Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War – Raymond Bonner

BonnerFor the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s.  I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting.  But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned.  This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding  El Salvador.  There are many  other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter.  It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.

Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans.   A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town.  They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey.  Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not.   Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.

To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society.  Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports.  The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions.  The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.

On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today.  At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably.  The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States.  Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States.  Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why.  Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape.  And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity.   Or some might simply call it weakness.

On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador.  To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980.   The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi.  in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.

It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador.  The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to  be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department.  Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America.  These actions are what would be called deceit.  That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism.   The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive.   In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957).  Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.

Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador.  And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen.  Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade.  This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.


Romero: A Life-The Essential Biography of a Modern Martyr and Christian Hero-James R. Brockman

The evRomeroening of March 24, 1980 marked a changed in the course of the history of El Salvador.  In the evening of that day, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and fatally wounded as he conducted a mass for his followers.  He is rushed to a nearby hospital but quickly succumbs to his wounds.  His death plunges the nation in mourning and earns widespread condemnation across the globe. On May 23, 2015, thirty-five years after his death, he was beatified.  In El Salvador his grave site is destination for visitors curious about the martyred priest.  On the silver screen, he was brilliantly portrayed by the late Raul Julia in the 1989 film ‘Romero’. Following his death, the country fell deeper into civil war and chaos resulting in the deaths of thousands of El Salvadorans. And to this day, the country continues to heal itself from the brutal system of tyranny and murder that plagued the nation for decades.

It is fair to argue that Romero is more popular in death than in life.  Today he is faintly remembered but during his time, his voice was one of the loudest to be heard from Central America.  James Brockman takes another look at the life of the mythical figure.  The book clearly is a biography of Romero and traces his origins to his hometown of Ciudad Barrios.  The day-to-day experiences of his life are included in detail but more focus is placed upon Romero’s later years as he struggles to maintain his place as Archbishop among dissidents and seeks to have the government investigate and subsequently punish those responsible for the wave of murders of clergy that gripped the country.  Disappearances, assassinations and other crimes of unspeakable horror surrounded Romero forcing him into a position that would earn him praise and bring about his demise.

Brockman creatively uses Romero’s own words in parts of the book to highlight his thinking and clarify the positions that he took.  As we follow Romero’s last few years on earth, we are periodically reminded of the endless number of priests that fell victim to gunfire as they spoke out against the crimes destroying their country.  We travel with Romero on his two trips to Rome where he seeks guidance about his role in El Salvador and back to his native land as he attempts to steer the congregation and nation towards a better path in the face of an administration infiltrated by corruption and incompetence. As a member of the clergy and voice of the people, the selflessness displayed by Romero in his frugal way of life and tireless efforts to help those in need, exemplify the highest character that a Christian can seek to possess.  Not without his faults, he remains an icon for those who advocate for love, prosperity and the messages of the Catholic Church.

For some readers, parts in the book may be hard to accept.  The stark truth as exposed by Brockman is that during the 1970s and 1980s, El Salvador found itself at the doorstep of anarchy.  The accounts of murders, kidnappings and disappearances of common people is alarming and tragic.  The crimes and the victims force us to ask ourselves why people can commit those acts towards each other.  Someone very close to me was born in this small Central American nation and has told me stories of the fragile state of the nation and her family’s  escape from a life that was a living hell.  Today her parents have since returned to the land they call home but it is much different from the nation that they left many years ago. The country is no longer in a civil war but struggles to combat the rise of gang warfare that centers around the notorious MS-13.  But there was a time when El Salvador was one of the most dangerous places on earth and a priest tried his best to salvage what was left of it.  This is his story and the truth about his words and actions.

ISBN-10: 157075599X
ISBN-13: 978-1570755996