Death Squads: Neither Quaint nor Obsolete

On Sunday, the U.S. periodical Newsweek revealed that the Pentagon is actively considering an effort in Iraq that human rights groups say more closely resembles a dark and desperate homage to D’Aubuissonism than an actual policy initiative.

Harking back to the days when the Ronald Reagan administration and its Salvadoran proxies, led by the extreme right-wing political leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, were fighting a “losing war” with the leftist rebels of the FMLN, Newsweek recalled how “the U.S. government funded or supported ‘nationalist’ forces that allegedly included so-called ‘death squads’ directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers.”

Adding that “many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success –despite the deaths of innocent civilians” (perhaps the understatement of the year so far, given the low-end estimate of 40,000 civilians dead) – the magazine reported that the Pentagon may apply this approach to Iraq, deploying U.S. Special Forces teams to “advise, support, and possibly train Iraqi squads to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers.”

This may be the best indicator to date as to just how far ’round the bend the current crop of Pentagonistas has gone in their bid to check the insurgency-they-never-thought-could-happen.

This is not just because Pentagon hawks are apparently still rationalizing away murdered Salvadorans. It’s also because the U.S. military’s own scholarship over the past 20 years holds that that U.S. military and political counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador are at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, and not an approach worthy of emulation.

In a 1991 paper for the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Maj. Robert J. Coates characterized the conflict – then in its 12th year – as far from the “success” the George W. Bush administration now claims it was, but rather as an ongoing “insurgency to be defeated.”

Having been a U.S. military advisor to the ESAF, the El Salvadoran Armed Forces, Coates was certainly in a position to know.

Contrary to rosy reports about the ESAF’s “improvements,” Coates characterized its officer corps as one so “riddled with corruption” and inhumane to its own soldiers (“officers view the enlisted men as a replaceable commodity”) that it was “detrimental to the war effort,” so much so that it had actually “aided the insurgency’s ability to prolong the war.”

Coates’ report was, however, really only a shorter, updated version of 1989’s “American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador” by the conservative quartet of Andrew Bacevich, James Hallums, Richard White, and Thomas Young – all, at the time, U.S. Army lieutenant colonels.

In essence, their conclusion was that a decade of billions of dollars in U.S. military and civil aid had accomplished little but preserving a wretched status quo with no end in sight.

Unlike many who start from the errant presumption that counterinsurgency is primarily a military, rather than political, affair, the colonels held that any U.S.-backed military counterinsurgency efforts had to be conducted only as support for a program of real social, political, economic, and military reform, with an “honest and responsive government” as a partner.

In El Salvador, the officers found, U.S. aid in the name of counterinsurgency had created a defining paradigm in which the Salvadoran military and its proxies pursued a campaign of “lavish brutality, fail[ing] to distinguish between dissenters and revolutionaries,” killing tens of thousands – many of whom had nothing to do with the FMLN – reflecting a “U.S. policy built on a foundation of corpses.”

So concluded Benjamin Schwartz, the RAND Corporation analyst tasked with assessing El Salvador policy for the Department of Defense. Drawing on his own experiences for a December 1998 Atlantic Monthly review of William Leo Grande’s excellent Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, Schwartz noted that while victory was elusive, the “dirty little secret” to maintaining a perpetual stalemate was that “death squads worked.”

Looking back with revulsion on the bipartisan enabling of mass murder – with Republicans “greatly exaggerating” the human rights achievements of what they knew was a perpetually “homicidal regime” and Democrats pursuing a policy of “meaningless threats,” getting the occasional unenforceable condition attached to aid that they would never block – Schwartz summed up “counterinsurgency” in El Salvador as a policy that “demanded nothing less than that America effect fundamental changes in the country’s authoritarian culture, its political practices, and its economic, social, and military structure.”

“Such a project used to be called, presumptuously, ‘nation-building.’… What is indisputable is that for a decade American policymakers in Washington and American civilian and American military personnel in El Salvador consorted with murders and sadists.”

As Schwartz and others have noted, the end of the war in El Salvador had little to do with a triumph of military counterinsurgency or the effectiveness of U.S. “nation-building” efforts, but with the end of the Cold War.

With the mighty Sovieticus gone, the Salvadoran government knew Tio Sam would no longer be so effusive with aid and accommodating of murder, and finally the government sat down and negotiated a peace with the FMLN.

This illustrated one of many lessons about the U.S. efforts in El Salvador: “American involvement in counterinsurgency,” observed the Army War College’s Steve Metz, “is often like lending money to a chronic gambler – it postpones real resolution of the problem rather than speeding it.”

So what, then, is the real import of the El Salvador counterinsurgency experience to Iraq? At best, a cautionary study in comparisons.

First, in terms of actual soldiering, the Iraqi military is just as bad, if not worse, than the Salvadoran army.

Second, not only does Iraq currently lack a real government, but based on the Sunni boycott of elections, it’s not going to have a truly legitimate, representative government.

Third, despite the U.S. government’s crowing about civil and economic assistance to make Iraq a better place, whatever government Iraq does have will, on the Salvador model, likely be allowed to be as ineffectual, brutal, or corrupt as it wants – because, as was the case in Salvador, the imperative of staving off the guerillas will trump all, as it reflects a U.S. strategic national security objective.

There may be some optimists in the U.S. executive – as well as Democratic enablers in Congress – who think that the Salvador model can be deployed in a way that also applies lessons learned from Salvador without repeating them in Iraq.

For that to work, though, the U.S. government and its army actually need a modern counterinsurgency doctrine and training regimen – which, as a recent generation of young officer-scholars and military historians continue to note, it doesn’t have. May fortune favor the foolish.