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Dutch armed forces were willing to accept high casualties in Indonesia

The decolonisation war in Indonesia was violent partly because the Dutch military operated on the conviction that ‘an uprising had to be forcibly suppressed.’ This what historian Christiaan Harinck from the KITLV discovered in his PhD research.

After the Second World War, the Netherlands sent troops to Indonesia as soon as possible to occupy the archipelago once again. But the nationalists there had since declared independence. The result was a bloody decolonisation war. An estimated 100,000 Indonesians died as a result of the Dutch actions as opposed to as few as 5,000 Dutch soldiers.

Historian Christiaan Harinck researched how the Dutch armed forces viewed and gave shape to their military strategy. He concludes that the violent nature of the war was due to a narrow military perspective of the conflict and the broader notion that it was essential to forcibly quash this anticolonial revolt. 

Suppress the revolt

‘The military forces saw the anticolonial revolt as a military problem that had to be fought with military means,’ says Harinck. ‘Inspiration on how to do so was taken from not only the colonial past, but also the recent world war. Behind these ideas and how they were put into practice lay the conviction that the revolt had to be forcibly suppressed. Within the context of Indonesia, this general conviction was further reinforced by racist, colonial ideas, such as the idea that Indonesians wouldn’t understand a different approach anyway.’

‘Destruction of the enemy remained the goal.’

The use of violence in the decolonisation war in Indonesia has been questioned for some time already, but until now, the emphasis lay on war crimes or personal experiences. Harinck focused on the ‘normal’ violence and the perspective of the Dutch military forces. He studied military archives, memoires and diaries.

Harinck discovered that the rules gave plenty of leeway for a high level of violence, which meant that extreme violence was sometimes just a small step away. ‘Changes were made, but there were no radical new insights. Destruction of the enemy remained the goal. The forceful response was therefore not only the result of the immediate conditions on the ground and the decisions at a high political and diplomatic level, but also of the way the armed forces viewed the conflict and gave it shape at a tactical level.’

‘It was a messy guerrilla war, but the acceptance of unintended casualties was high.’

Two machine guns

The development of the war and the problems that this caused did not lead to a new analysis, therefore. The standard solution for the Dutch forces was to scale up their response, including the use of violence. By now Dutch officers accepted the increased risk of citizen casualties and collateral damage.

A considerable number of the ‘opponents’ killed were most probably non-combatants: citizens who were in hiding or fleeing and did not shoot back. ‘If the armed forces searched a village, instead of stationing ten men with rifles at the end, they stationed two men with machine guns. It was a messy guerrilla war, but the acceptance of unintended casualties was high.’

Wider context

This hard response was definitely not unique to the Dutch, Harinck is keen to emphasise. ‘You see it in many decolonisation wars. But during the twentieth century people began to question the legitimacy of this approach.
‘This research helps explain the violent nature of the war,’ he adds. ‘It also shows how patterns can develop in organisations that lead to destructive collective behaviour: a problem that you still see today.

Text: Carin Röst

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