The Act of Killing essay: How Indonesia’s mass killings could have slowed the Vietnam War.

The Forgotten Mass Killings That Should Have Stopped the Vietnam War

The Forgotten Mass Killings That Should Have Stopped the Vietnam War

Then, again.
July 10 2013 3:52 PM

The Murders of Gonzago

How did we forget the mass killings in Indonesia? And what might they have taught us about Vietnam?

(Continued from Page 1)

I was shocked. It was a passage that undoubtedly I had read but passed over. But the message was clear. Kennan was saying that the Vietnam War was unnecessary—the invasion of the South and the bombing of the North; the deaths of 58,000 American servicemen and more than 1 million Vietnamese were unnecessary. Not to mention the “collateral damage” to Cambodia and Laos.


Had Kennan’s testimony been reported? Yes, on Page 1 of the New York Times, Feb. 11, 1966, top of the fold, right-hand column—the lead story. And although the Times was equivocal, it was clear that Kennan had serious doubts. “Kennan Bid U.S. Dig In.” “Kennan Asserts Reds Will Have to Negotiate if They Learn They Can’t Win.” Followed by “Opposes Widening War.”


And in the Washington Post, a more forthright statement of Kennan’s testimony—a banner across the top of the page, “Kennan Urges U.S. Not to Enlarge War.” Compared with the New York Times, the article was unequivocal.


Kennan, often thought of as the architect of the Cold War, was testifying one year after combat troops landed at Danang in South Vietnam (March 8, 1965) and nine years before the fall of Saigon to the Communists (April 29, 1975). His words are tragic. A Cassandra-like warning that went unheeded. Kennan’s testimony continued,

“There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives … Our country should not be asked, and should not ask of itself, to shoulder the main burden of determining the political realities in any other country, and particularly not in one remote from our shores, from our culture and from the experience of our people. This is not only not our business, but I don’t think we can do it successfully …”


In McNamara’s words, it “failed to catch our attention.” Then. McNamara was re-enacting Kennan’s testimony in his mind—the counterfactual of what might have been but wasn’t. And why it failed to catch his attention. A reminder of Kierkegaard’s famous quotation, “Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward.”

Think of the chronology.

Kennan, in his famous 1947 article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” written under the pseudonym “X” for Foreign Affairs, developed the idea of containment of the Soviet Union.

“It is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

Kennan later claimed that he had been misunderstood. He claimed that he had come up with a political solution to a political problem, and it had been misinterpreted as a military solution to a military problem. But it became the policy of the Truman administration. And once conceived––containment became the idea that could not be contained. Walter Lippmann, an early critic of containment, called it “a strategic monstrosity” that depended on building “a coalition of disorganized, disunited, feeble and disorderly nations, tribes and factions around the perimeter of the Soviet Union … [which] cannot in fact be made to coalesce … a seething stew of civil strife.” On this count, Lippmann was right. Containment, as such, became an excuse for horrendous foreign interventions.

* * *

McNamara’s quotation from Kennan, Kennan’s testimony, the article on Page 1 of the New York Times, and the coverage in the Post put the story of the Indonesian mass killings into stark relief. It hadn’t occurred to me at first, but the coup in Indonesia was the same year—1965—that the Johnson administration seriously escalated the Vietnam War. Here’s an exchange of telegrams between the U.S State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

“Consulate in Medan, November 16, 1965. Telegram to the Department of State.

Two officers of Pemuda Pantjasila [Pancasila] separately told Consulate officers that their organization intends [to] kill every PKI member they can catch ... He stated Pemuda Pantjasila will not hand over captured PKI to authorities until they are dead or near death …”

The leaders of Pemuda Pantjasila in Medan were Anwar Congo and his friends, the central characters in The Act of Killing.

“Sources indicate that much indiscriminate killing is taking place ...

Attitude Pemuda Pantjasila leaders can only be described as bloodthirsty. While reports of wholesale killings may be greatly exaggerated, number and frequency such reports plus attitude of youth leaders suggests that something like real reign of terror against PKI is taking place.”

