Review- Bevins, “The Jakarta Method”

Vincent Bevins, “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anti-Communist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World” (2020) – This made for an interesting read in the current moment. I had known about the massacre of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of communists and suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965 for quite some time. I remember picking up the popular strategy board game “Twilight Struggle,” where the two players play the two sides of the Cold War, and remarking that out of all the events depicted in the game as playable cards or other features, there was nothing about this, the destruction of the third-largest Communist party in the world in the world’s fourth-largest nation. That’s just one minor instance of how under-reported this event is. More germane, in all my years teaching world history core classes to undergraduates, I don’t recall any of the instructors I TAed for making much of it, or even mentioning it. I did when I was instructor of record, but not in that much detail, I admit.

Vincent Bevins works as a reporter, and he worked both Indonesia and Brazil, the two countries that loom largest in this story (other than the United States, I suppose). He tells the story of the massacres in Indonesia in more detail than I had previously seen it, and ties it in with the larger story of the American-led anticommunist campaign. Using secondary sources, newly-declassified primary sources from the American security state, and interviews with survivors, Bevins reconstructs the chain of events that led to the massacres, though some of the events involved remain murky. The initial inciting incident of the massacres was the killing of several Indonesian army generals by a group of young officers. This was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), with scanty evidence- the PKI had been committed to working within the system set up by vaguely-socialist-flavored nationalist Indonesian leader Sukarno. The CIA (and British intelligence) definitely had been laying the groundwork for Sukarno’s overthrow in favor of a more reliably anticommunist leader, and they’re not above creating inciting incidents out of nothing, but we’ll probably never know the real story.

In most respects, it doesn’t matter. The story the Indonesian army, led by general and soon-to-be dictator Suharto, told was so embroidered with ghastly fabricated filigree — including Communist witch women mutilating the genitals of the dead generals in a blood frenzy — that it might as well have been spun out of whole cloth by a horror writer. But I guess you can’t afford to be subtle when your goal is to inspire people to massacre their neighbors. And that’s what the army, police, Islamist militias, and ordinary Indonesian citizens proceeded to do: imprison, torture, and murder hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of civilians innocent of any crime except membership in a party that until a few weeks or days before had been a part of the governing coalition, or suspected membership in or allegiance to same.

Bevins depicts pre-massacre Indonesia as a lively society, experimenting with various forms of political organization for their post-colonial society and making a splash on the international scene, where Sukarno attempted to organize other recently decolonized countries and other poorer, browner nations into an international bloc to compete with those organized out of Washington and Moscow. At first, the Americans were relatively willing to let him do it (the Russians basically don’t enter into this story- as usual, they let their notional allies in the developing world be violently repressed without a peep). Bevins is a little vague as to what changed between the Truman and Johnson administrations to make Sukarno’s overthrow a goal. What’s clearer is that the CIA always regarded Sukarno and the relatively open (relatively- he was a “guided democracy” guy) society he represented as an impediment to anticommunism in the region. This led to situations where the CIA was sponsoring separtist rebellions in some of the country’s many islands at the same time that the State Department was increasing ties with Sukarno. But they all got on the same page by 1965 to collude in the massacre, including giving lists of suspected communists for the Indonesian army to go kill.

After the massacres, Indonesian society, in Bevin’s telling, was not lively, or experimental, and it abruptly withdrew from the non-aligned movement and Third World leadership. Suharto remained in power for decades and kept a firm hand on political organizing and expression. Money’s always a big part of these things, of course, and the Suharto regime saw to it that American interests were free to exploit the country’s vast natural wealth, with what proceeds that stayed in Indonesia going to Suharto and his clique of corrupt generals. With Washington’s approval, Indonesia mounted a genocidal war in East Timor. There was never any accounting for the 1965 massacres, or the East Timor war, and while Suharto’s gone, it doesn’t look like his successors are going to prioritize truth and reconciliation any time soon. Other than the threat of Islamist terror or Chinese influence, Indonesia is basically as safe as houses as far as Washington is concerned, fifty-five years later.

Far from a crime or a warning, what happened in Indonesia became a model for anticommunists in much of the rest of the developing world, spurred and in part coordinated by the CIA and other Washington actors. This was made explicit in Chile with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the rise of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. “Jakarta is Coming” graffiti cropped up in Santiago, and the generals and spies who plotted the overthrow and the tension campaign leading up to it cited Indonesia as a model. They were aided in this by the anticommunist military dictators in Brazil, who followed a similar script a year before the Indonesia massacres to rid themselves of a vaguely populist leader in Joao Goulart. The Brazilian military didn’t massacre as many people as did their Indonesian counterparts, but they exported their methods of political manipulation, torture, and murder to Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, from Argentina to Guatemala, and the world.

On a side note, American fascists today like to use imagery from Latin American right wing dictatorships such as that of Pinochet. “Weren’t they all communists?” right-wing thug “Tiny” Toese responded when asked by a journalist about his “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong” t-shirt. I’ve always thought that was a little pathetic, even for them- these big bad American nationalists modeling themselves off tin-pot dictators in our traditional playground. Now I wonder why they haven’t called for emulation of Indonesia in 1965. It might come. I suppose one difference is that the Latin American massacres were undertaken by Christians who saw themselves as white (however much the exigencies of American race-thought would categorize them as “Latino”), whereas the Indonesia massacres were done by brown-skinned Asian Muslims. Who knows?

