Saturday, January 15, 2022

Review: The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins

I read The Jakarta Method over just a few days, but it took me nearly twice that to pinpoint what about this book left me feeling unsatisfied. 

It's very well researched, gathering information from interviews, contemporary reporting in both Western and Third World news outlets, and CIA documentation. These sources are woven together into a gripping narrative. The subject matter — the brutal, relentless, anti-communist international interventions carried out by the United States in the twentieth (and twenty-first...) century — is vital to know, and Americans are grossly, depressingly ignorant of it. The victims of this aggression are humanized, their stories of shattered dreams for a better world are poignant, yet these violent, gory moments are never played for titillation. The events are contextualized well, drawing a line between colonialism/imperialism, communities depleted of their natural resources and finding solutions in communism. It's good investigative journalism.

But it feels like just that. An unusually long investigative article.

With a title like "The Jakarta Method", I was expecting to learn some sort of framework, something like Manufacturing Consent's Propaganda Model. A 12-step plan for a military coup of a socialist government? Seven signs to look for to identify an upcoming CIA-backed extermination of communists? Some other Buzzfeed listicle-ready structure? I had lingering questions: were all anti-communist interventions after the events in Indonesia in 1965 using the Jakarta Method? were there exceptions: "successful" interventions that used some other method? were there unsuccessful attempts at employing the Jakarta Method, and if so, why did they fail? Bevins doesn't have answers for these questions, but then again, he never promised anything more rigourous than an exhaustively-researched, accurately-told story (and he uses that word to describe his work here repeatedly). So maybe that's on me.

Setting aside this disappointment and accepting the book for what it was rather than what it could have been, I did learn a lot. I had a bare bones understanding of events in South East Asia and South America, and this story fleshed out many missing spots. 

That said, I recommend that readers read it with a critical eye. For all that Bevins has been able to dig through the muck of Western reporting to uncover some really ugly truths about American foreign policy, I think he rather fundamentally misunderstands why this aspect of US foreign policy is unknown domestically:

I fear that the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the Cold War was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.

Ah yes, your typical American learns the facts of these events and simply chooses to ignore it out of national pride. 

This naïveté extends from analysis of propaganda and politics in the First World to discussion of the Second World. The same sorts of narratives Bevins questions when applied to Indonesia are not questioned when their subject is the USSR.

In this book, I spent less time discussing the real atrocities carried out by certain communist regimes in the twentieth century. That’s partly because they’re so well known already; it’s mostly because these crimes truly didn’t have much to do with the stories of the men and women whose lives we traced throughout the past one hundred years. But it’s also because we do not live in a world directly constructed by Stalin’s purges or mass starvation under Pol Pot. Those states are gone. Even Mao’s Great Leap Forward was quickly abandoned and rejected by the Chinese Communist Party, though the party is still very much around. We do, however, live in a world built partly by US-backed Cold War violence.

I would, with the above reservations, recommend this book to those interested in learning more about recent history in Indonesia, Chile and Brazil. It's a good story.

These countries were trying to do something very, very difficult. It doesn’t help when the most powerful government in history is trying to stop you. It’s hard to say how they might have reshaped the world if they were truly free to experiment and build something different.

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