Two Indonesias, Two Americas
by Peter Dale Scott
iF magazine, July-August 1998
Indonesia is replaying its year of living
dangerously, with the potential again for more democratic society
or for another spasm of military economic stability repression.
As in 1965, the year of a military bloodbath
that claimed possibly one million civilian lives, the U. S. government
is in a key supporting role. Washington could restrain the army
or push it into another violent crackdown.
As in 1965, today's drama pits two Indonesian
national traditions against each other -- one, its history as
one of the most tolerant Muslim cultures; the other, a long experience
of ruthless repression over the last three decades by Indonesia's
But there are two American traditions
as well. One is humanitarian represented by the millions of dollars
which the U.S. government has poured into Indonesian human rights
groups and non-governmental organizations. The other tradition,
less recognized but with deep historical roots, advocates and
teaches the use of repressive violence against Third World populations
to maintain "order"
Sharpened by Cold War fears, those two
Indonesias and those two Americas collided tragically in 1965.
Out of that bloodbath, dictator Suharto rose to power. A decade
later, he authorized a reprise of those murderous tactics in suppressing
an independence movement in East Timor, starting in 1975 and continuing
into this year. An estimated 200,000 people -- a third of the
Timorese population -- died.
This spring, as popular demonstrations
protested new austerity measures, the first question was: would
the army revert to its brutal tradition of mass slaughter. The
second question was: how would President Clinton react with the
Cold War over but with Washington still viewing Indonesia as vital
The Clinton administration had joined
international lending agencies in demanding "reforms"
that drove up the price of food, fuel and other necessities. Those
price hikes sparked bloody riots, which left an estimated 1,000
dead and led to new cases of "disappeared" dissidents.
But Suharto's government finally collapsed. With his army divided,
Suharto resigned on May 20. His successor, Vice President B.J.
Habibie, promised new elections next year.
To many Americans, the brutal history
of the Indonesian army is simply abhorrent, outside U.S. military
traditions and repulsive to America's democratic values. Many
know the story of the 1965 Woodbath through the 1983 movie, "The
Year of Living Dangerously," and others have heard periodic
accounts of the atrocities against East Timor.
But there is a dark -seldom acknowledged
-thread that runs through U.S. military doctrine and makes the
Indonesian repression disturbingly less foreign. Dating back to
the founding of the Republic, this military tradition explicitly
defended the selective use of terror,! whether in suppressing
Indian resistance on the frontiers in the 19th Century or in quelling
rebellion against U.S. interests abroad in the 20th Century.
The American people are largely oblivious
to this hidden tradition because most of the literature advocating
state-sponsored terror is carefully confined to national security
circles and rarely spills out into the public debate over the
decades, congressional investigations have exposed some of these
abuses. But when that does happen, the cases are usually deemed
anomalies or excesses by out-of-control soldiers.
The recent historical record, however,
shows that military terror has never been fully expunged from
U.S. doctrine. The theories survive today in textbooks on counterinsurgency
warfare and "low-intensity" conflict.
Some historians trace the formal acceptance
of those brutal tenets to the 1860s when the army was facing challenge
from a rebellious South and resistance from Native Americans in
the West. Out of those crises emerged the modern military concept
of "total war" -- which considers attacks on civilians
and their economic infrastructure an integral part of a victorious
In 1864, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman
cut a swath of destruction through civilian territory in Georgia
and the Carolinas. His plan was to destroy the South's will to
fight and its ability to sustain a large army in the field. The
devastation left plantations in flames and brought widespread
Confederate complaints of rape and murder of civilians.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Col. John M. Chivington
and the Third Colorado Cavalry were employing their own terror
tactics to pacify Cheyennes. A scout named John Smith later described
the attack at Sand Creek Colo., on unsuspecting Indians at a peaceful
"They were scalped; their brains
knocked out; the men used their knives, ripped open women, clubbed
little children, knocked them in the head with their guns, beat
their brains out, mutilated their bodies in every sense of the
word." [U.S. Cong., Senate, 39 Cong., 2nd Sess., "The
Chivington Massacre," Reports of the Committees.]
