El Salvador: Torturers May Meet Their Victims

In an unusual, and brave move,

El Salvador’s Supreme Court has struck down a 1993 amnesty law enacted after the country’s devastating civil war, clearing the way for possible prosecutions of war crimes at the risk of reopening old wounds.

The amnesty has contributed to more than two decades of impunity for crimes committed during the 1980-1992 civil war, which claimed 75,000 lives. It helped end the conflict between the government and leftist guerillas, but it has blocked access to justice and reparations for victims.

The court’s constitutional chamber ruled 4 to 1 Wednesday that the amnesty violates international law and El Salvador’s constitution. The ruling said the government has an obligation to “investigate, identify and sanction the material and intellectual authors of human rights crimes and grave war crimes” and to provide reparations to victims.  Washington Post

If what happened during those years is hazy, or has been swamped by more recent atrocities, a short excerpt from a collection by courageous reporter, Martha Gellhorn, then in her 80s, is just below.

What Hands, Susan Meiselas, 1980

White Hands, Susan Meiselas, 1980

For a portfolio of Magnum photos see here.

A Daily Mail, 2013 article about the abducted children.


Torture is the Worst Abomination of Man

Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998  ) was a war reporter who continued reporting into her 80th year.  The last war-trip she made was to Central America when, under the Reagan administration, the government in El Salvador and the “contras” in Nicaragua were funded to murder their own citizens.  Gellhorn reported it.  Some of those, compiled, are in a collection of her reporting called The Face of War. (reviewed here) This is an extended excerpt from that essay.

Torture is the worst abomination of man and utterly condemns any government that sanctions it. El Salvador is a member of the United Nations and party to the Charter of Human Rights. Has the United Nations gone out of business? European officials rightly denounce psychiatric torture in the Soviet Union. Why keep obsequiously silent about El Salvador?

“Assassinated.” In 1982, regarded as a good year, better than the preceding three, 5,840 mutilated corpses of men and women, boys and girls, were found, dumped everywhere throughout El Salvador. Of these, peasants were the majority. Few peasants were “captured,” only eight “disappeared” in 1982. The method for peasants is immediate butchery in villages and fields. Peasant refugees tell how the army, or ORDEN, or the National Guard, came into their village, killing, before they stole the animals, looted and burned the houses. This is how refugees are made: an estimated 300,000 outside the country, 200,000 inside it, but the process is never-ending. Peasants are uprooted, killed, because they are Romero Catholics, Catolicos. They believe what their murdered Archbishop taught: misery is not decreed by God, but made by man. This is revolutionary Communism to the Salvadoran government. But then, Jesuit priests are considered Communists and live in danger.

Women, innumerable children, old men crowd into makeshift refugee encampments. They have all seen peasants assassinated. A  sample: a pouter pigeon of a woman who has lived for two years with 1,200 other peasant refugees on the dusty playing fields of the Catholic Seminary. “It was ORDEN. We heard them coming. We ran to hide in the trees. But my daughter was eight months pregnant, she could not run fast enough. They caught her on the path. They cut open her stomach with a machete and pulled out the child and cut it in half. She was 17 years of age. I saw with my own eyes. With my own eyes. Then they stole everything we had worked for and burned our houses.”

We learned that President Reagan was distressed by the photographs of the Phalange’s victims in the Beirut Palestinian camps. He is morally obliged to see the Human Rights albums of assassinated Salvadorans. These people did not die quickly. Many faces are covered in blood below the eyes (” We think they do this with rifle butts.”) Some have been strangled. Some are decapitated, the head beside the corpse. A naked boy, lying on his face, has long deep open stab slashes on his legs. A naked woman, also on her face, is riddled with bullet wounds through the lower half of her body; her nakedness presumes rape but that is commonplace for women. There is a gruesome statuary of eight entwined faceless bodies, burned down to nothing but smooth white fat. I studied specially the photos of those killed this January, the month when President Reagan certified that human rights reform in El Salvador warranted more military aid, although 672 Salvadorans were murdered in that month alone.

We free worlders elect our governments freely, so we are responsible for what they do in our name. If governments were better, wiser, more in touch with real life, citizens would not have to spend so much time educating and restraining them. Nadezdha Mandelstam, survivor of another tyranny, gave the best advice to citizens: “If you can do nothing else you must scream.”

Gellhorn, Martha. The Face of War (Kindle Locations 5256-5259). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.




Water, Food, Land and Genocide

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and author, most recently of Bloodlands: Eastern Europe Between Hitler and Stalin contributed a very disturbing Op-Ed piece to the NY Times on Sunday.  This is just a part:

To expand Germany’s Lebensraum, Hitler aimed to seize Ukraine from the Soviet Union, starve 30 million Eastern Europeans and transfer the food to Germany. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the campaign had two major aims: the control of fertile Ukrainian soil and the destruction of Jews living there. It was this invasion that placed defenseless Jewish children at the mercy of the murderous Einsatzgruppen.

Climate change threatens to provoke a new ecological panic. So far, poor people in Africa and the Middle East have borne the brunt of the suffering.

