Review of The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins (2020)

A phenomenon that I’ve been begrudgingly impressed, yet furiously frustrated, with is the Anglophone Right’s ability to condense their messages into pithy aphorisms:

‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’ Ben Shapiro

‘Government isn’t the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.’ Ronald Reagan

‘There is no such thing as society.’ Margaret Thatcher

‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ John Howard

The reverberance of these statements might seem negligible when they are presented without context. However, effective propaganda isn’t meant to totally reeducate it’s intended recipient upon first exposure. It subliminally coalesces interconnected narratives that it’s target audience has built up over time to calcify an opinion or prejudice towards an idea, policy, person or demographic. ‘Take Back Control’ didn’t just come from the clouds. The ideological soil had been tilled well before the EU referendum. It was ably fertilized by News Ltd. newspapers and a constant manure downpour of immigrant demonization, refugee defamation and distorting the EU’s role as being a turd blossom harvest of obtuse regulations from an irrational Brussels bureaucracy. The catchphrase was just the final missing ingredient designed to calcify the convictions of those who eventually voted ‘Leave’.

An example of this type of ideologically reinforcing catchphrase, one that has taken root and overrun the garden of historical accuracy like a noxious weed, is one the third contributor to the aforementioned list of quotes made concerning the second contributor’s role in the Cold War:

‘Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot.’

This particular quote reifies years of Right wing and reactionary rhetoric in those who choose to passively reap it’s intellectually indolent harvest. Conservative politicians, party hacks, PR flacks, broadcasters and other assorted bovver boys have spent the last 30 years cultivating the idea that sternly worded speeches, an amping up of the arms race and neoliberal economics somehow magically made the Soviet Union wither and die. It has been so deeply embedded in the rhetorical soil that it’s premises have been implanted in even some on the Left.

The image of a smiling Reagan is the face that we like to put on the West’s victory in the Cold War.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Upon reading Vincent Bevins’ ‘The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World’, I realize that the specious premise many in the First World have been sold of the Cold War being a battle of morally righteous, white and selfless Americans starting down Boris Badenov cum Ernst Stavros Blofeld Russian apparatchiks were fallacious, mendacious and just plain wrong. The Soviet Union was not overthrown by US espionage and the engineering of internal unrest. As Bevin’s mournfully elucidates, this was what was reserved for for non-aligned countries. Some adherents of paleo-conservative revolutionary screeds might see it merely as the tree of liberty being refreshed by blood. Unfortunately, it was the blood of millions of innocent Leftist, atheist, anti-colonialist and progressive political activists.

After hundreds of years of being under the exploitative and oppressive boot of colonialism, idealists in countries like Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, Iran, Chile and the Republic of Congo took a dim view of maintaining the existing arrangement albeit with a local figurehead in charge. Wanting to wrench themselves free of the Western ideal of extractive, capitalist development while maintaining sovereignty and equity for their citizens, most of them were initially members of what came to be seen as the ‘non aligned movement’: a group of nations neither 1st world capitalist nor 2nd world communist, but charting their own 3rd way. This is the original meaning of the term ‘3rd world’.

Since the 1960’s, this term become synonymous with internal strife, government malfeasance and rampant cruelty. This was brought to bear through military coups often devised (but not always) by an unaccountable, cabal of Western intelligence agencies and military officials, who had engorged themselves at the ideological teat of J. Edgar Hoover. It’s head conspirators were men like Howard Jones and Frank Wisner, who acknowledged the slim likelihood of the Soviet Union being internally destabilized to the point where the entire structure would fall down (this was tried around the First World War and double agents like Kim Philby put an end to other attempts), and thus changed their focus to the non-aligned countries like Indonesia, Brazil and Chile. The recipe for what the book refers to as ‘The Jakarta Method’ was concocted in cooperation with the militaries of these countries. It’s bedrock were contentious tales of Communist power grabs accompanied by inhumane acts of barbarity spread among the populace. The result was a body count that exceeded that of the Communist bloc post 1960, with nearly one million wantonly slaughtered in the wake of the 30 September Movement in Indonesia in 1965. It was a struggle whose main ingredient was blood; blood shed overseas which wouldn’t be paraded nightly on the TV news where it would leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of registered US voters. It was the blood of Leftists in nations that weren’t necessarily Communist or even Socialist, but not in full alignment with the American ideal of freedom (which was often eerily close to what free market economists and large US corporations dictated).

Reading The Jakarta Method was both disheartening and harrowing. It was disheartening for someone of an internationalist and progressive bent to reflect on the possibility of actual change that benefits the most marginalized people worldwide being allowed by the powers that be. I often hear Left and Right wing talking heads constantly trade barbs of the efficacy of socialism and communism. For the Right, the former is indistinguishable from the latter and both are often viewed in the same manner as cautious reformism. The brutal reality is that both sides are often too myopic in their analysis. The Left points to countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland existence as tributes to social democracy’s possible applications in countries like the US and UK. While I agree with that part, their paradigm should be amended in that the success of ‘socialism’ in those countries relies on the extractive economies and unfair trade relations foisted on the Global South. It’s easy to spread the wealth when you are taking said wealth from somebody else. The Right points to countries like Venezuela, Cambodia, and Cuba (though the Soviet Union is also flaunted as a rhetorical cudgel) as tributes to socialism’s barbarity, hypocrisy and inefficiency. Their paradigm of socialism is flawed in that three of these nations were colonial outposts used as a source of commodities for Western interests. It’s hard to spread the wealth when your wealth in the form of materials is taken away and processed in Europe where greater profits are available. The discrepancies between where socialism is allowed to flower is poignantly illustrated when it is noted that limited leftist and progressive thought and policies were allowed to flower in Europe post WW2, but not in their former colonies of the Global South. The French Communist party was allowed to operate and thrive to the point of building housing projects for it’s members, but Jacobo Arbenz was not allowed to redistribute land to make sure the United Fruit Company paid it’s fair share of taxes.

