. The implication is that women can throw off their traditional roles. On the other hand, we learn of “…several Tiger weddings (p. 163)” and two of her main informants are a couple—now married with a baby—who have both been active combatants.
A second sub-theme was left to the reader to elucidate and this concerns the ongoing mental state of this unfortunate community. That is, because the accounts solicited by Trawick are lengthy and unfiltered one can form an opinion about the emotional climate at large. The impression I formed was that “life goes on.” The presence of a long-term, simmering military conflict in their midst does not seriously disrupt the normal round of village or family life. Most of the community condones the killings committed by members and philosophically accepts the corollary casualties.
The second major focus is represented by the book’s subtitle: Childhood, Warfare, and Play and, unfortunately, it is ephemeral. I have already alluded to the fact the book does not describe scenes of combat or direct conflict of any kind. And we learn repeatedly, that LTTE, in principle and in deed, does not assign children to combat roles. They may be utilized in supporting roles as camp orderlies but we learn this second-hand, we don’t see them or listen to their voices. Trawick—reluctantly—includes some material from a boy who’d been injured—as a civilian—by a land mine. But, overall, we hear only echoes of warfare and children are absent or “at the rear.”
Children at play are also conspicuously absent from this book. Trawick actually makes this amazing confession on the second page: “The word play appears in the title because I found that many adult members of the LTTE presented themselves to me as playful and entertaining people.” And, “Combat was referred to by the combatants themselves as a game or sport…adult Tigers sometimes represented themselves as children (p. 3).”
So what, then, can we learn about Childhood from this work? Professor Trawick describes her orientation thus: “When I started this project and went to Sri Lanka, I had no special theory in mind, except that children exercise agency—they knowingly act on their worlds to change those worlds—and they do so in warfare as well as in peace. This is, however, a trivial theory, in the sense that one can easily prove it (p. 5).” Her claims regarding children’s agency are borrowed from James and Proutt’s (1980:8) “manifesto” (Trawick’s term). I would argue that such an argument deserves to be tested or at least examined in the light of the available data. One of the keystone pieces in the history of the violence occurred in 1983 when “a small band of young men… blew up a government military vehicle…killing nineteen soldiers (p. 16).” This single act launched the civil war. Yet, Trawick does not examine this event for its relevance to the issue of agency. Otherwise, I was unable to find any examples of “agency” on the part of a child, especially of them changing their society.
Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is that there are so few children in this narrative. Trawick never delimits childhood from other life stages and, it seems clear that her “children” are actually young men and women. The following passages reveal this confusion (italics added): “During my stay there are several Tiger weddings. All the ones I hear of involve Tiger men and civilian girls. I wonder whether civilian boys could or would marry Tiger women… (p.163).” “At fifteen, Menan was on the cusp between childhood and the dangerous age of deliberate entrapment by one or the other side (p. 135).” “Another Tiger told me that very young boys, some as young as thirteen, work in the camps but are not sent to the battlefront (p. 157)” The protagonists in the war and in the personal accounts Trawick assembles are not children.
Anthropologists have been drawn to the study of “child soldiers” (Rosen 2005) because of their extreme youth and viciousness that confounds our common understanding of the very nature of childhood. I am relieved to find there are no child soldiers in the Sri Lankan war and this thought compensates me somewhat for the book’s failure to add anything to my knowledge of culture and children. This book makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Sri Lankan conflict, but the sub-title is an unfortunate red herring.

James, Allison and Prout, Alan
1990 A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Provenance,
Promise, and Problems. In Constructing and Reconstructing
Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of
Childhood. Allison James and Alan Prout, eds. Pp. 7-33. London,
UK:Falmer Press.
Rosen, David M.
2005 Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


3 Responses to “REVIEW: Enemy Lines: Warfare, Childhood, and Play in Batticaloa (Margaret Trawick)”

  1. margarettrawick Says:

    Reply to Lancy

    “The child that you send over is nothing like the child that comes back to you,” said the mother of an American soldier recently returned from Iraq (Haberman 2007). To many a mother, her child is always her child, no matter the child’s age. Childhood is, among other things, a relationship, just as motherhood is.

