Take an anonymous Pentagon leak from a “high level military officer,” add an appalling lack of knowledge of history, and compound it with ignorance of special warfare tactics. This process describes the article published by Newsweek breathlessly revealing that a “desperate” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is “considering” employing the “Salvadoran option” to thwart the “growing quagmire” of the Iraq War. This terrible option, reports Newsweek, was used effectively in the counter-guerrilla wars in El Salvador in the early 1980s. It involves U.S. special operations forces leading indigenous “death squads” to root out and kill or capture enemy military and political leaders. In a backs-against-the-wall-with-all-guns-blazing reporting style, the article suggests that, once exercised, this method might win the war but implies that the cost in innocent life could be horrific.
This is utter nonsense.
Let’s look at history first. Just what was going on in the early 1980s? The Soviet Union was strong and expanding. Under President Jimmy Carter, the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Carter punished them by canceling the 1980 Olympic Games, the one peaceful event that united all nations every four years. Carter then adroitly destabilized two areas in the world – Iran and Nicaragua – and almost toppled another friend, South Korea. The benefits of his policy in the Persian Gulf began with the hostage crisis and persist with the growing Islamist movement threatening us today. In Central America, the communist Sandinistas, led by the Ortega brothers, stepped into the void created by the toppling of the Somoza regime. They immediately launched and accelerated support for Cuban-inspired communist insurgencies in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. The Soviets installed a dictator puppet in Grenada and began to construct airfields to accept high performance military aircraft. The Ortegas discussed acquisition of MiG fighter aircraft. El Salvador was run by an increasingly harsh military dictatorship. Multiple, compounded, failed foreign policy initiatives helped the nation dump Carter in 1980.
After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter, he announced a new, aggressive policy in the region: we would assist these nations resist the incursion of communism and help them achieve democratic status. Such idealism was denigrated by the usual suspects (the Left and the media, but then I repeat myself) as being hypocritical. “How can you support brutal dictators by pretending to export democracy?” they asked. “Since these people have no history of democracy, how can you reasonably expect them to understand it?” Reagan knew that oppressed peoples everywhere yearn to breathe free. He also realized that the U.S. could more effectively influence stable, secure countries than those in which communism had triumphed and the democratic opposition was eliminated, a sad condition that accompanies every communist takeover. So the Reagan administration drew the line in the sand at El Salvador. We began to increase military assistance and training, along with economic development and diplomatic initiatives to encourage a transition to democracy.
It was slow going at first. Recall that America still smarted from the Vietnam experience that had ended only a few years earlier, in April 1975. Congress was virulently anti-military and opposed any use of power that might result in “another Vietnam,” a fear that had achieved mythic dimensions in the minds of liberals and persists today. As a consequence, American military efforts in the region were micromanaged with healthy doses of antipathy and suspicion. Due to an innocent remark by LTG Ernie Graves during Congressional testimony, U.S. military presence was limited to a scant 56 officers and enlisted men. Funding to train and equip Salvadoran military was pathetically small compared to the danger of expanding communism at the American doorstep. Every penny of the monies available was carefully weighed by U.S. and Salvadoran planners to make certain that limited funds were spread as efficiently as possible. The American side pushed training as a necessity, including a large dose of training that focused on human rights, dealing with civilians, and prisoner handling. Despite contrary accusations by a hostile media, the quality of the training was designed to improve Salvadoran Army relations with its populace and win them over from the guerrillas. The strategy eventually proved remarkably successful, but at first the concept was tough to sell.
In El Salvador, a popular culture of violence compounded the severe problems that would be associated with any insurgency. Salvadoran soldiers and guerrillas alike thought that the best fate for an enemy was death, and if any innocents got in the way: tough. As a result, the peasant population was terrorized by both sides. One of the institutions that drew the most criticism – justified in my opinion – were the death squads sent out by the Salvadoran Army. These notorious ad hoc units dressed in civilian clothes and kidnapped, killed, and assassinated all those whom they even suspected of supporting the guerrillas. On the other side, the FMLN guerrillas also killed and kidnapped with impunity.
Poor Salvadoran peasants were caught in the crossfire. American outrage with the death squads grew to the point that Vice President George H.W. Bush flew secretly to San Salvador to meet with General Flores-Lima and others in the junta. Behind closed doors, Bush told them that President Reagan was sickened by the death squads and would not tolerate their continued operation. “Stop them now, and guarantee this to me before I walk out of that door,” Bush was reported to have said, “or we will cease all support for El Salvador immediately!” When Flores-Lima protested that Salvador was an anti-communist bulwark, Bush dismissed his plea out of hand. America decided to draw the line here: America will not support the death squads, period. Bush was hard and inflexible, and the Salvadorans agreed to his terms. The death squads were out of business permanently.
Further convincing the leaders that positive inducements (and not fear) were best for the country, the Salvadoran government benefited from a surprising upsurge of popular support when the peasants realized that the military was now on their side. Conversely, the level of violence from the guerrillas spiked as the communists, desperately aware that they were losing control, tried to intimidate the people. Within months political parties formed, candidates campaigned, and genuinely free elections were held under the stern gaze of international electoral monitors, who pronounced the elections fair. Voter turnout was amazing. Key to this success was the fact that the army – now increasingly well trained and staunchly on the side of the people - announced that it would not influence the election but would devote all assets toward safeguarding the electoral process.
Salvadoran Army units surrounded polling places, guns pointed outward, protecting the peasants as they lined up to vote. Vowing to disrupt the election, guerrillas attacked indiscriminately with small arms fire, machine guns, and mortars. Innocent civilians – men, women, and children – lay in the baking sun, face down in the dirt while guerrillas tried to intimidate and frighten them away from the polling places. Army protection was effective, and the communist attacks failed miserably. The motivation of these people – poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated in the mechanisms of democracy but acutely aware of their golden chance for freedom – could not be suppressed by mere gunfire. It was an honest, unassuming display of bravery that awed combat veterans.
Democracy won the day in El Salvador, not Noam Chomsky’s urban legend of Special Forces-led death squads. In El Salvador, we saw a model that works worldwide: Give ordinary people a chance to be free, to chose representative leaders, and to control their own destiny, and they will gladly step up to the challenge, regardless of personal danger or discomfort. It worked in South Korea, El Salvador, and much of Central America. It worked in Grenada and Panama, in the liberated states of Eastern Europe, in Afghanistan, and most recently in Ukraine. And the model will work in short time in Iraq. Democracy is the real Salvadoran Option. It is a gift that we must steadfastly promote, defend, and share with the world.
[In addition to his Asian credentials, Gordon was the security assistance desk officer for El Salvador and Central America in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1981-1984.]