Mark Danner

Books of the Times: The Nature of One Particular War

Author: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt


A Parable of the Cold War
By Mark Danner
Illustrated. 304 pages.
Vintage Books/Random House. Paperback, $12.

In his marvelously lucid and fair-minded work of investigative journalism, “The Massacre at El Mozote,” Mark Danner, a staff writer for The New Yorker, recounts a horrifying incident in the recent Salvadoran civil war that he aptly denotes “a central parable of the cold war.”

Including both Mr. Danner’s original New Yorker piece and a lengthy section of documents connected with the incident, the present volume surveys two overlapping aspects of the story.

First, it explores inward to establish exactly what happened in December 1981 in the mountains of northeast El Salvador, to account for the presence of the many skeletons that were exhumed in the ghost village of El Mozote in the autumn of 1992.

Basing his account on the evidence of these remains and on the eyewitness testimony of a few survivors, Mr. Danner concludes that in the course of a campaign against rural guerrilla rebels, a Salvadoran Government unit known as the Atlacatl Battalion rounded up and slaughtered 767 people from El Mozote and surrounding hamlets, many of them women and children.

Of course, this account is agonizing to read and is redeemed only by the clarity of perspective the author brings to it. You struggle to understand both the brutality of the soldiers and the suffering of the victims, and feel as if you are staring into the bowels of hell.

Then Mr. Danner’s account moves outward to trace how the news of this massacre was received by the world. To complicate matters, the first reports were published at the time of the debate between, on one side, a Ronald Reagan Administration trying to step up aid to the ruling military junta that backed the Atlacatl Battalion, and, on the other side, human-rights advocates who were understandably eager to curb the excesses of what had become an extremely dirty war.

The focus of this debate was a United States Congress divided over ideological issues, worried about underwriting atrocities and fearful of being accused of losing El Salvador to Communism. Given these crosscurrents of concern, the news of the massacre got wrapped in layers of ideology before the facts could be objectively examined. As Mr. Danner tells it, the pro-rebel forces used the massacre for propaganda purposes, while the anti-Communist side more or less denied that anything had happened beyond the normal misfortunes of war.

This aspect of the story evokes the most numbing despair of all. If Mr. Danner leans in any direction, it is infinitesimally toward the rebel side, although this is apparent in only two subtle ways. First, he reports with mild satisfaction the revenge exacted by the rebels on the fanatical commander of the Atlacatl Battalion. Second, he discloses to the reader that to get permission to reprint a Wall Street Journal editorial that found fault with the press for too easily accepting the rebel version of the massacre, he was forced to include in his book two later Journal pieces that defended that paper’s criticism.

Yet the most devastating thing about “The Massacre at El Mozote” is that it makes you see the hopelessness of the logic on both sides. The rebels were right to expose the occurrence of the massacre, but in the very act of doing so they committed propaganda by broadcasting the justness of their own cause and the wrongness of the enemy’s.

At the same time, by adopting the Maoist strategy of swimming like fish in the sea of rural peasantry they invited the only logical response of a determined enemy, which was, as the officers of the army put it, “to take away the water from the fish,” or get rid of the peasants, even if, as Mr. Danner reports of El Mozote’s inhabitants, they happened to be born-again Christians opposed to Communism. And if this strategy involved the slaughter of innocent children, why this was the new rule of war as implicitly agreed upon by both sides.

As one officer is reported to have told his men after the massacre: “What we did yesterday, and the day before, this is called war. This is what war is. War is hell. And . . . if I order you to kill your mother, that is just what you’re going to do. Now, I don’t want to hear that, afterward, while you’re out drinking . . ., you’re whining and complaining about this, about how terrible it was. I don’t want to hear that. Because what we did yesterday, what we’ve been doing on this operation — this is war, gentlemen. This is what war is.”

In the face of Mr. Danner’s account, you can only stare in dumbfounded horror. There is no one to blame except the gods of war. The only relief for the reader comes, strangely, from a terrifying passage about a woman who found her own way to transcend the pain:

“There was one in particular the soldiers talked about . . .: a girl on La Cruz whom they had raped many times during the course of the afternoon, and through it all, while the other women of El Mozote had screamed and cried as if they had never had a man, this girl had sung hymns, strange evangelical songs, and she had kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing — a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear — until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked through her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.”

Throughout the remainder of this overwhelming book, you keep straining hopelessly to hear the sound of that singing.