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?

The Act of Killing.
A scene from The Act of Killing

Photo courtesy of Drafthouse Films

The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.
— Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2

1. Foul Deeds Will Rise

Is it possible to kill 1 million people and then forget about it? Or if it has been erased from consciousness, is there an unconscious residue, a stain that remains?

Josh Oppenheimer’s film The Act of Killing—for which I served, along with Werner Herzog, as an executive producer—is an examination of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965-66, in which between 500,000 and 1 million people died.1 The Act of Killing is truly unlike any other documentary film. A good thing in my opinion. One of the extraordinary things about documentary is that you get to continually reinvent the form, reinvent what it means to make a documentary—and Oppenheimer did just that. He identified several of the killers from 1965 and convinced them to make a movie about the killings. But the film is even weirder than that. Oppenheimer convinced these killers to act in a movie about the making of a movie about the killings. There would be re-enactments of the murders by the actual perpetrators. There would be singing, and there would be dancing. A perverted hall of mirrors.

But there is method to Oppenheimer’s madness—the idea that by re-enacting the murders, he, the viewers of the movie, and the various perpetrators recruited to participate could become reconnected to a history that had nearly vanished into a crepuscular past. Oppenheimer has the optimistic thought that the past is inside us and can be brought back to life.

As the killings of the mid-1960s spread across Indonesia, Sukarno, Indonesia’s left-leaning first president since its 1949 independence, was marginalized and eventually replaced in 1967 with Suharto, a general in the army. Almost immediately, the Suharto regime sought to hide the history of what happened. The killers were neither brought to justice nor given reason to believe that they had done anything wrong.


On the contrary, they became heroes of the new order. Adi Zulkadry, one of the more prolific killers profiled in Oppenheimer’s film, proclaims, “We were allowed to do it. And the proof is, we murdered people and were never punished. The people we killed—there’s nothing to be done about it. They have to accept it. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better, but it works. I’ve never felt guilty, never been depressed, never had nightmares.”

The Act of Killing opens with a musical interlude and then an introduction. The basic background information appears over a scene in Medan—against a background of revolving billboards for flavored syrups (Pohon Pinang), high rises, and a truck-ramp used by skateboarders:

“In 1965, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military.

Anybody opposed to the military dictatorship could be accused of being a communist: union members, landless farmers, intellectuals, and the ethnic Chinese. In less than a year, and with the direct aid of Western governments, over 1 million ‘communists’ were murdered. The army used paramilitaries and gangsters to carry out the killings. These men have been in power—and have persecuted their opponents—ever since.

When we met the killers, they proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes about the killings in whatever ways they wished. This film follows that process, and documents its consequences.”

* * *

The film’s central character is Anwar Congo. (I hesitate to call him the protagonist.) In 1965, he had been the leader of a death squad in Medan, an Indonesian city of some 4 million people. Tall, thin, cadaverous, hidden behind dark glasses with an assortment of wide-lapelled suits—lime green, canary yellow. Congo seems as if on display, flamboyant to no particular purpose. He tells Oppenheimer about his love of the movies, particularly the Hollywood epics of the 1950s. Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments. Movies were part of the deal from the beginning.

"Samson and Delilah" movie poster.
Samson and Delilah movie poster

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As Congo explains:

“If we watched a happy film, like an Elvis movie, we’d walk out of the cinema with a smile, dancing along to the music. Our hands and feet, still dancing—still in the mood of the film—and if girls passed, we’d whistle. We were excited. We didn’t care what people thought. This was the paramilitary office, where I always killed people. I’d see the person being interrogated … I wouldn’t be sadistic. I’d give the guy a cigarette … It was like we were killing happily.”

No knives. No guns. His basic tools were a chair, piano wire, a stick. Wrap the wire around the victim’s neck. Pull, then twist. An improvised garrote. Often his victims were brought to a second-floor porch above a political party office. (It is now a store that sells handbags and other accessories). He tells stories about how they pled for their lives, how the bodies were put in burlap sacks and dumped in the river. All told dispassionately—as though he’s describing a family picnic.

“There’s many ghosts here, because many people were killed here … They died unnatural deaths. They arrived perfectly healthy. When they got here they were beaten up and died … Dragged around ... And dumped ... At first we beat them to death. But there was too much blood. There was so much blood here ... So when we cleaned it up, it smelled awful. To avoid the blood, I used this system. Can I show you ...?”

2. This Distracted Globe

The finished film was shown for the first time at the Telluride Film Festival. After the screening, I got into an argument with a critic who told me that he knew less about the Indonesian genocide after seeing the film than he did before—that the film provided insufficient background information and little historical context. Hard to argue. The critic was right. But I believe he misunderstood what Oppenheimer was trying to do.2 Oppenheimer is not offering a historical account of what happened in Indonesia, but rather an examination of the nature of memory and of history.

I called Oppenheimer in Copenhagen.

Errol Morris: Would you call this a forgotten history?

Joshua Oppenheimer: In the United States, yes. To the extent that it was reported at all—it was reported as good news. A victory over communism. It was a pivotal moment for the “domino theory” containment of communism in Southeast Asia.

Morris: Communism had been contained. The dominos have been swept off the map. At least in Indonesia.

Oppenheimer: It’s worth looking at how the story is forgotten and isn’t forgotten in Indonesia itself. How it is remembered and isn’t remembered. In my film, you see the gangsters boasting about it. But in the official history, the story is not spoken about, really. “There were these cruel Communists. They were everywhere, and then we beat them, and then they were gone, and we don’t talk about what happened to them.” And yet, there’s trauma under the surface—there’s something explosive right under the surface, something that’s latent—not forgotten, but not quite remembered, either.

