A roundtable at the Society for Military History Conference

By Thijs Brocades Zaalberg

How do we move beyond ‘guilt ratings’ and ‘what-about-isms’ when comparing extreme violence during the wars of decolonization in Indonesia and the French and British empires? This was one of the main questions we addressed during a presidential roundtable during the yearly Society for Military History Conference held in the United States from 6 to 8 April 2018.

As coordinator of the project Comparing the wars of decolonization I organized this roundtable together with professor Brian McAllister Linn from Texas A&M University. Linn, who chaired the session, is one of the five international members of the theme group that will gather at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) in Spring 2019 to work on a book and a conference on the topic.

Linn emphasized in his introduction how little is known about the Dutch-Indonesian conflict outside the Netherlands and Indonesia. He deplored the omission of the Indonesian case in international publications and applauded the program’s ambition to move beyond the national scope. This being a roundtable, he invited the audience to share their knowledge of colonial wars, counter-insurgency and, because the audience was primarily American, the violent US experience in Vietnam.

After having sketched the roots and scope of the program Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, I explained why and how this subsidiary project compares extreme violence during wars in Indonesia, Algeria, Indochina, Malaya, Kenya and elsewhere. The project is rather timely because – despite the lack of existing structured comparative research – interested parties often contrast the Dutch response to the Indonesian revolution to other decolonization conflicts. They mostly do so casually and sometimes quite sloppily. This tends to result in ‘guilt-ratings’ accompanied by claims like ‘the French and Americans were worse’ or suggestions such as ‘but what about British atrocities in Kenya’. Conversely, a recent claim has it that decolonization ‘elsewhere’ is often perceived as a smooth process compared to the violent Dutch experience.

I emphasized that this project has to move beyond this type of analysis by focussing on the causes and nature of extreme violence and not just scale and form. In what way were Dutch security forces – and the political and military leaders in charge – typical? In what way were they unique? The comparative project will thus support the program’s Dutch research team by providing an analytical framework of analysis.

Regional studies coordinator Roel Frakking (KITLV) emphasized the importance to his research team of equating and contrasting the local dynamics of violence. Are there similar explanations for the escalation of violence in certain regions across the Indonesian archipelago during the 1940s and districts in Kenya or Indochina in the 1950s? The comparative project will help regional research by dwelling on the vast knowledge of the international research team that gathers in Amsterdam next year. He looks forward to the possibility of theorizing on the causes for and character of extreme violence in a colonial context, one of the ambitions of the comparative project.

Martin Thomas from the University of Exeter, one of the international NIAS-team, took the discussion to the next level. He threw up the question to what extent violence during these wars can be characterized as specifically ‘colonial’. In his book Fight or Flight (2014), Thomas has compared French and British decolonization policies and strategies. This project will allow him and his fellow researchers to answer this fundamental question. The project will also benefit from his recent research on the Portuguese experience in Mozambique and Angola.

On Brian Linn’s invitation, the audience engaged in the debate. One person inquired about the causes underlying revolutionary violence, correctly suggesting that these harkened back to pre-World War Two grievances. Another asked after the behaviour of parties and societal groups other than the Republic, which gave us the opportunity to emphasize that these are certainly taken into account analytically. Another important issue brought up during the exchange was what definitions the project intends to use. The emerging consensus was to avoid overreliance on generic terms and to be as specific as possible by addressing form, scale and intent.

The roundtable clearly showed the importance of the comparative perspective. It also demonstrated the eagerness with which the international and Dutch scholars will engage in the research and debate that will only fully get underway during the months April, May and June 2019.