January 16, 2005


Ever since I started perusing David Holiday's blog on Central and Latin America a few months ago on the recommendation of my friend and colleague Marc Cooper (himself an old Latin American hand), I've been impressed by the informed seriousness of what Holiday has on offer. Last Thursday, Holiday posted a lengthy analysis of the Newsweek scoop, "The Salvador Option," revealing that the U.S. planned to train squads for Iraq and Syria to carry out, among other things, assassinations and kidnappings of figures in the Iraqi insurgency or among those supporting it. Holiday accused Newsweek of "sloppy reporting" and significant historical errors. I was quite prepared to accept Holiday's critique, all the more so because, as is usual with David, he carefully documented and linked to the sources he used in developing it.

Although I'm no expert on Latin America, it appears to me from David's account that Newsweek was certainly guilty of some mis-statements of historical fact. I must add, however, that the thought did occur to me that perhaps David hadn't seen the forest for the trees. The outrage that was expressed in print and in the blogosphere after the Newsweek revelations seems to me entirely justified. For the U.S. to adopt kidnapping and assassination as a matter of policy is deplorable, even if--as Holiday suggests--these black arts would be deployed only in 'limited circumstances." History also teaches us that such "limits" can quickly become inoperative in the field--as in the U.S. war in Vietnam, to take just one example. Moreover, their adoption by the U.S. forces in Iraq evaporates their rationale for any moralizing by the Bush administration about the bloody assassinations and snatching of journalists, aid workers, political figures,and others by the Iraqi insurgency, and, indeed, undoubtedly will provide added impetus and rationalization for more. We cannot install democracy at bayonet-point by adopting the cruel and inhuman tactics of those whom many consider its enemies--as we also did at Abu Ghraib.

Then, too, I was surprised to find Holiday criticize Jason Vest, a journalist who has written extensively about national security affairs for The Nation, the Village Voice, the American Prospect and other organs of the more-or-less progressive press. I've never caught Jason in any errors of fact or distortion, as Holiday has charged, in the years I've been reading him.  So I e-mailed Vest to ask him what he thought of David's critique, and am publishing his response below:


If I read this right, Holiday is trying to make the case that some improvements in ESAF training and doctrine that produced some tactical success (as correctly noted in some military studies) yet did not win the war for ESAF, somehow equates with ESAF having made great strategic strides, if not the achievement of strategic victory---thus minimizing my contention that some military studies have concluded that the efforts of the US-advised ESAF and Salvadoran government were "at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, not end it."

To this end, Holiday also accuses me of "sloppy scholarship." Though I am merely a journalist and not a "scholar,"  I submit that it's at least sloppy blogging (if not sloppy journalism and scholarship), to tell readers that the Coates' paper "relies" on one monograph. Coates paper "relied" on not "one infamous monograph," but  nine sources---including not just his own experiences, but personal interviews with, among others,  the US ambassador, chief of the military mission and the Salvadoran president.

Continuing on in the "sloppiness" department: Holding that there are other "military sources" that are "far more representative, and recent" in making the case for El Salvador as a successful counterinsurgency model, Holiday also cites a line from a 1995 paper by Steven Metz:

"Today, US counterinsurgency strategy continues to assume that the wisdom Metz's reporting on the assessments of others (clearly qualified by phrases like "continues to assume" and "thought to have proven") should not be confused with the Metz's own analysis and conclusions (one of which I quoted in my article). Metz's paper ultimately cast El Salvador as at best a "qualified success," and only because of the end of the Cold War; he further cautioned against its use as a model of counterinsurgency due to it's "immense political and economic costs" and for what it demonstrated in limits of American leverage over a host government due to larger strategic context.

I also have to take issue with Holiday's contention that I "ignore that the US did have some successes with certain units".  I did, in fact, implicitly note the ESAF did have some success when I noted ESAF's improvements in forcing FMLN dispersals (I'm sorry if Holiday is irked about the Air Force and others not getting specific props.) This doesn't make any difference, though, to my fundamental points, as previously noted in military literature (and elsewhere): Whatever improvements were made that made life more difficult for the FMLN, the ESAF failed to adequately or consistently exploit them; and that an insurgency that drags on is not a sign of victory or progress for the government fighting it (unless, as Metz has noted in a more recent paper, one decides to accept that victory is impossible, and instead pursue a counterinsurgency strategy of containment.)

I also admit to some confusion over his attempt to use a 1989 Michael Massing essay to buttress his contention that my article is lacking. Holiday writes:

"Similarly, as Michael Massing noted in an essay published in 1989, the report's authors -- while admitting to a military stalemate -- also argued that the point of counterinsurgency involved much, much more if it was to succeed."

