The second half of our graduate seminar course, “Social Movements and Radical Politics in the Americas,” has moved us out of the United States and to the small, tropical Central American country of El Salvador. Our objective has been to understand “the emergence and afterlife of radical subjectivity” during the Salvadoran Civil War, which took place from 1980 to 1992. The war was a brutal conflict which, by the estimation of one of our authors, took the lives of 75,000 people, disappeared another 7,000 and displaced as many as 500,000. Over the past five weeks, we have learned about the war through an evolving process that began with an impressionistic overview by a journalist and ended with a detailed ethnography by an anthropologist. As a result of this process, we have greatly expanded our understanding of the men and women who “filled the ranks” of the forces that opposed the Salvadoran oligarchy. Moreover, our knowledge of the conflict has grown in such a way as to mirror the understanding of US academics, who have also built on one another’s work. Nonetheless, the job of understanding El Salvador during the Civil War era is far from over. As this review will address in its closing, there are still a few subjects left to be explored.[1]

Our first book was Joan Didion’s Salvador. This was a short, broad, impressionistic portrait of Didion’s visit to the nation during the early summer of 1982. The work presented a snapshot for an American readership back home. Didion spent only two weeks in the country and traveled with the safety of an American press tour. Overall, Salvador painted the nation in a monotone. Salvador was a one-dimensional text that stereotyped the country as a place gripped by a paroxysm of violence. “Terror is the given of the place,” Didion summarized. Her pages were filled with descriptions of decent American officials caught in tough binds, and examples of El Salvador as a walking nightmare, with death lurking around every corridor. Readers experience an atmosphere thick with depression and fear; they hear about “political murders,” vultures preying upon human carcasses, “criminal violence,” “unexplained killings,” massacres, death squads, earthquakes, and many other horrors. At the same time, readers learn next to nothing about the people themselves. Didion stayed mostly at her hotel, the upscale Camino Real in the capital of San Salvador. She did not tour northern departments where most of the fighting took place, nor did she interview everyday Salvadorans. Her work featured mostly reporters and officials from the US and Salvadoran government.[2]

Didion’s Salvador was the perfect book to start a study of the country with because it gave the reader so much to be desired. In a sense, the book was ground zero. Readers put Salvador down with a palpable feeling about how awful the Civil War was, but with no factual information about the people who either took part, or were caught up, in it. Written in the same year was a drastically different book called Inevitable Revolutions by the diplomatic historian Walter LaFeber. In style, this book could not have been more different than Salvador. Rather than appeal to a reader’s pathos with sensational prose, LaFeber used logos to appeal to a reader’s rational mind. LaFeber was an academic and, although he based his book almost entirely on secondary source material, he wanted to approach the El Salvadoran Civil War from an intellectual level as opposed to an emotional one.

Like Didion, LaFeber was writing only three years after the beginning of the Civil War. As such, he had no idea how the war was going to play out. He did not know that the war would end in a disarmament in 1992, and the FMLN would transition from a revolutionary guerilla force to a national political party. LaFeber was primarily concerned with articulating why the war had begun in the first place. He wanted to explain the present situation. Unlike Didion’s Salvador, which was rooted in a specific feeling in a very particular moment, LaFeber tried to explain the El Salvadoran Civil War by examining the historical relationship between the greater region of Central America and the US. In order to do so, he reached all the way back to the time of the American Revolution to make a case for an enduring policy of Central American dependency upon the United States.[3]

In Inevitable Revolutions, LaFeber identified the “two themes” of his research as “US fear of revolution and the way the US system ironically helped cause revolutions in Central America.” Since the American Revolution, leaders of the United States had enforced a consensus idea about the independence efforts of Central American nations and their people. In attempting to keep these nations subservient to US foreign interests, American presidents as diverse as George Washington, James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Raegan pursued agendas that sowed the seeds for revolutions. As LaFeber summarizes, these political actors made “peaceful revolution impossible” among foreign nations like El Salvador. As such, they made “violent revolution inevitable.”[4]