The mass murder of at least 500,000 Rwandans in 1994 followed a decline in agricultural production for several years before. Hutus killed Tutsis not only out of ethnic hatred, but to take their land, as many genocidaires later admitted.

In Sudan, drought drove Arabs into the lands of African pastoralists in 2003. The Sudanese government sided with the Arabs and pursued a policy of eliminating the Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur peoples in Darfur and surrounding regions.

Climate change has also brought uncertainties about food supply back to the center of great power politics. China today, like Germany before the war, is an industrial power incapable of feeding its population from its own territory, and is thus dependent on unpredictable international markets.

Read all: The Next Genocide and plenty of comments from readers, as well.

For a NYRB article of his on the Holocaust and how it is often misapprehended see here. 

Picturing the Enemy

An interesting article appeared in BBC today.  A young Chinese man has built a significant collection of “war memorabilia” from Japanese soldiers, who invaded and occupied China prior to and during WW II.  What interests him, however, are not the gruesome “collectible” photos of beheaded civilians or bombed out cities, but very ordinary photos, many carried by the soldiers, of family and self in non-war settings.  He’s made quite a study of his collection, noting the small details of human life.

1943, Soldier with Friends. [He was later killed.]

Besides his collector’s obsession, what is in his mind as he pours through possible purchases on e-bay or from collectors or antique stores?  Why these and not something else?

“I collect these albums not to remember hatred, but to avoid repeating the same pain,” he emphasised.

“They teach us a lesson: war is cruel and there is no winner.”

He adds a small voice to those trying to counter the narrative of the necessity of war and revenge, like super dried landscape ready to explode at the smallest spark.  And doubly good for him that he says this contemplating those who very likely affected his own forebears in terrible ways.


Nagasaki, The Second Bomb

Don’t miss the New Yorker’s horrifyingly informative article about Nagasaki, the bomb, and the planning that went into it.

Years after the bombing, General Leslie Groves, the micromanaging head of the Manhattan Project, admitted that he had never been able to figure out exactly when or why Nagasaki “was brought into the picture.” It was included on an initial list of seventeen potential targets, in late April of 1945, but by early May it had been weeded out. Although the city manufactured engines and torpedoes and was an important port, it was also home to an Allied prisoner-of-war camp, which made it less attractive.

And just imagine!

Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and Kokura


And why was Yokohama taken off the list?  Surely a major military/naval port?

Yokohama was removed from the list; the U.S. military preferred targets that had not already been damaged by conventional munitions, which would make it hard to see the effects of the new weapon amid the old rubble.

Click for More

Click for More

I am not one of those who think the dropping of the atomic bombs shows something peculiarly evil in the American war leadership.  I agree with both sides of the argument. Dropping the bombs was a terrible evil.  Not dropping the bombs and expecting 100,000 to die in a land invasion would have been a terrible evil.  Trying to create a taxonomy of evil in a war that killed some 60 million — the 140, ooo dead from the Hiroshima bomb is .23% of that number– is like disputing the rankings of orders of infinity. The use of the bombs followed the logic of war.  Had others developed the bomb it would almost surely have been used. Once war is begun and the amygdala of fear is joined to the planning powers of the fore-brain, war in the modern age will continue until exhaustion or capitulation.

The only utility in assessing blame and opportunities missed in the past is to be able to apply that knowledge to what is being done today. What opportunities are being dismissed, what short-shortsightedness is not seeing down the road, what personal instabilities are pushing policies likely to lead to more very imaginable horrors?


August 6, 70 Years Ago and Work to do Today

Hiroshima FCNL

August 6, every year should be a day of distress and contemplation around the world.  1 bomb, 70,000 dead, in one day; 140,000 dead as radiation worked its way through the bones ad organs of the living.

In Hiroshima itself silence is offered for 1 minute, lighted lanterns are floated in the river, white doves are released.

It seems so little.

“Eighteen-year-old Shizuko Abe was staggering out of the city, the whole right side of her body burned, her skin hanging off. Now 88, she still bears the terrible imprint of the bomb on her face and hands.

[She] remembers hearing the cries for help from beneath the debris as the flames swept forward.

“They were such sad voices calling out for help. Even 70 years later, I can still hear them calling out for help,” she says.” (BBC news)

So what I will do today is to take a long walk, and with every pace say, “Hiroshima.  Help us.”

There is more.  Despite North Korea, despite France, despite India, Pakistan, Israel, all possessors of nuclear weapons, despite the fear that Iran might build them, the two biggest nuclear dangers to the world are The United States and Russia.

“There are almost 16,000 nuclear weapons still in the world today, and the U.S. and Russia possess 94 percent of them. Worse, 1,800 of these Russian and American weapons sit atop missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch on a few minutes notice.” [Al Jazeera]

Every effort to prevent nuclear proliferation should acknowledge this and include the roll back of the already proliferated.

Loud voices in the US today, are speaking against the agreement reached with Iran.  The fountain of wisdom from which they drink seems to be that military action is better than engagement, agreement, verification and ramp down of suspicion and secrecy.  Had the parties to WW II been so engaged, with serious conversations and serious interruption of war-making abilities would that war have grown to be what it became?

