by Joan Didion.
Chatto, 108 pp., £6.99, April 1983, 0 7011 3912 9
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‘The fire that is burning in our own front yard’. Three days after President Reagan used those words to describe events in Central America, as he addressed the joint Houses of Congress, the Polish police were out again on the streets of Warsaw and Gdansk and the crowds were fleeing from the teargas and the batons. Back yards have become front yards these days. The change in wording isn’t insignificant. In a back yard, something can be expected to be smouldering at most times. It smells nasty, but poses no threat: this is where the householder is allowed to do his own destroying. But in a front yard (not an altogether easy feature to imagine, unless you think of living in a stable), any fire can only have been lit by somebody else with hostile intent. In fact, any yard in which a dangerous fire is burning, capable of setting light to the house, automatically becomes a front yard. This both Russians and Americans seem to agree upon. They also concur that the fireman’s job is a dirty one, best left to friends and allies, although their own tanks or marines may have to be used in the last resort. But the techniques approved for firefighting differ a little. The Russians, in their thrifty way, appreciate friends who know how to use the truncheon, the censor’s scissors and the psychiatric ward. The Americans believe in denying flames oxygen by piling money on them, and they hand their friends sacks of currency with appropriate instructions.

It has to be said that the Soviet fire-prevention methods are also thriftier with blood. The death rolls in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981 corresponded to a quiet day’s work in modern El Salvador. The comparison is too lurid, of course. But even if we make a correction by loading the Soviet side of the balance with the carnage of Budapest in 1956 and Afghanistan since December 1979, before weighing it against the cost of American operations against Vietnam, Chile, Central America, it remains apparent that the American yard is bloodier than the Soviet. One imperialism runs its client and tributary states with a very much looser rein than the other. The Soviet Union enforces a bureaucratic uniformity on state structures and practices which certainly stifles ‘liberty’, but which – since Stalin – has also proved fairly effective in preventing mass murder or ‘disappearings’ in the Warsaw Pact system. The United States, imposing no uniform political structure, has never developed a transmission and control system for its clients in any way comparable to that of the Communists. Instead, the searches for a ‘collaborating class’ which will be reliable, even the attempts to create such a class by digging the foundations for a new local bourgeoisie, go on today as they did in Vietnam. Influence is meanwhile exerted by prompting, elbowing, sticks and carrots, arms deliveries and staff courses at Fort Benning, dollar transfers and a variable degree of thuggery by American secret agents.

Lord Lugard introduced ‘indirect rule’ to British Africa: he was aware that to leave domestic matters to local rulers was to ensure excellent co-operation with the British on great matters, at the price of distressing reports bound to trickle through to the London Missionary Society about ‘practices’ said to be endemic ‘up-country’. But Lugard did find a stable collaborating class, in the shape of the accepted emirs and chieftains of a customary society. Here precisely is the hole in the centre of American policy towards Latin America. The ruling élites, if that is the word for them, in that region, are neither stable nor ‘accepted’. They are engaged in a ceaseless power struggle within their own ranks; the tendency of this struggle to break down into periods of military dictatorship is accentuated as the rural and urban poor slowly and erratically pick their way towards political consciousness. The middle class of Latin America is not merely ‘selfish’ – which is, after all, a factor of stability – but is also socially irresponsible to a degree which is quite inconceivable in Europe and which makes any notion of ‘imperial’ collaboration futile. The ‘momios’ (literally, mummies as in Ancient Egypt) of Chile regarded the lower orders as subhuman and their blood on the streets as a matter for the City Cleansing Department. The superpatriots of Argentina, screaming for the Malvinas on the Plaza de Mayo, were also rushing their money and property out of Argentina before the favourable dollar rate collapsed. To require of social groups like these that they repay American support against ‘Marxism’ by delivering a reasonably quiet and just condition of society reflects an illusion which has cost tens of thousands of lives in the last decade alone.

