MARK DANNER. “The Truth of El Mozote.” The New Yorker (December 6, 1993).
JOAN DIDION. Salvador. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Pp. 108. Paperback $12.95. ISBN: 1862078688.
Summary. The readings for this week in my course HIS 201I, “Social Movements and Radical Politics in the Americas,” are exposé-style portrayals of the Central American country of El Salvador during its brutal Civil War, which lasted from 1980 to 1992. Both of these pieces were written by US journalists who visited El Salvador as reporters, and they originally appeared in mainstream American periodicals. The following review will discuss several aspects of these two works–including their summaries, sources, audience, and arguments–before offering a few pointed criticisms.
The first work is Salvador, a short, broad, and impressionistic portrait of life in the country during the early summer of 1982; the book was written by the iconic American journalist Joan Didion, who spent two weeks at the Hotel Camino Real in the nation’s capital of San Salvador with her husband in mid-June of that same year. Like much of Didion’s other work, the piece sensationalizes its main subject, emphasizing the country of El Salvador as an exceptional place in the world, overflowing with a sense of profound moral and social depravity. More specifically, Didion employs the twin themes of an ineffable society and an atmosphere of transcendent terror in order to summarize her observations of the country during its violent Civil War.
Mark Danner’s feature-length article, “The Truth of El Mozote,” is an in-depth analysis of a brutal massacre that occurred in the rural town of El Mozote in the Morazán Department of northern El Salvdador, on the country’s mountainous border with Honduras. The massacre happened in mid-December of 1981; it was perpetuated by a counter-insurgency regiment of the Government’s Salvadoran Army, called the Atlacatl Battalion, against innocent peasants of El Mozote and several surrounding hamlets; somewhere between 733 and 926 people were systematically slaughtered during the incident. In his history of the massacre, Danner foregrounds the political and transnational context of the late Cold War. He tells the story of how the massacre first came to light in the American press, and how and why the grotesque event “came to be denied” by members of the US government and the journalistic community.
Sources. Many of the sources referenced by Didion and Danner are the same. These include newspaper coverage of events in El Salvador, both from the local and the foreign press. They also include a wide range of interviews with members of the Salvadoran Government, the US Embassy in El Salvador, the State Department of the US, the Salvadoran public, US Special Forces in El Salvador, and foreign correspondents. Other overlapping sources include official cables and communications between representatives of the US Embassy and the State Department, and reports published by human-rights groups like Americas Watch, the Archbishopric of El Salvador, and the ACLU. Didion places a greater emphasis on newspaper sources—including a wide range of American papers like The Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald, and more focus on El Salvadoran papers like La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy. Didion also draws upon secondary literature by artists, like Gabriel García Márquez and Roque Dalton García, and scholars, like David Browning and Thomas P. Anderson.
Danner employs several unique sources that are worth special mention in this review. While Didion did not make it north of the town of San Francisco Gotera, on the southern border of the Morazán Department, Danner did travel through Morazán, and he was able to see the physical sites of the massacre that he was actually writing about. Danner also benefited from direct testimony by massacre survivors, most notably two women named Rufina Amaya and Andrea Marquez and a young man named Pedro Chicas Romero. Since Danner was writing roughly twelve years after the massacre occurred, he was able to interview many of the actors who had a direct role in shaping its history, yet were now removed from much of its controversy. This includes Embassy officials like Todd Greentree and Howard Lane, guerilla leaders like Joaquín Villalobos and Licho, Salvadoran army and government officials like General Blandón and Colonel Castillo, and even peasants like Sebastiano Luna. Danner also consulted the memoirs of key actors, like Santiago of Radio Venceremos and Mena Sandoval, a runaway Army leader-turned-guerilla.
Audience. Both of the pieces under review here were written for mainstream, American periodicals before being turned into stand-alone books. Salvador originally ran in The New York Review of Books, and “The Truth of El Mozote” ran in The New Yorker. These glossy publications are widely considered to be representations of stereotypically sophisticated, professional, cosmopolitan, American elite. Their readership is comprised mostly of middle-aged, white, urban, middle-to-upper-class liberals and Democrats who own a residence and passport, enjoy elegant literature, and have enough disposable income and free time to purchase luxury items and read fiction and international news for a hobby. Most of these readers would have lived lives that were extraordinarily far removed from those experienced by people on the ground in El Salvador, and so the content of these stories would have been especially sensational to them.
