Cutting Through the Fabric of Lies: On El Mozote

Interview with Mark Danner on "The Massacre at El Mozote" by John Nichols

There are few treasures so deeply revered and yet so often mangled as the truth.

The American people say they want nothing more from their leaders. But for the most part they receive the opposite. That is the underlying theme of ''The Massacre at El Mozote'' (Vintage; 304 pages; $ 12), one of the most powerful pieces of reporting to be published in recent years.

Based on articles that Mark Danner wrote for the New Yorker last year, the book tells the story of an incident that took place in the remote mountain hamlet of El Mozote in El Salvador on Dec. 11, 1981.

That day, the elite Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran Army - which had been extensively trained and outfitted by the United States - slaughtered 700 innocent men, women and children in what Danner explains ''may well have been the largest massacre in modern Latin American history.'' The story was reported in the New York Times and other publications at the time. But an elaborate disinformation campaign carried out by the Salvadoran government and its allies in the Reagan administration cast doubts on the reports.

Twelve years later, Danner, a staff writer for the New Yorker, used government documents and interviews with soldiers and suvivors, U.S. Embassy aides and others to piece together the truth not only of the massacre, but of the lies and deceptions that allowed U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military to continue.

Hailed as brilliant investigative journalism, ''The Massacre at El Mozote'' was also recognized by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as ''a powerful indictment of our national capacity to betray our own noblest ideals when we claim the right to decide the destiny of other countries.''

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis said, ''The truth can no longer be in doubt.'' Danner, who will read from his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Border's Books, spoke with The Capital Times about lessons that can be learned from a sad chapter in American foreign policy.

THE CAPITAL TIMES: How do you characterize your book? Journalism or history?

MARK DANNER: I guess I try not to make the distinction. I think of myself as a writer. I'm trying to tell a story and so I think of it as a narrative.

I guess I think of my job in pieces like this one as trying to tell the truth of what happened and why it happened - so far as that's possible.

That's what I tried to do in this piece. To take an event, a fairly little-known event, and to try to show the reader what it was, as vividly as possible. And also to show what the things were that led not only to this fairly enormous killing but also to the denial of the killing that came later.

CT: Is it easier to find the truth after 10 years?

MD: That's a good question. In this case the answer must be yes, simply because the release of heretofore classified documents from the Central Intelligence Agency, from the State Department, and from other institutions of the U.S. government has made it possible to reconstruct in a much fuller way what exactly happened within the government as it tried to respond to the reports of this massacre.

A lot of those documents are included in the book. A lot of the CIA documents that had been secret for a long time I included in the book so that people could judge for themselves. But, on the other hand, it does bear repeating that the story itself - the story of the massacre - was told within a few weeks of the event by Raymond Bonner of the New York Times, by Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post. Pictures were published by Susan Meiselas, working at the time for the Times.

That's what strikes many people as being so troubling. The story was actually told and then covered up. It's a sobering story for someone who deals with words and writing. People who write and who report believe that the most important thing in the world is getting out the information, telling the story.

CT: And that once the story is told good things will inevitably follow from it, that wrongs will be righted.

MD: One of the things that so fascinated me about this story is that the truth to some degree was told, but it was denied.

It's very obvious from this story that in many cases it's not information that matters but politics. Information can get out but that, in the end, it's a political fight that must be waged.

There were a lot of activists during the 1980s who were making noise about these issues, but they felt like they were coming up against roadblocks. This obviously suggests that governments have an ability to win the political - or should we say disinformation - war. What's striking about the recent release of documents is the degree to which all of the claims that were made at the time are confirmed. There was knowledge of the killings high up in the military, the U.S. did seek to cover up what happened.

You can name one after another of these charges and they're confirmed. I guess it bears a little bit on the answer to the last question: It's politics, not information. This stuff was out there, people were reporting it, but the government kept offering denials.

The idea that anybody took really seriously the denials is ridiculous. But making the denials gave the government a position that others had to disprove.

CT: That's what so many reporters found so frustrating, wasn't it?

MD: Yes. The government kept raising the bar of the standard of truth higher and higher.

The standards of evidence are very much brought into play in the story I tell in ''The Massacre at El Mozote.'' For instance, the two U.S. Embassy officers who went to the site of the massacre to investigate it, and who interviewed a lot of the witnesses, told me quite unequivocally that they believed that a massacre had happened.

Yet, in the cable that was sent back to the State Department, the junior embassy official who wrote it concluded that they ''really couldn't support charges that a massacre had happened.''

It was playing with words actually.

CT: Do you see the potential for your book to teach some long-term lessons about American foreign policy?

MD: My intent in writing the article was not simply to write a book about a massacre that happened 12 years ago, however horrible it was, however historic in its magnitude.

My intent was to say something about the role of the United States in the Cold War, and what the Cold War did to Americans. To say something about how Americans should think about their role in the world, and how Americans behave in the world.

I hope the reader will learn from the book something that he or she can take along when looking at what's going on now as America tries to define its place in the post-Cold War world with respect to Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda. This is really an attempt to speak in moral terms about foreign policy and responsibility.

Mark Danner interviewed by John Nichols, The Capital Times, Madison, WI

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