It is the Salvadoran illusion which is now being repainted and strengthened against the penetration of reality. It is Salvador which has become a ‘front’ yard, its ‘security’ – i.e. the maintenance in power of this particular clique of ruffians and cynics (as opposed to whatever cliques of cynics and ruffians may be linked with the guerrilla bands in the mountains) – publicly identified with the military security of the United States. However, as the new money for the Army pours into San Salvador from Washington and President Reagan’s oratory rises to a pitch of ‘Américaines, Américains, aidez-moi!’ it is worth pointing out that American policy towards Central America is in reality beginning to seek quite different means towards its aims. ‘On the ground’, everyone seems to know this. A few days ago, the new strategy was confirmed to me by a friend returned from El Salvador on leave. He twitched, and drew heavily on his cigarette. Too many acquaintances ‘blown away’; a second meeting with a young woman he had run into among the guerrillas and taken a fancy to, but on the second occasion she had already been cut in two at the waist. So it goes in Salvador, I was given to understand, and I should not let such stories undermine my interest in his judgment. Finally he got to the future. The Americans, especially the military, regard the war in El Salvador as in the long term lost to the guerrillas. But never mind! Nicaragua is the key. If El Salvador has a guerrilla opposition which is popular but highly fragmented into rival factions, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas are united but increasingly unpopular. It follows that the El Salvador of Roberto d’Aubuisson and President Magana can be left to collapse while the main American military and political effort is transferred to destroying the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Once that is done, the hegemony of the victorious guerrillas in El Salvador will already be disintegrating as the five groups in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front dispute with each other and with their more left-wing colleagues. Deprived of Nicaraguan support, the new Salvadoran regime will be very easy meat indeed for a destabilisation. And the whole Central American isthmus will be returned to – what?

Joan Didion can tell us what, because she has visited a Salvadoran present which is also the future: neither the ‘front yard’ theory nor the new ‘grand design’ can do anything more than ensure that the misery and savagery of Central America will steadily increase. Didion’s Salvador, a short record of a two-week visit last year, is already the political pamphlet of the year in the United States. She has seen the corpses, fresh or decayed into a foul mass at the Puerta del Diablo killing-place. She observes that practical information for the visitor – in another land, exchange rates and museum opening times – includes the fact that ‘vultures go first for the soft tissues, for the eyes, the exposed genitalia, the open mouth ...’ Joan Didion has seen the future, and it rots.

This record of a journey, however, is about far more than corruption of the flesh. It is a study of the connections between fear and unreality, atrocity and illusion. Time and again, Didion seizes on something ‘unambiguous’ that she can grasp, but everything in Salvador is ambiguous until it has been processed – often terminally – by atrocity and fear. ‘The least equivocal fact of the day was the single body we had seen that morning on the road ... the naked corpse of a man about thirty with a clean bullet-hole drilled neatly between his eyes.’ Or the unlit, half-raw interior of the cathedral that holds the tomb of the murdered Archbishop Romero, a mess of broken walls and protruding wires that for Didion was ‘the only unambiguous political statement in El Salvador’.

Didion talks with the grandson of General Martinez (dictator 1931-44). She had prepared herself with Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, relating its central figure to Martinez, who decreed that there were ten senses rather than five and tried to protect San Salvador from a smallpox epidemic by stringing a web of coloured lights across the streets. The grandson proved to be merely another fine example of the Salvadoran sub-species of ‘mummy’: for him, the liberal Archbishop Romero had been no more than an ‘Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini’ who put unsuitable thoughts into the minds of the poor. But Martinez and his coloured lights turned out to be a fine introduction to the American Embassy, who claimed that the farcical 1982 elections had brought ‘a broad spectrum of forces and factions into a functioning democratic system’ and placed faith in the ‘land reform programme’ which was designed to pacify the land-hunger of the rural poor but had in reality only ensured that no landowner would ever issue another lease to a tenant.

She is laconic about her own moments of physical fear: the clicking of cocked automatics as she opens her handbag on a silent street, the thunderous passage of American jets over her head during her visit to the ‘war zone’ at San Francisco Gotera; the three silent armed men who blocked her car as she emerged from a visit to the morgue. ‘Terror is the given of the place.’ Didion, plopping purifying tablets into the hotel water-jug, does not pretend to be intrepid. But it was the corruption of language and thought which frightened her more. She gives some examples of the new vocabulary: ‘reorganisation’ meaning the retention of a terror squad under a new name, ‘improvement’ or ‘perfection’ of a reform movement meaning its abandonment in failure, ‘pacification’ meaning – as usual – the making of a desert of fear. ‘La verdad’ (‘the truth’) turns out to have the specific content of putting forward the view of Colonel Roberto d’Aubuisson.

