Monday, February 10, 2014



 The bodies of the crew of the CSS HUNLEY lost in the American Civil War are laid to rest alongside other Confederate military men who lost their lives in the testing phase of the Hunley, the first submarine to sink a warship in battle. The ship was lost in 1864. The crew was buried, with an official state military funeral, and under the banner for which they fought on April 17, 2004. (Photo: Friends of the Hunley)

  The CSS HUNLEY under Construction

If you were born in Indonesia , Singapore, or Malaysia after 1970 you may be as old as 44 and have no living memory of the events of the 1960s, particularly the McDonald House Bombings.  If you were born in the 1940s the likelihood is that you have serious young adult memories of those days of the  Konfrontasi.  Since those born after 1945 who have survived are still in their sixties, you likely have excellent recall of the troubles of the day. To the youngest of the younger generations, the 1960s may seem like ancient history. My guess is, that like my own generation born 80 years after America's War Between the States, there is probably a generational split over at least the intensity of feelings about the events of 1965 that have resurfaced to haunt the area.  However, there is no doubt that the younger generations from each state in the region have feelings profoundly influenced by their parents and /or grandparents who were eyewitnesses to the history of the region. My own generation recalls the American civil war through the prism of histories written by the winning side and the memories of grandparents who learned about the war from their parents and experienced some of the resulting military occupation of the South as children.

 The result of the combination of conflicting historical views and the passage of years was, for my generation a blunting of emotionally charged feelings and a tendency to view history from a more neutral forensic view point.  In the region around the Strait of Malacca; Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia no doubt have each their own historical viewpoints and where these are committed to writing they are most often written by eyewitnesses of the older generations who were there and who carried at least some of the passions of the actual events into their recollection.  My father, who was born in the second decade of the 20th century was born at a point about as distant from the American Civil War as the children of the Malacca Strait nations are from the events of 1965. When he was born, the sons of both Confederate veterans and Yankee veterans of the American Civil War were both serving in the same armed forces attempting to hold back German aggression. Within one generation of our own bitter civil war, the first mechanized war in history featuring rail transported giant mortars, Gatling guns (machine guns), submarines, steam propelled and armoured war ships ,and the the leveling of entire cities (Richmond and Atlanta); the sons of both sides faced together a new danger. By the time my father was 25 the nation so newly reunited by bitter force of arms again faced the very real danger of annihilation on two fronts as the Axis powers drew us into war on both the Atlantic and Pacific. His generation, the grandsons of Yankee and Confederate soldiers alike had to bury the past and pull together against the aggressive forces of the NAZIS, the Fascists, and an expansionist imperial Japan. These younger generations had to bury the past sufficiently to battle the forces of tyranny of their day together. The younger generations of the Malacca Strait region and its independent nations face a similar challenge today.

  Freedom isn't free, but usually a result of all types of struggle and social evolution. Within the now independent nations of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia the generation that survived the 1960s, and two generations who were not adults in the 1960s have built; and the younger generations crew, some of the finest small armed services and coast guards in the world. And now these same nations face a new challenge. China, thinking itself "the Middle Kingdom"  seeks to draw the entire region to itself as vassal states, and to own the China Seas as its own "lake". Containing this threat, as well as combating piracy in the Strait, and keeping the disputes of other nations out of the region is the difficult and challenging job of the armed forces, coast guards, and police services of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The world which depends on freedom of navigation to keep an increasingly global economy working depends on this generation of forces from the new guardians of the straits at the southernmost tip of the China seas. The presently serving generation of all three nations need each other for unprecedented military / naval cooperation and the world needs them to be successful. 

 All of you have a right to call on the world to assist. Certainly the United States , Japan which may itself represent some terrible memories of your great grand parents, and the Philippines, all have big stakes in the outcome of the struggle with the devouring Dragon that is China. But so does India which seems to be trying to straddle the fence at times. Even Europe, and South America stand to lose if the China Seas become a private "lake of China", and your nations lose any part of their independence. Do not hesitate to call on the world to help, but please let us hear a united voice. Let not bitterness from the past disturb the unity needed for the present. But be realistic, the past takes a long time to really pass out of cultural memory.

