Tuesday, February 11, 2014



 Indonesian Navy personnel greet a visiting U.S. War Ship (photo U.S. Navy)


   Singapore navy Capt. Giam Hock Koon, left, welcomes aboard Rear Adm. Kazuki Yamashita, assistant deputy commander of Combined Task Force, to Rim of Pacific (RIMPAC) 2010 Singapore Reception. (photo U.S. Navy)


The Singapore and Indonesian Navies can probably settle this as a navy to navy matter, with lots of symbolism based ceremony and few words, probably no acrimonious words.

This is the third part in a three part series addressing the recent disagreement between Singapore and Indonesia over the proposed naming of an Indonesian naval vessel for two Indonesian marines who infiltrated Singapore during the Konfrontasi in 1965. The marine raiders time bombed an office building and killed 3 people and injured 33, all civilians, two were young women, there was no declaration of war between Indonesia and Malaysia, of which in 1965 Singapore was a part. Singapore police tracked down the Indonesian marines and Singapore prosecutors made their case against them in open court. Both were hanged. Now at a moment in history when Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore need to cooperate like never before Indonesia announces that they intend to name a warship after the two marines.  If you are just dropping into the conversation you can read part 1  by clicking here: Part 1 and part 2 by clicking here: Part 2.

 Yesterday we offered our insight on settling this dispute from lessons of our own (United States) civil war, particularly the last Confederate funeral, the crew of the CSS HUNLEY in Charleston, South Carolina in 2004. In the case of the Konfrontasi marines there is no doubt that they acted on the orders of their superiors and their government at the time. There is also no doubt that their actions were in obedience to unlawful orders under both international law and the pertinent laws of both Malaysia and the then municipality of Singapore. The two marines paid the price for their misguided obedience and were hanged. No one in the rest of 
the world would consider either of these two Indonesian marines heroes, most would regard them as participants in state sponsored terrorism which is what the Konfrontasi was all about. But few professional military personnel around the world would be willing to vilify these marines. 

 They obeyed orders under extremely risky circumstances, accepted the views of their superiors on who the "enemy was", relied on their political office holders to decide if a formal act of war was required, and let their superiors determine appropriate targets, tactics, and weapons and the acceptability level of any "collateral damage". Their superiors failed them and betrayed their trust. They took lives and injured people I'm sure they regretted hurting and paid with their lives. Most military personnel all over the world will have some empathy for the two marines but also are embarrassed by their actions and the impression they give of the profession of national arms. We are not merely uniformed thugs!  But obedience and a willingness to work behind "enemy lines" are valued. Most international military professionals would not begrudge the burial of these two marines with other Indonesian military dead of whatever conflict with the simple honors accorded other casualties of war.

 But, I would think that even Indonesian marines, if they thought about the actions of these two marines, would not be proud of them. All of the injured and dead were unarmed civilians engaged in ordinary economic activities, two of the dead were young women, not an honorable foe for trained marines, there was no war declared. Our thought is that the families of these marines deserve to have their memories decriminalized in their own country and indeed they were. The bodies were returned to Indonesia and buried with full military honors. Indeed in Indonesia the two are regarded as heroes by the Marine Corps and general public. But Singapore will never view them as anything more than victims of failed military leadership at best. Singapore has not objected over the years to the treatment of the two marines memories within Indonesia. But the names of warships become parts of national histories and the names are seen wherever the ships visit. To name a warship after two men who injured 33 civilians and killed two young civilian women in a sneak timed bomb attack that served no purpose but to spread terror is to condone the act and the entire reign of terror of the Konfrontasi  before the whole world. The naval professionals of both nations know the importance and symbolism of warship names. But politicians all too often name the ships. 

 The entire dispute over the naming of a war ship after these two marines could probably be best resolved by letting officers of the two navies get together over the issue. Naval professionals around the world have unique customs of the service that pertain to the history of their own navy, but also a great deal of customs, courtesies , and honors that are rather uniform around the world. The two navies could probably work out something that would ceremoniously express the decriminalization of the memories of the two marines in Indonesia, and the willingness of Singapore, after having imposed a penalty approved under international law , to accept such decriminalization. Here is how such a thing might be worked out between naval professionals. 

 There is a lot of powerful symbolism in  naval ceremony.  Meetings over the matter could be held between senior officers of the two navies in a neutral port one on an Indonesian vessel and one on a Singapore vessel. The meetings should be between officers of flag rank each to be formally Piped aboard the ship visited. The visual signal of a formal piping aboard sends a strong signal of mutual respect even while the intended purpose of the "flag meeting" is to reconcile a disagreement. As the visiting admiral leaves a flag ship he is again piped ashore , again underscoring that this is a meeting between friendly if not formally allied navies. After the second meeting both admirals could appear with a joint announcement. The controversial war ship name should be announced as "retired" and that it will be retired with appropriate ceremony. At some point some days after this announcement the Indonesian Admiral should attend a retirement and recommissioning ceremony aboard the controversial ship. The commissioning pennant should be lowered, the crew awarded "plank owner certificates" for the ship under her retiring name. The admiral can make some remarks about how the service will continue to remember the sacrifice and loyalty the former namesakes and then the new commissioning pennant should be raised. 