Theory, Methodology, Argument. Didion is often described as a prototypical representative of “new journalism,” a genre of investigative reporting that tries to communicate facts through narrative storytelling, artistic description, and creative literary means. As such, Didion’s portrayal of places and events in Salvador, from the Feria Artesanal de Nahuizalco in the Sonsonate Department to the coroner’s visit in San Salvador, transcend clear distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Palpable terror, depression, the macabre, and a desperate attempt to convey the essentially uncoveyable dominate all of Didion’s anecdotes in Salvador, leaving the reader wondering whether things actually happened the way that they are described, or whether all of Didion’s observations have been made subservient to an overarching feeling or tone that she wants to convey. Readers get the sense that a particular story’s inclusion in Salvador is based entirely upon an estimation of how effectively that story can contribute to Didion’s stereotype of El Salvador as a one-dimensional, ineffable, “temporarily fevered republic.” Throughout her book, all of Didion’s reflections point in the exact same direction: explaining why El Salvador is essentially different and terrifying—why its language, geography, history, culture, politics, architecture, and any other aspect of its society is unlike anything the reader has ever seen before.
In contrast to Didion, who offers a nightmarish profile of Civil War-torn El Salvador as an “other” place, unlike anything the reader has ever witnessed, Danner is narrating the story of a very specific atrocity that occurred during the Civil War between the guerilla group F.M.L.N. and the Salvadoran Army. Danner’s purpose is not to sensationalize El Salvador for foreign readership—though he does achieve this in his evocative language and gruesome narration of the massacre itself—but to offer up a moralistic lesson and a political commentary about US history during the Cold War. In this sense, Danner’s approach is opposite to Didion’s. Instead of presenting El Salvador as an impenetrable mass of strange and dangerous elements, Danner presents the history of El Mozote as something that is easy to understand in retrospect, as long as one dissects its parts. His article tries to explain the complex social and political contexts that led to the occurrence and denial of El Mozote among otherwise reasonable US officials. Unlike Didion, he wants the reader to come away with a rational understanding of his subject. His primary goal is to situate the El Mozote massacre as a parable that can explain why the divisive, adversarial politics of the Cold War were fundamentally incompatible to the United States’ contemporary commitment to human rights. In a sense, his story is an indictment of, and a eulogy to, Cold War politics wrapped up in a narrative investigation of a specific atrocity.
Criticism. Didion and Danner’s works both present portraits of El Salvadoran society that are grim and sensationalized, even though their intentions for doings so are noticeably different. Salvador and “The Truth of El Mozote” showcase the extraordinary horrors of El Salvadoran society— from general anxiety and depression, to beheadings, to the raping of adolescent girls, to the impaling of newborn infants on bayonets, to natural disasters like earthquakes—for an affluent, mostly white, and privileged US readership that probably knows very little about the nation to begin with. As such, it is quite possible that these works would have been the only writings that readers would come across about the country, and the works would have left a lasting impression on foreigners’ ideas about what El Salvador was like. If either of these writers succeeded in conveying their intended tones of disgust, fear, and sympathy, then a large portion of the American public would have received a very one-dimensional view of El Salvadoran society. Of course, it is bad enough that a nation experiences a brutal Civil War; that nation’s reputation should not also be defined by that war’s memory in the international consciousness. In Didion and Danner’s work, however, there is almost nothing positive conveyed about life in El Salvador, and nothing that escapes the explanation of war. Everything, from casual discussions with nuns to indigenous cultural festivals, revolves around the all-encompassing “problem.” Even a discussion about the resilience of Morazán refugees is a commentary on the country’s instability.
Overall, Didion and Danner both offer safe critiques of El Salvadoran and US societies. For Didion, it does not really matter whether her feelings and impressions about “the endemic apprehension of danger” and “terror” in El Salvador are true in an objective sense, because most her readers are not going to travel there to find out for themselves, and most people actually from El Salvador will probably neither read nor care about her work (although it would be very interesting to read about some of their reactions to its content). Didion’s literary career is a testament to the fact that scandalous stories of terror and moral decay sell copy no matter where they supposedly take place. Critics of Didion’s work should remember that she is brand. Readers who pick up her books know exactly what to expect. Didion is not selling a sociologist’s thoughtful breakdown of El Salvador; she is selling her trademark, neurotic attitude about the ugly side of human behavior and, this time, it just so happens to be set in El Salvador. I am sure neither Didion nor the majority of her readers had any qualms about the fact that she derived her damning observations from only two weeks in the nation. Just as I am sure scholars will not be relying upon her little book as a primary source for anything other than a study of her literary style and psychology.
