Michael Massing
Michael Massing

Fellowship Title:

The Stale, Small War in El Salvador

Michael Massing
November 9, 1989

Fellowship Year

The war in El Salvador is “stuck,” and the United States is “itself stuck with the war.” Washington has failed to “revitalize” the Salvadoran government, which “remains ineffective.” U.S. economic assistance “has achieved little.” The Salvadoran military remains “remarkably immune” to U.S. efforts to reform it.

Such statements might sound like the slogans of a solidarity group. In fact, they come from a report written by four lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Army. Titled “American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador,” the study is sharply critical of how the Pentagon and the State Department have conducted themselves in El Salvador. In this the report is unprecedented: Never before have officers on active duty in the U.S. military issued a document so publicly critical of an ongoing action abroad

Not surprisingly, the report has received a lot of attention. “There isn’t anybody who’s responsible for Central American policy who hasn’t read it,” says one State Department official formerly in El Salvador. The document is being used as a textbook at the Pentagon’s National Defense University in Washington. Salvadoran generals and colonels keep the report on their desks for handy reference. Even the guerrillas have studied it. In a recent policy document, Joaquin Villalobos, the most powerful commander of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), approvingly cited the study’s critique of the Salvadoran army.

Not all reviews are so favorable, however. In Washington, the State Department’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Coordination has drafted a sharp rebuttal to the report. In San Salvador, officials at the U.S. Embassy angrily dismiss it as simplistic. A congressional staff member says that the careers of the four lieutenant colonels “will definitely suffer” as a result of their outspokenness. Already, officials unhappy with the report have blocked the appointment of one of the four men as the commander of the U.S. Military Group in El Salvador.

But “Small Wars” has plenty of supporters as well. In fact, the document has served as a rallying point for people inside the U.S. government and military who dissent from the official optimism about the course of the war. These pessimists believe that the conflict there is essentially stalemated and is likely to remain so until fundamental changes are made in El Salvador’s principal institutions. More generally, these critics believe that our problems in El Salvador reflect a recurring pattern of futility that dates back to Vietnam. Until the United States learns more about winning the “hearts and minds” of Third World peasants, the pessimists believe, we will continue to falter in dealing with Marxist insurgencies.

For this school of dissidents, “American Military Policy in Small Wars” has become a sort of charter document. More generally, the lieutenant colonels’ report has brought to the surface sharp differences within the Pentagon and State Department over the ability of the United States to perform in guerrilla wars like the one in El Salvador.

“Small Wars” began as a term paper at Harvard University. The four authors–A.J. Bacevich, James Hallums, Richard White, and Thomas Young–all spent the 1987-1988 academic year as fellows at the Kennedy School of Government. The four shared an interest in Third World conflict, and one of them. James Hallums, had worked as a military adviser in El Salvador in 1983. The officers decided to use El Salvador as a test case for assessing the effectiveness of U.S. counter-insurgency strategy. In the fall of 1987 the group spent a week in El Salvador, interviewing U.S. Embassy officials, U.S. military advisers, officers at the Agency for International Development (AID), and high-ranking officers in the Salvadoran military. Their paper, unusually candid in the don’t-rock-the-boat world of the U.S. military, stirred quite a bit of interest. After being cleared by the Army, it was brought out in booklet form by the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, a Washington-based research group.

“El Salvador represents an experiment,” the 51-page report begins, “an attempt to reverse the record of American failure in waging small wars, an effort to defeat an insurgency by providing training and military support without committing American troops to combat.” In contrast to Vietnam, where more than one million Americans fought, the U.S. military in El Salvador has been limited to no more than 55 advisers. (The figure on any given day is actually about twice that, the result of officers sent on temporary duty.)

Despite that ceiling, the U.S. at first did quite well, according to the lieutenant colonels. As they point out, the Salvadoran military in the early 1980s was a ragtag force of 17,000, lacking in such essentials as boots, jeeps. and discipline. The guerrillas, 12,000 strong, were expertly trained, well equipped, and highly disciplined. It seemed only a matter of time before the government collapsed.

Then Washington stepped in. Hundreds of cadets were sent to be trained at Fort Benning, Georgia. Elite rapid-reaction battalions were set up. The Salvadoran air force was expanded and modernized. By 1985. the Salvadoran military had expanded to 57,000 troops, armed with M-16 rifles and backed by Huey helicopters. The guerrillas, who had once roamed the countryside in 600-troop battalions, were forced to break down into more mobile 20-to-30-person units, the better to avoid detection by the army.

Once it had broken the guerrillas’ momentum, however, the army proved incapable of seizing the initiative itself. “Having helped the [Salvadoran government] fend off defeat,…” the lieutenant colonels assert, “the United States proved less successful in guiding the Salvadorans toward a strategy that held out promise of eliminating the insurgency.” For all its new might, the Salvadoran army continued to suffer from poor morale, incompetent leadership, and a lack of aggressiveness. Rather than adopt the tactics prescribed by counterinsurgency doctrine–breaking down into small units, setting up ambushes, patrolling at night–the army spent much of its time in its barracks. When the troops did go out, it was on “search and avoid patrols,” as one U.S. trainer sardonically described it for the lieutenant colonels.

