Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,  the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of  El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.  It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in  the town  as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.  Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.   The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.   There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.  As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.  When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.  Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.  Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.  A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.  These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.   A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.  His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.  He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.  Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.   A History of Violence:  Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.   With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.  He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the  ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.  He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.  It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.    Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.   His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.  Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.   I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.  You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.  It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.  It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.  This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.  It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.  These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.  It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.  As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.  We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.  We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.   Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.

Karl Schlögel’s Moscow

There have been many books, both fiction and non-fiction, written about Stalin’s purges, but there is nothing quite like Karl Schlögel’s monumental Moscow 1937, which I’ve just finished.  As the title suggests, the book is a portrait of Moscow in the year in which the Stalinist terror reached a horrific pitch of self-destruction on the 20th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

That year the Stalinist tyranny arrested 2 million people, of whom just under 700,000 were murdered and 1.3 million deported to labour camps and forced labour projects, where tens of thousands of them died.   This horrific harvest was a consequence of the ‘mass operations’ carried out by the regime to eliminate a Trotskyist conspiracy that existed entirely in the imagination of the regime itself.

Taking his cue from Bulgakov’s hallucinatory allegory The Master and Margarita, Schlögel meticulously assembles a vast panoramic portrait of a city and a society locked into a ‘bacchanal of destruction’  in which ecstatic orchestrated pseudo-revolutionary spectacles, hyper-modernisation and the constant threat of extreme violence coincided with show trials, collective explosions of xenophobic hatred and the gratuitous mass murder of tens of thousands of entirely innocent people.

This was the world that the American philosopher Susan Buck-Morss evoked in Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, but Schlögel achieves his own ‘chronotope’ of Moscow in 1937 through an extraordinarily-detailed montage, brilliantly drawing on a vast range of mostly untouched material.

Literary and political diaries, maps of the city,  burial records at the Butovo shooting range where the NKVD murdered most of its victims, childrens literature,  utopian city plans, geological congresses,  architectural projects, eyewitness descriptions of gymnastic processions and sports parades,  accounts of polar expeditions, Central Committee plenums, censuses, jazz concerts – all these different activities coincided with the year of terror and all of them are part of Schlögel’s portrait.

These materials are brought to life through Schlögel’s own astute and consistently insightful analysis of a society that believed itself to be hurtling towards a brave new revolutionary future even as it annihilated its own citizens by the tens and thousands. The sheer scale of the killing and the range of the NKVD’s victims was staggering.  It included leading party members, veteran revolutionaries, film directors, writers, members of particular nationalities and ethnic groups. exiled members of the Comintern, peasants and workers, priests and ‘old believers’, mountaineers and members of the NKVD itself.

Much of this is already known,  but Schlögel brilliantly shows how this atmosphere of witchhunts and systematic mass murder coincided with mass political manipulation on an unprecedented scale, with orchestrated collective spectacles, and an endless flow of slogans and images that concealed the essential barbarity of what was taking place, under a regime that proclaimed the Soviet Union as the embodiment of the hopes of humanity even as it ripped itself to shreds. 

The result is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and remembrance of a dire period of Russian history in which human life became essentially worthless, and survival was entirely dependent on the maniacal whims of a paranoid and all-powerful regime that was able to murder its victims with absolute impunity.  A terrifying, illuminating, and absolutely essential book.

Alistair Campbell’s winners

There is a story some years back, it might have been in one of Nick Cohen’s books, that  Peter Mandelson and various New Labour luminaries attended a politicians-meet-businessmen functions, where they were reportedly so wide-eyed and awestruck by  by the presence of Sky executives that one of the execs contemptuously dubbed them  them ‘starfuckers.’

The deference that New Labour showed towards the rich and powerful when it was in office demonstrated the truth of this observation many times over, and the post-political business careers of its leading politicians shown how much they wanted to be like the people they lionized and envied.    I was reminded of this tale this weekend, when Alistair Campbell over the last week when the former spin doctor made one of his periodic media appearances to promote his new book.

As is always the case whenever these moments occur, there were the usual references to Alistair’s ‘demons’, his nervous breakdown and his depression, because the self-pitying bully who outed David Kelly, and who glibly helped manipulate parliament and the British public into a criminal war of aggression with the casual amorality of a Mad Men creative selling a new Chevy,  is a complex, sensitive and interesting guy, whose complexities are worth talking and thinking about – and certainly more worth thinking about than the horrendous actions that he helped perpetrate, and all the boring dead people that resulted from them.

Campbell may not think much about that, but he clearly thinks a lot about himself and he wants the world to think about him too.   But this time along with the drinking and the depression and all the other stuff,  he has something else he wants the world to talk about.   He wants to talk about ‘winners’, because he has written a 423-page doorstopper called Winners and How they Succeed,  which sets out to explain the inner secrets of rich, famous and successful people like José Mourinho, Bono, Anna Wintour, Shane Warne, Ariana Huffington, Bill and Hilary Clinton, Tony Blair, Usain Bolt – and Elizabeth II for god’s sake –  and all the other great, if not necessarily good, big shots who Campbell has researched.

Campbell should have mentioned Nursultan Nazarbayev, the dictator of Kazahkstan, or Egypt’s military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who he has advised on ‘communications’ and PR in recent years, because it would be useful to know how they became ‘winners’.

But never mind, because now those of us who are not ‘winners’ now have a chance to become like his subjects.   We too can now sit up in bed poring over sections on ‘standing out from the crowd’ and ‘ changing setbacks into advantages’ so that we might learn how to rise above the common chaff.   We can memorize memorize what Campbell calls the ‘holy trinity’ of  ‘Strategy, Leadership, and Teamship’ or acronyms like  OST – ‘Objective, Strategy, Tactics’, and contemplate profound insights such as ‘ Winners hate losing.  Winners win because they have to.’

So get on with it, if you want to become like Jeff Bezos or Nelson Mandela, another of Campbell’s ‘winners.’  Ok, some of you might think there are some differences between Bezos and Mandela.  You might even be naive enough to think that Mandela wasn’t just a ‘winner’ but the symbol of a resistance movement to apartheid  that involved millions of people, and that his eventual political triumph was their triumph too.

Some of you might also think that Mandela’s greatness wasn’t due to his understanding of OST,  but to his moral grandeur, his faith in humanity and his belief in justice, all of which led him to undergo immense sacrifices for the ideals he believed in.

Others might question how Elizabeth II can be a ‘winner’ when she was born into a position that made losing impossible.   And it is worth noting in passing that José Mourinho owes his success in part to the huge amount of money that a Russian oligarch poured into Chelsea, and also that he fact that he is a successful football manager has never stopped him from being a real jerk, with a nasty sadistic streak that once led him to poke the Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova in the eye.

But Campbell is way too starstruck, and too obsessed with the notion of ‘winning’ as the point and purpose of existence, and the idea that ‘winners’ have certain innate characteristics that make them win to even consider such things. Politics, business, sport and showbiz – it’s all just a race and a competition for Campbell in which only point is for individuals to rise above everyone else.

The unspoken corollary of Campbell’s philosophy is that those of us who are not José Mourinho or Alan Sugar are losers.  Nearly a million Britons, for example, are dependent on food banks.  Clearly this must be due to the fact that they didn’t have the ability to become winners.  Maybe if they’d known about OST they could have avoided this.

Campbell’s adulation of ‘winners’ also ignores the fact that millions of people are brilliantly successful in their communities, their relationships, and their families.  You can find them in hospitals and GP practices, in the schools that Campbell once described as ‘bog standard’, in Africa risking their lives to fight Ebola.   The campaign ‘our three winners’ that sprung up after the North Carolina murders celebrated the lives of three murdered young Muslims as models in an entirely different manner to the model that Campbell would like people to study – if only to flog copies of his book.

People like this will never feature in Campbell’s radar.  For a man who only looks up to ‘winners’ they don’t even exist.   Lijke the anti-war protesters who Campbell once described ‘coming back from the march, placards under their arms, faces full of self-righteousness, occasional loathing when they spotted me’, they will always be little people, whose lives are unworthy of interest or attention.

Of course Campbell isn’t the only one who thinks like this. In the world of the one percent, we are often encouraged to revere the rich and successful simply because they are rich and successful, just as Campbell does, without any reference to their moral qualities or the social conditions that ensure that certain kinds of people succeed.

This is one reason why we have the skewed world order that we have and the dysfunctional society that we have.  Campbell is the perfect symbol of that dysfunction, with his ruthlessness amorality, greed, political dishonesty, and absolute unquestioning deference to power.

Maybe these qualities are what you need to be a ‘winner’, but I can’t help thinking that a society that looks up to someone like Alistair Campbell and accepts his vulgar social darwinism is in more serious trouble than it knows.

Or maybe I’m just suffering from a deficit of  OST.



Remembering Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’

It has passed virtually unnoticed in the UK, but this year is the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of one of the most famous military campaigns in history:  William Tecumseh Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ from Atlanta to Savannah.    I have a particular interest in this anniversary, having written a book on these campaigns and philosophy of war and their subsequent influence on the ‘American Way of War’ which is due to be published in the States by New Press next year:

For those that don’t know, the March to the Sea began on March 15 1864, when Sherman led his army out of the burning ruins of Atlanta towards the city of Savannah, 250 miles away on the Atlantic coast.   Sherman’s ultimate objective was Virginia, where the Army of the Potomac under the command of his great friend Ulysses S. Grant was locked in a bloody confrontation with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Both Grant and Sherman had launched a simultaneous two-pronged invasion of the South from the East and West in the spring of that year, with the aim of finally crushing the Confederacy and bringing the war to an end.  In Virginia things hadn’t worked out as planned; after a series of shockingly violent battles with Lee’s army that had inflicted massive casualties on both sides, Grant’s campaigns had weakened but not broken the Confederate defensive system.

While Grant attempted to bludgeon Lee’s armies into submission, Sherman had spent the summer advancing cautiously down  the Chattanooga-Atlanta railroad towards Atlanta, taking pains to avoid direct confrontations with Joseph Johnston’s Army of Tenessee that might have left his own forces stranded in enemy territory.

In July Sherman’s army laid siege to the ‘gateway to the South, and  on September 2, his forces entered Atlanta, conceding a major victory to the Union and guaranteeing Lincoln’s re-election in the forthcoming elections.  By that time the Union and Confederate armies in Virginia were locked into static trench warfare, and it was Sherman who now had room for manouevre.    Having seized Atlanta, Sherman could have taken his 100,000-strong army through a shorter and more direct route to Virginia through Tennessee.

Instead he took the unusual decision to reduce his army to just over 60,000 and abandon the city he had just captured, forcibly evacuating its population and breaking contact with his supply line.  Rather than pursue the Army of Tennessee, which was then under the command of John Bell Hood, he chose to lead his stripped-down forces the long way round through the undefended heartlands of Georgia and the Carolinas.

His objective, as he described it to Grant in typically blunt Shermanlike fashion, was to ‘make Georgia howl’, by wrecking the state’s ability to supply the Confederate armies with food and war materiel.   But his campaigns also constituted what seemed to some  observers at the time to be a new and amoral form of psychological warfare,  and to others a regression to an era of ‘uncivilized war’ that had supposedly been superseded, in which military operations were explicitly directed against civilians and non-combatants.

It was true that Sherman, like many Unionists, saw the attitudes and behavior of the civilian population as a crucial component of the Confederate war effort.  More than any other Union general, he had an astute understanding of the new overlapping relationship between the civilian and military dimensions of modern warfare, which were only just becoming apparent in the American Civil War.

Both sides began the conflict with the idea that it could be won through a Napoleonic ‘decisive battle’, and they were soon disabused of this notion as battles came and went without bringing a noticeable strategic advantage to the victors.   In these circumstances Sherman came to see the civilian population as a strategic objective in its own right.

In leading his army through the heart of the South, he intended a) to deal a psychological demoralizing blow to the Confederacy by demonstrating that its government was unable to defend its people and that its cause was hopeless b) to make Southern civilians pay a price for supporting the war by showing that ‘war and individual ruin are synonymous terms’ and c) to make the population feel the power of the federal government in such a way that it would not be inclined to engage in rebellion in the future

Marching in two wings approximately 20 miles apart, Sherman’s army rampaged through Georgia virtually unopposed, living off the land and wrecking railroad lines, depots and anything else that had any military use to the Confederacy:

In keeping with his orders to ‘forage liberally’ off the population, his army also seized food supplies and livestock and slaughtered livestock that they didn’t need for themselves:

These actions, perhaps not surprisingly,  transformed Sherman into a hate figure in the South, and the loathing directed towards him intensified after the war, as the image of Sherman the Great Destroyer was handed down through posterity through films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, and exaggerated and blown out of all proportion by ‘Lost Cause’ mythologizing till Sherman was variously described as a combination of proto-Nazi and Attila the Hun.

