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Book Review: The Massacre at El Mozote by Mark Danner

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South and Latin America are regions where civil war has been a fact of life in many countries, and where extreme violence is hardly a unique event. This book review explores the civil war in El Salvador during the 1970s and 1980s and focuses on Mark Danner's story of what happened in the small town of El Mozote.

The civil war that plagued El Salvador with violence in the 1970s and 1980s is perhaps best remembered by a single event that has been contested ever since, The Massacre at El Mozote, which we now know occurred December 11th-12th, 1981. Mark Danner takes a brave stance, a kind of once and for all approach, as to what really happened to the small village of Mozote, with suggestions of who is to blame for this atrocity, without trying to bias our opinion on way or another. His account of the massacre and the larger context of Cold War politics in the United States provide a new historical lens of the event, which solemnly honors Latin American history, and most importantly, the lives lost during that horrific two-day carnage. While The Massacre at El Mozote provides a gripping tale of what really happened to innocent civilians of a small, and notably neutral Latin American village, Danner’s means of relaying the narrative attest to his skill as a true journalistic powerhouse; he does not aim to make a case in one direction or another, but simply lets the facts speak for themselves.

Understanding the politics of the Cold War

Cold War politics as practiced by the United States in the wake of Vietnam were markedly different than those preceding, however, only on the surface level. Concerned with saving face more than with saving lives, the U.S. government took to turning its face in order to claim denial at the events happening in El Salvador. The army responsible for raiding, raping, and slaughtering civilians in the village of El Mozote was trained by the United States in what is often referred to as The School of the Americas—a covert military training camp. It is not surprising, then, that the tactic employed by the U.S. government when news broke was the blame their public enemy number one, communism, and specifically communist-sympathizing journalists, as the cause for such propaganda. What Danner’s book does so well is show its readers how propaganda, if we want to use that term, is sometimes painfully true.

The accusations of communist leanings by those who broke the story of the Massacre of Mozote was a tactic by the U.S. government to gain favor of the public who they needed to remain suspect of the event reported in order to avoid blame or knowledge of the actions of the Atlacatl Battalion, which was essentially serving as a proxy-army for the United States. The U.S. was backing the army, which claimed to be fighting guerillas attempting a government overthrow in El Salvador. What the U.S. government did not want people to know, or even to admit to themselves it seems, is that the leader, Domingo Monterrosa, was more akin to a terrorist. The facts of the massacre, which are still hard for the U.S. to digest, are that upwards of 700 peaceful people we led from their homes and brutally attacked, the women raped, and even children slaughtered and hanged. An excavation of the site of the village, which was initially halted by the insurgent take over of the town, found hundreds of decapitated bodies which are believed to have been burned.

Danner's interpretation of the El Salvadorian Civil War

Danner’s reasons for telling this book-length account of what happened, suggestions of how and why it happened, and perhaps even who to blame for the event seem to stem from his respect for the field of journalism and its truth-telling power, despite how the government tried to paint the event as “the media’s war.” It is clear that Danner respects the field of journalism, which received an incredible backlash for reporting this story in the United States following the event in El Salvador. His book is an expansion on an article he wrote for the New Yorker, in which he stated:

"That in the United States it came to be known, that it was exposed to the light and then allowed to fall back into the dark, makes the story of El Mozote—how it came to happen and how it came to be denied—a central parable of the Cold War."

Danner’s keen insight into the larger context of which the victims of the massacre fell, seems to be the premise on which the book is formed. In presenting the facts of the war in El Salvador in conjunction with President Reagan’s Cold War politics and foreign policy, we begin to see how this event transpired. Most of Danner’s book is devoted to the political factors governing not just the tumultuous El Salvador, but also the Unites States. In fact, the first 8 chapters of the book focus on this facet of the massacre in an effort to suggest why this happened. As far as U.S. responsibility, Danner is not at all shy to point out the failings of the government, including the president and his cabinet.

Author disagreed with America's policies

Danner’s analysis of the unfortunate set of circumstances arrived at by U.S. involvement in the political turmoil of El Salvador is an apt point of focus for the series of events that led to the Massacre at El Mozote. El Salvador’s provisional President, the once overthrown Jose Napoleon Duarte, was more or less at the mercy of the United States, which the country was reliant on for aid to combat the guerillas. Duarte publicly denied the massacre took place at quite a crucial time in relation to securing continual support from the U.S. government. As Danner explains:

“Two days before Duarte’s speech, Reagan had signed Congress’s amendment of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which required the President to ‘certify’ that the Salvadoran government ‘is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights’ and ‘is achieving substantial control over all the elements of its own armed forces, so as to bring to an end the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens by these forces’” (90).

Irony doesn’t begin to describe these claims that Reagan signed off on. Not only was the Salvadoran government in complete opposition of any human rights efforts, it was the power in charge that allowed for Monterrosa to enter the village, torture, rape, and massacre its people in a move that makes no sense even by the most objective military standpoint. What happened in El Mozote was the slaughter of people uninvolved in guerilla support; it was in no way a military tactic to win a civil war. Furthermore, claims that it was the guerillas (a type of militant that terrorizes communities), not the Salvadoran army which indiscriminately tortured and murdered civilians, is shown to be a gross falsity and an oversight by the U.S. government too big to believe.

Summarizing the author's thoughts

In the case of the Massacre at El Mozote, the need for the Reagan administration to uphold the appearance of being aloof from foreign conflict undermined any effort they might have put forth to save innocent lives at the hand of what is still so often ambiguously referred to as “rebel forces.” Danner shows how turning a blind eye to what was really happening in Latin America for the sake of trying to spread democracy and defeat radical communist rebel forces is really where the blame should lie in the case of the massacre. While it is easy for any one party to place blame on another, it is apt to say after reading Danner’s account in The Massacre at El Mozote is that anyone who subscribed to the Red Scare political tactics as an immediate symptom of the Cold War were left susceptible to blame for ignoring the warning signs of a derelict military regime under the guise of democracy, which succeeded in committing one of the most gruesome atrocities in recent history. Like any good journalist, Danner doesn’t outright blame any one particular party, as it is clear the army that attacked the village is accountable above all else, he allows us to see a bigger picture in which the strength of the United States, particularly at this time of Cold War-centered international policy making, makes it responsible for how and whom it aids for the sake of saving its own face.

Works Cited

Danner, Mark. The Massacre at El Mozote. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

Danner, Mark. "The Truth of El Mozote." The New Yorker. December 6, 1993. Web. 7 December 2013.

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