As with nearly all of the 40,000 noncombatant deaths in El Salvador's civil war, responsibility for the killings of six Americans in a San Salvador cafe on June 19 remains unknown. Four of the slain were off-duty Marines.
The event might have vanished from public attention, as does much of the news from El Salvador now that the violence has become routinized, except that both President Reagan and Caspar Weinberger involved themselves. Reagan, referring to "the jackals" who killed the Americans, pledged to "move any mountain and ford any river" to secure justice. A month later, Weinberger announced that the moving and fording had been done: the Salvadoran government "with our assistance has taken care of, in one way or another, taken prisoner or killed . . . a number of the people who participated in that killing."
The two statements need to be remembered because, joined together, they epitomize much that's wrong with U.S. policy in Central America.
Wrong is the right word. That's what Weinberger was in trying to create the impression that the marines' deaths had been avenged. In fact, he had no reliable or precise information. Pentagon spokesmen, in a mop-up operation comparable to what the White House clarification staff braces itself for after a Ronald Reagan press conference, said that Weinberger was speaking generally, not specifically.
Even if he could have supplied the names of the assailants, it would still have been only jungle justice. Is that what $500 million in military aid is meant to bring about? A hit squad is not much different from a death squad, except that in this case Weinberger was proud to claim that American "assistance" had spilled some guerrilla blood. His message was obvious: See that, Congress? The money's been worth it.
Throughout the five years of the Salvadoran civil war, Reagan and Weinberger statements like the latest ones have ranged from the overblown to the reckless. A context has been established, one that needs to be kept in mind as each new escalation in violence works against peaceful solutions.
Two years ago this month, Weinberger, seeking to soothe a skeptical Congress, announced that the Salvadoran-U.S. war against the rebels "is going very much better." He cited "a significant improvement in a number of categories we use to measure these things -- in government casualties, engagements with guerrilla forces and things of that kind . . . Morale and leadership are improving, so I think it is substantially better."
It wasn't at all. Only two months earlier, the Pentagon had released figures suggesting that morale couldn't have been worse. Only 15 percent of the Salvadoran troops trained by the United States two years earlier were still in the army. Fifty percent of those trained just the year before were gone. At $9,000 to train each soldier, this extravagance was another Pentagon ashtray.
The justification for paying the war bill in El Salvador has been anticommunism. Weinberger said that the civil war is really a global war -- between the United States and the Soviet Union. If the Reds win in El Salvador, the United States might have to withdraw troops from Europe and Asia to protect its southern borders. The apocalyptic view is shared by Reagan. He has labeled the conflict in Central America "the transcendent moral issue of our time."
From that, it is not a long leap to increasing the weaponry by which bullets and bombs can establish American morality in El Salvador. News reports now tell of nine U.S.-supplied attack jets dropping an average of 129 bombs a month this year on the countryside, with each bomb weighing 750 pounds. Nearly 50 combat helicopters prowl as gunships. Nine hundred rockets a month are fired from the planes. The average last year was 500 a month.
The American bankrolling of violence may be satisfying the military tastes of Caspar Weinberger, but little evidence is available that Salvadorans see the U.S. intervention as a lasting help in ridding their country of poverty and disease. In a report published late last year by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, retired Lt. Col. Edward King, once a Latin American specialist for the Pentagon, wrote that "increasingly both the Salvadoran armed forces and elements of the FMLN are beginning to understand that neither side has much to gain from a prolonged continuation of an attritive war." As one FMLN combat leader said, "It serves no purpose for us to fight to win a desert that we will then have to come to you gringos to get the money to rebuild."
Who says the money will be here? Rebuilding deserts is not the interest of Reagan or Weinberger, not as long as moving mountains and fording rivers are the way to establish morality.