The American journalist Mark Danner picked up LaFeber’s central message in 1993, exactly one year after a treaty had ended the Civil War. Danner’s “The Truth of El Mozote” chronicled the history of a particularly brutal massacre that happened in the hamlet of El Mozote in the Morazán Department of northern El Salvador, on the country’s mountainous border with Honduras. The massacre happened in December of 1981; and it was perpetuated by a counter-insurgency regiment of the Government’s Salvadoran Army, known as the Atlacatl Battalion, against innocent peasants of El Mozote and several surrounding hamlets. Somewhere between 733 and 926 people were slaughtered. Like LaFeber and Didion, Danner was writing a didactic piece that was intended to be consumed by an American audience. It was written to teach American readers a very specific lesson about their country’s relationship with El Salvador. As Danner writes, the El Mozote massacre—“how it came about and why it had to be denied”—is a “central parable of the Cold War.”[5]

LaFeber tried to demonstrate how the US had a long tradition of forcing Central American nations into an uneven relationship of economic and military dependency, one that disenfranchised most of their people, and, therefore, set the stage for periodic revolutions. Danner made the same case in microcosm, through an analysis of factors that shaped the El Mozote incident. Readers of his piece learn about the significant role that the US government played in arming, supplying, and training the Salvadoran military to go out and annihilate its own people. They also learn about the extreme lengths that United States officials went to in order to suppress evidence of these atrocities. In one shocking scene that was clearly intended to give its American readership pause, Danner reveals that “of the two hundred and forty-five cartridge cases that were studied” at the massacre site, “all but one [came] from American M16 rifles.” Not only were the killers who perpetrated the massacre trained by the United States, but they were using American-made weapons. Overall, this case study reinforced LaFeber’s thesis about the US’s protracted fear of foreign revolution, especially since Danner was willing to indict both Democratic and Republican administrations.[6]

Danner’s work was a blend of styles between Didion’s and LaFeber’s. Like Salvador, Danner’s piece was rooted in a particular instance at a specific time; and the prose was often sensational and meant to appeal to the reader’s emotions. The graphic details of the “dirty war” that Danner describes could have come right out of Didion’s travelogue. “Sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless,” he writes, “their features having been obliterated with a shotgun blast of an application of battery acid.” Nonetheless, “The Truth of El Mozote” is characterized by a LaFeber-like desire to rationalize the situation from an intellectual distance. This style is observed in such moments as when Danner tries to explains how a well-intentioned person like Todd Greentree, a junior reporting officer, could be led to compose a misleading intelligence cable to the US State Department. [7]

Overall, LaFeber wanted to show how historic US policy towards Central America played a pivotal role in causing the El Salvadoran Civil War. Danner zoomed in on a defining moment of this wide trajectory, reflecting back upon how US policies during the Cold War fostered the special violence of El Mozote. Both authors sought to translate the circumstances of the war—what Didion had called “the ineffable”—while remaining focused on the role of the United States and on prominent political actors. In the process, Danner taught us a little more than we knew previously about the context of the war; however, this new information was mostly restricted to the socio-political context of the perpetrators. We learned that the Salvadoran military came from a national academy and they were based on a class system called tanda. We learned about the intricate political structures that fed aggressive individuals like Colonel Domingo Monterrosa Barrios through a pipeline and into seats of power. But we did not learn much that was new about either the radical individuals who fought the Salvadoran government or the campesinos who were caught in the middle of the fighting. The former characters were portrayed as legendary yet largely mysterious heroes and the latter were portrayed as one-dimensional survivors. Both Didion and LaFeber were not interested in interviewing the common Salvadoran peasants; and Danner had done so in the case of a few key figures, like Rufina Amaya, but only in order to portray them as sympathetic victims.[8]

By the time “The Truth of El Mozote” came out in 1993, the El Salvadoran Civil War was over and the Truth Commission report had been published. Foreign readers now had access to both sensational portraits and rational arguments about why El Salvador had been so unstable, and why the nation had erupted in violence. What they did not have, however, was any type of understanding about who the people of El Salvador actually were, and how they had responded to the exceptional conditions of a gruesome and unprecedented war unfolding in their own backyards. To approach such a topic, American authors needed to shift their focus; they needed to look beyond the imposing yet distracting figure of the United States; they needed to stop seeing America as either an instigator to write about or an ego to write to. Instead, they needed to start seeing El Salvador—indeed, really seeing it—not just gazing upon it as an opportunity for a story, but examining it as a place in its own right, filled with people who were much more than just victims and perpetrators.