    Biologically, a child is anyone under the age of puberty. But cultural views of childhood are more variable than biological ones. Children as well as adults make the meanings of childhood. Children as well as adults make culture. This is the point of the article by James and Prout that I cite in my book. Ashis Nandy, whom also I cite, argues that our behaviour toward children is as politically charged as our behaviour toward postcolonial peoples. We arrogantly proclaim what they are and should be, and make them conform to our proclamations. I tried not to do that.

    I thank Lancy for learning from my chapter on Sri Lankan history. I thank him also for concluding that “there are no child soldiers in the Sri Lankan war.” What I think he meant more specifically is that he found no child soldiers in Sri Lanka similar to those found in some parts of Africa, and this is an important finding, given the current controversy over child soldiers, and the tendency by some to see them as all the same. A longish chapter of my book is devoted to girls who were legally “child soldiers” – trained and active members of a military organization who were under the age of eighteen. No they weren’t, and yes they were, real child soldiers.

    My book was entitled “Enemy Lines” not because my research was located “behind” such lines, but because of the many, largely invisible lines in this war between potential enemies and others. The most dangerous of these lines was the broad, hazy line separating childhood from adulthood – the time of life we Anglos call “adolescence.” Little children were not considered by any adult to be potential enemies. But as Tamil children grew older and bigger, they came to be seen by army personnel as potential Tigers. They were also seen by Tigers as potential recruits. That hazy line of adolescence was itself the enemy for these children.

    Lancy says that “Children at play are also conspicuously absent from this book.” But the book includes extensive accounts of children, as well as adults, at play in Paduvankarai. Lancy probably has a different notion of “play” or “children at play” than I do, or than the people in Paduvankarai had. Descriptions of children involved in sports contests, talent contests, street theatre, and spontaneous play-acting and make-believe take up many pages of the book. Children’s lives were not separate from those of adults. The play activities of adults and children were often commingled, and never far apart. It was not possible for me, as an adult, to watch how children played when adults were not part of the scene, if such play ever occurred at all.
    Lancy writes, “I was unable to find any examples of “agency” on the part of a child, especially of them changing their society. Part of the reason, undoubtedly, is that there are so few children in this narrative.”
    But my teachers in the field included babies, toddlers, children around six, children between the ages of ten and twelve, children in their early to middle teens – some assigned pseudonyms and many others not named. I saw, heard and wrote about each one of scores of children.
    Children throughout exercised agency. None of their acts were earth-shaking. None of the children I knew blew up a truck, for instance. (Lancy cites the blowing up of a truck by the head of the LTTE in 1983 as an act of agency, which it surely was, but Prabhakaran was 29 years old at the time). If not death-dealing, the decisions of some of the children were life-changing, and not only for the children alone. A full chapter is about the small fifteen-year-old Menan. In my eyes, he was a child, and what he showed me changed me. Another full chapter is about the baby Vithusa, who, like many babies, while they are babies, changed the lives of her parents irrevocably. She knew what she was doing and why. Like Prabhakaran at 29, Vithusa at one could not predict the distant consequences of her behaviour. The human decisions that matter the most are not always those that grab the headlines.
    Lancy calls my subtitle – warfare, childhood and play – a “red herring.” The book is about how those three states of being overlap and interact in remarkable ways. This was what I most wanted readers to see. But Lancy missed it, because he was looking for something else.


    Haberman, Clyde
    2007 A Soldier Home from War and a Mother Fighting Hard. New York Times. November 13, 2007.

    Nandy, Ashis.
    2004 Reconstructing Childhood: A Critique of the Ideology of Adulthood. In Bonfire of the Creeds: The Essential Ashis Nandy, ed. Ashis Nandy, 423-429. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  2. sinhalatamil Says:

    If Trawick’s book actually argues that there are no child soldiers in Sri Lanka, this is astounding — there are numerous cases of children well below the age of 17 being sent to combat and either killed or captured — or who later escaped or in other circumstances gave testimony of having been involved in actual fighting. While it may be true that most underage “soldiers” don’t actually engage in combat, there are enough exceptions to this rule for Trawick to mention it. If she doesn’t, this is a major fault of her book. If she does, then this review is a bit of a joke.

  3. margarettrawick Says:

    A valuable, recent, field-researched article on children in Batticaloa, by Jo Boyden, may be found here:

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