Lost History (Part 1): Death, Lies and Bodywashing
WASHINGTON -- On Sunday, May 5, a solemn ceremony took place in
an open grassy space at Arlington National Cemetery. A small
memorial stone was unveiled to honor 21 American soldiers who
died in secret combat against leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.
As family members wiped tears from their eyes, Salvadoran
children placed tiny American flags next to the soldiers' names,
unknown casualties from the 1980s.
"For too long, we have failed to recognize the contributions,
the sacrifices, of those who served with distinction under the
most dangerous conditions," said former U.S. Ambassador to El
Salvador, William G. Walker. The next day, The Washington
Post focused on the human interest side of the story in a
front-page piece entitled "Public Honors for Secret Combat."
But what received short-shrift amid the honors and the tears was
the remarkable confirmation that for much of a decade, the
Reagan-Bush administrations had conducted a secret war in which
American soldiers engaged in not-infrequent combat. The 21 dead
surpassed the number who died in the 1989 invasion of Panama.
Yet, the war in El Salvador was waged with hardly anyone in
Congress or the national news media catching on to the U.S.
combat role. Indeed, throughout the 1980s, the White House and
Pentagon routinely denied that U.S. soldiers were in combat in
El Salvador -- and few reporters challenged the official story.
Shortly after taking office in 1981, President Reagan dispatched
55 Green Beret trainers to El Salvador to teach the Salvadoran
army better techniques for defeating a resilient band of
Marxist-led guerrillas. For years, the Salvadoran military had
been more adept at running death squads against civilian targets
than at cornering an armed enemy in the country's mountainous
To allay public fears about another Vietnam War, however, Reagan
limited the number of Green Berets to 55 and ordered them to
avoid combat zones. They were to train only, not advise the
Salvadorans in combat situations as Green Berets had done in
Vietnam. They also were forbidden to carry M-16s. They were to
have only side arms, for self-defense.
Missing the Story
All of these U.S. government pronouncements, the Arlington
ceremony made clear, had been lies. But the Post story made
only a passing attempt to explain why so little was known about
these years of classified combat and why the government
cover-ups had been so successful.
"Reports of firefights involving U.S. troops were closely held,
and field commanders were told in no uncertain terms not to
nominate soldiers for combat awards," the Post reported. It
then quoted Joseph Stringham, a retired one-star Army general
who commanded U.S. military forces in El Salvador in 1983-84.
"It had been determined this was not a combat zone, and they
were going to hold the line on that," Stringham said. "I've
puzzled over why. It may be something as fundamental as the
bureaucracy not wanting to reverse itself."
The Reagan administration also might have been surprised how
easy it was to gull the Washington press corps and the Congress.
No matter how obvious the lies or how illogical the
administration's arguments, the media and the Democrats couldn't
sustain any serious pursuit of the truth.
But the lies did not go completely unchallenged. As early as
1981-82, a few American reporters in Central America were
stumbling over the reality of secret U.S. combat operations.
One top U.S. military adviser told me about an incident in which
he was on patrol with a Salvadoran army unit and was spotted by
New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner. Bonner, renowned
for his tough reporting on the early years of the war, was not
easily intimidated into doubting his own perceptions.
To head off a possible embarrassing disclosure, the Green Beret
told me that U.S. officials quickly lined up the Salvadoran
soldiers and gave them false affidavits to sign, declaring that
there was no American with them. The adviser said the strategy
for discrediting honest journalists, such as Bonner, was always
an important part of the embassy's strategy for keeping secret
the reality on the battlefield.
In early 1982, Bonner also exposed the Salvadoran government's
massacre of nearly 1,000 men, women and children at the town of
El Mozote in December 1981. After that disclosure, Bonner was
targeted by right-wing press "watchdog" groups, such as Reed
Irvine's Accuracy in Media, and the Wall Street Journal's
In congressional testimony, assistant secretaries of state
Thomas Enders and Elliott Abrams disputed Bonner's stories. They
insisted that an investigation of the incident had concluded
that the El Mozote massacre had never happened.
As pressure built on The New York Times, then-executive editor
Abe Rosenthal flew to El Salvador to assess the complaints about
Bonner first-hand. Sympathetic to Ronald Reagan's
anti-communist foreign policy, Rosenthal began limiting Bonner's
role in the Times' bureau in Central America.
Word soon spread that Bonner would be removed. When I was in El
Salvador on a reporting assignment in fall 1982, two senior U.S.
officials boasted to me about the embassy's success in
discrediting Bonner and orchestrating his departure. In early
1983, Rosenthal did recall Bonner from El Salvador and put him
on the business desk in New York. Not long after that, Bonner
resigned from the Times.
Another case of gutsy reporting was a long investigative article
by Frank Greve and Ellen Warren of the Knight-Ridder newspaper
chain on Dec. 16, 1984. The piece brought to light the term
"bodywashing," the disturbing practice of reporting false
details about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of U.S.
soldiers involved in secret operations.
The Knight-Ridder story focused on an elite Army helicopter
unit, the 160th Task Force of the 101st Airborne Division
stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky. The article quoted family
members who suspected that their loved ones had died in combat
in Central America and that cover stories had then been
concocted about the pilots' fate.
"If downed or captured, the soldiers, who wore civilian clothes
and flew at night, were told to expect no U.S. government
acknowledgement or intervention, the relatives said," according
to the Knight-Ridder article.