Our class project to understand revolutionary subjectivity in the El Salvadoran Civil War, as well as the academic project to expand the study of the war beyond raw descriptions of violence and the internal workings of the diplomatic process, began in earnest with Elisabeth Jean Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action. Wood is both a political scientist and an international studies scholar. She was among the first researchers to take common Salvadorans as the focus of her work. Didion may be thought of as answering (or claiming to answer) the question “What was El Salvador like during the war?” while Danner may be thought of as answering (or claiming to answer) “What factors contributed to the war’s violence?” By comparison, Wood is trying to ask research questions that are about the revolutionary subjects themselves. She is asking “Why did so many poor people run extraordinarily high risks to support insurgency” and “Why did others decline to do so?” In order to address these new questions, Wood needed to look beyond the official memoranda and rehearsed opinions of prominent diplomats. She needed to get onto the ground and interview Salvadorans who lived in the “militarily-contested areas” during the war. So, Wood drove around “five case-study areas” of north-central and southeastern El Salvador between 1987 and 1996. She took part in both open-ended group and individual interviews with roughly 200 campesinos.[9]

Wood published her findings in 2003, eleven years after the peace treaty. She became perhaps the first researcher to offer insights into how the war was perceived by campesinos. Because she was paving entirely new ground, her work came out as haphazard and scattered. For example, Insurgent Collective Action features a lot of open discussion about historiography and methodology. Nonetheless, Wood set down the basic categories for future analysis, showing how campesino attitudes towards the conflict could be attributed to a wide range of possibilities. She demonstrated that campesino support for the FMLN insurgency in a given area depended on a diversity of factors, including the likelihood of success, the extent of military violence, the culture and labor relations in a specific region, and the presence of both military and revolutionary forces.

Most importantly, Wood succeeded in bringing common Salvadoran people into the scholarly conversation. She argued that the FMLN insurgency was responsible for opening up the Salvadoran State to a new democratic future, and that this “Insurgent military capacity rested in large part on the political support voluntarily provided by many campesinos.” In other words, Wood showed that campesinos had a role to play in shaping the war; they were not just innocent victims like Danner had suggested. Instead, the very success of the FMLN depended upon a local citizenry who supported the insurgency in a variety of forms. Not only did campesinos join the revolutionary forces as military combatants, but they also refused to give information to the enemy, acted as spies and medics, and supplied the FMLN opposition with arms, labor, and foodstuffs.[10]

Insurgent Collective Action has many flaws. For example, Wood’s categories for “Explaining Insurgent Collective Action” were both awkward and vague. She said that categories like “participation, defiance, and pleasure in agency” compelled campesinos to fight the Salvadoran State beyond the coerced minimum. And Wood also had difficulty isolating voluntary participation from coerced participation. Finally, her central thesis about the distinction between moral and emotional support and material need may have been false and misleading. Nonetheless, we should not forget that Wood was writing a work of recent history; and her book was most important for documenting campesino agency rather than correctly estimating its ultimate meaning in the context of the war.[11]

None of the writers who had come before Wood had bothered to examine Salvadoran people on the front lines. Neither Didion, Danner, nor LaFeber had set out to construct a social history and address how everyday people navigated the war. Wood achieved this. In her work, we see the cultural world of Salvadoran campesinos come into focus for the very first time. It is a world filled with cosmologies, moral appeals, religious convictions, and a cooperative spirit. The campesinos in Insurgent Collective Action are not like those portrayed in “The Truth of El Mozote,” who held firm to innocence in the face of brutality. Rather, these are people who boldly proclaimed that they would “not be seen as slaves” and forged new social communities to resist their oppression.[12]