Another telegram, coming out of Indonesia and going to the State Department in Washington, D.C., then headed by McGeorge Bundy.

“Ambassador Marshall Green, December 2, 1965. Telegram to the Department of State.

This is to confirm my earlier concurrence that we provide Malik with fifty million rupiahs requested by him for the activities of the KAP-Gestapu movement. [REDACTION]

The KAP-Gestapu activities to date have been important factor in the army’s program, and judging from results, I would say highly successful. This army-inspired but civilian-staffed action group is still carrying burden of current repressive efforts targeted against PKI, particularly in Central Java...

[REDACTION] Our willingness to assist him in this manner will, I think, represent in Malik’s mind our endorsement of his present role in the army’s anti-PKI efforts, and will promote good cooperating relations between him and his army. 

The chances of detection or subsequent revelation of our support in this instance are as minimal as any black bag operation can be. [REDACTION]”

Those two telegrams were followed by this one.

“Department of State, December 16, 1965. From William Bundy and Samuel Berger. Telegram to the Embassy in Indonesia. 

Appears from here that Indonesian military leaders’ campaign to destroy PKI is moving fairly swiftly and smoothly ...”

* * *

I spoke with Bradley Simpson. I was particularly interested in the McNamara quote from In Retrospect.

Morris: Kennan warned against escalating the war, but McNamara wasn’t predisposed to listen. But what surprised me in your book is not just the idea that the destruction of the PKI eliminated the need for the Vietnam War, but the extent to which the U.S. played a role in all of this.

Bradley Simpson: I went into the project having read all of the literature on the coup attempt, on the Sept. 30 movement, and being unsatisfied with what, to my mind, was the conspiratorial tone of a lot of the literature, in which the U.S. was somehow pulling all these strings and orchestrating events. Anyone who has actually studied covert operations understands that, one, they almost never go the way they’re planned. To the extent that U.S. covert operations have succeeded in overthrowing governments, they almost inevitably succeed in spite of themselves, or they fail a dozen times before they succeed, and then by the skin of a chicken’s teeth.

Morris: But 1965—

Simpson: There is no smoking gun in 1965. There is a lot of smoke but no gun. And I think the best that I could come up with at the time was to demonstrate how, since the late ’50s, U.S. covert operations in Indonesia had been geared toward provoking exactly the kind of clash that took place in late ’65. And that those covert operations accelerated in the summer of 1964 in ways that connect with the expansion of the war in Vietnam. Johnson’s decision to sign off on expanded covert operations in Indonesia takes place right around the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. They were looking at all this as a piece.

Morris: But in your book you called it “an army-led and U.S.-backed campaign of extermination.”

Simpson: The CIA was hoping to use black propaganda and some disbursements of money to try and maneuver the Indonesian Communist Party into a position where they would be tempted to do something stupid—given that the U.S. was actually incredibly weak in Indonesia in 1964 and 1965, and had very few cards to play. The paper trail is a lot clearer and the U.S. role is better documented in terms of what the U.S. knew, how much they were encouraging the Indonesian army, and the degree to which they were providing weapons and economic assistance, with the expectation that this assistance was going to be used to exterminate unarmed Communist Party members.

Morris: Can you talk more about the U.S. role in the killings?

Simpson: It was an extraordinarily rapid genocide and the Johnson administration knew about the events as they unfolded, and they made a very deliberate decision to intervene on the side of the génocidaires. The documentary record is clear-cut. And Kai Bird in his biography of the Bundy brothers has McGeorge Bundy saying, basically, “I have a clear conscience. We knew what we were doing. We did what we were doing because we thought it was the right thing to do, and I sleep easy at night knowing that we played the role that we did.”

4. Suit the Action to the Word

I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks,
I’ll tent him to the quick, if a’do blench
I know my course.

—Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

Ghost in Hamlet by Laurence Olivier.
The Ghost in Laurence Olivier production of Hamlet

Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection/Two Cities Films

The Act of Killing asks the questions—what is history? What is its purpose? Are we simply trying to uncover what really happened in the past? Trying to provide a moral lesson or a cautionary tale for the future? Both? And it tries to address these questions through re-enactments.

