Book review: ‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia. The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66 by Nathaniel Mehr

Despite the best efforts of dissident writers such as Mark Curtis, Noam Chomsky and John Pilger, the US and UK involvement in what the CIA called "one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century" remains largely unknown to the Western general public. As the late Harold Pinter put it in his Nobel Prize-winning lecture, the horrific events that occurred in Indonesia in 1965 "never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn‘t matter. It was of no interest."

Fortunately for those who do have an interest in understanding the reality of US and UK foreign policy, Nathaniel Mehr, a left-wing freelance journalist who is co-editor of the online current affairs magazine the London Progressive Journal, has written a detailed 135-page primer on this dark period of Indonesian history. Academic in tone, the writing is never scintillating and a little dry in places. However, Mehr’s book is always considered, clearly argued and well-sourced.
After giving a welcome introduction to the post-war Indonesian political landscape, Mehr describes how an attempted coup against President Sukarno gave the army, led by General Suharto, an excuse to unleash a systematic campaign of terror against the popular Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in October 1965. Over a period of several months, around 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, many with little or no connection to the PKI, but simply murdered to settle a local dispute or for political maneuvering.
Keen to counter the PKI’s growing influence, from 1958 the US had cultivated a close relationship with the Indonesian military machine, providing "military assistance" (training, equipment and weapons) amounting to more than $10 million annually. In addition the US furnished the Indonesian military with a "hit-list" of around 5,000 people associated with the PKI. The British played a lesser role, explains Mehr, but were guilty of coordinating "a deliberate campaign of misinformation" about the PKI, in an attempt to stir-up anti-communist feeling among the Indonesian public. "We see every advantage in letting the Generals get on with clobbering the Communists", reported one British official at the time.
As Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman noted in their 1979 study of US foreign policy, the atrocities constituted a ‘constructive bloodbath’ – they was committed by those whose interests aligned closely with the US’s own interests – and therefore marginalised, obfuscated or even covered sympathetically in the mainstream media and academic literature. A "mass joyful death-wish" that was "tinged not only with fanaticism but with blood-lust and something like witchcraft" were just two of the quasi-racist explanations provided by Western observers. As Mehr argues, attempts to present the mass slaughter as the spontaneous product of "a sort of primitive Eastern madness" had the effect of exculpating the Suharto regime and its foreign backers.
So why did the US and UK support the mass murder of half a million Indonesians? Mehr points to the 1967 testimony of Richard Nixon: "With it’s 100 million people and its 300-mile arc of islands containing the region’s richest hoard of natural resources, Indonesia is the greatest prize of all in South East Asia." Having destroyed any viable opposition, Suharto ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for over 30 years, suspending its democratic institutions and opening up the country to Western corporations. Suharto’s enthusiasm for this free market ‘shock therapy’ was such that the World Bank praised Indonesia as a "model pupil of globalisation". Of course, throughout this time, the corrupt dictator continued to be backed to the hilt by the US and UK, even when Indonesia mounted its genocidal invasion and occupation of East Timor in 1975.
Today the US and UK are embroiled in the unpopular occupation of Afghanistan. According to a recent editorial in the Guardian, the US/NATO’s "lofty nation-building objectives" will have to be downgraded in the future. The Independent went further, arguing the occupation "is a noble cause", and that Britain "must stay the course." ‘Constructive Bloodbath’ acts as a powerful antidote for this establishment-friendly consensus – a timely reminder that post-war US and UK foreign policy has never been sincerely interested in human rights, peace and democracy, but rather has been consistently opposed to them.
Constructive Bloodbath in Indonesia. The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66 by Nathaniel Mehr is published by Spokesman Books, priced £15.00.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK.

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