Though Smith's objectivity was challenged
at the time, today even defenders of the Sand Creek raid concede
that most women and children there were killed and mutilated.
Yet, in the 1860s, many whites in Colorado saw the slaughter as
the only realistic way to bring peace, just as Sherman viewed
his "march to the sea" as necessary to force the South's
Four years after the Civil War, Sherman
became commanding general of the Army and incorporated the Indian
pactfication strategies -- as well as his own tactics -- into
U.S. military doctrine. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who had led Indian
wars in the Missouri territory, succeeded Sherman in 1883 and
further entrenched those strategies as policy.
By the end of the 19th Century, the Indian
warriors had been vanquished, but the army's winning strategies
lived on. When the United States claimed the Philippines as a
prize in the Spanish-American War, Filipino insurgents resisted.
In 1900, the U.S. commander, Gen. J. Franklin Bell, consciously
modeled his brutal counterinsurgency campaign after the Indian
wars and Sherman's "march to the seal.
Bell believed that by punishing the wealthier
Filipinos through destruction of their homes -- much as Sherman
had done in the South -- they would be coerced into helping convince
their countrymen to submit. Learning from the Indian wars, he
also isolated the guerrillas by forcing Filipinos into tightly
controlled zones where schools were built and other social amenities
"The entire population outside of
the major cities in Batangas was herded into concentration camps,"
wrote historian Stuart Creighton Miller. "Bell's main target
was the wealthier and better-educated classes.... Adding insult
to injury, Bell made these people carry the petrol used to burn
their own country homes."
For those outside the protected areas,
there was terror. A news correspondent described one scene in
which American soldiers killed "men, women, children ...
from lads of 10 and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino,
as such, was little better than a dog.... Our soldiers have pumped
salt water into men to 'make them talk' have taken prisoner people
who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour
later, without an atom of evidence to show they were even insurrectos,
stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop
into the water below and float down as an example to those who
found their bulletriddled corpses. "
Defending the tactics, the correspondent
noted that "it is not civilized warfare, but we are not dealing
with a civilized people. The only thing they know and fear is
force, violence, and brutality." [Philadelphia Ledger, Nov.
In 1901, anti-imperialists in Congress
exposed and denounced Bell's brutal tactics. Nevertheless, Bell's
strategies won military acclaim as a refined method of pactfication.
In a 1973 book one pro-Bell military historian,
John Morgan Gates, termed reports of U.S. atrocities "exaggerated"
and hailed Bell's "excellent understanding of the role of
benevolence in pactfication." Gates recalled that Bell's
campaign in Batanga was regarded by military strategists as "pacification
in its most perfected form."
At the turn of the century, the methodology
of pacification was a hot topic among the European colonial powers,
too. From Namibia to Indochina, Europeans struggled to subdue
local populations. Often outright slaughter proved effective,
as the Germans demonstrated with massacres of the Herrero tribe
in Namibia from 1904-1907. But military strategists often compared
notes about more subtle techniques of targeted terror mixed with
demonstrations of benevolence.
Counterinsurgency strategies were back
in vogue after World War II as many subjugated people demanded
independence from colonial rule and Washington worried about the
expansion of communism. In the 1950s, the Huk rebellion against
U.S. dominance made the Philippines again the laboratory, with
Bell's earlier lessons clearly remembered.
"The campaign against the Huk movement
in the Philippines ... greatly resembled the American campaign
of almost 50 years earlier," historian Gates observed. "The
American approach to the problem of pactfication had been a studied
But the war against the Huks had some
new wrinkles, particularly the modern concept of psychological
warfare or psy-war. Under the pioneering strategies of the CIA's
Maj. Gen. Edward G. Lansdale, psy-war was a new spin to the old
game of breaking the will of a target population. The idea was
to analyze the psychological weaknesses of a people and develop
"themes" that could induce actions favorable to those
carrying out the operation.
