Sunday, January 16, 2005

Debating U.S. military perspectives on El Salvador

I've just sent the following off to Direland, which features a response from Jason Vest to my Thursday post. Here it is:

I appreciate Doug Ireland’s interest in fact-checking my blog post on the Newsweek story, and applaud his effort to probe more deeply on these issues. I’m happy to participate.

However, first I think it is important to clarify just what we’re debating here, since my intention was not to debate whether the counterinsurgency model in El Salvador “worked.” I also certainly didn’t mean to denigrate Vest’s work as a journalist (or that of the sources he cites), as I too have regularly read his pieces and found them to be very insightful. (Plus he’s an excellent writer.)

The thrust of my post was merely to deconstruct the Newsweek story’s implication that the “Salvador option” actually referred to support for death squads. Like many others (including Jason), I initially read the piece that way – while also noting at the time that the story did not source any explicit reference to death squads, but rather that those words seemed to be part of the description added by the journalists.

I soon began to think differently, however, in part because of what we know about death squads and U.S. involvement (and I admit there’s probably much that we still don’t know), but also because it seemed quite possible that what the US military sources meant by the “Salvador option” was being widely misinterpreted.

In fact, last Tuesday, Christopher Dickey tried to counter these interpretations, when he wrote: “what’s been written about the NEWSWEEK report by Michael Hirsh and John Barry goes far beyond what the story says. It doesn’t suggest for a minute, as the BBC reported, that the Pentagon is looking to create “paramilitary” death squads. It’s about the possible training of elite units to snatch or kill very specific insurgent leaders.”

Dickey also noted that this kind of training of elite units was what the U.S. was already doing. So, one can make the argument that this is same thing as training death squads and rightfully be upset about it, but that still doesn’t prove that U.S. military took credit for training death squads in El Salvador, as was originally interpreted. As I stated in my first post last Sunday, in which I discussed at length a case I had personally investigated of someone who had participated in a “death squad”-like unit, this kind of strategy is a “morally abhorrent one.” So I didn’t feel the need to keep making the point.

Also for the record, Jason does read me incorrectly when he suggests that, to my way of thinking, Salvadoran armed forces’ tactical improvements “somehow equates with ESAF having made great strategic strides, if not the achievement of strategic victory.”

Rather, my point in taking on Vest’s assertion – that the “U.S. military's own scholarship over the past 20 years holds that that the military and political counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador are at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, not end it” – was really a prolonged way of making my argument that Newsweek, and/or its interpreters, got it wrong with the implication that death squads equal “the Salvador option.” Why? Because, rightly or wrongly, the U.S. military now sees their participation in the Salvadoran conflict as, by and large, a success.

It’s one thing to argue that the U.S. shouldn’t consider the Salvadoran experience to be a model, but it’s quite another to say forthrightly that the U.S. military doesn’t consider it a model. Jason mostly argues the former, which is fine. But I was arguing against his assessment of U.S. military scholarship.

I go to great lengths in the post to show why US military personnel might talk about the “secret” strategy they employed in El Salvador, as well as why it’s a fairly common strain of thinking that El Salvador was successful. One can find people in and out of the military who disagree, but from my reading of the available record, the idea that it was successful is a fairly predominant one.

Jason relies mostly on assessments from the late 1980s, when numerous US military personnel were frustrated with the Salvadoran military’s prosecution of the war, but mostly with the pace of the “political” part of counterinsurgency, which –as counterinsurgency analysts like Bruce Hoffman like to quote former Salvadoran Defense Minister Emilio Ponce as saying –is 90 percent of the war. Ironically, all of those political improvements need to insure “success,” according to these critics, never materialized.

Yet for the many in the U.S. military, they still see that they managed to “win” in the sense that the FMLN demobilized, is no longer a military threat, and ended up taking part in an electoral process that was essentially the same as the one that had been utilized during the war. (There’s a much longer discussion needed here, but it would be a digression.)

I would be interested to hear about statements coming out of the U.S. military in the past dozen years or so which are similar to the dire prognostications of those cited by Vest. Vest does quote Stephen Metz, a civilian at the U.S. Army War College, writing in 1995 that El Salvador should only be considered a “qualified success,” (this in the context of also arguing that El Salvador’s experience is not likely to be a model for post-Cold War insurgencies.) Metz seems to be a thoughtful critic of the limitations of the “Salvador model,” which is hard to argue with. Yet even this critic’s determination of El Salvador as a “qualified success” is still far more positive than what Vest originally posits in his article (“Success, What Success?” goes one subtitle).

In addition to the authors I cited originally, I could also mention an anecdote from Dana Priest, from her excellent book, The Mission, about the modern U.S. military. On page 199, she cites a Green Beret from the 7th Special Forces Group, a staff sergeant named Joe, as saying: “What people don’t realize is we actually helped El Salvador…. It was a secret war and, in reality, it was a great success.”

As I will admit, there’s probably still much we don’t know, but I think the “secret” part may have something to do with the role of U.S. Special Forces who actually led patrols in the mid-1980s, because the Salvadoran army was so lacking in qualified NCOs. I remember that fact first coming to light, ironically, in Oliver North’s testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings. (One of these days I’ll have to go back and find the story, which was only picked up by Doyle McManus in the L.A. Times.)

While we might find it puzzling that certain US military officers’ have a more positive view of their role in El Salvador, it’s a pretty safe assumption that U.S. civilian and military leaders would be singing a different tune had ARENA –which is, after all, the U.S.’s closest ally in the hemisphere –not won the past four presidential elections. ARENA’s rule, beginning in 1989 and running until 2009, makes it the most successful conservative political party in contemporary Latin America. If the FMLN had won even one of those elections, official discourse on the history of El Salvador might be quite different.

If anyone still has doubts about whether I somehow harbor good feelings toward the “Salvador model,” I urge them to read my forthcoming article in the February issue of Current History.

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