But the military side was the least of it. According to the report, the “other war”–the one for the sympathies of the people–was much more important. Winning this war, the officers state, requires more than just helicopter gunships and expert marksmen. It also requires skilled psychological operations (psyops), designed to create a favorable image of the government. It requires civic-action programs, by which the military performs services for the civilian population. Above all, it requires genuine political, economic, and social reforms that address the root causes of the insurgency.

In all of this, say the lieutenant colonels, the United States has performed quite poorly. “Despite their appreciation that winning popular support remains the ultimate strategic aim in a counterinsurgency,” they state, “American officials have yet to devise adequate mechanisms to achieve that aim.” Noting that winning a guerrilla war presumes an “honest and responsive” government, the four lieutenant colonels observe: “The government of El Salvador did not manifest those qualities when U.S. involvement in the war began. Unfortunately, neither does it manifest those qualities today. This failure to revitalize the government further accounts for the existing stalemate and the poor prognosis for the future.”

This, of course, is the same problem that the United States faced in Vietnam. Despite all the aid we provided that country–the tons of food distributed, the miles of roads paved, the school houses and health clinics built–the government in Saigon never succeeded in winning the support of its own citizens. As a result, when the United States pulled out, the whole structure came tumbling down. Studying that earlier failure would have provided some obvious important lessons for future U.S. engagements. Unfortunately, say the lieutenant colonels, the U.S. military turned its back on the war. “Embittered by their defeat in Vietnam,” they state, “the military services subsequently all but abandoned the subject of insurgency.” The army thus “denuded itself of any doctrinal basis for the kind of problems that small wars presented, a shortcoming that told in the quality of training and advice offered to El Salvador.”

How accurate is this assessment? Not very, in the view of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. “Exaggerated,” “outdated,” and “unbalanced” are some of the kinder words used to describe it. One official, miffed by the attention the report has received, jokes bitterly that it was published in the “People’s Democratic Republic of Massachusetts, where it’s read five times a day, like the Koran. It’s bullshit.”

John Ellerson was head of the U.S. military advisers in El Salvador at the time the report was drafted. Then a colonel, he has since been promoted to brigadier general; today he serves as the assistant commander for the 101st Airborne Air Assault division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Ellerson credits the lieutenant colonels with “raising some good issues,” but overall he faults their report for being “intellectually sloppy” and unduly pessimistic. The United States has come a long way in El Salvador, he says, explaining, “When we started off, we didn’t know where we were going. But over time I think we’ve evolved a pretty good formula.” Objecting to the lieutenant colonels’ unkind characterization of the “other war,” Ellerson says that “a lot of interest and resources are being devoted to things like civic action and psyops. We’re getting the people involved, building infrastructure, providing social services.”

What’s more, he says, the Salvadoran military is gaining more and more popular support. In the early 1980s, the army was widely feared; today, after persistent prodding from American advisers, the Salvadoran officer corps is much more attuned to concepts like democracy, elections, and respect for civilians. As a result, says Ellerson, the army has a “very casual, very easy relationship” with the people. Abuses may still occur, he says, “but it’s amazing how isolated those incidents are.” All in all, the general says, “The Salvadoran armed forces are on the side of the angels. They need our support.”

In discussing “Small Wars,” Ellerson, like many senior officers, singles out one particular section that deals with the quality of U.S. personnel in El Salvador. In it the lieutenant colonels assert that, while many outstanding officers have served in El Salvador, “officers of lesser quality have been assigned there in surprising numbers.” In one especially cutting remark, the report quotes a military man as saying, “We had the third team there.” Many officials have taken this as a personal affront.

And they’ve struck back. According to several knowledgeable officials in both Washington and San Salvador, James Hallums was in line to take over as head of the U.S. military advisers in El Salvador when Ellerson’s term ended late last year. After “Small Wars” appeared, however, several senior officials intervened to make sure that Hallums did not get the position. Instead he was assigned to a desk job at the Pentagon. Hallums spent last winter coordinating the U.S. military’s participation in the inaugural day parade–not exactly a plum assignment.

Clearly, then, the lieutenant colonels have made some powerful enemies. But they have gained a strong following as well. “They have put in written form what a lot of people are thinking,” says one former U.S. official who served in El Salvador. These people include mid-level State Department bureaucrats, some staff members at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, and numerous colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors in the U.S. Army. These “dissenters” believe that the war in El Salvador is hopelessly stalemated. The Salvadoran military may be more professional, they say, but it continues to be inept, corrupt, and brutal, interested more in its own self-preservation than in serving the civilian population. As a result, they say, the government has made little progress in winning over the Salvadoran people.

