Blog: War crimes in Indonesia and the suspicion of veterans

Colonialism and its legacies: a highly sensitive topic, no matter how and what ones writes about it. This surely applies to the decolonization war in Indonesia and the issue of Dutch war crimes. Gert Oostindie link reflects on his new book Soldaat in Indonesië [Soldier in Indonesia].

Soldaat in Indonesië, 1945-1950 has just been released. Several presentations have been scheduled. The Dutch media are at it. And surely there’s more publicity on its way. Great news, such publicity, for a book on a less sensitive issue. After all, we scholars all love to address a broad audience. But with a subject as delicate as this one, one must be very careful indeed. Take this quote:

Elementary calculations suggest that the number of war crimes may be estimated in the tens of thousands rather than thousands. In a context of counter-guerrilla, the Dutch army perpetrated war crimes on a significant scale. Derailment of violence was a structural phenomenon, not something exceptional.’
Is this statement correct? Yes, I would say – otherwise I wouldn’t have written it down. But does this imply that the majority of the Dutch military were guilty of war crimes during the Indonesian war of independence? Clearly not. But it remains a challenge to communicate this clearly.’

Some three years ago KITLV, NIOD and NIMH issued a plea for a comprehensive research program on this decolonization war. The article provoked a wave of publicity, broad enthusiasm and debates in parliament – but no support from the Dutch state. I was the spokesman for the three institutes, veterans contacted me frequently over these years, mostly deeply suspicious. I understand their concern. There has been much ignorant judgment and criticism regarding a war that only later acquired the epitaph ‘wrong’. As if these soldiers had decided to engage in war, as if they had all raged along, Rambo-style. Many veterans fear that researchers are only interested in putting them on the scaffold. I don’t think that is a correct assumption, but I do understand their concern.

So what do the veterans have to say themselves? Soldaat in Indonesië is based on over 650 egodocuments published by Dutch military men, some 100,000 pages in all. An analysis of war crimes, both their context and frequency, forms the core of the book. And yes, the analysis of what the 1,400 soldiers wrote or authorized led me to formulate the conclusion cited above.

But of course: most soldiers were not directly involved with such war crimes. This is why veterans that assured me over the past years that it wasn’t all that bad could really believe this. Even so, we cannot but conclude that ‘derailment’ was so frequent that Dutch war crimes were a structural phenomenon. Who were to blame, apart from the perpetrators? Their military superiors – and the politicians that directed them, or failed to do so.

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