These massacres didn’t win the US the Cold War, Bevins argues. The Soviet Union collapsed on its own, and as mentioned above, barely protested when most of these movements or regimes were crushed. But they did shape the world in line with the interests of the US, or, anyway, the interests of the American elite and the rabid anticommunists they kept on a long leash in their intelligence services (to the extent they weren’t the same people). The massacres killed the hopes of the Third World in the fifties and early sixties. This left the Third World easy pickings for “structural adjustment,” neoliberalism, and religious and ethnic sectarianism to fill the void left by more hopeful forces. Leftists the world over noticed that the Soviets were unlikely to help them, and that the only leftist forces that survived in the Third World were those sufficiently well-armed and willing to suppress domestic opposition, like you saw in Cuba, Angola, and Vietnam, where even after killing at least a million and probably more Vietnamese, the US lost. This was a lesson figures like Pol Pot learned all too well. But in the end, even armed leftists wound up marginalized in the world the massacres made.

The point has not been lost on me (and from looking at his twitter, has not been lost on the author) that while the admixture of military involvement to civilian participation varied massacre by massacre, all of them involved the enthusiastic assent of at least a portion of the civilian population (and in all of them, the police were instrumental). Perhaps this is what we in the biz call “a presentist reading” but it seems to me that even in countries with no anticommunist tradition, like Indonesia, somewhere around twenty percent of the population are, to put it bluntly, violence-craving meatheads. They want to see blood, preferably the blood of people marked as “other” (there was a notable ethnic component to the Indonesia massacres, where a lot of Chinese Indonesians were targeted) and that of do-gooders and reformers. They don’t care if they miss out on opportunities to make their own lives materially better, they don’t care if they wind up worse off, possibly seriously worse off, they want blood.

And, sorry “both-sides”-ers, there is no equivalent population that, say, wants to see the blood of their social superiors at all costs. I’ve spent a long time on the left and can tell you, it’s not there. Historically, you get two kinds of mass bloodshed on the left. One is in the heat of a revolution, where people act out on long-held grievances or are terrified that their oppressors are going to come back and so kill people they think are liabilities. The numbers of people killed this way don’t add up to the sort of figures you get in massacres meant to suppress revolutionary activity. Uncoordinated crowds without a tradition of mass violent action (as distinct from populations used to sectarian or racial violence) are inefficient killers. The bodies stack up more in the second category of mass leftist bloodshed, that pursued to keep a given regime in power. Structurally, these resemble the massacres of any other regime, as harped on by those who love the Nazi-Soviet equivalency. There’s nothing uniquely leftist about them. To the extent left-leaning regimes rally their civilian populations behind their atrocities, they use much the same language and imagery as rightist killers- the enemy within, the threat to the country, subversives, and the dynamic winds up benefiting those who already hold power, just as it does in right-leaning countries. It just happens those holding the power are party bureaucrats instead of landowners or whoever.

No- if it were “both sides,” if there was an equivalent bloc of the population that sought the blood of social superiors in the way there is one that seeks the blood of social inferiors (and those who’d advocate the downward distribution of power), then America would look quite different right now. I always want to ask the chuds- if antifa were dedicated to destroying civilization, and would stop at nothing to do so, why haven’t some of us just bought assault rifles and walked into a megachurch or a mall? Of course, I’d get some alternate-reality answer like reference to the “Bowling Green massacre.” One of the right’s important abilities, as illustrated by “The Jakarta Method,” is to be able to imagine themselves as victims even when they’re the ones victimizing. From Jakarta to Brazil, the world has been inundated by their crocodile tears. I’ll be honest: this dynamic, where a lot of people will kill for the sheer joy of keeping others down and most people will let them, has led me to wonder what the point is of a people-centric politics. I was never a believer that most people are good. It’s in fact the insight that most people aren’t that has driven me left- I want to see power distributed downward and ultimately scattered because I don’t trust people to have power over each other. Still… that stubborn twenty percent (at least) is a major stumbling block, in practice and in theory.

Anyway… that was just one unfortunate vista of thought this book opened up for me. The stories Bevins tells, and especially the global connections between them, deserve to be much better known. I am glad to see this book getting traction- I’ve noticed multiple non-historian friends talking about it. I would compare it to Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts” for its potential ability to break open accepted, underthought assumptions about global history and show what’s underneath. “The Jakarta Method” is not a tour-de-force of scholarship like “Late Victorian Holocausts.” Bevins is a journalist, not a historian, and the book is written for a broad popular international (he explains what the KKK is to readers who might not know) audience. This means it can be a little light at times, but in all that’s a good thing, as it will hopefully help it reach as many people as possible. Here’s hoping it’s not too late for its lessons to help make a better future. ****’

Review- Bevins, “The Jakarta Method”

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