Commentary Magazine

Salvador, by Joan Didion

Two Weeks

by Joan Didion.
Simon & Schuster. 108 pp. $12.95.

Sometime in late 1982 the novelist Joan Didion spent two weeks in El Salvador with her husband John Gregory Dunne. The result is this pamphlet-sized book, which has also appeared in the form of two extended articles in the New York Review of Books. Although it has already added a bit of literary panache to the otherwise dreary discussion of U.S. foreign policy in Central America, there is another more serious purpose to this work, which might be defined by establishing first what Salvador is not.

It is not one of those romantic volumes exalting the revolutionary cause of the Salvadoran guerrillas, in the fashion of Frances Fitz-Gerald or Mary McCarthy reporting from Vietnam. Indeed, the rebels are hardly mentioned in this book, and not, I think, simply because Miss Didion failed to visit insurgent territory.

Nor is it yet one more brief in favor of “negotiations,” however murkily defined, with a still more murkily defined enemy (though toward the end Miss Didion does insert an obligatory paragraph mentioning the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the revolutionary Left, only to reject it as coming too late in the day).

Rather, Salvador is an exhaustive and picturesque catalogue of all the vices of Salvadoran society, juxtaposed with descriptions of the relentlessly optimistic posturing of U.S. embassy officials in San Salvador and the staff of our military and AID missions. Miss Didion utilizes her pen as a sort of zoom lens, shifting rapidly and in close focus from decomposing corpses on a country road to the sinister features of troglodyte generals and corrupt politicians, from the squalor of rural villages to the false glitter of roller discos and Miss Universe pageants. Folded into these sketches (presumably expanded from journal entries) are excerpts from the U.S. and Salvadoran press, from official documents, and also from “documents” of less readily ascertainable authority.

Since Miss Didion is a writer of exceptional talent, the impact is precisely what is intended: to convince us that El Salvador is the quintessential Heart of Darkness—a black hole into which even the best of deeds and intentions are bound to disappear. As she puts it in a characteristically Catholic metaphor, “At this time and in this place, the light of the world could be construed as out, off, extinguished.” Miss Didion does not believe that things would get better if the United States abandoned El Salvador—indeed, quite possibly they would get considerably worse. But she wishes us to know that this is the nature of the beast; once we have absorbed this knowledge, we need not trouble our hearts (or our consciences) about the future.

Obviously, this is a far more alluring position for an intellectual to adopt than the more chancy “progressive” notions about El Salvador mindlessly retailed by radical nuns, out-of-work diplomats, and “peace” activists—with Miss Didion, at least, one is insured against any eventual embarrassments. Small wonder that Salvador has been greeted with almost unreserved praise by the prestige press, including reviewers who did not particularly like her earlier work, A Book of Common Prayer, a novel that was far more sophisticated in its views of Latin America (and, also, more mordant in its depiction of American liberals) than Salvador.

With Salvador, however, there are two big problems. One has to do with the facts, the other with Joan Didion. There are some serious inaccuracies in the text, and many, many more half-truths. Considerations of space make it impossible to enumerate all of them, but perhaps a few will suffice to give the flavor of the whole.

Item. Miss Didion refers to her attempt to visit the village of Mozote in the Department of Morazán. Here, we are told, during an “armed-forces operation in December . . . 1981 . . . the hamlet of Mozote was completely wiped out.” We are not told this directly by Miss Didion, but through a quotation from a report prepared by the “Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union.” From this one would not know that the original press reports about this “operation” in the New York Times and Washington Post were subsequently discredited. As it turned out, these reports had claimed a civilian death rate in excess of three times the population of the village before the fighting began.

Item. “The small office on the archdiocese grounds where the scrapbooks of the dead are kept is still called . . . ‘the Human Rights Commission’ . . . but in fact both the Human Rights Commission and Socorro Jurídico, the archdiocesan legal aid office, were ordered in the spring of 1982 to vacate the church property.” True enough. What we are not told is that these apparently worthy organizations were expelled from the cathedral precincts because both of them were misrepresenting the facts, and Socorro Jurídico was misrepresenting the nature of its relationship with the church.

Item. At least twice Miss Didion suggests, or seems to suggest, that the solution to El Salvador’s problems lies “somewhere else, in Mexico, or Panama, or Washington.” Mexico, perhaps. That is where the guerrilla headquarters-in-exile is located. But why Panama? And why the strange omission of Managua? Or Havana? With all her ostentatious document-mongering, Miss Didion might have bothered to leaf through the document book released with the U.S. State Department White Paper, which illustrates the critical role played by both the Cuban and Nicaraguan governments in organizing and provisioning the Salvadoran revolutionary Left.

Item. Miss Didion quotes, with apparent approval, a July 1982 study prepared in New York by the Lawyers’ Committe for International Human Rights, in which it is alleged that the burned van of the four American churchwomen killed in El Salvador in December 1980 displayed a red paint splotch that might be linked to a “red Toyota ¾ ton pickup.” “By February 1981,” the report continues,

the Maryknoll Sisters’ Office of Social Concerns, which has been actively monitoring the investigation, received word from a source which it considered reliable that the FBI had matched the red splotch . . . with a red Toyota pickup belonging to the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador. . . . [S]ubsequent to the FBI’s alleged matching of the paint splotch and a Sheraton truck, the State Department has claimed, in a communication with the families of the churchwomen, that the FBI could not determine the source of the paint scraping. [Emphasis added]

Leaving aside for the moment the Maryknolls’ peculiar research methodologies, one can only wonder why Miss Didion finds it credible that the State Department would wish to delay the resolution of probably the biggest single issue surrounding the fight over aid to El Salvador in the U.S. Congress—unless, of course, she agrees with the clear innuendo that the American government (i.e., in this case the Carter administration) had something to do with the killing of the nuns. She does not say that. But in citing this fragment without comment, what does she expect us to infer?

