A round November 10 I always recall Woce. Full name: Robert Walter Monginsidi. Dutch forces executed him by a firing squad in Pacinang, Makassar, on September 5, 1949.
I wrote about him a few years back:
Someone noted that a few minutes before he was executed, Monginsidi, the guerrilla leader feared by the occupying Dutch army, forgave the firing squad charged with killing him. Perhaps he quoted Luke who recorded Jesus’ words at His crucifixion. But perhaps too, he—who did not want to ask for clemency from the colonial government—had been long resigned to what came with the times.
In a letter to a young woman living in Jakarta which he wrote just four days before his execution, Monginsidi described in moving poetic words, the young men of his time who “like flowers about to bloom were struck down by rough winds.”
He was speaking about his generation, of course. Robert Wolter Monginsidi was only 24. One of his former teachers, Sugardo, wrote an account of young Wolter (‘Si Woce’) in Mimbar Indonesia magazine on September 17, 1949, and there we learn that the last school he attended was the Sekolah Pertama Nasional at Jalan Goa 56. He left school in July 1946 and disappeared. People knew, and whispered, that he had become a guerrilla leader in the area of Polombangkeng, which the revolutionaries had selected as the center of their fight against the Dutch occupation in South Sulawesi.
He was wounded. He was captured. He escaped. When he was recaptured, the Raad van Justitie sentenced him to death. Just four months before the Dutch Kingdom finally acknowledged Indonesian independence…
But Woce died just once. No one would ever call him a coward. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once,” Julius Caesar says in Shakespeare’s play, when he refuses to avoid his murder.
The young man who was executed at Pacinang was not Caesar, of course. Woce, as Subagio Sastrowardojo depicted in his poem Monginsidi was a young man who “was raised with legends at his mother’s breast,” a child “afraid of moving shadows in the dark of night.”
He was an ordinary man. But he found himself on the borderline, “a flower about to bloom…struck down by rough winds.”
On that border, in that tragic situation, the heavy wind actually lifted him up to heroic action. Woce defeated death. That is what differentiates heroism from mere courage. In the ancient Greek epic, the Illiad, Hector is in that position. He is moving, inspiring; he dies defending his city of Troy after facing single-handed the famous hero who cannot die, Achilles. Hector surpasses the limits of his humanity, whereas Achilles surpasses nothing at all. He merely becomes the avenger without self control, dragging the bloody corpse of the prince of Troy behind his chariot as he drives around the walls of Troy—defiling someone who can no longer fight back.
Hector (as too young Monginsidi) was above that. He created an ‘immanent immortality’, to use Alain Badiou’s phrase when analyzing the figure of the Soldier, the metaphor of heroism. Hector did not base the reason for his stand on divine blessings and promises. The actor of what can later be called ‘heroic’ acts is aware that their self is limited. But they defeat fear and death to win something without limit, something universal: the right to life of every person who is not them—the right for all.
Our era forgets this. Today’s figures are people who dare to kill and be killed, in brutal or spectacular ways, because they believe they will enter heaven—a project of their own enjoyment.
Standing beside them, but different, are the calculators. They choose the safe route: every act—eating, drinking, dressing, having sex, working, worshiping—is based on calculations of profit and loss. When they ‘give’ they are actually ‘asking’. They speak about ‘God’s reward’ as though speaking of ‘capital’. Matters of ‘truth’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘beauty’, not to mention ideals, fervor and imagination about them—are absent from their lives.
And this is our loss. Badiou sees that our times need ‘the figure of the Soldier’. The Soldier, Badiou says, is the heroic metaphor of democratic times, not the ‘warrior’ in aristocratic heroism. But I think Badiou misses the point here, when with the Soldier we actually meet the figure entirely military, the machine not motivated by the spirit of truth and justice.
Maybe what we need is the figure in Soedjojono’s painting, Sekko, the guerrilla fighter who stands amongst the rubble, his rifle longer than his body, with the feet of a farmer used to the earth, under a menacing sky, in the dark with just a sliver of light. He is someone on the border between ‘to be or not to be’. Not for his own sake. He is like Monginsidi.