Half goed is niet goed, half waar is niet waar, halfheid leidt tot niets.
~ Multatuli, Max Havelaar
The following is an opinion piece and a personal story. I’m writing this for The Indo Project as I feel that many supporters of The Indo Project have a similar story to tell. It’s the other half of the story that plays second fiddle to the story that was just made public. It is a story that won’t make us whole, but it is the other half of the story nonetheless.
In my family, the Dutch East Indies was a blind spot and a well-kept secret. Even though more than three generations of my family had made the trek to Java and my father had been deployed during the independence war at age 18, I knew next to nothing.
In school, the history curriculum barely touched upon WWII in the Dutch East Indies. The story, if it surfaced, was hushed and buried by the story of Anne Frank and the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. At that time, I didn’t even know that two of my great-aunts, who were about the same age as Anne Frank, had also been put in a camp by the Japanese to be murdered by Indonesian pemudas on October 28th, 1945. Their father had been tortured to death by the Japanese.
Historians in the Netherlands have never told me this part of my family history. I had to go digging for it myself, in hard to penetrate archives. At the same time, Dutch historians are now telling the Dutch public what “really” happened from 1945-1949, and by doing so, have, once again, conveniently glossed over the war crimes by the Indonesians, involving both the death of my great-aunts and the trauma of my dad.
My father talked occasionally about his time there — two stories come to mind: two of his close friends were going to come to his base for his birthday. The two soldiers never made it to my dad’s birthday. They were decapitated by the Indonesians while they were on their way, and my father nearly wept every time he told that story. I hope Prime Minister Mark Rutte realizes that if he apologizes to the Indonesians, he also apologizes to the Indonesians who killed my great-aunts and who killed the friends of my father.
Another story: my father was forced to march through the jungle without adequate water. This caused kidney stones and the loss of one kidney.
But he lost so much more than a kidney. By that time, he had seen and heard enough to have lost his innocence.
Indirectly, I lost my father.
My father was traumatized, did not receive any therapy or care and, on top of that, he received no help or understanding from his fellow Dutchmen or the Dutch government. Instead, I grew up with a damaged, silent and cynical father, who now, more than 75 year after the fact, may well have been a war criminal just because he was ordered by the Dutch government to fight in a bitterly fought independence war.
When the Vietnam War happened, my father was glued to the television. He taught me that the Vietnam War was identical to the independence war he witnessed: both were unpopular wars that failed, and both wars triggered many casualties on both sides. My father shouldn’t have been there, he said, but he was called up and went. Once there, he saw the immorality and absurdity of the Dutch presence and wanted out. His “out” was an office job, which was probably assigned to him once he got injured. The Dutch independence war was the Dutch Vietnam War and the analogy doesn’t stop there.
In one of my jobs for an American social media company, I ended up having an email conversation with someone who had been abusive online. I tried to remind this person that he was not following the company’s guidelines, and that his account might get yanked. We started talking online, and I listened. I saw he was a Vietnam veteran and, as one is won’t do in America, I thanked him for his service. That broke the dam. He told me that he drank a little and then went online. He told me he drank because he was so depressed. And then he told me, he was depressed because his sister had died of cancer, and now his mother was also dying of cancer, and I think, he said, It’s because I killed so many people in Vietnam.
If I were an American historian in the mold of the aforementioned Dutch historians or any of the Dutch organizations that participated in this research report, I might argue that this man, this former soldier was a war criminal, too. Yet it’s unimaginable that any American historian would make this claim. Just as it seems unimaginable that the Dutch, historians and Prime Minister alike will ever thank my father and his fellow soldiers, for their service. No, my father, as it turns out now, was fout, just as NSB’rs were fout and that’s that.
The sad part of this story is that after both the apology of the King and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands to just one party in the conflict, an apology to ALL parties (including victims of the Bersiap and the dirty independence war) will become less likely, and with it, the writing of a revisionist history is set in motion. As such, the postcolonial trauma will continue to fester for generations to come. Trade relations with Indonesia, on the other hand, will flourish, but they are paid for by the many forgotten dead bodies that lie in marked and unmarked graves all over Java.
Multatuli was right: half right ain’t right, just as the half truth is not the whole truth. A job that is half done leads to nothing.
Inez Hollander, Ph.D.,
Author of Silenced Voices (Ohio University Press: 2008) and
Director Emeritus of The Indo Project