 I know I am addressing a region with a civilization that is thousands of years old and am proposing a lesson from a nation that is a bit less than 250 years old. But the American Civil war and its aftermath do provide important lessons to be considered in your own situation. We shouldn't ignore the lessons of history no matter the source or the recency of the history. In the story of "the last Confederate funeral" I think I see lessons that relate to the events of 1965 in Singapore when behind the lines marine raiders of Indonesia bombed an office building killing 3 and injuring 33 civilians and were caught and subsequently executed.  In every armed conflict there are those who are branded "war criminals" by one side and "heros" by the other but are usually in reality something in between. Lets examine for a moment the Confederate Submarine crew of the CSS HUNLEY, their actions, the 21st century recovery of their bodies and their state funeral almost a century and a half after the sinking of the Hunley in combat.
 USS HOUSATONIC sunk by the CSS Hunley

"April 17th, 2004

The morning was warm, and the waters off Charleston Harbor were unusually calm. It was perhaps the same sort of sea Hunley commander Lt. Dixon was waiting for in 1864 when he and his crew launched the experimental vessel that began the age of modern day submarines.

But this day would not mark the beginning of the Hunley crew's mission, but rather the completion of their century long journey to a final burial. On April 17th, 2004, the submarine pioneers that manned the first successful combat submarine were buried.

The ceremony began at 9.15 am with a memorial service at White Points Garden. Immediately after the ceremony, horse drawn caissons followed by a 19th century period dressed procession led the crew to the their final resting place. The procession marched 4.5-miles through downtown Charleston, and ended at Magnolia Cemetery. The Hunley's eight-man crew was then laid to rest next to others who lost their life on Hunley test missions."

Hunler Crew Funeral Procession
Public outpouring at the 2004 funeral procession of the crew of the Hunley (Photo: Friends of the Hunley)

The Commander and crew of the CSS HUNTLEY the first submarine to sink a warship.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon
Arnold Becker 
Corporal J. F. Carlsen 
Frank Collins
James A. Wicks
Joseph Ridgaway
 Who were these men? Asked at different times and in different places the answers were until recently quite different. No doubt to the Union Navy officers of the day viewed them as war criminals. Submarines were unheard of and no doubt viewed as an exceptionally villainous form of sneak attack. To the Confederate population and veterans they were self sacrificing and brave heros serving a "noble cause". Only now in the full light of history roughly a century and half after the events is the "real judgement of history" starting to take place. Histories may be written shortly after events and such are valuable but must be viewed with a critical eye. The first histories of wars are generally written by the victors. 

 So my own generation received a simple version in our standard history texts. In that standard version based on the writings of Northern Academics relying uncritically on the early histories of Northern Academics who wrote right after events the story was simple. The South was the land of slavery populated by vile and evil slave holders who would not give up their ill gotten wealth and free their fellow human beings held in bondage. The Northern States or "union" that invaded and attacked the Southern States after the Southern States attempted to force Union military forces out of their territory represented the forces of freedom. The South was generously "reconstructed" after the Civil war and allowed to rejoin the union. Only now after generations who lived closer to the issues are dead and gone are contra-indicative facts even allowed to emerge.

 First, Union states held slaves especially the border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky. Second many of the elite of the New England States made their shipping fortunes in slave ships in the infamous Triangle Trades
The famous "Emancipation Proclamation" by President Lincoln freed only slaves within the Confederacy, not in the slaveholding states of the "Union". 
However this proclamation finally gave to the Union forces a seemingly moral high ground from which to rally public opinion, support for the war, and whatever the federal government wanted to do to the Southern States after the war; which in fact was not a very benign military occupation. Nearly three years into the war the North adopted the ending of slavery as a war goal, but only within the slave states of the union. 