60 million died.  140,000 in Hiroshima was the ugly end of a monstrous era, barely more than .2% of the total dead.

Make sure diplomacy and international engagement remain the lights by which decisions are made not the lights of phosphorous bombs or nuclear flame.

Protect the Iran deal. Let your representatives and senators know.  Here is the latest “whip count” of Yes, Maybe, Aren’t Sure and  NO.  Look especially near the end for the Unknown/Unclear with 7 Democrats.


PTSD: Not so New, Just the Recognition of It

Translations of ancient documents, as old as from 1300 BCE, suggest battle scars which we now call PTSD.

“The sorts of symptoms after battle were very clearly what we would call now post-traumatic stress symptoms.

“They described hearing and seeing ghosts talking to them, who would be the ghosts of people they’d killed in battle – and that’s exactly the experience of modern-day soldiers who’ve been involved in close hand-to-hand combat.”



Breaking the Silence in Israel

The war last summer between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and reduced vast areas to rubble. On Monday, a group of Israeli veterans released sobering testimony from fellow soldiers that suggests permissive rules of engagement coupled with indiscriminate artillery fire contributed to the mass destruction and high numbers of civilian casualties in the coastal enclave.

“The organization of active and reserve duty soldiers, called Breaking the Silence, gathered testimonies from more than 60 enlisted men and officers who served in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge.

… “The 240-page report, “This is How We Fought in Gaza 2014”, was released Monday and accompanied by videotaped testimony that aired on Israeli news programs.”

Washington Post

Also from Tel Aviv, Philosophy professor, Anat Biletzki, sees the “Protective Edge” operation as one among several markers on the road moving from implicit understanding to explicit expression.

In Israel, we are used to hearing that everything is more “complex” than one might think. Situations are typically described as variegated, imprecise or intangible and they seem almost intentionally so. Implicitness — about politics, religion, military actions, and human rights — rules. But I would argue that that situation has changed. In the past year in Israel, things have become clear and precise. Things have become explicit.

The government that will be formed this week is the most clearly articulated, narrowest, most right-wing, most religious and most nationalistic government ever assembled in Israel. A combination of the fundamentalist Orthodox clerical parties with the nationalistic chauvinism of the Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett who makes no attempt to hide his annexation plans, has been orchestrated by Benjamin Netanyahu in no uncertain terms. Along with Likud, Netanyahu’s home, which is the largest party in Israel today, and Kulanu (All of Us – a breakaway of Likud), this whole bloc is unambiguous in its Jewish, nationalistic agenda.

… When the Firm Cliff fighting officially started, the Israeli media, whether on its own or while quoting political, cultural, religious and military leaders, was replete with clearly voiced messages of racism and hate toward any and all Arabs or Palestinians. “Death to the Arabs,” a call previously shrugged away as an instigation used mainly by erstwhile extremists and soccer fans, could be heard loud and clear. And antiwar protesters, now encountering without police protection the so-called “nationalist” supporters of the war, heard the loud and explicit “Death to the Leftists.” The long-brewing enmity between Jew and Arab, which had always been understood but sometimes unspoken, came out in full force, rising to the boiling surface. We were facing the nebulous — but no less substantial for that — move from the implicit to the explicit.

Famed Japanese Flying Ace Warns Against War

Kaname Harada is ninety eight years old and still making the case.

“Nothing is as terrifying as war,” he began, before spending the next 90 minutes recounting his role in battles, from Japan’s early triumph at Pearl Harbor to its disastrous reversals at Midway and Guadalcanal.

“I want to tell you my experiences in war so that younger generations don’t have to go through the same horrors that I did.”

Japanese Torpedo Bomber  Going Down (US Navy photo)

Japanese Torpedo Bomber Going Down (US Navy photo)

… “I fought the war from the cockpit of a Zero, and can still remember the faces of those I killed,” said Mr. Harada, who said he was able to meet and befriend some of his foes who survived the war. “They were fathers and sons, too. I didn’t hate them or even know them.”

“That is how war robs you of your humanity,” he added, “by putting you in a situation where you must either kill perfect strangers or be killed by them.”

For years he was plagued by nightmares, seeing the faces of the young American pilots as he closed in for the kill.  They didn’t end until 1965, when he opened a kindergarten and began talking to the children about the importance of peace.

NY Times

Forgotten Knowledge: Tokyo Firebombing, 100,000 In One Night

Firebombing of Tokyo, March 9, 1945

Firebombing of Tokyo, March 9, 1945

Seventy years ago, one-half of Tokyo (the size of New York City) was laid waste by a low level night time attack of 334 American B-29 Superfortresses.  Stripped of their guns and loaded with incendiary bombs the attack lasted over three hours.  The temperatures rose to one thousand degrees.  Over 100,000 died in wooden shanty-towns.  It was the first of a series of bombing raids that destroyed 64 Japanese cities, before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

And this was in “the Good War.”

For more, see Eyewitness to History, the Asia Pacific Journal, Japan Air Raids, BBC, and more images (warning, some very graphic.)

Now that  62% of those polled (Quinnipiac) are calling for U.S. troops back in Iraq and Syria, is the time to publicly remember war and all its demons.