I wrote:

Unlike many who start from the errant presumption that fighting a counterinsurgency is primarily a military, rather than political, affair, the colonels held that U.S.-backed military efforts should not be the primary strategy of a counterinsurgency operation, but that the real focus should be on genuine social, political, economic and military reform – and should be conducted only with a "honest and responsive government" as a partner.

He also writes of the Bacevich, etc, paper

>>but it was published in 1988, having been written based on a field visit to El >>Salvador in the fall of 1987, the date being important to situate chronologically the >>criticism they were making.

First, I think it bears noting that the paper was also informed by the experiences of one of the colonels who had served as an advisor in El Salvador in 1983. In terms of what it reflected about circa 1989 realities, Holiday also omits Massing's reportage of a key point regarding the ESAF's ability and the FMLN's response  To quote Massing:

"Once [ESAF] had broken the guerrilla's momentum, however, the army proved incapable of seizing the initative 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 the promise of eliminating the insurgency.'"

He further fails to note that Massing's piece, in addition to containing informed criticisms of the colonels' paper, also reported on informed endorsements of the paper from current US diplomatic and military officials serving or recently returned from El Salvador, as well as former personnel still keeping a hand in. Among them was veteran US advisor Bruce Hazelwood, who spent seven years as a military advisory, and post-retirement was still keeping an active hand in. Hazelwood was quite happy to give his assessment of both the paper and El Salvador 1989 as he saw it:

"When [Hazelwood and I] talked, in early April [1989], he had just returned from El Salvador, having accompanied a congressional delegation there. I asked him what he thought of the lieutenant colonel's 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.'

"Hazelwoood, 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 anti-government demonstration that for a a pro-government one,' the former master sergeant said....'If you asked me, After all the training and equipment that we've given, are we better off today that we were in 1981, I'd have to tell you that we're in worse shape today.'"

I think by this point it's at least a touch reasonable to lend to some credence to the notion that US O2's to the Salvadoran Air Force and ESAF's inability to effectively counter a "talk talk fight fight" strategy does not for a successful counterinsurgency campaign make. (Indeed, a line in one of the articles Holiday cites about the "rebels learning to adapt" and "learning to spot likely helicopter landing zones and prepare them for attack" nicely illustrates how an insurgency pursues a strategy of innovation and patience.) So let's return to an earlier point by Holliday in the "sloppy scholarship" vein:

"Vest cites a rather pedestrian
classroom paper by one Major Coates as evidence that the US military establishment doesn't view El Salvador as a success. Apart from the fact that such a paper can hardly be considered a serious part of official military scholarship, I think Vest misinterprets the paper, which also says:

gained in Southeast Asia and Central America holds. El Salvador is thought to have proven the correctness of our strategy and doctrine. 'The El Salvador experience,"'Victor Rosello writes, 'generally validated the US Army's Foreign Internal Defense doctrine in countering insurgency."'But future counterinsurgency may not emulate the past; the similarities between Vietnam and El Salvador may be much greater than those between El Salvador and what comes after it.

But by 1985, the benefits of United States' training and equipment gave the upper hand to the ESAF. The result was that the FMLN had to change its strategy and tactics as previously mentioned. Now, with the military situation stabilized, the ESAF continued to chase the insurgency instead of focusing on the cause and root of the insurgency."

I won't bother with debating whether or not Coates' paper is a "serious part of official military scholarship," but I do find it interesting that Holliday would, in the service of charging me with misinterpretation and Coates with lacking scholarship, nonetheless approvingly cite part of the "pedestrian" paper. And I have to say I find the "pedestrian" bit condescending: I've encountered a number of very bright and insightful people in my life whose views should not be disregarded simply because they may not be similarly blessed in the dynamic writing department. While Coates writing may be lacking, at least its not disingenuous, as Holiday's rendering of his work is. Elsewhere in his paper, Coates paper did, in fact, note improvements in the Salvadoran government and military---but not in the areas of leadership and strategic grasp. Here's what comes immediately after the line Holliday quotes:

"The ESAF refuse to
comprehend that victory will only be achieved first by
addressing the grievances of the Salvadoran people.  The
military leadership enjoyed its new growth and capabilities,
but its "National Campaign Plan" to win popular support of
the people has been largely ineffective.

    Since early 1985, the war has settled into a fixed
pattern.  One in which the FMLN will attempt a raid against a
target that will embarrass the Salvadoran government, or lead
to the deterioration of the Salvadoran economy.

