With convulsions in Libya, Nicaragua, Lebanon, the Philippines and South Africa unremittingly crowding the front pages, El Salvador has been nearly forgotten. A reminder that it is still there, still blood-soaked and still tethered to us, came from, of all places, Hollywood. On Academy Awards night, an Oscar was given to "Witness to War: Dr. Charlie Clements."
The film, which won for short documentaries, is a braid of reportage and politics that ties the civil war in El Salvador into a visual force that deserves a showing in every American theater. El Salvador is a prototype client nation. More than half of its budget comes from the United States.
It isn't hand-wringing to state that we have complicity in the death toll of more than 50,000 people in the past eight years. According to a congressional report, one of every four Salvadorans is homeless, one of four dies before age 5, and a third of the country is bombed daily. We would know more about this except that major news organizations have dispatched their reporters to Nicaragua and Honduras. Like crows, the media swoop in to peck at the shiny.
If anything went unnoticed before about El Salvador, "Witness to War" brings it back. Charles Clements, the keen-eyed witness, is a physician who in 1982 took his medical supplies in a duffle bag to Guazapa, a village in a rebel-held area 25 miles north of San Salvador. He was the only fully educated doctor in a region of 10,000 people spread over 200 square miles.
What Clements was able to do in obstetrics, pediatrics and preventive medicine became little more than make-do health care. Often he operated with a Swiss army knife. Medicines were in low supply. Treating war wounds was one part of Clements' practice, with the rest given over to anemia, parasitic infections and illnesses caused by poor diet or no sanitation. Most of the psychiatric disorders went untreated: "Years of fleeing government offensives, watching each other die and struggling in the interim to find enough to eat had left these people mentally disorganized. One moment they would stand listlessly before me. The next, they would fall into spontaneous sobs."
Clements' observations are from his 1984 book, also titled "Witness to War." With the exception of The Washington Post's Book World, few major newspapers or magazines bothered to review it. Perhaps the book editors, like the foreign correspondents, were bored with El Salvador and saw Clements as just another Yankee doctor going Third World native. The oversight was major: Clements' book had remarkable literary, as well as reportorial, power. The physician-author is in the mold of Yossarian, the mad hero of Joseph Heller's World War II novel, "Catch-22."
Like Yossarian, Clements was in the Air Force and wanted out when he saw that the war -- in Vietnam -- was a form of insanity. As in "Catch-22," military psychiatrists examined Capt. Clements. They committed him to a mental hospital. After six months in an Air Force cuckoo's nest, this son of a Republican military family, a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a C-130 pilot with more than 50 combat missions out of Saigon and Camranh Bay, was given a psychiatric discharge. The doctors said that Clements' "disabling depressive reaction and mild to moderate social and industrial impairment" was permanent.
Instead of seeing the light at the end of the Vietnam tunnel, Clements had begun seeing the light of his conscience. One war shock after another troubled him. An academy classmate -- an F-100 fighter pilot who had won his squadron's "Top Gun" award for the month -- told Clements how he won the prize: "I was coming back from a mission and I saw a bunch of slopes standing around in a rice paddy. I radioed to the base, and they radioed back that this was a free-fire zone and so I strafed 'em." Clements asked how he knew the Vietnamese were not farmers. The pilot replied: "Who the hell cares? They were gooks in a free-fire zone, so I offed 'em."
Clements, who now lives in Washington and is president of Americans for Peace in the Americas, was the Yossarian of the Vietnam war. He wasn't avoiding reality but saw it only too clearly, and for that he was labeled crazy.
In the mid-1970s, Clements reorganized his life. He enrolled in medical school, became president of the American Medical Student Association and earned an MD in 1980 from the University of Washington school of medicine. Saying that his "experience in Vietnam left me with a commitment to nonviolence," Clements became a Quaker and a pacifist.
In 1981, he listened to Alexander Haig claim that the Reagan administration would "demonstrate that we can win . . . a quick and decisive victory" in El Salvador.
Clements had heard that in the 1960s about Vietnam. Instead of a conventional and negative protest, he made a personal and positive one -- by going to El Salvador as a doctor. He took no side in the civil war, except to say that "there is always a need for healing in the midst of so much suffering, always a place to bear witness in the midst of injustice."
With a book and a film, the witnessing will outlast the injustice.