 So if slavery wasn't the cause of the war, what was? Modern historians point to the fact that the North, particularly the New England states manufactured textiles from Southern cotton. The prices for southern cotton were kept artificially low by national laws prohibiting the tax free export of Southern Cotton. The non cotton producing states held the majority in both houses of Congress and simply were quite pleased to suppress the economy of the cotton producing states. The cotton producing states wanted to sell to Great Britain which offered higher prices than the artificially repressed prices of New England. Views like this were nearly impossible to explore at the high school level in the United States prior to the 1990s. The semi "official view" of the victors had to stand except for some college courses. Try to remember that the last civil war veterans died in the United states in the 1960s, and the last Confederate widows died in the 1980s. The viewpoint of the south at the time of the war had been suppressed for nearly a hundred years before both sides could converse rationally and without rancor and factually about the war. 

 Yet when the bodies of the crew of the Hunley were found there was an outpouring of southern sentiment, not against the North but for an honorable burial for these soldiers and sailors of the South. The State of South Carolina was not opposed by the federal government in preparing a burial with public ceremony and full military honors, not by any U.S. forces but by military elements of South Carolina some of which traced their organizational roots to Military Units of the State that served the American revolution and then later served the state when the union formed in the wake of the Revolution fell apart.  The honorable burial of the crew of the Hunley in some ways was for many southerners the start of the decriminalization of their ancestors. As is always the case in war, some of the military personnel from both sides were controversial, some indeed behaved criminally, some were heros, most were simply victims of the politics of the day.  

 Today roughly a century and half from the end of hostilities in the American Civil war a new understanding of the actual causes and behaviors of both sides is only beginning to emerge, especially after the "last Confederate funeral"'. The cause was the lack of integrity in Congress and the Senate at the time where the members were doing the bidding of society's elites who provided the "mothers milk of politics", campaign money. Mechanized agriculture was making agricultural slavery uneconomic at the same time as a moral awakening was making it embarrassing.  Such slavery ended all over the America's by the 1880s without a major mechanized war laying waste to major portions of nations. Frankly our Congress hasn't learned the lesson of the Civil war yet and is the most untrusted institution in America today. But given the long slow death of emotion on both sides and the return of rational discussion how could it be different? Yet Americans deliberately set aside all that unfinished business to unite, in the face of foreign threats, within only a few decades of the bitter Civil War.  

 So what are the lessons in all that for Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia concerning the lingering bitterness over the Konfrontasi?  First to the older generation with living memories of the Konfrontasi, you must realize that your adult children face a new threat and that they need each other. You must realize that your adult children are now no longer colonial subjects in a back water of the global economy, but leaders in it, occupying a strategic and challenged geography. They have formed remarkable professional ,military organizations to protect the national freedoms of what is now a collection of three independent and increasingly prosperous nations. These nations now face a new threat and must respond in a highly cooperative manner. Don't saddle them with the regrets of the past but give them your blessing to go forward with their neighbors.   

To the official leaders of Indonesia and Singapore we urge restraint and a dropping of some of the emotional baggage clouding this issue and casting a pall over the future of your needed cooperation. Give history a chance to do its work. Indonesia don't try to make "heros" out of marines who violated the established laws of armed conflict. Look deeply and dispassionately at the actions of your predecessor government in the Konfrontasi. That government gave actual orders that amounted to state terrorism. You need not assume any mantel of guilt for a past generation, but if you insist on treating these two executed marines who did in fact violate the law of nations as "heros", you condone such acts calling into question your trust worthiness in international affairs. 

Singapore you must cease any vilification of the two marines that you executed. What they did was unacceptable but they were not common criminals but soldiers of their nation. They were misguided, unlawfully commanded, and  mal trained. Both sides have to accept the "judgement of history" that the Konfrontasi was tragic, and a product of its time, a time now past. International law has decreed that obeying orders is not a defense for crimes against the law of armed conflict, but every nation treasures and values soldiers who obey difficult and dangerous orders.

  In the eyes of Indonesia these marines paid the supreme price for the military virtue of obedience. If Singapore still has the remains of these marines they should be returned to Indonesia as simply "war dead" despite the fact that there was no declaration of war. These were marines of Indonesia sent into Singapore by their government. They obeyed orders, they deserve to be buried, not as heroes, but as the comrades in arms of their fellow soldiers who died in more conventional combat modes. If they are now in a prison graveyard, or potter's field they should be returned to their homeland. 

