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Raymond Bonner’s account of US intervention in El Salvador shows that today’s catastrophic imperialist interventions have a long history, argues Dominic Alexander

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Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War (O/R Books 2016), xxiv, 364pp.

The ‘Global War on Terrorism’ has seen the United States involved in, and associated with, torture, extra-judicial killings and the terrorising of civilian populations. The result has been catastrophic social unravelling in a series of states which have suffered from intervention; Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Yet the pattern is not entirely new. The global war against Communism saw human suffering on no less a scale in Vietnam and Cambodia, to take only two examples. After the defeat in Vietnam, the US had to retreat from direct military intervention, but the case of El Salvador shows that imperialist complicity with violent repression remained as systematic as ever.

Raymond Bonner originally published Weakness and Deceit in 1984 after working quite courageously to discover the reality of the ‘dirty war’ being fought in El Salvador between the US backed regime and a widespread, popular revolutionary movement. Reading it now, after almost fifteen years of the ‘War on Terror’, underlines how everything in the present time, from media manipulation to the use of torture and other war crimes, is rooted in the whole history of US imperialism. It was during the presidency of Ronald Reagan that a White House Task Force on Terrorism attempted to formulate a definition of terrorism. The team had to reject all six or so that they came up with as ‘careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities’.i A significant number of the activities in question occurred in El Salvador.

El Salvador’s Cold War

El Salvador is a small country which had rarely been seen as strategically important to the US, but became so within the Cold War doctrine of the containment of ‘Communism’. It was the fall of the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua that changed the calculations. The Sandinistas could provide a potentially popular alternative to the existing US supported regimes throughout Central America and beyond (p.122). In these circumstances, a popular revolution in El Salvador against another corrupt and violent dictatorship could not be allowed to succeed. The consequent suppression included butchery of a ferocity and scale proportionally as horrifying as any of today’s atrocities.

A revolutionary movement was already growing strongly in the late 1970s under the regime led by President Romero. The Sandinistas’ defeat of Somoza in July 1979 seems to have prompted elements of the political and military elite to recognise that serious reform was needed if a similar result were to be avoided in El Salvador (p.125). Romero was overthrown in a coup which set up an initially wide coalition government, promising a programme of social improvement, crucially including land reform. The Carter administration reacted quickly to announce support for the new junta, promising a resumption of certain types of military aid (p.80).

It is unclear whether there was prior US backing for the coup, although Bonner advances plausible reasons why this seems unlikely, even though the American embassy was certainly aware of what was about to happen (p.129). This issue is less important, however, than the subsequent attitude taken by President Carter’s government, which, in Bonner’s view, failed to take the opportunity to support a genuine reforming regime taking shape. Instead, it is clear that key figures ensured that the military would still be in power in El Salvador, even if there was now a quasi-civilian government nominally in charge.

Bonner’s analysis of the Carter administration’s relationship to El Salvador is summed up by the first half of the book’s title: ‘weakness’. That is to say that the US government felt unable to stand up to the forces ruling El Salvador, and make them behave themselves. A different analysis would, nonetheless, fit the evidence at least as well. While President Carter showed a rhetorical commitment to ‘human rights’, the priority would always have been to avoid destabilising the real allies of the US in the country; the military, and the narrow elite of wealthy landowners and leading businessmen collectively known as the ‘oligarchy’.

Indeed, by the very end of the Carter term, the US had resumed supplying combat equipment, as opposed to ‘non-lethal military aid’ and ‘military advisors’ (pp.183-4, 197). In the view of the Pentagon and the National Security Council, if the Salvadoran military were not supported immediately and unequivocally, ‘guerrillas would be celebrating in the streets of San Salvador while Reagan was taking the oath of office’ (p.197). Any advocates of human-rights considerations holding out in the State Department had evidently been overruled. This may have occurred rather easily, as the CIA was reporting that some of those involved in the coup were ‘leftists’, and therefore beyond the pale (p.136).

The absence of a developed analysis of imperialism makes the discussion of the Carter phase less persuasive than other sections of the book. Indeed, Bonner’s suggestions for what Carter could have done to ensure a better outcome after the coup assumes a strong supervisory role for the US as natural. It was remiss that there ‘were no interagency or National Security Council (NSC) meetings convened’. Moreover, things would have been different if the US had insisted:

‘on the implementation of the land reform in November or December, instead of a few months later; if it had made it clear to the Salvadoran military that aid was dependent on its submitting to civilian control; if it had insisted on a thorough purge of all the officers closely linked to the violence … But it did none of those things; indeed, in some cases it did the opposite’ (p.136).