Item. Miss Didion dismisses the March 1982 election in El Salvador—one of the most carefully and widely monitored elections ever held anywhere, as inauthentic. “In any case,” she writes, “no one really knew how many eligible voters there were in El Salvador, or even how many people. In any case, it had seemed necessary to provide a number. In any case, the election was over, a success, la solución pacífica.” Miss Didion is under no obligation whatever to like elections or soluciones pacificas—in El Salvador or even in her own country. But the fact that the Salvadoran elections bolstered the position of the U.S. government in no way invalidates the actual statistics of voter participation, which were exceptional even by U.S. standards.

Item. Miss Didion attempts to discredit the work of U.S. intelligence in El Salvador. She cites a report released by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives, U.S. Intelligence Performance in Central America: Achievements and Selected Instances of Concern. To this report she attributes the notion that “the intelligence was itself a dream-work, tending to support policy, the report read, ‘rather than inform it,’ providing ‘reinforcement more than illumination,’ ‘ “ammunition” rather than analysis.’ ” Now, some of the passages Miss Didion quotes do appear in this report, but intended in a very different sense from the one she conveys in her paraphrase. The report refers not to “the intelligence” generally but to specific instances of intelligence-gathering, in this case precisely six, and it concludes not that these were a “dreamwork” but that “the intelligence community has contributed significantly to meet the needs of policy-makers on Central America.” The report goes on: “Over the last two years perhaps its greatest achievement lies in determining with considerable accuracy the organization and activities of the Salvadoran guerrillas, and in detecting the assistance given to them by Cuba and other Communist countries.” As for the negative words cited by Miss Didion, they do appear in the conclusion, but they refer there to occasional abuses and are meant as a caution not a wholesale condemnation:

Taken as a whole, intelligence on Central America is strong, and its task is both difficult and particularly important. The criticisms voiced in this report must be seen in that context. The basic concern is that tendentious rhetoric, including occasional over-simplification and misstatement, can drive out some of the needed collection and analysis. This may occur in a context in which intelligence users demand reinforcement rather than illumination, but this fact does not absolve the intelligence producer from responsibility for quality. The influence of the consumer desires for “ammunition” rather than analysis can be subtle or forceful, but its effects upon the intelligence process can become costly. Therefore, it deserves the constant watchfulness of intelligence professionals.



What is even more disturbing about Salvador than Miss Didion’s disingenuous use of facts and fugitive quotations is the way in which she makes the tiny republic of El Salvador into a mirror reflecting her own basic contempt for liberal democracy and—why not say it?—the American way of life. Thus, elections are almost by definition a sham, and even if they are not, they are ultimately undesirable since they only reinforce the status quo. (Could she have in mind the 1980 elections in the United States?) Land reform is worthless. Roy Prosterman, architect of the program in El Salvador that is supported by the AFL-CIO, is dispensed with by noting that the program he is helping to implement in El Salvador is the same one that was administered in Vietnam; there is no mention of similar, successful programs in Japan and Taiwan, where insurgents armed and trained by foreign powers were not present to interrupt the peaceful course of events.

Perhaps the most outrageous passage in the entire book is the one mockingly describing a large American-style shopping mall in down-town San Salvador:

I found no Halazone at the Metrocenter but became absorbed in making notes about the mall itself, about the Muzak playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “American Pie” (“. . . singing this will be the day that I die . . .”) although the record store featured a cassette called Classics of Paraguay, about the paté de foie gras for sale in the supermarket, about the guard who did the weapons check on everyone who entered the supermarket, about the young matrons in tight Sergio Valente jeans, trailing maids and babies behind them and buying towels, big beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan that featured Bloomingdale’s; about the number of things for sale that seemed to suggest a fashion for “smart drinking,” to evoke modish cocktail hours. There were bottles of Stolichnaya vodka packaged with glasses and mixer, there were ice buckets, there were bar carts of every conceivable design, displayed with sample bottles.

This was the shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved. . . .

Although this passage has been singled out for special admiration by reviewers who share its attitude of sneering disdain, Joan Didion is nevertheless right: beach towels with maps of Manhattan are the future for which EI Salvador “presumably [is] being saved.” They represent choice and opportunity, prosperity and freedom—things Miss Didion possesses in sufficient abundance to hold them cheap, particularly when others reach out for them. Her disparaging comments about elections and land reform, her thinly-veiled clericalism, and her contempt for the middle class and its works all come together here.

It is perfectly possible that all the hopes and illusions that have nourished our Central American policy under both Carter and Reagan will come to naught. The American people are divided, confused, unwilling to concern themselves with the issues and their costs. As for the Central American revolutionaries (and their Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Soviet sponsors), they, after all, have nothing else to do. El Salvador is a country with more than its share of inequality and injustice, and constitutional democracy—even in the limited Latin American sense—may never “take” there. But it is one thing to acknowledge these harsh realities and seek to work around them; another to write off an entire country, along with one’s own national values. The latter spirit is the spirit of Salvador, of Miss Didion, and—so it would appear—of the literary culture in which she makes her home.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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