While places like Copacabana and Seminyak in Bali are viewed as mostly tourist havens, their historical role as a backdrop to mass killings is made clear in ‘The Jakarta Method’.
Photo by Frans Van Heerden on Pexels.com

It was confronting for me as well to read of the looming abyss of persecution, torture and intimidation that Left wing and anti colonial activists in countries aligned to Sukarno’s Non Aligned movement faced in the lead up to their ‘Jakarta moments’. As I write this, the US has just completed it’s election, and those belonging to the MAGA flock are currently trying to storm voting tally rooms. American democracy is facing a harrowing moment.

As a straight, white cis male with a clean criminal record, numerous contrarian opinions and a proclivity to express them, I always felt that the ameliorative and just nature of the ‘system’ would protect me. That a cop would intervene if I were accosted by a crypto-fascist in a red baseball cap. That if I were arrested, the fingers of justice would extract me from whatever false criminal accusations that I was tangled up in. Thinking about this now, I realize how naive and privileged that thinking really is. Leading up to the 1972 coup in Chile, the reactionaries and their military enablers were literally telling supporters of the Leftist Allende government that ‘Jakarta was coming’. This was a euphemism for the type of mass slaughter of political enemies witnessed during the September 30th movement in Indonesia, where citizens were arrested en masse, fully expecting that they would be given an even chance to clear their name. They assumed that the non violent means they employed would allow them to ‘work within the system’ to clear their name. Little did they know that they were being systematically slaughtered by US trained officers, who had been given US supplied lists of potential targets. While some of us would dare to dream of being Che Guevara in the face of such danger, this made me wonder how I would react with that looming menace being presented to me.

That being said, it is also applies a series of anecdotal tales of everyday political idealists caught up in the events unfolding to humanize what happened. Tales such as that of Ing Giok Tan, a girl who fled Indonesia to escape the looming danger posed by the upcoming struggle between the communists and their ideological opponents to only find that her new home of Brazil was to be embroiled in a similar maelstrom. At the end of the book, she is shown protesting against the election of Jair Bolsanaro, the far right president of Brazil with a penchant for romanticizing that country’s military dictatorship. Ing’s story contrasts with that of Magdalena, a 72 year old woman who had ridden out a disadvantaged and turbulent upbringing to move to the urban hub of Jakarta, get a job in a T-shirt factory and thus benefit from the conditions provided by the Communist Party affiliated trade union. These associations ultimately led to her being interrogated, imprisoned, tortured, and raped. When Bevins catches up with her, she is living alone in a small shack; forever ostracized for her tenuous and fleeting association with ‘Communism’.

Ultimately, ‘The Jakarta Method’ is a book that brings the following truths to bear.

That while they have an uninformed view as to it’s historical role and regularly employ hyperbolic gibberish when discussing it’s purpose, Trump boosters are not incorrect when they talk of a ‘deep state’.

That MSNBC liberal talking heads are acting through pure cynicism when they cheerlead the US intelligence community in their assessments of Russian conspiracies to meddle in US elections on one hand, yet were (wisely) unwilling to accept their word about WMD’s in Iraq on the other.

That while violence is not an option for pragmatically implementing social reform, as it poisons the well all drink from, there is some rationale as to WHY people like Che Guevara (who was in Guatemala at the time of the 1954 coup) and Fidel Castro did militarize in order to protect their revolution. The Indonesian, Chilean and Brazilian communists tried to work exclusively through the ballot, but fell to the bullet. Any hope of a moderate unaligned Leftist movement was lost when they were made sacrifices on the altar of neo-imperialist US foreign policy. The human rights abuses and oppression the former pairing was complicit in is a different conversation.

That despite their loss in the Vietnam war being cast as a national humiliation for the US, they had already won their biggest prize when they had Suharto gain power in Indonesia.

That the events of this era still reverberate today. When he was still merely a peripheral crackpot MP, current Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to impeach center-left Brazilian president, Dilma Rouseff to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the colonel who had personally overseen her torture during the days of the Brazilian military dictatorship. The Communist party, whose banning was intertwined with a tale of generals being castrated and tortured by demonic Communist women, remains banned in Indonesia with potential sympathizers still subject to prison sentences. It was only decided that the neoliberal constitution of Chile imposed by the dictator Augusto Pinochet and his neoliberal ‘Chicago boys’ was to be redrafted last month; nearly 50 years after the coup.

That while nothing should paper over the crimes of the Stalin era Soviet Union, the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, or the Cultural Revolution of Mao and that the fall of the old system of Soviet style communism was a good thing, the means to do so were far from noble and largely inhumane. This is succinctly summarized by Magdalena near the end of the book when she is asked by the author how the West won the Cold War:

Vincent Bevins:  ‘How did we win [the Cold War]?’
Magdalena: ‘You killed us.’

Recommended Reading:
Book Review: The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins, LSE Review of Books, July 2020
How ‘Jakarta’ Became the Codeword for US-Backed Mass Killing, The New York Review, May 2020
The Jakarta Method Comes to Latin America (Review), NACLA, May 2020

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