Oppenheimer explained to me that Indonesia had fought a war of independence against the Dutch from 1945 to 1949. Indonesia is “a huge country,” he said, “the size of the United States,” and “the fourth-biggest country in the world by population,” but it was “far poorer at independence than India, for example.” In the 1950s, there was “a struggle for control of the country’s resources, with the Indonesian army on the one side and the workers and the peasants on the other side. They went head to head. And the Indonesian army became very strongly anti-communist with the support of the United States throughout the ’50s.” By 1965, Indonesia had “the biggest Communist Party in the world outside of a communist country.”

Morris: Presumably, the United States saw this as a threat.

Oppenheimer: A huge threat. Vietnam was small and resource-poor compared to Indonesia. The United States was scared of what a communist Indonesia would do, and now they’re doing everything they can with the Indonesian army to stop the Communists. And by 1959, the army had already forced Sukarno to allow no further elections, creating, effectively, a country governed by martial law regime. The purpose of this was, of course, to stop the rise of the Communist Party through the electoral process.

Morris: All leading up to Sept. 30, 1965.

Oppenheimer: Yes, six army generals were killed by a group of junior officers on Sept. 30, 1965. There was supposedly evidence that these generals were involved in a CIA-sponsored coup attempt against Sukarno, who was increasingly dependent on the Communist Party, and was seen as an enemy of the United States—someone who was risking going communist. And it’s highly likely that there was indeed a U.S.-planned coup.

Cover of the March 10, 1958 issue of Time, featuring Sukarno, left; Cover of the July 15, 1966 issue of Time featuring General Suharto.
Cover of the March 10, 1958 issue of Time, featuring Sukarno, left; cover of the July 15, 1966 issue of Time featuring General Suharto

Courtesy of Bernard Safran/TIME; Courtesy of TIME

Morris: To replace Sukarno?

Oppenheimer: To replace Sukarno. Seven generals were targeted. Six ended up getting killed, and their bodies were dumped in a well. Suharto was tipped off. He was told, “This is going to happen.” He certainly didn’t warn the commanders who were above him. He let it happen and then he swiftly moved to crush it and to capture or kill the people involved.

Morris: And the Sept. 30 attempted coup became the pretext for a counter-revolution?

Oppenheimer: Yes, and in fact there is abundant evidence that the Communist Party was not behind the killing of the six generals, but nevertheless the killing of the six generals was used as a pretext to “exterminate the communists.” Since 2000, all these papers have been declassified: letters from the CIA stations in Jakarta and from the embassy to Washington. There was a concern that the army would stop at the officers behind the killing of these generals. “What if they don’t go far enough? This is our opportunity to go against the whole PKI [the Communist Party of Indonesia]. Let’s go against all of them.” You can see that the United States made it very clear that, as a condition for future aid, the Indonesian army must go after the whole Communist Party. And they had guys in the State Department compiling death lists for the army—communist leaders, union leaders, intellectuals who were left-leaning. The signal from the U.S. was clear: “We want these people dead.”

3. The Pale Cast of Thought

Often the study of history is like pulling on a thread: Some detail catches your attention and leads to something else, another detail. A narrative slowly unraveling, slowly revealing something behind it, something hidden or forgotten. Not just the story of a crime, but the story of interconnected crimes.

Is this a story about Indonesia or also a story about us? Oppenheimer had said that the killings were facilitated by the State Department and the CIA. Was this true?

President of Indonesia Sukarno (center) shakes hands with US Vice President Lyndon Johnson as President John F. Kennedy smiles.
President of Indonesia Sukarno (center) shakes hands with Vice President Lyndon Johnson as President John F. Kennedy smiles, Washington, D.C., April 25, 1961

Photo by Abbie Rowe/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

I had picked up Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960–1968, a book by Bradley Simpson, professor of history at Princeton. I didn’t have to read far: The first pages recapitulate the relevant history leading to the violence. Simpson calls it “an army-led and U.S.-backed campaign of extermination.”

“The annihilation of the largest non-bloc Communist party in the world vividly undermined the rationale for the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam, as former defense secretary Robert McNamara has noted, eliminating at a stroke the chief threat to the Westward orientation of the most strategically and economically important country in Southeast Asia and facilitating its firm reintegration into the regional and world economy after a decade-long pursuit of autonomous development.”

The phrase “undermined the rationale for the escalating U.S. war in Vietnam” caught my attention, as did the reference to McNamara. How was McNamara involved?

I won an Oscar for my film The Fog of War, a profile of McNamara, who was secretary of defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, from Jan. 21, 1961 through Feb. 29, 1968.* The Johnson presidency included the period of the Indonesian killings and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Simpson referred in a footnote to McNamara’s memoir, In Retrospect, a book I thought I knew well. McNamara writes:

“George F. Kennan, whose containment strategy was a significant factor in our commitment to South Vietnam’s defense, argued at a Senate hearing on February 10, 1966, that the Chinese had ‘suffered an enormous reverse in Indonesia ... one of great significance, and one that does rather confine any realistic hopes they may have for the expansion of their authority.’ This event had greatly reduced America’s stakes in Vietnam. He asserted that fewer dominoes now existed, and they seemed much less likely to fall.” 

He concludes, “Kennan’s point failed to catch our attention and thus influence our actions.”