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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America by Thomas R. Melville THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY:
By Thomas R. Melville
XLibris Corp., 651 pages, $28.99
Savagery and courage in Guatemala

Book shows the conflict through the eyes of a good and anguished priest

Reviewed by TOM CARNEY

It’s not easy to read Through a Glass Darkly. It tells the awful story of innocent people who were not allowed to be neutral in a brutal civil war that pitted succeeding Guatemalan governments, backed by the United States, against a ragtag insurgency representing Mayan peasants and various factions.

It’s particularly hard for Americans to read because it reveals the extent to which successive American governments in the name of anti-communism sponsored, and even directed, the government side in the war. And at a time when the American government is accused of torture and spying on its own citizens in the name of the fight on terrorism, it’s especially disturbing.

Compensating for the soul-wrenching subject matter is the book’s readability. Though the subject matter is often horrific, the story is clear and vivid without being sensational. It is also well-documented, a combination that’s uncommon with such books. It has 20 pages of notes, attributing to official and other sources the book’s disturbing accounts.

Mr. Melville tells the story of the conflict through the eyes of Ronald W. Hennessey, a Maryknoll priest who worked among the Mayan people of northern Guatemala from 1964 through 1985, and again from 1992 to his death in 1999 while home in Iowa for the funeral of his sister. Two of his sisters, Gwen and Dorothy, are well-known in the family’s home state because of their sentencing to five months in federal prison — at 68 and 88 years old respectively — in January 2002 for trespassing on the grounds of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The sisters, both of whom are nuns, were part of a demonstration by several thousand people against the school’s training of Latin American military leaders, many of whom were accused of torture and assassination in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America.

A former Maryknoll priest who served with Fr. Hennessey in Guatemala, Mr. Melville tells us that Ron Hennessy was the 11th of 14 children born into a devout Roman Catholic family in a rented, clapboard farmhouse outside Rowley, Iowa.

“He was drafted into military service some years after high school and sent off to war in Korea, where the reality of war made him feel a call from God to become a missionary. He returned home, farmed a bit more, entered a Roman Catholic seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1964. That same year he was missioned to Guatemala,” writes Mr. Melville.

“Over the next 35 years, Hennessey witnessed up close the effects of U.S. foreign policy on the Guatemalan people. That experience turned a rural, conservative American patriot, pacifist by nature if not by ideology, into a severe critic of the ethnocentric, arrogant foreign policy so prevalent in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.”

Fr. Hennessey’s letters to his family in Iowa, often with requests to publicize them and send them to members of Congress, sometimes resulted in Congressional inquiries and interventions, providing the few brakes on the American government’s nearly total support for Guatemala’s murderous military.

But the conflict in which Fr. Hennessey was caught remained decidedly one-sided. According to the Project for the Recovery of Historical Memory of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City, 55,000 human rights violations occurred during the war, resulting in 25,000 deaths. More than 50,000 of those violations were attributed to the military and their surrogates, including death squads, civil patrols, police and military commissioners. Only 4.8 percent were attributed to the guerillas.

This is not a book by a Catholic apologist who sees heroes in every Catholic bishop and clergyman. Mr. Melville, a Bostonian who was expelled from Guatemala “for associating with and justifying” the guerillas, saves some of his harshest criticism for an archbishop who was appointed a cardinal despite the cardinal’s siding with wealthy landowners and the military against their victims. And he doesn’t spare his own Catholic order for being slow and ambiguous in coming to the aid of Guatemala’s Mayan victims.

However, the author is unabashed in his admiration for Fr. Hennessey.

“Ronald W. Hennessey was a hero in my estimation and in that of the thousands of folks he befriended, pleaded for, hid and protected,” writes Mr. Melville in the introduction. “He is sorely missed. My most acute disappointment is that he did not live to see this story published. He had hoped that it would cast light on the hidden premises of U.S. foreign policies. He had not the slightest desire to be recognized as the moral and courageous giant that he was.”

Tom Carney is a media consultant and former reporter for The Des Moines Register.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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