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Gordon Cucullu- Contributor


Former Green Beret lieutenant colonel, Gordon Cucullu is now an editorialist, author and a popular speaker. Born into a military family, he lived and served for more than thirteen years in East Asia, including eight years in Korea. For his Special Forces service in Vietnam he was awarded a Bronze Star, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Presidential Unit Commendation. After separation from the Army, he worked on Korea and East Asian affairs at both the Pentagon and Department of State as well as an executive for General Electric in Korea. His first major non-fiction work, Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin, is based in large part on his extensive experience in Korea and East Asia as a governmental insider and businessman. [website] [go to Cucullu index]

Separated at Birth : How North Korea Became the Evil Twin
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The Real Salvadoran Option
Lessons for democracy in Iraq from El Salvador…

[Gordon Cucullu] 1/11/05

Take an anonymous Pentagon leak from a ‘high level military officer,’ add an appalling lack of knowledge of history, and compound it with ignorance of special warfare tactics. This process describes the article published by Newsweek breathlessly revealing that a ‘desperate’ Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is ‘considering’ employing the ‘Salvadoran option’ to thwart the ‘growing quagmire’ of the Iraq War. This terrible option, reports Newsweek, was used effectively in the counter-guerrilla wars in El Salvador in the early 1980s. It involves US special operations forces leading indigenous ‘death squads’ to root out and kill or capture enemy military and political leaders. In a backs-against-the-wall-with-all-guns-blazing reporting style the article suggests that once exercised this method might win the war but implies that the cost in innocent life could be horrific. Stuff and nonsense.

Let’s look at history first. Just what was going on in the early 1980s? The Soviet Union was strong and expanding. Under President Jimmy Carter the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Carter punished them by canceling the 1980 Olympic Games, the one peaceful thing we all did together. Carter then adroitly destabilized two areas in the world: Iran and Nicaragua, and almost toppled another friend, South Korea. The benefits of his policy in the Persian Gulf began with the hostage crisis and persist to this day. In Central America the communist Sandinistas, led by the Ortega brothers, stepped into the void created by the toppling of the Somoza regime. They immediately launched and accelerated support for Cuban-inspired communist insurgencies in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. The Soviets installed a dictator puppet in Grenada and began to construct airfields to accept high performance military aircraft. The Ortegas discussed acquisition of MiG fighter aircraft. El Salvador was run by an increasingly harsh military dictatorship. Multiple, compounded, failed foreign policy initiatives helped dump Carter.

After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter he announced a new, aggressive policy in the region: we would assist these nations resist the incursion of communism and help them achieve democratic status. Such idealism was denigrated by the usual suspects, the left and the media, as being hypocritical. How can you support brutal dictators by pretending to export democracy, they asked. Plus, these people have no history of democracy, how can you reasonably expect them to understand it? Reagan knew that oppressed peoples everywhere yearn to be free. He also realized that the US could more effectively influence stable, secure countries than those in which communism had triumphed and the democratic opposition was eliminated, a sad condition that accompanies every communist takeover. So the Reagan Administration drew the line in the sand at El Salvador. We began to increase military assistance and training, along with economic development and diplomatic initiatives to encourage a transition to democracy.

It was slow going at first. Recall that America still smarted from the Vietnam experience that had ended only in April 1975. Congress was virulently anti-military and opposed any use of power that might result in ‘another Vietnam,’ a fear that has achieved mythic dimensions in the minds of liberals and media that persists today. As a consequence American military efforts in the region were micro-managed with antipathy and suspicion. Due to an innocent remark by LTG Ernie Graves during Congressional testimony, US military presence was limited to a scant 56 officers and enlisted men. Funding to train and equip Salvadoran military was pathetically small compared to the danger of expanding communism at the American doorstep. Every penny of the monies available was carefully weighed by US and Salvadoran planners to make certain that the limited funds were spread as efficiently as possible. The US side pushed training as a necessity, including a large dose of training that focused on human rights, dealing with civilians, and prisoner handling. Despite contrary accusations by hostile media the quality of the training was designed to improve Salvadoran Army relations with its populace and win them over from the guerrillas. Over time it was remarkably successful. But at first the concept was tough to sell.

For in El Salvador a popular culture of violence compounded the severe problems that would be associated with any insurgency. Salvadoran soldiers and guerrillas alike thought that the best fate for an enemy was death. And if any innocents got in the way, tough. As a result the peasant population was terrorized by both sides. One of the institutions that drew the most criticism – justified in my opinion – were the death squads sent out by the Salvadoran Army. These notorious ad hoc units dressed in civilian clothes and kidnapped, killed, and assassinated all those who they even suspected supported the guerrillas. On the other side the FMLN guerrillas also killed and kidnapped with impunity.

The poor peasants were caught in between. American outrage with the death squads grew to the point that Vice President George HW Bush flew secretly to San Salvador to meet with General Flores-Lima and others in the junta. Behind closed doors Bush told them that President Reagan was sickened by the death squads and would not tolerate their continued operations. ‘Stop them now, and guarantee this to me before I walk out of that door,’ Bush was reported to have said, ‘or we will cease all support for El Salvador immediately!’ When Flores-Lima protested that Salvador was an anti-communist bulwark Bush dismissed that out of hand. America decided to draw the line here. America can choose to draw the line elsewhere. But America will not support the death squads. period. Bush was hard and inflexible. The Salvadorans agreed to his terms. The death squads were out of business permanantly.

Further convincing the leaders that positive inducements not fear were best for the country, the Salvadoran government benefited from a surprising upsurge of popular support when the peasants realized that the military was now on their side. Conversely, the level of violence from the guerrillas spiked as the communists, desperately aware that they were losing control, tried to intimidate the people. Within months political parties formed, candidates announced and campaigned, and genuinely free elections were held under the stern gaze of international electoral monitors who pronounced the elections fair. Voter turnout was amazing. Key to success was that the army – now increasingly well trained and staunchly on the side of the people - announced that it would not influence the election but would devote all assets toward safeguarding the electoral process.

Salvadoran Army units surrounded polling places, guns pointed outward, protecting the peasants as they lined up to vote. Vowing to disrupt the election, guerrillas attacked indiscriminately with small arms fire, machine guns, and mortars. Innocent civilians – men, women, and children – lay in the baking sun, face down in the dirt while guerrillas tried to intimidate and frighten them away from the polling places. Army protection was effective and the communist attacks failed miserably. The motivation of these people – poor, uneducated, and unsophisticated in most cases in the mechanisms of democracy but acutely aware of this golden chance for freedom – could not be suppressed by mere gunfire. It was an honest, unassuming display of bravery that awed combat veterans.

Democracy won the day in El Salvador, not some urban legend of Special Forces-led death squads. In Salvador we saw a model that works worldwide: Give ordinary people a chance to be free, to chose representative leaders, and to control their own destiny and they will gladly step up to the challenge regardless of personal danger or discomfort. It worked in South Korea, El Salvador and the Central America region. It worked in Grenada and Panama, in the liberated states of Eastern Europe, in Afghanistan, and most recently in Ukraine. And the model will work in short time in Iraq. Democracy is the real Salvadoran Option. It is a gift that we must steadfastly promote, defend, and share with the world. tRO

In addition to his Asian credentials, Gordon was the security assistance desk officer for El Salvador and Central America in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1981-1984. Gordon’s book Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin became the Evil Twin, is drawing good comments. Gordon is scheduled to speak at the Flushing Library, Queens, NY on January 15 at 2 pm, public invited.


copyright Gordon Cucullu 2005




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