Sunday, January 16, 2005

# Posted 2:22 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DEATH SQUADS, PART II: There have been many passionate responses to my initial post, both via e-mail and on other websites. I will do my best to address all of them.

First, let me to direct you to this very long and very informative post by David Holiday. I should have pointed out before that David has considerable expertise on this subject because he worked for America's Watch/Human Rights Watch more than a decade ago, when El Salvador was still a major subject of public debate.

The main thrust of David H.'s argument is that the Newsweek article which provoked the current round of debate about the death squads may have fundamentally misunderstood what the Pentagon meant when it suggested developing a "Salvador option" for Iraq.

Newsweek presumed that a "Salvador option" entailed the training of something similar to death squads, or at least abduction squads, yet David H.'s careful review of military publications suggests that the Pentagon has a very different understanding of the lessons of El Salvador. Rather than emphasizing the role of death squads in counter-insurgency operations, the Pentagon's interpretation of El Salvador focuses on how best to train the entire armed forces of a developing nation.

As David H. points out, military papers on this subject tend to avoid discussion of the horrific human rights violations that the Salvadoran armed forces committed while under the tutelage of the Pentagon.

While I find David's general argument about the Pentagon's thought processes persuasive, it is still impossible to know whether it is correct in this specific instance since Newsweek provided so little concrete information to substantiate its suggestion that the Pentagon has nefarious plans for Iraq.

Next, I would like to address the concerns of AS, who writes that my initial post
Repeated some false and misleading notions: first, that even without actively supporting the death squads, American officials were happy to tolerate them; second, that they were at all effective.

There were undoubtedly those who supported any measure that would kill comunists. Outside the Oliver North school of Latin American politics (and the naive Reaganites who followed along) however, you'd behard-pressed to find any.
While the "naive Reaganites" may have constituted a small minority, they counted among their number the President, the director of the CIA and certain other high-ranking officials. Thus, their influence far outstripped their strength in numbers.

Nonetheless, AS is right to emphasize -- as I failed to do in my initial post -- how fiercely many of the Americans involved with the situation in El Salvador opposed the mindless brutality of the Salvadoran anti-communists. At the height of the brutality, all of our ambassadors and the overwhelming majority fo embassy officials opposed the violence.

My sense is also that a strong majority of the soldiers assigned to train the Salvadoran armed forces were viscerally opposed to the wanton violation of human rights, yet at the moment I am not familiar with sufficient documentary evidence to make that claim more forcefully.

With regard to efficiency, I think all except the most committed of the "naive Reaganites" understood that human rights violations strengthened the guerrillas and aggravated the civil war. Had the Salvadoran officer corps truly been willing to reform itself, the civil war might have ended a decade earlier, or perhaps never started.

At this point, I'd like to address Matt Yglesias' observation that
I'm not sure the distinction between America supporting a government that supports death squads while tolerating the existence of the death squads and America supporting death squads can really bear as much weight as David [Adesnik, not Holiday] wants to put on it. Being clear on the historical record is worthwhile, but it sort of doesn't make a great deal of difference morally.
I think Matt's observation may reflect the fact that my initial post failed to point out how few Americans wanted to turn a blind eye to the death squads' activities. Moreover, I think there is an important point to be made about the moral status of President Reagan's ability to persuade himself of the virtuous nature of the Salvadoran armed forces.

Even Reagan's harshest critics seem to recognize that the President's ignorance on this subject was sincere. Should some historian discover evidence which clearly indicates that Reagan understood the true nature of the Salvadoran armed forces and intentionally lied in order to defend their conduct, we will all have to revise our assessments of the 40th President. Although ideologically-motivated negligence is damnable enough, it is a far cry from intentional and explicit support for mass murder.

Finally we come to the comments of GC, who writes that
You seem incredulous, but there is ample evidence of active U.S. support for so-called "death squads" in El Salvador, based on recently declassified communications. Of course, we didn't call them "death squads" at the time. We called them "rapid response battalions."

Note that these "rapid response battalions" were created by the U.S. military specifically for the purpose of _counterinsurgency_, which is why they are relevant to discussion of Iraq today. Other far-right armed groups operating at the time in El Salvador, also sometimes labeled "death squads", were not created for this purpose and therefore are not relevant to your discussion of a counterinsurgency "Salvador Option".

In your post, you mention the El Mozote massacre as an example of "death squad" activities. Do you know who was responsible for that particular massacre? A "rapid reaction battalion" created by, trained by, and supported before, during, and after the massacre by the U.S. military. [Specifically the Atlacatl Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa. --ed.]
GC is correct that the United States trained the rapid response battalions (RRBs), often at American installations such as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. GC is also correct that an RRB perpetrated the massacre at El Mozote, which I mentioned in my initial post but did not attribute to an RRB. Finally, GC is correct that American support for the RRBs did not stop after they committed the massacres.

The critical oversight in GC's argument is his failure to ask whether the RRBs' massacres at El Mozote or elsewhere had anything to do with their American training or whether their brutality reflected their Salvadoran origins. In fact, American trainers made an effort, albeit an insufficient one, to disabuse the Salvadorans of their murderous habits. The curricula for the RRB's included material on the importance of respecting human rights, although this message clearly did not get through.

There is also an important semantic point to be made here. As I mentioned in my initial post, the death squads were not simply uniformed soldiers, such as those in the RRBs, who committed atrocities. They were special units devoted to killing suspected insurgents. Although murder is murder is murder, it would be a very different story if the United States government created and trained special units responsible for murder, as opposed to training soldiers who committed atrocities despite being instructed not to.

(As WAB points out in a separate e-mail, there were individual Americans, some with extensive military experience, who acted in a private capacity to help create certain death squads.)

In many ways, GC's comments point to the crux of the issue being debated here. Newsweek seemed to suggest both that the US government intentionally set up death squads in El Salvador and that it was considering doing so in Iraq. I have tried to show that the United States deserves a different sort of criticism for a different sort of crime.

As part of a poorly-designed effort to prevent a Communist takeover in El Salvador, the Reagan administration turned a collective blind eye to the atrocities perpetrated by the Salvadoran armed forces, at least until December 1983, when Vice President Bush personally lectured the Salvadoran colonels about the total unacceptability of their behavior. Even before Bush's visit, many Americans (and, of course, even more Salvadorans) tried to defend the cause of human rights. But without the support of the White House, their efforts were not enough.
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