Dome Magazine, 3/16/10
The year was 1965 and all hell was breaking loose in Jakarta. On September 30, six senior Army generals were rounded up and executed in an attempted communist coup in the poverty-ravaged nation. The ensuing battle for Indonesia’s heart and soul over the next few years would eventually claim a half-million lives and give rise to a new president.
This was the new normal for a 28-year-old doctor-turned-assistant naval attaché from Battle Creek, Michigan. Nearly 45 years later, Joe Schwarz still can’t talk about what he did to help stop the country from collapsing, although he is a fan of the Mel Gibson film about that era, The Year of Living Dangerously (When watching it with his daughter, Brennan, years ago, he told her, “That was your mother and me.”)
“A lot of other people — Americans, the British, Australians — wanted to help the good guy,” he simply says, “and in this case, it was [General] Suharto and the loyal Indonesian military.”
Schwarz would soon come face-to-face with the man who was preparing to take over as Indonesia’s new leader. As the violence was winding down in 1966, he was summoned for a new mission: teaching English to Suharto. Schwarz remembers following him around a big white table in the entranceway of his house, drilling him on basic phrases like “good morning” (“Just the simplest ways to ingratiate yourself in English, because he didn’t speak a word,” he says).
“I was chosen, not because I was the world’s greatest English teacher, but because I was the most inoffensive American — very junior person who couldn’t offend anybody,” Schwarz adds.