ONLY MAN IS VILE The Tragedy of Sri Lanka By William McGowan Farrar Straus Giroux. 397 pp. $25

ONE OF SRI LANKA's lesser misfortunes is to be ignored. Despite having staged one of post-colonial history's most brutal and fascinating Third World horror shows -- replete with death squads, ethnic fratricide, totalitarian insurgencies and the usual cast of misguided, Westernized politicians -- this teardrop-shaped island nation in the Indian Ocean, formerly the British colony of Ceylon, has managed to rip itself apart during the last several decades without attracting much attention.

Neighboring India dropped in with 50,000 troops five years ago, hoping to sort out the island's mess, which it had a hand in creating. But its soldiers soon returned home, bloodied and sulking. As for the superpowers, present and former, they have generally left Sri Lanka to its own appalling devices. Japanese businessmen touch down on the island regularly, hawking cars and electronics, and members of the Western aid community stop by with satchels full of blueprints for hydroelectric dams and self-sufficient shrimp farms. But they have not stopped the bodies from piling up.

In the last decade, the total number of deaths from Sri Lanka's shifting panoply of civil wars and ethnic conflicts is estimated to be above 60,000. The figure swells daily.

To outsiders, Sri Lanka's implosion seems especially tragic because the island is paradisiacal. Its beaches are pristine and its palm forests brim with elephants and coconuts. Sri Lankans themselves often seem gentle and attractive, having achieved since independence -- despite their recent habit of war -- the highest literacy and lifespan rates of any comparably impoverished people in the world. And yet these same people have also produced a broad culture of violence and two guerrilla movements, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the People's Liberation Front, whose fanatical terror is reminiscent of Pol Pot's Cambodia.

William McGowan, an American teacher and journalist, arrived on the island in 1986, stayed about two years and has now written a book about his experiences, Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka. (The title is taken from Bishop Reginald Heber's hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains": "What though the spicy breezes/ Blow soft o'er Ceylon's isle;/ Though every prospect pleases,/ And only man is vile.") Swept up by Sri Lanka's beauty and repulsed by its brutality, McGowan traveled to the island's interiors to chronicle several of its bloodiest guerrilla and army campaigns and to make sense of the larger forces at work in the island's dissolution.

Fashioned as a political travelogue, his book contains strong passages, such as a vivid tale of Christmas in the battered eastern town of Batticaloa. McGowan lunches in a "bullet-scarred refectory" with Jesuit priests who have devoted themselves to defending the region's ethnic Tamil minority from Sri Lankan and Indian death squads. Outside the refectory, war rages. Inside, a priest from New Orleans puts "Silent Night" on a cassette player before he talks politics -- in case, he says, "we are being bugged."

But while McGowan is a good listener, a careful reporter and a sensitive observer, he seems unable to decide what he thinks about Sri Lanka. In an unfortunate preface, he compares his assessment of the island to the predicament of a servant at his Colombo guest house who sweeps flower petals into piles, only to have them blown away by the wind. "During most of my stay there, I rarely felt I had anything but the most tentative, uncertain grasp of the war and what it was about," McGowan writes.

While this humility is occasionally refreshing, McGowan's lack of an argument or even a consistent point of view about Sri Lanka makes it difficult for either the specialist or the newcomer to become engaged in his travels. McGowan examines closely the puzzle pieces of Sri Lanka's divisiveness -- the roles of ethnic nationalism, language, religion, economics and historical identity. But each time, he leaves the pieces in a jumble. SOMETIMES McGowan embraces a wispy anthropological relativism to explain the island's conflicts, suggesting that because Sri Lanka's culture is different from his own, he has no right to analyze it. Other times he asserts himself, as when he argues with a nationalist professor from the island's Buddhist, ethnic Sinhalese majority who wishes Sri Lanka could become "Burma without the mistakes." McGowan recognizes the man's murderous chauvinism. But he seems afraid to take on the professor's argument directly or to deal with its chilling implications, for fear of being judged "a Western supremacist."

One fascinating prism through which to see Sri Lanka's fratricide is suggested by an assertion McGowan makes early in his book. "Sri Lanka," he writes, "failed to build a stable multi-ethnic, multicultural society because it embraced many of the very concepts and ideas that multiculturalists in the West have advocated." But the author lets this provocative suggestion drop, as if it were a mere musing. In the end, McGowan returns to the United States engulfed in dread and forboding about Sri Lanka's future. One wishes he would go back to the island, this time determined to untangle the contradictions and solve the mysteries that seem to have driven him away.

Steve Coll is the South Asia correspondent for The Washington Post.