Friday, November 12th, 2004

The Memory of El Salvador: Donald Rumsfeld Vs. Joan Didion

Donald Rumsfeld was in El Salvador, one of the countries in the “Coalition of the Willing” that still has troops in Iraq. The number of Salvadoran-born troops–including 370 Salvadoran citizens and probably more American immigrants–is likely well under 1000.

“We are deeply in your debt,” Rumsfeld said during a Veterans Day ceremony honoring U.S. and Salvadoran soldiers. He held up El Salvador as “a nation that understands well the human struggle for liberty and democracy.”

Here’s Joan Didion in 1982, documenting the misdeeds of the Reagan-backed anti-communist government:

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica carry cautionary stories. Una madre y sus dos hijos fueron asesinados con arma cortante (corvo) por ocho sujetos desconocidos el lunes en la noche”: A mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight desconocidos, unknown men…

It is largely from these reports in the newspapers that the Unites States Embassy compiles its body counts, which are transmitted to Washington in a weekly siaptch referred to by embassy people as “the grim-gram.” These counts are presented in a kind of tortured code that fails to obscure what is taken for granted in El Salvador, that government forces do most of the killing.

In a January 15, 1992 memo to Washington, for example, the embassy issued a “guarded” breakdown on its count of 6,909 “reported” political murders between September 16 1980 and September 15 1981. Of these 6,909, according to the memo, 922 were “believed committed by security forces”, 952 “believed committed by leftist terrorists”, 136 “believed committed by rightist terrorists”, and 4,889 “committed by unknown assailants”, the famous desconocidos favored by those San Salvador newspapers still publishing. (The figures actually do not add up to 6,909 but to 6,899, leaving ten in a kind of official limbo.) The memo continued:

“The uncertainty involved here can be seen in the fact that responsibility cannot be fixed in the majority of cases. We note, however, that it is generally believed in El Salvador that a large number of the unexplained killings are carried out by the security forces, officially or unofficially…

An addendum: After the civil war ended in 1992, the UN-sponsored Truth Commission attributed 85% of all human rights violations to the Salvadoran army, security forces, and death squads–institutions with deep training and links to US right-wingers like guess-who.

History loops, in sometimes strange and horrible ways.

posted by @ 3:48 pm | 4 Comments

4 Responses to “The Memory of El Salvador: Donald Rumsfeld Vs. Joan Didion”

  1. Sam says:

    Good look on the Joan Didion piece, Jeff. Mos def one of my favorite writers. I was always under the impression that she was a conservative though. I guess that doesn’t preclude her from being honest though.

  2. Jeff says:

    Yeah I’m a huge fan too. Yo the question of her politics is really interesting. I think she’s pretty anti-authoritarian, tho the way she dissects Miami’s Cuban anti-Castro activists suggests she could also be pretty progressive. What do you think?

  3. Sam says:

    Let me preface this by saying that I’ve only read Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Where I was From, and Play it As It Lays. I’ve always heard her associated with conservatives because of her (at times) harsh critique of the 60s and 70s counter-culture. I also believe that she wrote for the New Republic and supported Goldwater as well. Still a great writer though.

  4. Jeff says:

    I hear that. I think, though, she’s not nearly or as thoroughly conservative as say Tom Wolfe. At the end of the day, Wolfe will always throw in with the blue-bloods but Didion seems to be in ambivalent rebellion with her new aristocrat roots. It really comes through on her non-fiction stuff in the 80s and 90s.

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