 Perhaps, if there is no political posturing this retirement and recommissioning could be the last burial of the  Konfrontasi . Perhaps this burial could have the effect of moving  the Konfrontasi back to a point in memory where it can be finally rationally discussed. But if not,  its OK to leave it out of discussion for a generation or so, it took the United States from 1865 until 2004 to really put the Civil War to rest  to a point where it can generally be discussed dispassionately. 

 Eventually Indonesia will be able to put these two marines in perspective. For decades Americans thought George Armstrong Custer who was wiped out with all of his men at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by warriors of the Sioux nation was a hero. It was only much later that Custer's complicity in allowing Anglo gold miners to enter Sioux territory came to public notice. It was nearly a century after his death that anyone would publicly take a critical look at his tactics and intentions, and how well he observed the laws of armed conflict relative to the Sioux. Custer isn't an honored name in American history today. Yet General Robert E Lee, leader of the Army of the Confederacy in open rebellion against the United States, is viewed north and south today as an able and competent military leader and honorable man. In his own life time there were plenty of Americans who wanted to see him hanged. 

 Singapore may be a while seeing these marines as victims of poor military leadership and supervision and of a government bent on state terrorism at the time. Indonesia may be quite a while seeing the McDonald house bombers as other than heroic. Meanwhile both navies need each other. Naval officers are usually better students of history than politicians and quite willing to wait on the judgement of history, set old grievances aside, and move forward with today's allies, who sometimes are yesterday's enemies. Navies are also uniquely suited to express in naval ceremony mixed emotions of disagreement with respect with no words spoken. Let the naval officers of today decide between themselves how to handle this old sore subject, this elephant in the room that stands between them and their cooperative mission of providing security for the region.

Johnas Presbyter


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  2. "The naval professionals of both nations know the importance and symbolism of warship names. But politicians all too often name the ships.

    The entire dispute over the naming of a war ship after these two marines could probably be best resolved by letting officers of the two navies get together over the issue"


    What avenue(s) remains for the Indonesian Chief of Navy if his superior has already said that nothing will be changed?

    Our relationship with Singapore is fine,” Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Moeldoko said on Monday. “The dispute about the naval ship name is only one small hurdle. It’s normal. Nothing will change, we decided long ago to take a historical approach when naming [naval vessels]. Some of them are Usman and Harun, [but] we also used Diponegoro and there was never a problem.”

  3. If the civilian official who oversees the Indonesian navy has has already articulated the policy that the ship's name will not be changed , the military commander of the navy has no real options to effect any sudden change. One of the reasons the rest of the world respects the military of all three nations is that they do appear to be committed to civilian control,a sign of a stable democratic state. We'd be the last people to suggest an open conflict between the civilian and military heads of any navy. But the senior most naval officer is able to push a more reasonable approach over time. He can document in memos every instance of the ship's deployment being
    affected by public or governmental reactions to the name, and any and all morale problems that become manifest on the ship such as an unusual percentage of transfer requests, reported reluctance to accept assignment. That is about all he can, or should do at this point. Apparently the Indonesian military Chief Gen. Moeldoko is doing what he can service to service to assure that there are no military to military hard feelings or doubts about the alliance. There are stupid politicians in every nation, certainly here in the United States we have a super abundance in Washington DC. Military professionals guarding the sovereignty of free states and the commons of mankind for which their state may have special responsibilities have had dealing with stupid politicians for centuries. A mark of the free state is that the military doesn't over turn elected governments or particular office holders when they manifest stupidity. The military of free peoples leave that task to the civilian electorate even when it takes a lot of time for the electoral process to work. The world knows the facts of the McDonald House bombing and doesn't welcome a war ship that commemorates the perpetrators as heroes. The reactions may be mild and scattered, but over time Indonesia will notice, with her navy noticing first. The world really wants the principal of individual responsibility of the soldier to stand and be upheld within the codified and traditional laws of armed conflict. When civilians are confronted by unlawful and murderous behavior of troops on the ground, appeal to the individual soldier to behave within the law is the last shield of the helpless, and the last hope of the profession of arms to avoid actions that cast doubt on the ethical nature of the relevant force, and the honorable nature of the profession of arms. generally. All three nations have honorable, ethical, and very professional military and coast guard forces now. Lets hope that one unthinking political act meant to have a symbolic meaning to one limited constituency of benefit to certain politicians does put a serious dent in the alliance that guard the paths between the Indian and Pacific Oceans for the world.

  4. OOPS! Our mistake ! There is a typo in the final sentence of our comment above. We hope "one unthinking political act.........does NOT put a serious dent in the alliance.
    Sorry, sometimes the brain is moving faster than the typing hand.

    Johnas Presbyter , editor