While psy-war included propaganda and
disinformation, it also relied on terror tactics of a demonstrative
nature. An Army psy-war pamphlet, drawing on Lansdale's experience
in the Philippines, advocated "exemplary criminal violence
-- the murder and mutilation of captives and the display of their
bodies," according to Michael McClintock's Instruments of
In his memoirs, Lansdale boasted of one
legendary psy-war trick used against the Huks who were considered
superstitious and fearful of a vampire-like creature called an
"The psy-war squad set up an ambush
along a trail used by the Huks," Lansdale wrote. "When
a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched
the last man on the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night.
They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held
the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse
back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing
man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol
believed the asuang had got him."
The Huk rebellion also saw the refinement
of free-fire zones, a technique used effectively by Bell's forces
a halfcentury earlier. In the 1950s, special squadrons were assigned
to do the dirty work.
"The special tactic of these squadrons
was to cordon off areas; anyone they caught inside the cordon
was considered an enemy," explained one pro-U.S. Filipino
colonel. "Almost daily you could find bodies floating in
the river, many of them victims of [Major Napoleon] Valeriano's
The successful suppression of the Huks
led the war's architects to share their lessons elsewhere in Asia
and beyond. Valeriano went on to co-author an important American
textbook on counterinsurgency and to serve as part of the American
pactfication effort in Vietnam with Lansdale.
Following the Philippine model, Vietnamese
were crowded into "strategic hamlets"; "free-fire
zones" were declared; and the Phoenix program eliminated
thousands of suspected Viet Cong cadre.
In 1965, the U.S. intelligence community
formalized the hard-learned lessons by commissioning a top-secret
program called Project X. Based at the U.S. Army Intelligence
Center and School at Fort Holabird, Maryland, the project drew
from field experience and developed teaching plans to "provide
intelligence training to friendly foreign countries," according
to a Pentagon history prepared in 1991 and released in 1997.
Called "a guide for the conduct of
clandestine operations," Project X "was first used by
the U.S. Intelligence School on Okinawa to train Vietnamese and,
presumably, other foreign nationals," the history stated.
In 1992, the Pentagon destroyed many of
the key documents from 'Project X.'
Linda Matthews of the Pentagon's Counterintelligence
Division recalled that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training
material was prepared by officers connected to the Phoenix program.
"She suggested the possibility that some offending material
from the Phoenix program may have found its way into the Project
X materials at that time," the Pentagon report said.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence
Center and School moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began
exporting Project X material to U. S. military assistance groups
working with "friendly foreign countries." By the mid-1970s,
the Project X lessons were going to armies all over the world.
[In its 1992 review, the Pentagon acknowledged
that Project X was the source for some of the "objectionable"
lessons at the School of the Americas where Latin American officers
were trained in blackmail, kidnapping, murder and spying on non-violent
political opponents. But disclosure of the full story was blocked
near the end of the Bush administration when senior Pentagon officials
ordered the destruction of most Project X records.
By the mid-1960s, some of the U.S. counterinsurgency
lessons had reached Indonesia, too. The U.S. military training
was surreptitious because Washington viewed the country's neutralist
leader Sukarno as politically suspect. The training was permitted
only to give the United States influence within the Indonesian
military which was considered more reliable.
A secret memo to President Johnson dated
July 17, 1964, spelled out the political motive. "Our aid
to Indonesia ... we are satisfied ... is not helping Indonesia
militarily," a State Department memo informed Johnson. "It
is, however, permitting us to maintain some contact with key elements
in Indonesia which are interested in and capable of resisting
Communist takeover. We think this is of vital importance to the
entire Free World." [DOS Memo for President, July 17, 1964]
The covert U.S. aid and training was mostly
innocuous-sounding "civic action," which is generally
thought to mean building roads, staffing health clinics and performing
other "hearts-and-minds" activities with civilians.