The historian Molly Todd built upon Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action in her 2010 book Beyond Displacement. Like Wood, Todd developed a study that took every day campesinos, rather than political elites, as the primary focus of her research. She even borrowed direct concepts, like “pleasure in agency,” from Wood’s book. Most notably, Todd acknowledged the signal achievement of Insurgent Collective Action: that Wood had proven that campesinos “had multiple levels of association with FMLN forces, ranging from nonparticipation combined with a sort of resigned intolerance to collaboration of various stripes or actual incorporation into the FMLN ranks.” Likewise, Todd relied on a methodology that closely mirrored Wood’s. Her study combined first-hand interviews with campesinos and archival documents. Like Wood, she knew that the answers to her questions could not be found without talking directly to revolutionary subjects. She could not hope to try and understand revolutionary subjectivity in the methods of Joan Didion and Todd Greentree, who had written about the war without visiting contested areas like the Department of Morazán.[13]

To recapitulate, Todd’s study may not have been possible with the previous work of Wood. However clumsy in its execution, Insurgent Collective Action had proven that El Salvadoran campesinos were significant revolutionary subjects. They had thoughts and behaviors that were worthy of close study in and of themselves. Todd followed this methodological path while simultaneously correcting what she saw as Wood’s main blind spot. According to Todd, Wood had correctly emphasized the diversity of campesino agency, yet she had done so “solely in relation to the FMLN.” She had successfully critiqued the erroneous assumption that campesinos could be flattened into one-dimensional subjects by the Salvadoran military or the US government—as Danner had shown in “The Truth of El Mozote”—but she could not appreciate the similar projects of the FMLN or of  the peasants themselves. As a result, Wood too often saw campesino agency as revolving around the existence of the FMLN revolutionary forces. Todd was going to amend this thesis.[14]

In Beyond Displacement, Todd is careful not to downplay interactions between the FMLN and the campesinos; however, she argues that, even where the FMLN did not exist or exert primary control, Salvadorans “continued to act independently and in creative and resourceful ways.” Without help from the oppositional forces, for example, refugees created new systems for keeping their communities safe and clean. For example, they managed a resistance system of strategically running away and hiding out that was called the guinda system. Refugees in the contested areas of El Salvador formed “mobile communities” that cultivated their own political structure outside of the FMLN influence. Unlike Wood, who was determined to paint a rosy picture of campesino support for the insurgency, Todd was prepared to accept the hegemonic aspects of these new communities, showing that “they were complex and layered actors rather than flat and fastened.” In contrast to the flat portrait one gets from Wood, Todd argued that campesino communities were distinguishable from the FMLN, even as they often overlapped and supported one another. The FMLN, for instance, wanted to overthrow the State, while many mobile refugee communities wanted to pursue “a participatory social democracy—a democracy committed to the collective good,” and that stood in stark contrast to the political façade presented by the Salvadoran government.[15]

By the year 2010, those who wanted to study the Salvadoran Civil War were starting to get a much fuller picture of radical subjectivity. Between their respective works, Wood and Todd had documented the full range of responses to the war by those who “filled the ranks.” They had shifted the scholarly focus from political elites to common Salvadoran people, and they had laid groundwork for new generations of researchers to do the same. All in all, they had articulated the diversity of the Salvadoran people, proving that many of them had supported guerilla warfare, many of them had resisted it, and many of them had forged a middle path somewhere in between. The final book discussed in this review takes readers beyond the conflict itself and into the postwar era. This text is Everyday Revolutionaries, written in 2010 by the anthropologist Irina Carlotta Silber.[16]