Danner’s critique of the US-Salvadoran alliance during the Cold War is also a very safe one. His article comes off, at times, as a righteous and moralistic critique of “the largest massacre in modern Latin-American history,” and the wide consensus of forces, ranging from US publishers like A.M. Rosenthal to politicians and embassy officials like Thomas Enders and Deane Hinton, who were committed to either denying or downplaying its existence. When reading this 1993 piece, it is vital to remember that the Cold War had been considered over in the United States for several years, and that the massacre of El Mozote was no longer a point of contention or debate. The Truth Commission report on the massacre had been published and, as Danner writes, “Only the Wall Street Journal remained more circumspect.” In other words, Danner was not paving new ground. The journalistic heroes who came before him were people like Raymond Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post. These reporters had risked their lives and careers to expose the massacre at a time when it was dangerous to do so.
In his extended article, Danner is basically collecting a paycheck by recapitulating the sensational history of the El Mozote massacre for the American public. With the benefit of hindsight and extended interviews, we would at least expect him to come to a bold, new conclusion about who was responsible for allowing the massacre to happen and for why it had to be denied. On the first account, Danner largely blames the structure of the backwards Salvadoran military institution, and the unique personality of its leader Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, who was the “aggressive” and “charismatic” “author” of the event at a time when he thought that cleansing was a necessary wartime tactic. Of course, this is a very convenient conclusion because Monterossa is already dead, and blaming him allows readers to ease their conscience about responsibility.
On the second account, Danner equivocates about who is to blame for denying the event in the United States. Readers should be very dissatisfied with Danner’s ambiguous handling of this topic. In his attempts to explain why events turned out the way they did, Danner even goes so far as to apologize for figures that made devastating mistakes. For example, the US embassy investigation of the El Mozote massacre never even made it to the massacres sites in Morazán because they thought it would be too dangerous for them to travel there (even though the US journalists they were refuting had already done so, and taken pictures of bodies). Moreover, these investigators did not make contact with the F.M.L.N. in order to try and secure a safe tour of the locations. But the fact investigators never saw the locations of the massacre did not stop them from drafting an intelligence report to the US State Department declaring that there was no absolutely evidence to suggest a massacre had taken place. Danner shifts blame from the writers of this report, arguing that changes in its wording were probably made in the editing process, and that the context of report-writing meant that authors could not express their true feelings anyway.
One likely answer for who is to blame for the denial of El Mozote, despite clear reports by journalists who actually saw the sites, might be the Republican administration of Ronald Raegan; but Danner avoids blame here by repeatedly sating that President Carter also refused to cut off financial aid to the El Salvadoran Army. This is a strange statement because there was no comparable massacre that occurred during Carter’s administration. The following quote demonstrates Danner’s intention of using Cold War hysteria and paranoia as a universal scapegoat, affecting all parties equally and, therefore, also absolving them of responsibility after the fact:
“At root, nearly everyone tacitly agreed (the Democrats — whose purported “loss” of China three decades before was still a painful Party memory — no less than the Republican Administration and its allies) that that eventuality [a Communist victory] was too intolerable even to contemplate, and that in the end the Salvadoran government, by whatever means, had to win the war, or the country’s security would be unacceptably threatened.”
Danner seems to be suggesting in this quote, as well as in other moments scattered throughout his piece, that if “nearly everyone” on both sides of the political aisle agreed that the El Salvadoran government had to win the war “by whatever means,” then why even bother pointing fingers now? Why focus on the fact that the US government gave monies, weapons, and training to mass murderers, all while systematically denying evidence of their atrocities? Danner’s message seems to be this: the El Mozote massacre was a very unfortunate historical incident, but it was caused by the Cold War, and the Cold War is over now. As such, we can rest assured that something similar will not happen again. The problem with this logic is that, while the Cold War has ended, the reasons for fighting that war may still lie dormant in world societies. Danner labels these reasons “Communism” and “Capitalism,” but he never defines what those words mean. As a result, readers of his piece never find out what the F.M.L.N. were actually fighting for, or why the United States government was so afraid of communism in the first place.