Review of Raymond Bonner’s “Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War”

tags: book review, Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit

Murray Polner is HNN’s senior book review editor.

“This book,” Raymond Bonner begins, “is about turmoil and revolution and the United States response. Though the focus is on the caldron in a country called El Salvador, the issues are broad, with parallels from the past and lessons—it is hoped—for the future”

For most of the nineteen eighties a savage civil war was fought in El Salvador, one of the poorest and most repressive nations in the hemisphere. Its government was supported diplomatically, economically, and militarily by the United States, which believed the rebels were communists. It was also a war that was bitterly contested in the US, where bruising battles between left and right were raged in politically sectarian magazines and by an assortment of pundits.

And so it went for twelve bloodthirsty years, when the Reagan administration, bolstered by neoconservatives in Washington and New York, often dismissed or covered up crimes such as the rape and murder of four Catholic churchwomen, the killing of five Jesuit priests, their maid and her daughter, as well as the massacre of hundreds of peasants in the village of El Mozote by the American-trained and armed Atlacatl Battalion.

At war’s end, about 75,000 Salvadorans were dead, tens of thousands had fled north for safety, and as the Truth for El Salvador Commission reported in 1993, “The government forces were responsible for eighty-five percent of the atrocities and human rights abuses.”

Bonner, a longtime New York Times and New Yorker correspondent, was one of two intrepid reporters (Alma Guillermoprieto, then of the Washington Post and now of the New Yorker was the other) who were the first to tell the story of the El Mozote mass murders, when some 900 residents of the small village of El Mozote, were butchered by the Salvadoran army in December 1981. When their reports appeared the two reporters’ were disparaged as leftwing propagandists by backers of US policy.

Having learned little or nothing from the Vietnam debacle, the US read the earlier coming of the leftwing Sandinistas in Nicaragua as the start of yet another version of the “domino theory” and thus a threat to America’s absolute control of the Western Hemisphere. It involved as well the Catholic Church’s many practitioners of “liberation theology” with its emphasis on the impoverished and tyrannized, which was seen as a threat by the Salvadoran government’s moneyed and controlling elite.

Bonner’s necessary if one-sided book is replete with barely-concealed rage. About Mozote, “the men were blindfolded, taken away in small groups of four and five, and shot. Women were raped. … 280 were children under fourteen years old.” Meanwhile, Washington assured Congress that the Salvadoran government was making progress in improving its human rights practices, a statement flatly denied by Amnesty International, Americas Watch and the admirable US Ambassador Robert E. White, who was fired after Reagan took office.

While Carter was a lame duck, the bodies of the four Catholic churchwomen – one of them a lay missionary engaged to be married—were found on December 4, 1980. The murders drew much greater attention to the “Dirty War” as critics dubbed it, its military death squads, and the role of Roberto D’Aubuisson of the ultra-right Arena Party, whom Ambassador White labeled “a pathological killer.” D’Aubuisson was probably responsible for planning the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the Jesuit priests. He died in 1992 of cancer at age 48 before he could be charged. Last year, Pope Francis said the Archbishop had died for a righteous cause and would be beatified, the last stage before sainthood.

“Top administration officials, even the President [Reagan] himself, gave tacit approval to the ineffective actions by the [Salvadoran] military high command against the fascist commanders, the death squad leaders,” writes Bonner, adding that Reagan, on C-Span, once blamed some of the death squad executions on leftwing rebels.

One of the President’s most important supporters was Jeane Kirkpatrick, whose article “Dictatorships and Double Standards” in Commentary, the leading neoconservative magazine, was widely praised by supporters of the American position.  She argued that Carter’s emphasis on human rights rather than national interests had helped oust friendly regimes in Nicaragua and in Iran. Moreover, while “authoritarian” regimes could change, “totalitarian” regimes could not.

It was Kirkpatrick who said of the dead churchwomen, “They weren’t just nuns. They were political activists on behalf of the Frente” – the country’s leftwing coalition of rebel groups.

In this updated version of his earlier book on the subject, Bonner includes an illuminating epilogue about an American Foreign Service officer, H. Carl Gettinger, who outed the murderers and rapists of the churchwomen. The courageous Gettinger, a young, low-ranking, embassy official who would go on to receive the State Department’s highest award in 1982 for “creative dissent,” broke the story after he was approached by a knowledgeable Salvadoran officer and taped his information which named names.  Larry Rohter of the New York Times then interviewed four of the men mentioned on the tape and wrote a page one story headed: “Four Salvadorans Say They Killed U.S. Nuns on Orders of the Military.”

Years after, a high Salvadoran official living comfortably in Florida was found by a US Immigration judge to have “assisted or otherwise participated” in the murders of Archbishop Romero, the four American churchwomen and the mass killings at El Mozote. The same judge ruled that a second former Salvadoran official, also a Florida resident, had “assisted or otherwise participated” in the deaths of the churchwomen and in the practice of torture. In 2015, the two men were sent back to El Salvador, all the while protesting they had been American allies in the war against communism.

“It was all true,” writes Bonner.” The two men had been carrying out American policy, had been praised and feted by American officials, had been welcomed at the White House” and then makes his crucial point: “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.”

But that’s the way it’s been since Vietnam. Our many misadventures have caused irreparable harm to ourselves and others, yet we remain paralyzed, unable to change course.  

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