The “Salvador Option” in Action

Brian Cook

Hard to believe, but there's been very little notice (even among my fellow crazed, leftist bloggers) concerning Peter Maas' cover story for this past weekend's New York Times Magazine, "The Way of the Commandos." (The honorable exception is Lenin's Tomb; scroll down to the post, "Language Fatigue," then scroll back up to read his fascinating history of Britain's Labour Party.) This is particularly strange because there was a considerable dust-up in January after Newsweek ran a story about how Pentagon officials were considering employing the "Salvador Option" against insurgents in Iraq. According to Maas, they've now endorsed it wholeheartedly: The template for Iraq today is not Vietnam, with which it has often been compared, but El Salvador, where a right-wing government backed by the United States fought a leftist insurgency in a 12-year war beginning in 1980. The cost was high-more than 70,000 people were killed, most of them civilians, in a country with a population of just six million. The template entails the hiring of ex-Baathists to work alongside U.S. advisers like James Steele, who cut his teeth training paramilitaries in El Salvador in the '80s. Together, they've come up with a thrilling new reality TV show, "Terrorism in the Grip of Justice," where bruised and beaten terror suspects (who have not yet been charged with a crime) "confess" their sins (such as having homosexual sex in a mosque) to a shell-shocked Iraqi audience. (And as Direland reported in March, it's all funded by your tax dollars.) Is this show similar to the "hate-sessions" broadcast in Orwell's 1984? No. This is an exact replica of those hate-sessions, yet another example of our bringing dystopacy to Iraq. As always, it gets worse. Maas reports what happens on a late night raid when one of the Iraqi commanders believes they've been led on a wild-goose chase by a detainee (and keep in mind this occurs while a journalist is standing right there): One of [Major] Falah's captains began beating the detainee. Instead of a quick hit or slap, we now saw and heard a sustained series of blows. We heard the sound of the captain's fists and boots on the detainee's body, and we heard the detainees pained grunts as he received his punishment without resistance. It was a dockyard mugging. The mugging took place in front of American soldiers, who looked away from it in shame. As their captain explains his decision to do nothing: "You only get so many interventions, and I've got to save my butting in for when there is a danger it could go over the line." It must be a fairly large line, however, because, "In terms of kicking a guy, they do that all the time, punches and stuff like that." Such outsourcing of our "dirty work" (a.k.a. "stuff like that") is something to keep in mind the next time you come across cheery headlines like this.

For a limited time:

Donate $20 or more to In These Times and we'll send you a copy of Let This Radicalize You.

In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?

We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.