In 1984, the Reagan administration insisted that it had no
knowledge about any casualties from secret fighting in Central
America. But the Knight-Ridder story ended with a chilling
quote from a former covert military specialist who explained the
practice of "bodywashing."
"If a guy is killed on a mission," the former officer said, "and
if it was sensitive politically, we'd ship the body back home
and have a jeep roll over on him at Fort Huachuca," a remote
Army intelligence base in Arizona. "Or we'd arrange a chopper
crash, or wait until one happened and insert a body of two into
the wreckage later. It's not that difficult."
Also in December 1984, I wrote an article for The Associated
Press describing how American helicopter crews assigned to the
CIA had fired on Nicaraguan troops earlier that year. The first
incident occurred on Jan. 6, 1984, during a raid on the
Nicaraguan port of Potosi. The second clash occurred on March
7, 1984, at the southern port of San Juan del Sur in support of
CIA operations which mined Nicaraguan harbors.
The administration did not even bother to deny the AP story.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes simply declared that "I
think the CIA is probably checking to see what the facts are."
Though the two stories pulled back the veil on the secret
Central American conflicts, neither the AP nor the Knight-Ridder
article generated much follow-up by other Washington
journalists. The administration continued to insist publicly
that U.S. soldiers in the region were avoiding combat
situations-- and the national media accepted the White House
By 1984, lying about Central America had become a
well-established administration practice.
The Skeletons of Truth
Bonner's courageous reporting on the El Mozote massacre would
not be corroborated until 1991. Then, a United Nations
forensics team excavated the village and found hundreds of
skeletons, including those of little children who had been
butchered by the Salvadoran army along with their mothers and
But this El Mozote war crime, like so many others in El
Salvador, went unpunished, not only there but in Washington. No
American official was held accountable for giving misleading
testimony to Congress or covering up the atrocity.
Nor did any of those who took part in undercutting Bonner pay
any price. Rosenthal remains a regular columnist for the Times.
Reed Irvine continues to receive national attention in his
well-financed role as a press "watch dog." Wall Street Journal
editor Robert Bartley still heads the paper's right-wing
editorial page, which continues to attack journalists who don't
toe the conservative line.
Only after the United Nations released its findings about El
Mozote was Bonner rehired by the Times. He now reports for
the paper from Eastern Europe.
Moscow on the Border
What drove these recurring deceptions of the 1980s was the
Reagan administration's zealous opposition to leftist movements
anywhere in the Third World. Though many experts on Central
America saw the peasant uprisings as rebellions against corrupt
oligarchies, President Reagan and CIA director William J. Casey
detected instead an insidious Soviet plot to surround and
conquer the United States.
In one memorable formulation of this theme, Reagan conjured up
the image of Harlingen, Texas, under threat from Central
American peasant armies. At another point, a top Pentagon
official warned that there was nothing to stop Nicaragua's
Sandinista army from marching south, conquering Costa Rica,
invading Panama and seizing the Panama Canal. (I asked at that
Pentagon briefing if the 82nd Airborne might not show up.)
One U.S. government pamphlet from the mid-1980s even suggested
that Nicaragua, with its navy of a few river patrol boats, might
somehow bottle up the U.S. fleet in New Orleans as it tried to
resupply American troops in Europe during a hypothetical World
War III with the Soviet Union.
As farfetched as these scenarios were, these apocalyptic visions
justified to the Reagan team almost any action, even
countenancing atrocities against civilian populations in Central
America and deceiving the American people at home.
The Washington press corps, cowed by Reagan's effective attacks
on reporters, either kept silent about the absurdities of the
policy or joined in advancing the bizarre arguments. Journalists
who sided with Reagan's foreign policy -- the likes of Fred
Barnes and Charles Krauthammer -- saw their careers soar.
Suddenly, they were pundits on weekend TV shows and were in
demand on the lucrative lecture circuit.
So, even after the 12-year Reagan-Bush reign ended, there was
little interest in Washington to correct the bogus historical
record. Too many powerful individuals, both in and out of
government, had profited off the lies.
Ironically, conservatives were the ones who led the belated
fight to gain recognition for the U.S. soldiers who fought and
died in El Salvador. F. Andy Messing Jr., a former Special
Forces major who worked closely with Lt. Col. Oliver North on
Central America in the 1980s, was one of those who insisted on
the historical correction.
After a CBS "60 Minutes" broadcast on the issue a year ago,
Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R-Calif., pushed through legislation
mandating that the Pentagon give Armed Forces Expeditionary
Medals to soldiers who served in El Salvador from January 1981
until February 1992.
"The U.S. government was going to allow a clever blurring of the
history of the civil war to go unchallenged," commented former
Special Forces Sgt. Greg Walker. "We wanted to correct the
history. ...We wanted to honor our dead and bring closure to
The little monument to the secret warriors now sits next to a
newly planted tree in an otherwise vacant sector of Arlington
National Cemetery. Like the war it commemorates, it is barely
noticeable to passers-by visiting the rows of white headstones
that cover the cemetery's rolling hills.
Normally helpful cemetery employees were nonplussed when asked
about the location of the marker several days after the
ceremony. One cemetery employee had no idea where it was and
another directed a questioner to Section 59, the wrong place.
The small shiny stone actually lies across Eisenhower Avenue
from Section 59, in Section 12. There were no flowers or flags.
The names of the 21 dead soldiers were not engraved on the
stone, just the words: "El Salvador 1981-1992. Blessed are the
peacemakers. In sacred memory of those who died to bring hope
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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