Salvador: A Nation Run Amuck
Giving definition to cruelty, By Dave Crossley
El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, Text by Carolyn Forche, Edited by Harry Mattison, Susan Meiselas, and Fae Ruben-stein. Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, New York/ London, 1983. $14.95 softcover.
The woman who comes to our house on Saturdays to put things back together is from El Salvador, escaped from there in 1979, and I hadn't thought of that on Friday night when I first opened this horrible book and experienced the kind of stupid revelation I needed to understand the war in Vietnam in 1966, and finally to turn my attention to it.
On Saturday, I noticed she had stopped at the table and opened the book, and when she saw me she asked what it was, where it had come from, how could this be? "When I come here I never see these pictures until now. Why?" she asked. Why indeed? Why haven't I seen them? Mea culpa, I'm afraid. Surely many of them, or ones like them, have been around. But this collection of photographs by thirty photographers covering the mayhem in El Salvador begins to define cruelty, to give shape to Solid Black Evil, to illustrate terms. See page 49 and learn what "gaping horror" means.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, if you don't actually get around to seeing the book somewhere, the Rice Media Center will show 66 of the images from March 4 through the end of March. Whether that group will be as ferocious as these remains to be seen.
You see, what we have here is a little country where political and economic problems just can't get solved and the people have taken to disemboweling each other, dismembering every conceivable appendage, killing women, children, nuns, and priests willy-nilly, dragging carcasses through the streets, opening fire on mobs of people, killing and wounding many and causing many more to be trampled to death, oh God, it just goes on and on.
Here we have a poet at dinner with a colonel and talk turns to the difficulty of governing. The colonel pushes himself away from the table and leaves.
"My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around, he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held she last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said”'
Here we have "Soldiers with their mutilated victims, Chalaten-ango." Six soldiers standing, five bodies on the ground, nicely lined up. They don't look all that mutilated except for the guy with the inside of his knee sticking out because his leg has been chopped off. Oh, and there laying on the guy next to him is the rest of the leg. Otherwise they don't look all that mutilated, though. Well, if you look close one of them seems to have his abdomen slit open; actually three of them are in this condition. One's face is black, pulp and blood.
Here's a sweet face eyes closed dead behind a window in a coffin with a message on the window that says, in Spanish. "I love you, I will never forget you, I will tell my daughter about you when she grows up and can understand."
Here's a crowd of mourners paying last respects to a lot of dead people in the courtyard of a church, the mourners all holding their noses, covering their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs and bandanas.
And here are the U.S. advisors. Well, there they are, just like always, just like Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia and Lebanon and Grenada and who knows where else. Teaching the official army how to beat their own relatives and friends into submission. Actually, an interesting insight offered by the book, which is strongly felt, no punches pulled, is that the Americans don't seem to be directly involved. This really is Salvadoran killing Salvadoran. This is like Lebanon. Ireland. People absolutely amuck. The history included in the book makes it clear which side the U.S. is and was on, even when Jimmy Carter was championing human rights, so the sin is total in spite of the arm's length role our people play there.
And here, at the end, is President Reagan saying “Let me say that to those who invoke the memory of Vietnam: there is no thought of sending American combat troops to Central America; they are not needed - indeed, they have not been requested there." And in the same breath: "The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America. If we cannot defend ourselves there, we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of our homeland would be put at jeopardy." Which does he mean?
I regret the compulsion to tell of all the horrors I was exposed to when I opened this book, I want also to tell about the tenderness that's there. Most of the people in the pictures are still alive, still living, sometimes even dancing
Ithink I know a lot about El Salvador now, I'm sorry about most of what I know. Something must be done.