The issue seems not really to have been a fearful timidity on the part of the US. Rather, the concern was surely to ensure that the existing interests retained control, making any attempts to encourage the ‘reform’ of a client government an entirely secondary consideration. Certainly, that would be a pattern that could be discerned in other places more recently.

Reagan and escalation

The incoming Reagan administration made creative use of the existence of the post-coup government in the years afterward. Where violence could not be blamed on the leftist guerrilla groups, the Salvadoran junta could be absolved by the claim that the death squads represented right-wing forces separate from and uncontrolled by the government. The response to the massacre of peasant co-operative leaders could then be to claim that such events proved the need for the US to provide military aid to the regime. This line clearly had some considerable success with the American public, such that even Bonner admitted to journalistic naiveté concerning the brutal and sadistic execution of a group of protesting students, the aftermath of which he witnessed:

‘It was my first time in El Salvador. I didn’t know what the fighting was about … why students were burning buses, seizing embassies. I could not conceive that an army could be so brutal to its own citizens. It just didn’t cross my mind that the occupants had been killed in something other than a shoot-out’ (p.5).

There was a strong continuity between the Carter and Reagan spin that both were supporting a ‘moderate, centrist government caught between the extremes of the right and left’, and Bonner notes that the line was ‘accepted by editorial writers, and reported by most journalists, including me’ (p.12).

The book itself is a record of the efforts of Bonner and other journalists to uncover the real situation underneath the manipulations and evasions of the Reagan administration in its efforts to prevent ‘Communism’ from spreading from Nicaragua to El Salvador. One of the most important points that is documented quite thoroughly is the extent to which the paramilitaries and the death squads were inseparable from the military and the oligarchy (for example, pp.271-7). Indeed, many of the worst atrocities were carried out directly by the military in any case. The US government was being deeply mendacious in pretending otherwise.

The violence of the repression went far beyond any merely military operation against armed revolutionary groups. It involved the murderous terrorising of the bulk of the population:

‘Thousands of Salvadorans who were merely perceived as being no more than sympathetic to the left have been snatched off the streets, dragged from their homes, had acid poured over them, their skin peeled back, their genitals or breasts hacked off, then been tossed into a ravine or garbage dump’ (p.111).

The war was not really against the ‘Marxist guerrillas’ of the FMLN or others, but against peasants and workers who were trying to gain basic social improvements through co-operatives, land reform and social programmes. Army leaders openly said that they were prepared ‘to kill 200,000-300,000, if that’s what it takes to stop a Communist takeover’ (p.133).

A deadly oligarchy

The response of the US government was to try to blame the ‘violent left’ for the continuing crisis, and to justify escalating military support by arguing that it would enable influence over the government and military. Yet, according to a Mexican diplomat, the post-coup government was only being kept ‘alive’ by US government support (p.190). If the Reagan administration had wanted to end the violence, it surely could have done so.

Instead the US chose to support the most reactionary forces of the oligarchy who were opposed to even mild land reform. It should be noted that the latter measure could even be seen as essentially an anti-communist policy, which had stabilised support for capitalism in Japan, for example, after World War II (pp.161-2). Yet it could not be countenanced by the oligarchy in El Salvador. A very significant part of the oligarchy’s political presence was constituted by the ARENA party, led by Roberto D’Aubuisson. The latter received sympathetic treatment from the US government, even after there was clear evidence that he had been involved in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, an essentially conservative figure who had nonetheless strongly denounced government violence, as well as left-wing actions (p.263).

In relation to this instance, it should be remembered that the left in general has been criticised for throwing around the word ‘fascist’ too liberally, sometimes precisely in relation to Latin American dictators. D’Aubuisson, however, is on record as saying to some European journalists that “You Germans were very intelligent. You realised that the Jews were responsible for the spread of communism, and you began to kill them” (p.262). If there could be any doubt about the toxic nature of this figure and his ARENA party, it was a US diplomat who told a House Subcommittee in 1984 that “Arena is a fascist party” (p.262).