“I think the report is excellent,” says a State Department official who served in El Salvador. Dismissing the accusations against the report as “shrill,” he says that most Central America policymakers “have blinded themselves” to events in the region “out of an ideological desire to defeat the Sandinistas. They see communism as the cause of our problems in Central America.” In fact, he says, “communism is the result of those problems,” which grow out of the social and economic injustice that pervades the region. In the case of El Salvador, the official says, “the government can prevail only if it’s able to persuade the campesinos to give it their active support.” And that, he says, will not come about until there is “radical, revolutionary change” in the country.

This last point–the need for far-reaching change–goes to the heart of the pessimists’ argument. As one military officer with experience in El Salvador says, to defeat an insurgency requires that “you undertake deep changes in the host country’s institutions. You have to change attitudes on things like human rights, corruption, and efficiency.” Unfortunately, he adds, these attitudes have deep cultural roots, making it extremely difficult for the United States to do anything about them. Referring to El Salvador, he says, “I’m not sure we have sufficient leverage to succeed.”

Which view of the war in El Salvador is more accurate, the optimists’ or the pessimists’? Is the glass half empty or half full? In an effort to find out, I tracked down a former U.S. military adviser named Bruce Hazelwood. Hazelwood is a legend among Americans serving in El Salvador. Before retiring from the army in 1986, Hazelwood spent seven years in the country–longer than any other adviser. Unlike most Americans in El Salvador, Hazelwood lived in the field, working twelve-to-fourteen hours a day in a non-stop effort to whip his Salvadoran pupils into shape. Hazelwood is the only officer mentioned by name in the lieutenant colonels’ report. It notes his “personal dedication and his gifts as a trainer and leader,” adding that he attained “astonishing results” in his work. “Some limited numbers of soldiers possess gifts comparable to Hazelwood’s,” the study observes. “More than dollars, more than equipment, their genius constitutes the asset that can spell the difference between success and failure in a small war.”

With so many years’ experience in El Salvador, Hazelwood would seem in a unique position to evaluate the status of the war there. I located him at his home in Miami, where he was working as a private consultant on security and anti-terrorism. When we talked, in early April, he had just returned from El Salvador, having accompanied a congressional delegation there. I asked him what he thought of the lieutenant colonels’ report. “It’s 75 to 80 percent right,” he said. Agreeing with its conclusion that the war is stalemated, Hazelwood, a voluble man of blunt opinions, added: “A stalemate always favors the guerrillas. If the government’s not winning, it’s losing. The Salvadoran government is losing.”

Hazelwood, who is 39 years old, offered a sweeping indictment of the Salvadoran military. Corruption is widespread and abuses are commonplace, he said. Noting that not a single officer has been punished for his crimes, Hazelwood said that the army continues to mistreat the civilian population. As a result, he said, the current government is not very popular. “I can get more people in the streets for an antigovernment demonstration than for a pro-government one,” the former master sergeant said.

Hazelwood was also critical of the way U.S. aid has been administered. Most American assistance, he said, has ended up in the pockets of officials rather than in needy villages. If he had his way, Hazelwood said, the amount of U.S. aid to El Salvador would be cut in half and supervised much more closely. “There’s not one AID adviser that lives in the field,” he said with dismay. “AID guys should be out there living in the barracks on a daily basis, supervising their development projects, rather than living in San Salvador with their maids, their family, their big house, and their ten guards.” Many of the Americans working in El Salvador, he said, “are there for the wrong reasons.”

He added: “If you asked me, ‘After all the training and equipment that we’ve given, are we better off today than we were in 1981,’ I’d have to tell you that we’re in worse shape today.”

In making such observations, Hazelwood sounds a lot like John Paul Vann, the controversial lieutenant colonel whose years in Vietnam are chronicled in Neil Sheehan’s book, “A Bright, Shining Lie.” Vann spent much of the war traveling to outlying villages, observing the conflict at the grassroots; Hazelwood did much the same in El Salvador. In the process, both men–proud and loyal members of the U.S. military–developed serious doubts about the ability of the United States to take on guerrilla armies.

Of course, there are many differences between the two conflicts. El Salvador is much smaller than Vietnam and much closer to the United States. In terms of terrain, it lacks the swampy jungles that gave shelter to the Viet Cong and sucked in our own troops. Moreover, El Salvador is suffused with American culture, making it much more susceptible to our training and advice. As a result of these characteristics, El Salvador would seem a much easier place to win a guerrilla war. Yet nine years after we first became involved there, the conflict drags on, the fighting as intense as ever.

Why? The answer has to do with one basic characteristic that El Salvador and Vietnam have in common. In both countries, the effectiveness of U.S. policy depends on the nature of the regime we are backing. If a government does not have the respect of its own people, it is not going to win the war, no matter how much money or training it receives. This, in the end, is the principal insight of the four lieutenant colonels. They have understood that, until the Salvadoran government and military are capable of meeting the needs of their own people, the war in that country is certain to remain “stuck.”

©1989 Michael Massing

Michael Massing, a freelance writer, is studying the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine.