Going Primitive

excerpted from the book

Empire's Workshop

Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper

Going Primitive: The Violence of the New Imperialism

With the United States failing to defeat the rebels [Iraq] on its own, the Pentagon came to debate the "Salvador option," that is, the use of local paramilitary forces, otherwise known as death squads, to do the kind of dirty work that it was either unwilling or unable to do. It turned to men like James Steele, who in the 1980s led the Special Forces mission in El Salvador and worked with Oliver North to run weapons and supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras, to train a ruthless counterinsurgent force made up of exBaathist thugs. The press reported that U.S. and British aid was being diverted to paramilitaries accused of assassinations and torture, including burnings, electric shock, strangulation, sexual violence, and the use of electric drills in victim's kneecaps. "Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?" a former high-level intelligence agent asked journalist Seymour Hersh. "We founded them and we financed them," he said, and the "objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to tell Congress about it." Beyond Iraq, into Syria, Iran, wherever, "we're going to be riding with the bad boys," said another military officer.

It was through support of counterinsurgent regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala-two countries faced with powerful guerrilla movements-that the United States relearned, after the disaster of direct involvement in Vietnam, to farm out its imperial violence. This outsourcing, in turn, again allowed U.S. leaders like Cheney to claim that the achievements of the American empire in places like El Salvador stemmed from the universal appeal of its values when in fact "success," as a former RAND Corporation analyst admitted, "was built on a foundation of corpses." In Guatemala, the United States went even further in its approval of violence in order to restore American authority abroad, championing an evangelical zealot, EfraIn RIos Montt, even as he was presiding over a military campaign the United Nations later ruled to be genocidal.

Nicaragua, where the United States backed not a counterinsurgent state but anti-Communist mercenaries, likewise represented a disjuncture between the idealism used to justify U.S. policy and its support for political terrorism. Here, militarists seized on the opportunity provided by the 1979 Sandinista revolution to go on the offensive. They set out, in the words of one strategist, to "take the revolution out of the hands of revolutionaries" and nudge the United States away from a policy of "containment" toward one of "rollback." In so doing, conservative cadres could imagine themselves as liberal revolutionaries engaged in a global democratic crusade even as they trained and then unleashed the most feverishly illiberal thugs imaginable.

The corollary to the idealism embraced by the Republicans in the realm of diplomatic public policy debate was thus political terror. In the dirtiest of Latin America's dirty wars, their faith in America's mission justified atrocities in the name of liberty.

Although equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, U.S. allies in El Salvador and Guatemala preferred to conduct their killing with artisan expertise. The bodies of their prey regularly appeared on early-morning city streets bearing the marks of unhurried, meticulous cuts, amputations, and burns made while the victim was still breathing. Whatever pathological satisfaction such old-fashioned cruelty provided, it was also calculated to avoid leaving bullets that could be traced to the military.

In the countryside, army detachments conducted massacres in peasant communities with more primal ferocity but with a similar exactitude. In December 1981, the American-trained Atlacatl Battalion began its systematic execution of over 750 civilians in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote, including hundreds of children under the age of twelve. The soldiers were thorough and left only one survivor. At first they stabbed and decapitated their victims, but they turned to machine guns when the hacking grew too tiresome (a decade later, an exhumation team digging through the mass graves found hundreds of bullets with head stamps indicating that the ammunition was manufactured in Lake City, Missouri, for the U.S. government).8 Between 1981 and 1983 in Guatemala, the army executed roughly 100,000 Mayan peasants unlucky enough to live in a region identified as the seedbed of a leftist insurgency. In some towns, troops murdered children by beating them on rocks or throwing them into rivers as their parents watched. "Adios, niño" - good-bye, child-said one soldier, before pitching an infant to drown. They gutted living victims, amputated genitalia, arms, and legs, committed mass rapes, and burned victims alive. According to a surviving witness of one massacre, soldiers "grabbed pregnant women, cut open their stomachs, and pulled the fetus out." It was not easy to compel conscripts to commit such acts. Guatemala's basic training, therefore, put cadets through a curriculum designed to purge civilization out of them: they were beaten, degraded, made to bathe in sewage and then forbidden to wash the feces off their bodies. Some were required to raise puppies, only to be ordered to kill them and drink their blood. In Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed Contras decapitated, castrated, and otherwise mutilated civilians and foreign aid workers. Some earned a reputation for using spoons to gorge their victims' eyes out. In one raid, Contras cut the breasts of a civilian defender to pieces and ripped the flesh off the bones of another.

... the Reagan Doctrine revitalized nonconventional warfare in the third world-a revitalization that stood at odds with the high command's attempt to erect a firewall between war and politics.

Leading this revival was a cohort of special-warfare operatives from either the military or the CIA ... bound together by the common experience of clandestine, often violent, and usually extralegal operations in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

... after Vietnam, aside from clandestine operations in Angola and Mozambique, there were few opportunities to apply their experience. Then came Central America.

Uniting behind Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign, they provided civilian defense intellectuals with important muscle in the struggle to revive the Cold War, particularly in the third world.

[El Salvador's] history was one of almost unbroken military and oligarchic rule, in which a small coterie of landowners held the country's political institutions, workforce, and land in an iron grip, while the vast majority of people lived in wretched poverty. The economy rested on the exportation of a single product, coffee, and the political system was built on corruption, privilege, and cruelty... Beginning in 1974, the government responded to demands for political and economic reform by ratcheting up death-squad executions... Government repression united and radicalized the opposition, made up of peasant organizations, unions, social democratic parties, and, most notably, large sectors of the Catholic Church. In 1980, following the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a leading spokesperson for the poor and persecuted, a number of the most important oppositional organizations decided that they were left with no option other than armed revolution, joining together to form a united insurgent front. Within a year, the Frente Faribundo MartI para la Liberación Nacional, or FMLN, was mounting frontal offensives against the Salvadoran armed forces that threatened to bring the rebels to victory.

But what was not apparent in most analyses of the Salvadoran crisis was Washington's role in generating it.

There was not even a whiff of a rural insurrection when in the early 1960s agents from the State Department, Green Berets, CIA, and USAID organized two paramilitary groups that would become the backbone of that country's death-squad system: the Agencia Nacional de Servicios Especiales, or ANSESAL, an intelligence agency designed to coordinate Salvador's security forces, and Organizacion Democrática Nacionalista, ORDEN, a rural militia charged with carrying out not only surveillance and infiltration of political organizations but propaganda work as well."

The creation of ANSESAL and ORDEN was part of Kennedy's campaign to respond preemptively to potential Communist subversion in the third world. In the wake of Castro's victory in Cuba, Washington committed itself to preventing similar revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. To that end, the United States set out to professionalize and expand Latin America's security agencies...

They instructed their apprentices in the latest riot control, record keeping, surveillance, and mass-arrest techniques. Such training and fortification directly led to the emergence of a dense, Central America-wide network of death-squad paramilitaries.

... The United States ... publicly denied its support of paramilitarism, but in Latin America the first sustained campaign of death-squad-executed "disappearances" of political dissidents occurred in Guatemala in 1966, carried out by a it created and directly supervised by American security advisers.

The support of death squads was part of what counterinsurgents liked to call "counterterror"-a concept hard to define since it so closely mirrored the practices it sought to contest." Field manuals, journal articles, and whole books were dedicated to debating the correct proportion of violence needed to defeat a rural insurgency. In a sense, counterterror was merely an extension of tactics used decades earlier by the United States in the Philippines and ... Guatemala, where the CIA set out to induce fear and terror-not win political allegiance.

As the war dragged on, El Salvador became Washington's most ambitious nation-building project since South Vietnam. And much as in that earlier conflict, the United States found few acceptable allies to work with. There were not many civic-minded reformers left alive, and most of those who had survived opted to join the insurgency. For their part, the Salvadoran military and the oligarchy were preternaturally violent. Their solution to the crisis, according to Reagan's own ambassador, Robert White, was apocalyptic: the country must be "destroyed totally, the economy must be wrecked, unemployment must be massive," and a "cleansing" of some "3 or 4 or 500,000 people" must be carried out. Their interests were represented by the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), a political party that was in effect the public face of the death squads, a "violent fascist party modeled after the Nazis," according to Ambassador White.

Washington therefore worked with a faction of the Christian Democratic Party-a reformist party decimated by the repression - that didn't opt to join the insurgency, backing its leader, José Napoleon Duarte, in the much-publicized 1984 presidential election.

By 1983, the United States had all but abandoned its celebrated land reform-by that point planters and their military allies had already executed hundreds of individuals who tried to take advantage of its provisions, rendering the reform dead in all but name. Far from promoting industrialization and a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth, the Reagan administration insisted that Duarte orient the economy toward free trade while at the same time cutting back on social spending, which only served to estrange the Christian Democrats further from their working-class supporters. By 1986, the Salvadoran government was spending less on schools and health care than it had a decade earlier.

The Reagan White House also limited Duarte's options by prohibiting him from entering into serious negotiations with the FMLN to end the war through some sort of power-sharing deal. The one effective political action taken by the United States was to threaten to cut off funding if the military overthrew Duarte. Yet this did little to fortify civil society, for as one Salvadoran officer put it in 1986, "we no longer need a coup because we already have power. 1141 By 1989, the rebels were once again mounting impressive military operations. With no end in sight, the war had claimed the lives of well over fifty thousand Salvadorans, the vast majority victims of government forces.

The Reagan administration began to distance itself from the ineffectual Duarte. It turned instead to ARENA-the party it had just spent the last five years and millions of dollars to prevent from

coming to power. With the Christian Democrats in disarray and the left out of the running, ARENA won the 1989 presidential elections handily.

So, for all the hype about fighting what counterinsurgent theorists call the "other war" and for all the talk of fortifying "frail government institutions" and eliminating poverty, U.S. policy at the end of the 1980s, after billions of dollars and tens of thousands of homicides, found itself where it started, resting on the twin pillars of a Jurassic oligarchy and a vengeful yet greatly fortified military-a "bunch of murderous thugs," as one U.S. diplomat described Washington's Salvadoran allies.

After eleven years of war, a 1991 report commissioned by the undersecretary of defense for policy concluded that the "FMLN's infrastructure [remains] so dense" that "only a massacre could uproot it." Not one massacre but many.

... The White House insisted that its political initiatives were responsible for the containment of the insurgency, but a U.S. expert posted in El Salvador concluded that the "horrible lesson of the early 1980s is that terrorism works." Benjamin Schwarz, the RAND analyst who produced the 1991 Defense report, today writes that all the "US military advisers and intelligence officers" whom he knew who were involved in the war understood that the containment of the rebels was "not the result of reform but the consequence of the murder of thousands of people."

In Guatemala, the bloodshed was even worse than it was in El Salvador. After the CIA overthrew Arbenz in 1954, Washington promised that it would turn the country into a "showcase for democracy" It instead created a laboratory of repression. Decades of counterinsurgent funding and training produced in Guatemala a highly skilled military, one that by the time of Reagan's inauguration was hurtling toward the most brutal phase of Central America's most brutal war. Between November 1981 and early 1983, the military swept through indigenous communities, committing over six hundred massacres and turning the rural highlands into a slaughterhouse.

Even as the genocide proceeded, Reagan and his advisers pushed hard to restore complete military aid, which had been partly cut by the Carter administration. In December 1979, before his campaign got fully under way, a delegation from the private American Security Council, which included men, such as John Singlaub, who would play a prominent role in Reagan's campaign and administration, had made contact with the military to reassure them that aid would be resumed once Carter was voted out. The message the team brought to Guatemala was: "Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done."

Once in office, Reagan lobbied to make good on his promise but there was no real urgency. Despite Carter's cutoff of military aid, American funding and training continued to flow to Guatemala, either through preexisting contracts not affected by the ban or through Agency for International Development money directed to support the military's effort to gain control of the countryside. By late 1982, it was clear that the killing had succeeded in containing the insurgency, so the White House felt it didn't have to push Congress to restore aid to Guatemala with the same enthusiasm with which it advanced its Nicaraguan and Salvadoran policy.

Reagan still took every opportunity he could to laud the Guatemalan regime, even though his administration had full knowledge that troops had orders to "eliminate all sources of resistance" and were engaged in "large-scale killing of Indian men, women and children." Just a day before the Guatemalan army committed a particularly gruesome massacre (over the course of three days soldiers in a small village called Dos Erres killed more than 160 people, including 65 children who were swung by their feet so their heads were smashed on rocks), Reagan met with EfraIn RIos Montt, the president of Guatemala and one of the principal architects of the genocide. Reagan complained to the press that his Central American counterpart, an evangelical Christian with strong ties to the fundamentalist movement in the United States, was getting a "bad deal" from his critics and assured reporters that RIos Montt was "totally committed to democracy"

Genocide may not have been an option in 1966 when strategists gamed for war in Central America, but by the early 1980s it had become an acceptable solution.

The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua proved to be tailor-made for those who wanted to transform America's foreign policy from containment to rollback. For over a year prior to the 1980 presidential elections, defense activists gathering around Reagan's candidacy used the revolution to assail Carter, attacking his human rights policy and tolerance for "ideological pluralism" as leading to the downfall of Somoza, who for decades served the United States as a loyal backstop against Communism. Beyond the "appeasers" in the White House, the Sandinistas themselves made useful foils. Rather than comprising hard-line Stalinists, as groups such as the Committee of Santa Fe claimed, the Sandinista front was made up of a coalition of progressive capitalists, socialists, Marxists, and Catholics. Its leaders were pragmatic, fully aware of the realities of hemispheric power. But they were also adamant nationalists who took seriously the principle of sovereignty, having observed Nicaragua's long and unfortunate dealings with the United States. They stood their ground, unwilling to forsake Cuba's friendship or reject its aid. While they had no desire to replicate Castro's sclerotic economy or polity, they were dedicated to making Nicaragua more humane through the creation of a mixed economy in which the state directed capital investment and redistributed wealth by providing health care and education.

Between 1982, when Argentina's disastrous Falklands war took them out of the game in Central America and left the CIA the principal sponsor of the Contras, and 1986, when the Iran-Contra story exploded in the press, Casey and North presided over the construction of an elaborate transnational support network designed to bypass congressional and public scrutiny. The network remobilized many of the clandestine operatives laid off at the end of the 1970s, insinuating them "back into newly revived covert operations, whether in governmental, private, or mixed roles." It also included states such as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Panama, and Israel, conservative religious organizations like Pat Robertson's 700 Club and Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, private security firms and arms merchants, retired military personnel, mercenaries, businessmen, ex-agents of the Iranian shah's secret police, and international drug traffickers. Grassroots organizations in America raised money to ship humanitarian aid to Contra bases in Honduras and Costa Rica, and foreign governments and mercenaries provided training and arms. Most infamously, North created an elaborate circuit of exchange that, with the help of Israeli arms traders, sold U.S. missiles to Iran at inflated prices, with the profits from the deal used to supply the Contras. There is ample evidence, not the least of which comes from North's handwritten notes, that the CIA employed Latin American cocaine and marijuana dealers as middlemen, using their planes to ship arms to the Contras in exchange for easy access to American markets.

... an enormous chasm existed between the idealism used by Reagan to justify support for the Contras and the actions his charges took on the ground. They were the "strangest national liberation organization in the world," remarked an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "just a bunch of killers." One high-level Contra official who worked closely with the CIA said that brigades would "arrive at an undefended village, assemble all the residents in the town square and then proceed to kill-in full view of the others-all persons suspected of working" for the government or the Sandinista party. They "slaughter[ed] people like hogs," reported a member of a private mercenary outfit that provided support for the Contras after Congress cut off aid. Other Contra leaders confessed to "damnable atrocities" and "hundreds of civilian murders, mutilations, tortures, and rapes," of which "CIA superiors were well aware." Sexual violence was a favorite sport of Contra forces, who, according to a U.S. official, had a "tendency to kidnap young girls." By 1985, the Contras had executed close to four thousand civilians, wounded an equal number, and kidnapped roughly another five thousand. Human rights organizations accused them of "indiscriminate attacks, torture, and other outrages," while the CIA acknowledged that the "freedom fighters" had killed "civilians and Sandinista officials in the provinces, as well as heads of cooperatives, nurses, doctors, and judges.

... Hoping to show a wavering rural population that the Sandinistas could not establish effective sovereignty, the Contras razed cooperatives, schools, health clinics, and power stations and tortured, raped, and murdered civilians, including foreigners who were helping to rebuild Nicaragua. It was also hoped that the Contras would, at the very least, force the Sandinistas to devote scarce resources to the war and to impose draconian measures that would eat away at their legitimacy and, with luck, provoke them into attacking Honduras, which would then justify a U.S. response.

Such terror succeeded not just in destroying the hopes for a more humane society raised by Nicaragua's 1979 revolution-the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990-but in helping to justify rollback as a legitimate, and feasible, objective of American diplomacy. The Contras were by no means the first anti-Communist insurgency sponsored by the United States. Similar policies had already been attempted in Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in 1961, and in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Afghanistan. But no other insurgency was championed for such a sustained period of time in such idealistic terms.

Central America(also) marked an important threshold in the moral evolution of U.S. foreign policy militarism. In coming to see themselves as revolutionaries, militarists justified any and all means in relation to ends. Yet their "revolution" offered little but freemarket absolutism, which turned out to be a poor program for winning "hearts and minds." They became dependent nearly exclusively on intimidation. Washington did indeed take that "step toward the primitive" when in Central America it cast its lot with the most feverish end of the anti-Communist spectrum, men who slaughtered hundreds of thousands in the name of political liberalism. It moved even farther along in its journey in Afghanistan, when in order to force the Cold 'War to a conclusion the United States "unapologetically," according to George Criles sympathetic history of the anti-Soviet jihad, equipped and trained "cadres of high tech holy warriors"-allies who wanted to roll back not just the USSR but the Enlightenment as well.

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