More generally, another diplomat said of Colonel Nicolás Carranza, a leading representative of the oligarchy in the army, “He’s not a thug; he’s the Gestapo” (p.310). There was no figure in El Salvador who was too right-wing or murderous for the Reagan administration to patronise, ostensibly in the hope of influencing their behaviour. Yet there was no left-wing group moderate enough not to be denounced as violent, or communist, or with whom negotiations could be held at all.

Imperialism and deceit

If ‘weakness’ is a questionable characterisation of US policy towards El Salvador, then ‘deceit’ certainly is not. The Reagan administration was officially claiming that none of the American soldiers in the country as military trainers were involved in actual fighting. Yet, the army was in fact doling out ‘hostile fire’ pay. Bonner concludes ‘the State Department was regularly filing false reports to Congress’ (p.236). The government’s efforts to prove that the rebels were being largely maintained and supplied by Cuba and Nicaragua were repeatedly shown to be fraudulent (pp.222-30). As in later times, negotiations that could have put an end to the violence were possible, but it was the US which made sure they did not happen (pp.244-5).

Government attitudes towards those US citizens in El Salvador who fell victim to the violence reached astonishing levels of distasteful cynicism. In one instance in December 1980, four American churchwomen, three of them nuns, were raped and murdered, clearly as part of the terror campaign against social programmes of any kind. Beforehand, a warning had been placed on the door of their parish house, from where they distributed food and medicine, that stated: ‘In this house are Communists. Everyone who enters here will die’ (p.62). Jeanne Kirkpatrick, soon to be a leading member of Reagan’s cabinet, said that the “nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists … No. I don’t think the government was responsible” (p.67). Even the US ambassador at the time was certain otherwise (p.64).

There were clearly deep misgivings about the whole El Salvador policy, particularly within Democratic sections of the US establishment, and a good deal of material was leaked to Bonner himself. His journalism was, however, impugned in several instances by state, political and media figures of the right, insinuating that he was in some sense a communist sympathiser (p.268). However, Bonner makes clear his hostility to the Sandinistas at several points, with a centrist-liberal concern about the reality of its ‘democratic rhetoric’, and a decided distaste for what he assumed the revolutionaries, the FDR-FMLN, would be like in power in El Salvador (p.88). Thus while he recognised that the viciousness of successive juntas led to rising support for the revolutionary groups, he drew back from recognising that US imperialism altogether was the root of the problems in El Salvador.

Bonner seems sometimes to have been tin-eared when reporting on Salvadoran rank-and-file revolutionaries, proclaiming some of them to be refreshingly free of doctrinaire statements about ‘Yankee Imperialism’ or ‘exploitation’, which implicitly would have demonstrated the illegitimate influence of alien ‘Marxist’ forces. Yet he also quotes one peasant on Reagan that he ‘wants to be the ruler of the entire world; but it’s not to be here’ (pp.95 and 98). This line seems to show an entirely organic understanding of the reality of Yankee Imperialism.

The problem with this account then is that it does not really transcend the general imperialist assumptions about US involvement in central American countries, just the extreme consequences of the rigid anti-Communist approach. This is despite being able to note telling details, such as when a new US ambassador to El Salvador was told outright that he should consider himself a ‘Proconsul’, a title held by provincial governors of the Roman Empire (p.151). The limits of the overall analysis do not stop the book being a thorough investigation of immense value, which does reveal the continuities of imperialist violence at several points:

‘One death squad member, when asked about the types of torture used, replied. “Uh, well, the same thing you did in Vietnam. We learned from you. We learned from you the means, like blowtorches in the armpits, shots in the balls” …’ (p.279).

If some practices proceeded from the past, some others seem to point forward to some of the methods that would be used later in places like Abu Ghraib (p.283). Indeed, the 2015 preface makes reference to ‘talk of the “Salvador option” in Iraq’ during the Bush administration (p.xix). Bonner’s new epilogue notes simply in conclusion: ‘No American official has been held to account for the crimes committed by the American-backed governments in El Salvador, or for the deceit emanating from Washington’ (p.328). The evidence of this book provides a powerful argument that the claims made by the US, or other Western states for that matter, to be acting in good faith for good reasons anywhere else in the world, should be regarded with grave scepticism at all times.

Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit is available exclusively from O/R Books.

i Quoted in Phyllis Bennis, ISIS and Syria: The New Global War on Terror (New Internationalist 2016), p.64.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He has been a Stop the War and anti-austerity activist in north London for some time. He is a published historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, a social history of medieval wonder tales

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