But "civic action" also provided cover in Indonesia,
as in the Philippines and Vietnam, for psy-war.
The secret U.S.-Indonesian military connections
paid off for Washington when a political crisis erupted the next
summer and fall, threatening Sukarno's government. To counter
Indonesia's powerful Communist Party, known as the PKI, hundreds
of thousands of men, women and children. So the army's Red Berets
organized the slaughter of many bodies were dumped into the rivers
of East Java that they ran red with blood.
In a classic psywar tactic, the bloated
carcasses also served as a political warning to villages down
river. "To make sure they didn't sink, the carcasses were
deliberately tied to, or impaled on, bamboo stakes," wrote
eyewitness Pipit Rochijat. "And the departure of corpses
from the Kediri region down the Brantas achieved its golden age
when bodies were stacked on rafts over which the PKI banner proudly
Some historians have attributed the grotesque
violence to a crazed army which engaged in "unplanned brutality"
or "mass hysteria." But the recurring tactic of putting
bodies on gruesome display fits as well with the military doctrines
of psy-war, a word that one leading military killer used in untranslated
form in an order demanding elimination of the PKI.
Sarwo Edhie, chief of the political pare-commando
battalion known as the Red Berets, warned that the communist opposition
"should be given no opportunity to concentrate/consolidate.
It should be pushed back systematically by all means, including
psy-war." Sarwo Edhie had been identified as a CIA contact
when he served at the Indonesian Embassy in Australia.
Elite U.S. reaction to the horrific slaughter
was muted and has remained ambivalent ever since. The Johnson
administration denied any responsibility for the massacres, but
New York Times columnist James Reston spoke for many opinion leaders
when he approvingly termed the bloody developments in Indonesia
"a gleam of light in Asia."
The American denials of involvement held
until 1990 when U.S. diplomats admitted to a reporter that they
had aided the Indonesian army by supplying lists of suspected
communists. "It really was a big help to the army,"
embassy officer Robert Martens told Kathy Kadane of States News
Service. "I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but
that's not all bad. There's a time when you have to strike hard
at a decisive moment." Martens had headed the U.S. team that
compiled the death lists.
Kadane's story provoked a telling response
from Washington Post senior editorial writer Stephen S. Rosenfeld.
He accepted the fact that American officials had assisted "this
fearsome slaughter," but then just)fied the killings. Rosenfeld
argued that the massacre "was and still is widely regarded
as the grim but earned fate of a conspiratorial revolutionary
party that represented the same communist juggernaut that was
on the march in Vietnam. "
ln a column entitled, "Indonesia
1965: The Year of Living Cynically?" Rosenfeld reasoned that
"either the army would get the communists or the communists
would get the army, it was thought. Indonesia was a domino, and
the PKI's demise kept it standing in the free world.... Though
the means were grievously tainted, we -- the fastidious among
us as well as the hard-headed and cynical -can be said to have
enjoyed the fruits in the geopolitical stability of that important
part of Asia, in the revolution that never happened." [WP,
July 13, 1990]
The fruit tasted far more bitter to the
peoples of the Indonesian archipelago, however. In 1975, Suharto's
army invaded the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. When
the East Timorese resisted, the Indonesian army returned to its
gruesome bag of tricks, engaging in near genocide against the
A Catholic missionary provided an eyewitness
account of one search-and-destroy mission in East Timor in l9Xl.
"We saw with our own eyes the massacre of the people who
were surrendering: all dead, even women and children, even the
littlest ones.... Not even pregnant women were spared: they were
cut open They did what they had done to small children the previous
year, grabbing them by the legs and smashing their heads against
rocks.... The comments of Indonesian officers reveal the moral
character of this army: 'We did the same thing [in 1965] in Java,
in Borneo, in the Celebes, in Irian Jaya, and it worked."
The references to the success of the 1965
slaughter were not unusual. In Timor: A People Betrayed, author
James Dunn noted that "on the Indonesian side, there have
been many reports that many soldiers viewed their operation as
a further phase in the ongoing campaign to suppress communism
that had followed the events of September 1965."