Understanding the threat it now faces from the ESAF, the FMLN
will undertake operations that have been well-planned.  It
will be spectacular in nature but well-rehearsed in another
country.  Three months prior to execution, FMLN personnel
infiltrate ESAF forces, gather additional intelligence, and
study patterns around the target. One such example was the
attack at the Forth Brigade Headquarters at El Paraiso in

    This raid inflicted moderate casualties, however, it
demonstrated the FMLN capability to strike at an ESAF
strong point.  But most importantly, it undermined the
credibility of the ESAF in forces; the FMLN remains on the
battlefield and seems able to sustain its current strategy
indefinitely.  Its existence is proof that the Salvadoran
government remains ineffective and has yet to implement a
strategy for the winning war that has stagnated since 1985."

The conclusion of Coates' paper is in a similar vein, admonishing both the Salvadoran and US governments on a number of points.

yours in overstatement and sloppy scholarship,

I have sent Holiday the above note from Vest, and invited him to reply if he chooses to do so.

OTHER MEDIA NOTES:   In the new issue of The Nation, the Russia expert Stephen F. Cohen dissects "The Media's New Cold War," in which he cites chapter and verse from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and pundits from Charles Krauthammer to Nick Kristof to demonstrate they've all swallowed and helped to trumpet a largely fictitious theory that argues Vladimir Putin is implementing a new empire-building strategy of expansionism, beginning in the Ukraine. Cohen also exposes the hypocrisy of much American rhetoric about Russian "interference" in the Ukrainian elections. Now, let's be clear: I think that Putin is a repulsive, totalitarian-minded liberticide and nationalist demagogue, who is smothering freedom of expression inside Russia and trying to distract from the social bonfires at home with rhetorical snarls that capture headlines and gladden the hearts of devotees of a "Greater Russia." But he's much too pre-occupied at home with a hydra-headed crisis to have much much money or energy left over for rebuilding the "Evil Empire." Indeed, as the New York Times reports today, cash-strapped Russia is in the throes of massive street protests against Putin's slashing of old-age pensioners' already-meager benefits to just $7 a month--protests which, the Times says "have raised doubts about Mr. Putin's other proposed reforms, including those in banking, housing and electricity, which were supposed to be the centerpieces of his second term." As much as Putin is a threat to democracy at home, it's hard to think of him as other than a Paper Tiger when it comes to seriously implementing any expansionist desires outside his borders (much as he'd undoubtedly like to if he had the means--which he doesn't)....

RESPONSES have been posted by both Kos AND MyDD to the Wall Street Journal's article on their taking of payments from Howard Dean during the presidential campaign. As a professional journalist, I of course believe it's a serious no-no to take payments from those one is writing about. And, while neither of those famous bloggers are journalists--Kos in particular is an entrepreneur with a consulting business--I still don't think they should have considered themselves exempt from that rule, unless they ran a daily banner reporting they were on a pol's payrolI (a one-time mention, as Kos says he made, just doesn't do it, and could have been easily overlooked by all but the most fanatical daily readers of his giant blog). But I tend to agree more than not with the pungent assessment of my friend Sam Smith in today's edition of his daily press review Undernews: "Since we hate stories that become simultaneously this complicated and this dull, we think we'll drop the whole matter right here. In short, the Journal screwed up, in part because the bloggers eschew clarity and don't give a shit..."

BEWARE THE SCIENTOLOGISTS--Today's Boston Globe has a lengthy report from Indonesia on how the Church of Scientology is trying to cash in on the Tsunami disaster by offering victims help as a way of sucking them into L. Ron Hubbard's cult-racket and gain a major foot-hold in Southeast Asia....

P.S. AT 6:15 pm -- David Holiday has justed posted a long reply to Jason Vest's comments above on his blog, and you can read David's rejoinder by clicking here.

Posted by Direland at 03:32 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: JEROGatch | Oct 29, 2006 1:59:19 AM

Was in NYC this weekend and saw mass Scientologist presence in the subways (Union Sq and Times Sq). I have heard that the contracts they sign are binding, and they end up owing a lot after a while. I am glad Germany banned them. Christians in America should be easy to manipulate against them, since they practice Simony.

The WSJ is on the anti-Putin trail because the largest (best funded) opposition in Russia are the hyper-capitalists. Their plan is to slash taxes on Yukos and the corporations, and deregulate.

However, dismissing a re-expansionist Russia _solely_ on the basis of "But he's much too pre-occupied at home with a hydra-headed crisis to have much much money or energy left over for rebuilding the 'Evil Empire.'" is ahistoric. Such a tactic could be seen as a way to reinvigorate Russia, to focus the people's thinking away from domestic troubles, and, possibly, a way to make some money. Doesn't seem likely to me, either, but it is generally to Putin's advantage to have people think it is just a step away.

Posted by: Josh Narins | Jan 19, 2005 5:23:35 PM

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