Koos-Jan de Jager has been a doctoral candidate at the Free University of Amsterdam, where he examines the role of religion in the Indonesian war, since September 2018. His work centres on the question what impact the war had on the religious beliefs of members of the Netherlands armed forces and their actions in the war. He wrote the following blog for Witnesses & Contemporaries
Soldiers between faith and violence
by Koos-Jan de Jager
The army chaplain working for the Dutch military in Bandung in 1947 was adamant: only faith in God, who “holds the reins of government in his hand, all the world over,” could pull Dutch soldiers through amidst the chaotic confusion of war. W. Harder, a conscript from the Dutch town of Alkmaar, was of the same opinion. In a letter to his elder in the Reformed Church, he wrote:
"Fortunately, we always find support in God when it gets too difficult sometimes, and so we always make it through. I sometimes think, what must it be like for boys who don’t hold the faith? Because it is a mystery to me where they find the strength.”
Both these men’s reflections show that religion played an important role in dealing with psychological and emotional pressures in times of war. To them, their faith provided meaning and direction to their lives.
How Dutch military personnel handled violence is an important theme in the research programme of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) and the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD). I therefore wonder: did soldiers think about the relationship between violence, war and religion? Could it be that religious soldiers were less accepting of acts of violence? At first glance, it does not seem possible to provide a clear answer to this question on the basis of letters and diaries. For example, the orthodox reformed Adriaan Janse wrote about violence and military action in a cavelier manner. He was fiercely critical of the situation in the Dutch churches and the behaviour of the army chaplains in Indonesia, but his faith did not lead him to reflect on the violence of war. On 23 May 1946, he wrote:
“Tonight we snuffed out a couple more candles. They turned out be be four Japanese and six Indonesians who refused to stop, and who ran off. They had maps and weapons and were probably spies of terror and that robber baron Sukarno, whom we are expected to address as ‘Your Excellency’ in Holland.”
However, other members of the military did think about the tension between violence and faith. To the reformed Dick de Korte, the angelical singing on Christmas Eve was at odds with the rattling of machine guns. To his church council he wrote:
“We have war and military action, corruption and disappointment, and then the King of Peace. It’s completely incomprehensible. Peace is a familiar word, but we are also familiar with reality. Where is this taking us? Sometimes I wonder, is there any Light left? And yet, yes, there is Light; there is Light even though everything is dark. Although it appears to be winning, darkness will lose because He was born. The beginning of its victory was when He was born. This will help us keep faith.”
The contrast between the two letters is marked. Adriaan does not mention his faith in relation to the violence of war, while Dick did experience problems. These sources provide insights into the ways in which members of the military reconciled their religious background with their active role in the war, chaos and violence. If we want to understand their war-time experiences, we must address religion: after all, members of the military were confronted with fundamental issues concerning life and death, in which their faith played an important role. In my research, I’m interested in the meaning their faith had for these soldiers and how it shaped their actions in the war. How did they deal with questions raised by the war, for example with regard to violence? A systematic analysis of a large number of first-person texts, such as the letters from Adriaan Janse and Dick de Korte, provides valuable answers to these questions. Together, they provide a new and indispensable perspective on the Indonesian war.