The centrepiece of the book is a long, agreeable lunch in the residence of Deane Hinton, the American Ambassador, at which ‘I experienced for a moment the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be ... just another possible but difficult mission in another troubled but possible country ... it was not until late in the lunch that it occurred to me that we were talking exclusively about the appearances of things, about how the situation might be made to look better.’ She records the queer attachment of American diplomats to the idea of ‘generational change’, a generation in El Salvador meaning the five or so years in which, with luck, a general who was a psychopathic killer might be ousted by a general who was merely a brute. And – sure enough – the newspapers now report Deane Hinton coming out in the wake of Reagan’s ‘front yard’ speech with the prediction that ‘human rights abuses’ will be cured by a generational change in the officer corps. But it might even be Didion’s own small achievement that Deane Hinton has extended the generation interval to ‘perhaps a decade or more’. Life expectancy in El Salvador has evidently been ‘improved’ or ‘perfected’ since her visit.

Joan Didion gives no direct account of the opposition and the guerrillas. If she attempted to make contact with them, she does not say so. It is an obvious gap in the book, and she is a little evasive about her feelings in this direction. But one of the most interesting passages in Salvador centres on a conversation with ‘a high-placed Salvadoran’ who suggests to her that the opposition is not to be taken as a radical alternative anyway. ‘There are no issues here ... There are only ambitions.’ She produces the useful phrase of ‘the already entitled’, implying that the Salvadoran struggle may be little more than a phase in the eternal fight for power within the old élites, that the victims and martyrs of the conflict stand little chance of emancipation even in the event of a guerrilla victory. ‘The Casa Presidencial would ultimately be occupied not by campesinos [peasants] and Maryknolls, but by the already entitled.’ Those who rule and those who lead the struggle against their rule are often related, in this tiny country. The actors in the drama are all members of a single repertory company, some of whom are always in exile or in the mountains at any given moment. Didion shrewdly points out the importance of the words ‘in touch with’ in any political conversation.

So is the war in El Salvador not really a struggle between left and right but ‘one more realignment of power among the entitled’? In repeating this hypothesis, Joan Didion is obviously uneasy. If it is true, then the hypocrisy of the American position becomes even more glaring, for the choice of which side Washington should adopt appears as a matter of opportunism rather than ideology: the main body of the opposition is not Marxist but – in the language of a relatively recent American assessment – ‘a broad-based coalition of moderate and centre-left groups’. In theory, the United States could come more easily to an understanding with such a force than with ultra-right nationalists, who – like d’Aubuisson himself – detest and despise the Americans but find them indispensable. And, of course, manipulable. ‘We believe in gringos,’ said a member of d’Aubuisson’s faction. He meant that he could always rely on the Americans to take the bait of anti-Communism, whatever their rational interests might appear to be.

But, on the other hand, the theory of ‘realignment among the already entitled’ may not be true at all. Didion herself, clearly impressed by the total pessimism of that analysis, nonetheless leaves it without a final judgment – a false note when set against the sureness of her opinions in the rest of the book. The theory, she admits, is ‘what many people would call a conventional bourgeois view of civil conflict’. Then she changes the subject.

There is no certain answer to this or almost any other question about Salvador. But it must be apparent that the longer the war continues, the greater must be the number and influence of those who intend that it will end not in realignment but in revolution. The fire in the yard is spreading. Didion’s Salvador, for all its scepticism, is one more spark from that fire to reach the house itself. American public opinion is growing frightened about Reagan’s crusade, just as opinion in Western Europe – once deriving malicious gratification from the suggestion that Moscow and Washington could be compared in their backyard behaviour – is now genuinely appalled at the increasing force of this comparison. The climax, which can only be the overthrow of the Nicaraguan regime, may not be far off.

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