Silber’s work is an ethnographic and transnational study of postwar reconstruction by campesino communities in the northeastern part of the Department of Chalatenango and in the United States. The book juxtaposes community organizing on the ground in the El Salvadoran municipality of Las Vueltas and the rural community of El Rancho during an NGO boom from roughly 1993 to 1998, with a wave of El Salvadoran emigration to the US that took place from about 2000 to 2008. Like her academic predecessors Wood and Todd, Silber based her work on interviews with Salvadoran subjects who had either lived in or repopulated the contested areas of the country. She concluded that many of these people “experience the postwar as full of deceit and disillusionment,” and she followed a number of individual people who elaborated on such themes. Campesinos who stayed in Salvador and those who risked their lives to migrate to the United States talked about the lies (mentiras) they believed during the war. Women like Flor, Elsy, and Chayo staunchly criticized corruption by government officials and neoliberal development projects like MOLID.[17]

In Insurgent Collective Action, Wood had given us a triumphant picture of brave campesino peoples who supported the FMLN and contributed to its ultimate victory in the Civil War, despite the fact that they did not have to because they could easily “free ride” on the material successes of the FMLN forces. Similarly, Todd presented us with a picture of “mobile communities” that acted autonomously, fighting for their own and more-much honorable version of democracy. With Everyday Revolutionaries, Silber follows up on these positive narratives after the war’s conclusion. In doing so, she gives us a much fuller realization of the war as an ongoing, psychological process.[18]

Accordingly to Silber, the fighting may have ended with the formal treaty in 1992, but the legacies of the El Salvadoran civil war have continued to shape the identity of resettled communities. In Everyday Revolutionaries, Silber focuses her attention upon the “contradictions of postwar realities,” and how they can reflect back on the project of war itself. Danner, on the one hand, had celebrated the end of the Cold War in a eulogy that exposed its violence. Silber, on the other hand, has showed us how the “neoliberal postwar economy” that replaced the Cold War project “remarginalizes newly incorporated oppositional citizens.” American readers may rest assured knowing the massacres of El Mozote are in the past, but campesinos in postwar communities like El Rancho are brushing up against a new system of exclusion that threatens to undermine the very democracy we learned they fought for in Beyond Displacement. Through such tactics as “mainstreaming gender” and withholding promised funds, development agencies re-socialize contentious citizens.[19]

In many ways, the work of Silber brings us back to the central thesis of Inevitable Revolutions by LaFeber. After nearly a decade of published monographs that explored the radical subjectivity of local campesinos, we are once again reminded that the international sphere is also invested in the outcome of postwar Salvadoran society. Foreign powers, like governments and NGOS, have agendas of their own, and “survivors of El Salvador’s protracted civil war struggle against a series of postwar developments” coming from these organizations. As Silber explains through her analysis of international and national groups like CORDES and CRIPDES, many of these outside interests would prefer to re-define formerly-revolutionary subjects as dependent, subservient labor. In her critical chapter titled “Not Revolutionary Enough,” Silber shows how this transition of war to democracy coincides with an intentional decline in gendered community participation.[20]

Finally, Silber has taught us at least one more thing about the legacies of the El Salvadoran Civil War. She has taken Todd’s core concept of “mobile communities” beyond the landscapes that Todd had studied—mainly the Salvadoran countryside and the Honduran refugee camps—to the US. She mirrors the language of academics and Salvadorans in the diaspora by referring to the US as the 15th Department. There are around 1.5 million Salvadoran migrants living in the United States. Silber even met a few of them during her study. As she quotes from Sarah Gammage, El Salvador’s development plan is party located in the exporting of its people. Through photo albums that are carried over the border, to telephone calls with loved ones back home and through remittances passed on in the mail, Silber shows us that Salvadoran identity is a transnational process.[21]

Looking back over the past five weeks, one fact is abundantly clear. Our study of the Salvadoran Civil War in the second half of “Social Movements and Radical Politics in the Americas” has come a long way. We have traced the development of literature on the war from approximately 1983 to 2010. We began with impressionistic, sensational, and shallow observations by a journalist who categorically overlooked the El Salvadoran people who lived in the contested areas, and we ended with the measured assessment of an anthropologist who intimately explored their life histories. Along the way, we have explored “radical subjectivities.” We have touched upon the question of how everyday people responded to the onset of a brutal Civil War in their own backyards, and we have worked through these questions in such a way as to avoid stereotyping these people as victims or insurgents. Indeed, we have tried to realize the full humanity of Salvadoran campesinos.