Classic psy-war and pactfication strategies
were followed to the hilt in East Timor. The Indonesians put on
display corpses and the heads of their victims. Timorese also
were herded into government-controlled camps beffire permanent
relocation in "resettlement villages" far from their
"The problem is that people are forced
to live in the settlements and are not allowed to travel outside,"
said Msgr. Costa Lopes, apostolic administrator of Dili. "This
is the main reason why people cannot grow enough food."
Bringing It Home
Through television in the 1960-70s, the
Vietnam War finally brought the horrors of counterinsurgency home
to millions of Americans. They watched as U. S. troops torched
villages and forced distraught old women to leave ancestral homes.
Camera crews caught on film brutal interrogation of Viet Cong
suspects, the execution of one young VC officer and the bombing
of children with napalm.
The Vietnam War was the first time Americans
got to witness the pactfication strategies that had evolved secretly
as national security policy since the 19th Century. As a result,
millions of Americans protested the war's conduct and Congress
belatedly compelled an end to U.S. participation in 1974.
But the psy-war doctrinal debates were
not resolved by the Vietnam War. Counterinsurgency advocates regrouped
in the 1980s behind President Ronald Reagan, who mounted a spirited
defense of the Vietnamese intervention and reaffirmed U. S. resolve
to employ similar tactics against leftist forces in Central America
Reagan added an important new component
to the mix, however. He authorized an aggressive domestic "public
diplomacy" operation which practiced what was called "perception
management" -- in effect, intimidating journalists to ensure
that only sanitized images would reach the American people. Reporters
who disclosed atrocities by U.S.-trained forces, such as the El
Mozote massacre by El Salvador's Atlacatl battalion in 1981, came
under harsh criticism and saw their careers damaged.
Some Reagan operatives were not shy about
their defense of political terror as a necessity of the Cold War.
Neil Livingstone, a counter-terrorism consultant to the National
Security Council, called death squads "an extremely effective
tool, however odious, in combatting terrorism and revolutionary
Congress objected to excesses of Reagan's
interventions, especially in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The administration responded with more public relations, insisting
that U.S. clients were respecting human rights.
The administration covered up evidence
of political murders -- such as the rape-slayings of four American
churchwomen in El Salvador -- as well as large-scale massacres
throughout Central America. In the political battles, Congress
had only limited success in reining in Reagan's aid to the armies
of El Salvador and Guatemala and the contra rebels of Nicaragua.
Similarly, Congress found that its 1992
prohibition against training the Indonesian army over its atrocities
in East Timor was circumvented as well. In March 1998, Congress
learned that the Pentagon had continued to train G G ft S bs ri
ti the Indonesian army unit, the Kopassus Red Berets, that Ive
a I u c p on had led many of the massacres over the past 35 years
and To a Local Editor, was blamed for kidnapping and torturing
political dissidents earlier this year.
A Defense Department official stated that
the training program was to "gain influence with successive
generations of Indonesia officers." [NYT, March 17, 1998]
U.S. Green Berets taught Kopassus such tactics as "advanced
sniper techniques, military operations in urban terrain, psychological
techniques [and] close quarters combat." At the time, Kopassus
was headed by Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, a U. S.-trained officer
who graduated at the top of his class at Fort Benning, Ga. Prabowo
was linked directly to orders to kill 20 civilians in East Timor
in 1989. He was sacked on May 22.
But sometimes the two competing visions
clash in the open as they did in Vietnam. With today's political
turmoil, Indonesia may be another case where the shadow struggle
steps into the light and the public can judge the real principles
behind U.S. foreign policy, for good or ill.
As for the Indonesians, they are facing
their own national schizophrenia, finally with a chance that the
more democratic side might prevail. What remains to be seen iswhether
the people of Indonesia can keep a brutal military at bay -- and
whether the United States will use its influence this time to
persuade the Indonesian army to respect human rights