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‘Enemies of War’


Enemies of War,” scheduled to air on PBS Jan. 18, condenses into 58 minutes 20 years of the history of El Salvador. It examines in considerable detail the role of the United States in a civil war that cost 75,000 lives -- overwhelmingly noncombatants-- displaced more than a million Salvadorans and caused massive material damage.

Three incidents are highlighted because they were decisive in bringing home to the U.S. public the role of the U.S. administration: the assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980; of four U.S. women missionaries later that year; and of six Jesuit priests together with their housekeeper and her daughter in November 1989.

By 1980, the United States had already taken sides. As President Reagan put it: “The people of El Salvador, we are told, weren’t ready for democracy. The only choice was between the left-wing guerrillas and the violent right.” Some thought there might be another alternative: to let them work it out for themselves. But Secretary of State Elliot Abrams excluded that option. The guerrillas, he insisted, were “fighting for a communist system.” It did not matter that Romero had repeatedly stated that the popular agitation was simply to secure basic human rights.

Romero’s assassination was a key event. It brought together five small popular groupings into a common front, called the Frente. This quickly grew into a formidable combat force, terrorists to some, freedom fighters to others. To oppose it, the United States over the following decade poured in nearly $6 billion to prevent the defeat of the Salvadoran army. In November 1989, the Frente launched a massive coordinated attack on the country’s main cities. After days of fierce fighting the attack was repelled, leaving a stalemate of exhaustion on both sides.

Ironically, the military high command’s response to the offensive resulted in a defeat the Frente had failed to deliver. The generals ordered the Atlactl division, a crack unit trained at the School of the Americas, to kill the six Jesuits who had continued Romero’s task of accompanying the people. The two women were “collateral damage.” Orders were: Leave no eyewitnesses.

It was a stupid blunder. Although the U.S. administration used its most sophisticated damage-control techniques to create the impression that the guerrillas might have killed the Jesuits, House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., responded to the worldwide reaction of horror by creating a special task force headed by Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., to investigate.

“Enemies of War” focuses on Moakley’s struggle to establish the truth. He succeeded only in part. The Salvadoran generals and the U.S. administration, under threat that the Congress would cancel aid, identified a Salvadoran colonel and six subordinates as the killers, while insisting that the high command and the Salvadoran government had not been involved.

At a higher level, nonetheless, Moakley was successful. The exposure of the controlling U.S. role in a war that was being fought Vietnam-style -- using terror against civilians, burning crops, killing livestock, bombing villages -- forced the U.S. administration to agree to a negotiated end to the war. Under United Nations auspices, a peace agreement was reached in 1992. The top leadership of the Salvadoran army was purged. The Frente handed over its arms to the United Nations and transformed itself into a political party. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission identified by name the top Salvadoran generals as having given the orders to kill the Jesuits. It also determined that 85 percent of all atrocities during the war had been the work of the armed forces and their paramilitary allies.

In the 1994 elections, the Frente emerged as the major opposition to ARENA, the party of big business that controlled written and electronic media. By the following elections in 1997, the Frente vote had grown to 45 percent. ARENA retained the presidency, but Frente candidates for mayor won in San Salvador and other major cities.

That unfinished business remains for the United States is Moakley’s closing message. A large part of El Salvador’s infrastructure was destroyed in the war. “We spent $6 billion to destroy that country. Since 1992, our aid has been less than $500 million.”

“Enemies of War” may force many viewers to raise issues it touches only indirectly. Should the U.S. administration be able to wage war without a declaration of war by Congress? Does abuse of this power possibly explain why the United States is facing terrorist attacks on its citizens and its property in many parts of the world at a level that no other major power experiences?

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001