Politicizing military history: A monumental mistake

| Evan A. Laksmana |Singapore, 12 March 2009 |

Last Friday, President Yudhoyono, while officiating the latest war monuments in Jakarta, asked that all of us cherish and reflect on Indonesia’s military history, reminding us that while we may prefer “soft power”, we should also be “ready for war”.

Here, the three monuments were meant to commemorate our “struggles” with Malaysia, East Timor and the Dutch.

Some notes can then be offered here.

First, there is no doubt that history of crucial importance to the military profession. Ignoring history or not educating officers to have a “historical mind” can have disastrous consequences — this much military history has taught us – and the mess in Iraq is a vivid reminder.

The President is right to promote an appreciation of history, and in saying that “the past is the prologue” to our present and future strategic circumstances.

Although, it must be remembered that the future, as Macgregor Knox claims, is not an object of knowledge, and no amount of “processing power will make the owl of history a daytime bird”.

Thus, military history should be studied (not just read) by officers and civilians alike, for its ability to help shape our intellectual fitness — and not to find ready-made “schools of solutions”.

Second, military history should not be politicized — even though the military (like other state institutions) often become hostages to the political sensitivities and prejudices of those they serve, and history has a bad habit of upsetting both.

However, to then politicize military history, whether to simply glorify parts of our past while ignoring others, or to serve realpolitik interests, would not only be disrespectful to the memories of our heroes, but also it would deny us crucial lessons that we might learn for future planning and wars.

Unfortunately for Indonesia, military history has taken a back seat to political interests.

One example, as historian Katharine Mcgregor argued, is when Soeharto’s New Order regime used history to not only unify the military plagued with inter-service rivalries in the 1960s, but also to further legitimize his rule. It was this neglect of military history, combined with the intensive politicization of the officer corps, which led to the disastrous conditions surrounding Soeharto’s fall in 1998.

Sadly, this politicization of military history is “followed” by scholars studying the Indonesian military, who, for far too long, have focused on military politics and issues of civil-military relations — though not without merit.

Consequently, there are very few scholarly studies that look at Indonesia’s long and rich battlefield experiences (some claim to be within the hundreds) or why some of our joint-military operations were so successful in some cases and not in others.

With these three points in mind, there are three expectations in regards to our new monuments.

First, the memorials are nothing more than our sincere effort to honor our fallen heroes, and must not be used as a vehicle to politicize our military history for short-term political interests — as has been implicitly argued by some observers recently. Especially since we consider that our neighbors might feel a little uneasy when reminded of our “aggressive” behavior in the past — which the three monuments symbolize.

Second, in terms of military history, we learn from both our failures and successes, or anything in between — which I hope those three monuments would eventually lead to.

Here, there is much to learn from what scholars have described as one of our most successful post-independence military campaigns: the integrated joint-operations under Ahmad Yani to crush the PRRI-Permesta rebellion in the late 1950s.

The strategic, operational and tactical successes during this operation could provide us with “data richness” to develop our newly integrated joint-operations doctrine for example.
Meanwhile, there is also much to learn from our longest counter-insurgency campaign in East Timor that lasted for decades. Though it is hard to describe our experiences here as strategically or operationally successful, there is a wealth of information that we could study considering our ever-present focus on internal security and separatism.

On the other hand, we could also learn from those campaigns that were not clear victories or losses for us, as the case in our Konfrontasi with Malaysia and our planned operations against the Dutch. While it is hard to measure success or failure here, the planning stages of these operations that were plagued with difficulties could provide us lessons on future logistical planning for joint-operations.

Finally, no doubt we have lost our men during these operations and their memory should not be lost in vain. But for me, the best way to honor them is to continue on the long and winding road to inculcate a “historical mind” in our officers, which should be part of a strategic process to eventually incorporate the notion of a “soldier-scholar” in our lexicon.

Ultimately, the increasingly complex strategic challenges facing us today and in the future require that we study military history for what it is and not for what political interests it could serve.

In the end, to paraphrase retired general Paul Van Riper, soldiers fight better when they fight smarter.

Military history is too serious a business to be left to politicians.

The writer is a graduate student in strategic studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

This article was originally published by The Jakarta Post.

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