The Act of Killing reminds me of the central scene in Hamlet—not the soliloquy, not the testimony of Hamlet’s ghost, not the graveyard scene, but the re-enactment of the murder of Hamlet’s father—the performance of the play, The Murder of Gonzago. Act 3, Scene 2. Or using Hamlet’s more descriptive title, The Mousetrap. The play within the play. The scene where Hamlet attempts “to catch the conscience of the king.”

Hamlet, of course, suspects that his uncle, Claudius, has murdered his father, the king of Denmark, then married his mother, the widow of the murdered king. Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost (or from a ghost that purports to be the ghost of his father), that Claudius really is the killer.

“But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy Father’s life,
Now wears his crown.”

Illustration by Daniel Maclise to The Works of Shakespeare, Imperial edition, NY 1875-1876.
The Works of Shakespeare, Imperial edition, New York 1875–76

Illustration by Daniel Maclise/Wikimedia Commons

In the play within the play, The Murder of Gonzago, Hamlet asks his actors to “hold a mirror up to nature.” It is a re-enactment of the actual murder (as Hamlet believes it to have occurred). But why did Hamlet stage it? To scrutinize Claudius’ reactions? To provoke him? To serve notice, that he, Hamlet, had solved the crime and knows the identity of the criminal?

Or as Hamlet tells Horatio, is it an attempt to confirm his suspicions that Claudius is the killer?

“There is a play to-night before the king;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death:
I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan’s stithy.”

Re-enactment as a form of historical reckoning. Hamlet asks: Can the play capture the conscience of the king? The Act of Killing asks: Can the play capture the conscience of a nation?

* * *

My discussions with Joshua Oppenheimer turned to the methodology behind his film—the underlying reason for the re-enactments. Oppenheimer’s attempt to answer the question: Who were these men, the killers? Did they see themselves as killers? Of course, there is a difference. In Hamlet’s play within a play actors are re-enacting the murder of his father. Here, the actual perpetrators are re-enacting their crimes. And yet, I was taken by the similarities rather than the differences. The idea that the re-enactment of a crime can tease out hidden thoughts and emotions. Congo asks, “Have I sinned? I did this to so many people, Josh. Is this all coming back to me? I really hope it won’t.”

We discussed my fascination with a scene from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the peeling of the onion. The onion represents Peer—his real self. He asks, “Who am I? Who am I, really?” As he peels off each layer, he identifies some aspect of himself. “I’m this ...” And then he peels off another layer. “No, I’m that.” He keeps peeling and peeling, until there’s nothing left. Shards of onion lying at his feet.

That’s the despairing, modernist vision. You get to the bottom of a man, and what is left? A mass of evasion, delusion, confusion—self-deception. And yet, we all believe that there has to be something more—

Photograph of actor Henrik Klausen as Peer in the premiere production of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt in 1876.
Actor Henrik Klausen as Peer in an 1876 production of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt

Photo courtesy of Ernst Emil Aubert/Wikimedia Commons

Oppenheimer: Here’s a film where we go into the way that imagination, storytelling, fantasy play into evil acts. What it means to do something that’s devastating, not just to the people whom you’re hurting and their families, but also to yourself— You have to be acting in a blind spot of self-ignorance in the moment. A kind of blindness. Anwar is talking about the way he used movies not just to get clever methods of killing, but to step out of himself. As he says, coming out of an Elvis movie in a state of trancelike enchantment with the music and the fun of it. All so he could kill happily.

Morris: You use re-enactment in a way that I’ve never really seen before—re-enactment as a way of asking a question about an even deeper mystery, the mystery of who we are, the mystery of what is inside of us—but at the end of the film I actually do not know who this man is.

Oppenheimer: When Anwar’s watching the footage?

We are discussing a scene in The Act of Killing where Anwar Congo is watching the re-enactments of the killings. That is, a scene where he watches himself re-enact the killings. Followed by a scene of Anwar Congo retching on a rooftop.