Regardless, there are still some areas of the war that deserve further study. After our latest reading, the FLMN remains like one homogenous group. None of the books we have examined so far have differentiated the five revolutionary units that comprised the FMLN. In other words, we have not explored their diversity in the same way we have explored that of the campesinos. In fact, we may even understand them less than the El Salvadoran military, which was dissected in Danner’s work. Second, in shifting focus from the US, we were able to better see the Salvadoran people in the light of their own desires and ambitions. Now, however, we may want to re-introduce foreign elements again, in much the way Silber has already started to do. Writers might try and harmonize the sweeping international focus of LaFeber with the intimate, local portraits of Wood, Todd, and Silber. Last, in attempts to sharpen their focus, many of our authors had provincialized El Salvador. They studied small sections of individual departments like Cuscatlán, Usulután, and Chalatenango. In 2016, perhaps the moment is still far off; but, eventually, the time will come to take these vibrant brushstrokes that represent each community and paint them into a larger vista—an impressionistic portrait that succeeds in all of the ways Didion’s Salvador had failed, yet is still just as captivating.


JOAN DIDION. Salvador. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Pp. 108. Paperback $12.95. ISBN: 1862078688.

WALTER LAFEBER. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983. Pp. xi, 464. Paperback $24.95. ISBN: 978-0-393-30964-5.

MARK DANNER. “The Truth of El Mozote.” The New Yorker (December 6, 1993).

ELISABETH JEAN WOOD. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 308. Paperback $39.99. ISBN: 9780521010504.

MOLLY TODD. Beyond Displacement: Campesinos, Refugees, and Collective Action in the Salvadoran Civil War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 306. Paperback $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-299-25004-1.

IRINA CARLOTA SILBER. Everyday Revolutionaries: Gender, Violence, and Disillusionment in Postwar El Salvador. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. Pp. xix, 288. Paperback $27.95. ISBN: 978-0-8135-4935-4.


[1] Marion Schlotterbeck, “Syllabus: History 201I, Social Movements and Radical Politics in the Americas, Winter 2016,” 1; Irina Carlotta Silber, Everyday Revolutionaries: Gender, Violence, and Disillusionment in Postwar El Salvador (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 1.

[2] Joan Didion, Salvador (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 14-15, 18-19, 25-26, 37, 52-53.

[3] Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983), 16.

[4] Ibid. 13, 156.

[5] Mark Danner, “The Truth of El Mozote.” The New Yorker (December 6, 1993), 1.

[6] Ibid. 13, 48, 57.

[7] Ibid. 8, 35, 41.

[8] Ibid. 2, 6-8. Didion, Salvador, 61.

[9] Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2, 18-19.

[10] Ibid. 122-125.

[11] Ibid. xii, 226-231.

[12] Ibid. 2.

[13] Molly Todd, Beyond Displacement: Campesinos, Refugees, and Collective Action in the Salvadoran Civil War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), 73, 232; Didion, Salvador, 39-40; Danner, “The Truth of El Mozote,” 48-49.

[14] Ibid. 299.

[15] Ibid. 91, 102, 145, 219, 225-226, 234.

[16] Irina Carlotta Silber, Everyday Revolutionaries: Gender, Violence, and Disillusionment in Postwar El Salvador (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

[17] Ibid. 15, 103-106, 185.

[18] Wood, Insurgent Collective Action, 244; Molly Todd, Beyond Displacement, 226.

[19] Silber, Everyday Revolutionaries, 4, 8, 23, 149, 200.

[20] Ibid. 7, 52, 108, 156.

[21] Ibid. xvii, 17, 185; Sarah Gammage, “Exporting People and Recruiting Remittances: A Development Strategy for El Salvador?” Latin American Perspectives, 33 (Nov. 2006): 75-100.