Ten days after our national election, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, my wife and I went to El Salvador. We traveled separately, of course, intent on very different missions, but still it was disheartening to travel so far in an effort at getting away from the grim realities of our national crisis only to be greeted by Rumsfeld's all-too-familiar face squinting out at us from the front page of the Prensa Gráfica.
It seems he was in that tiny Central American backwater to publicly acknowledge the contributions that the Salvadorans have made to the War on Iraq. Six Salvadoran combat veterans, clad in desert camouflage that made them indistinguishable from North American soldiers, were decorated by our Pentagon chief for valor while serving in Iraq.
I thought of Rumsfeld's medals being pinned on those soldiers the following evening when we joined hundreds of pilgrims from around the world and 15,000 Salvadorans in a poignant candlelight procession in commemoration of the anniversary of the murder of seven Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at their residence at the University of Central America. Their killers were also members of the Salvadoran military, trained in Georgia at Fort Benning's infamous "School of the Americas."
At the vigil, the current vice-rector of the University asked rhetorically, "Why, in a nation which cannot afford to educate its young and where health care is a luxury, do we choose to maintain an army? What earthly purpose does a Salvadoran army of over 100,000 troops serve?"
That brought Rumsfeld back to mind. He had provided the answer, simply by being in El Salvador. (He had also visited 3,000 U.S. troops on maneuvers somewhere in the rural highlands of El Salvador at the same time, a fact that drew scant notice in this country.)
Based on the population of 8 million people who live there, El Salvador's army would be the equivalent of a U.S. army of 3 million troops, simply because we need them.
El Salvador has no other reason for an army of that size. They have no foes among their neighbors. They have no resources coveted by the Hondurans or the Guatemalans. They are so desperately poor that they can't afford the economic dead weight represented by a "trophy" army like theirs.
No, they have one only because we pay for it. We train it. We equip it—for use as a valuable part of our imperial forces. In a critical sense, we depend on it. Because there are so many soldiers in the Salvadoran Army we may not have to draft American young men and women. They are our mercenaries, our insurance policy against ever feeling the full cost of waging pre-emptive warfare.
While I was in El Salvador, I read a collection of Bill Moyers' essays, Moyers on America. I remembered many of them, usually commentaries given on his weekly PBS program Now with Bill Moyers. Among his many insights, one in particular seemed relevant to our coincidental contacts with Secretary Rumsfeld. It came in a short monologue he gave last year on Now as the invasion of Iraq was taking place, one entitled Wearing the Flag.
"So I put on the flag as a modest riposte to men with flags in their lapels who shoot missiles from the safety of Washington think tanks or argue that sacrifice is good as long as they don't have to make it. ... I put it on to remind myself that one is not unAmerican to see war—except in self-defense—as a failure of moral imagination, political nerve and diplomacy."
We are close to making the same mistakes as the ancient Romans in our casual reliance on technology and surrogate troops hired from distant lands to wage our wars. El Salvador has become in many ways one of our dingy frontier provinces, one of a growing number bound to us by a purchased loyalty.
Salvadorans watch U.S. television; they use the dollar as their currency; they are preached at, baptized by and speak in tongues with 57 varieties of U.S. missionaries who elbow one another out of the way in a fervid competition to save the most Salvadoran souls.
Salvadorans stand for hours in line at the U.S. Embassy vying with one another for the tantalizingly few travel visas awarded weekly. Their teens join Salvadoran branches of U.S. street gangs. And their soldiers are our soldiers; they fight our wars.
Yet many Salvadorans we met and worked with retain an amazing resilience in the face of all they have endured. Rooted in the powerful sense of Liberation Theology, watered by the blood of so many martyrs, carefully nurtured by a handful of dedicated community leaders and pastors, the Christian progressives of El Salvador can serve as mentors and role models for us in this country.
We couldn't whine about John Kerry's defeat to people who'd experienced Oscar Romero's assassination. We couldn't feel sorry for ourselves over ballot box fraud in a country where teenagers had been massacred for simply gathering in protests. We didn't dare lick our wounds over media misinformation campaigns in a society where guerrilla radio's clandestine broadcasts had been the only information source during 13 years of civil war.
Despite everything, there remains hope in El Salvador. And so there can certainly be determination here as well. As the graffiti in San Salvador reminds us, el pueblo unido jamás será vencido, a united people can never be conquered!