 Indonesia should be viewed with sympathy if they give them a military burial normally accorded military "war dead", but no posthumus decorations. nor the naming of warships or any other hero's treatment should be accorded them. Remember that the dead resulting from their actions against a civilian office building included two young women, a secretary and a clerk, these were not worthy adversaries of marines. 

 Both sides need to exhibit understanding and respect and a willingness to wait on history to render a final assessment of the entire Konfrontasi episode. The case of the two marines needs to be low profiled at this point in history when an unemotional historical debate can not take place. Let the present generations move forward unburdened by the resentments of the past. The world has changed, the issues of independence from not only colonial rulers but also each other have been worked out. But human freedom in your region is once again challenged by a swimming dragon to your north. Bury the dead, clasp hands and go forward. As our American Civil War experience has shown us; intervening threats faced together after a terrible rift change historical perspective and irreconcilable enemies can indeed form eventually a "more perfect union".  Realize that you may be a century away from the last burial of the Konfrontasi and there may still be some residual ill feelings then. But you must face the new enemies now together. That memory will eventually be added to your collective historical memories, the Konfrontasi indeed may never be forgotten, but down playing it now in favor of mutual cooperation in the face of common challenges will blunt its negative effects in the future. Your nations may be the new "tigers of Asia", but you have to cooperate more like a pride of lions to overcome the Dragon, the pirates, international apathy, and the spillover from other people's conflicts in the narrow international waters you guard and derive much of your respective economic development from. The world is watching. Now is your moment. How will you respond?

Johnas Presbyter


  1. "If Singapore still has the remains of these marines they should be returned to Indonesia as simply "war dead" despite the fact that there was no declaration of war. These were marines of Indonesia sent into Singapore by their government. They obeyed orders, they deserve to be buried, not as heroes, but as the comrades in arms of their fellow soldiers who died in more conventional combat modes. If they are now in a prison graveyard, or potter's field they should be returned to their homeland. "

    After the bombing in March 1965, the two Marines were caught in an island-wide manhunt in SIngapore. They were tried, convicted of murder and hung in Changi Prison on October 1968.

    Their bodies were returned to Indonesia where they were feted as national heroes.

    Singapore Prime Minister visited and scattered flowers over the graves of the two marines in May 1973.

  2. We became aware of the return of the bodies a few days after this post, being alerted to that fact by an astute reader in Singapore. No matter what kind of example of obedience these marines may be considered by the people of Indonesia at the time,the bombing of a civilian office building of no military worth in a nation technically not at war with the marine's dispatching nation is a crime for which international law, and the national and municipal laws of virtually every nation hold the individual liable to the penalty of law for. No matter who gave the order, it was illegal and immoral. "I was only obeying orders" was rejected as a defense by many national military tribunals by 1867 (The Andersonville trial for the United States Army) and internationally for all time at Nuremberg. Most military services today teach the international law of armed conflict and incorporate it into their development of local "Rules of Engagement". Soldiers are supposed to behave within the ethical system established under international law. The facts of the McDonald House bombing remain. There was no legitimate armed conflict, the victims roughly 33 were all civilians not engaged in any type of "war effort", two of the dead were civilian young women. This was not a deed that any marine would be proud of. All nations have some shameful acts in their history why did the Indonesian political leadership decide to parade this particular example of national guilt before the world at this time when the world so depends on the cooperation of the the Indonesian, Singapore, and Malaysian navies to keep the narrow paths between the Indian and Pacific oceans clear. Why have they thrown a monkey wrench into the proudest joint achievement of the three nations performed by three much admired navies /coast guard teams acting together. Why is Indonesia robbing this generation of their sailors and marines of their earned excellent reputations? Let the dead of the past simply rest in peace. The world knows the history of the McDonald House bombing and it can not be changed into anything heroic , so why try. Move on Indonesia, the world needs your navy now and today's navy needs to be able to hold its head up, and has earned that right. No ill conceived political decision should be allowed to stand that takes that right away from your sailors.