Joan Didion and her husband visited El Salvador for two weeks in 1982. This wasn’t a vacation, since a civil war had begun a few years earlier, after many years of political unrest. As usual, the U.S. was supporting the military dictatorship, not the left-wing guerillas. The war wouldn’t end for another 10 years. It was common for ordinary citizens to be tortured or to disappear. When four American nuns and another woman were raped and murdered by the National Guard in 1980, the U.S. suspended military aid to the Salvadoran government, but just for six weeks. The United Nations later estimated that more than 70,000 people were killed during the war.
One reason to read Salvador is to see how little has changed: “The American effort in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer.” A later Congressional report argued that “the intelligence was itself a dreamwork, tending to support policy … ‘rather than inform it’, providing ‘reinforcement more than illumination’, ‘ammunition rather than analysis’.”
Another reason to read this book is to enjoy Didion’s prose. A couple of examples:
“For the several hours that preceded the earthquake I had been seized by the kind of amorphous bad mood that my grandmother believed an adjunct of what is called in California ‘earthquake weather’, a sultriness, a stillness, an unnatural light; the jitters. In fact there was no particular prescience about my bad mood, since it is always earthquake weather in San Salvador, and the jitters are endemic.”
“Colonel Waghelstein is massively built, crew-cut, tight-lipped, and very tanned, almost a cartoon of the American military presence, and the notion that he had come up from Panama to deal with the press was novel and interesting, in that he had made, during his tour in El Salvador, a pretty terse point of not dealing with the press”. (4/13/13)