Personally, I do not, and never will, approve of military violence against civilians, but I have little sympathy with the demonisation of ‘Billy the Torch’ in the South.  Numerous historical studies of the March to the Sea and its sequel in the Carolinas have made it clear that Sherman’s campaigns were never as destructive or as violent as they were made out to be at the time – or since.

Depictions of Sherman’s marches as ‘genocide’ on neo-Confederate websites like the Southern Nationalist Network wilfully exaggerate the impact of his campaigns or the intentions behind them. The intemperate Sherman was certainly prone to violent and sometimes genocidal pronouncements, but there was a vast difference between what he said and what he actually did.

For all the considerable hardship that the largely defenseless population of Georgia and the Carolinas suffered in the course of his campaigns, the destruction that he inflicted was calibrated and limited and designed to inflict sufficient hurt on the South to force it to give up fighting and abandon secession, but not to alienate Southerners to the point where they would be unwilling to accept the authority of the government in the aftermath of the war.

Southern vilification of Sherman has long been an essential and also politically convenient component of ‘Lost Cause’ mythology, that presents the Confederacy as a victim of ‘Yankee barbarism’ that fought nobly in defense of a noble cause. Southerners have often depicted Sherman as the epitome of the brutality and amorality of the Lincoln administration, for whom the ends always justified the means.

But what is disturbing about Sherman’s campaigns is the contradiction between the inherent brutality in targeting women, children and the elderly as legitimate objects of ‘psychological’ war, and Sherman’s own belief that such methods were more humane than the butchery that he himself witnessed on the battlefield.

Southern myths of ‘Celtic’ and ‘chivalrous’ Confederate warfare tend to gloss over or enoble the horrific battlefield slaughter that disgusted Sherman.  They also tend to pass lightly over the fact that for all the constitutional and ‘nationalist’ justifications for the war, the Confederacy fought in order to uphold one of the most barbarous and tyrannical social systems in history.

Last but not least, the condemnations of Sherman invariably ignore the savage violence that was directed against the freed slaves and their Republican supporters after the Civil War during the so-called ‘Redemption’ period, which states across the South successfully carried out a counter-revolution that held the racist order in place for the best part of a century.

These consequences are recognized in the commemorative plaque erected in Atlanta last month by the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Battlefields Association, which claims that ‘ contrary to popular myth,  Sherman’s army primarily destroyed only property used for waging war.’   The plaque also notes that Sherman’s soldiers ‘liberated thousands of enslaved African Americans in their path, Sherman’s “hard hand of war” demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.’

All true, despite the fact that Sherman himself was a white supremacist who did not want blacks in his own army and did not believe that they should have the right to vote.  But the anniversary plaque certainly suggests a more mature evaluation of his campaigns than the anger and bitterness which still percolates through neo-Confederate websites.

Mythologizing continues to emanate from more mainstream circles.  Thus the Macon Telegraph claimed last month that Confederate cannons forced Sherman’s cavalry to withdraw from the city, thus sparing Macon from Sherman’s ‘torch.’  The article’s characterization of Macon as one of ‘Sherman’s failures’ completely ignores the historical fact and also the strategy and tactics that Sherman’s campaigns embodied.

In fact, Sherman’s cavalry commander Judson Kilpatrick had no interest in capturing or torching Macon or any other city in Georgia, apart from Savannah, and even that objective was not considered essential. Sherman marched his army in two wings so that his opponents could not second-guess his destination and therefore could not concentrate against him.  For this reason Kilpatrick was ordered to carry out a feint attack on Macon, but not to capture it.

Sherman recognized that it was not necessary to actually capture Confederate cities in order to make them militarily useless; it was sufficient to cut the transportation lines that connected them and leave them stranded.   Tactically, his campaigns anticipated the armoured manouevre warfare of World War II, in which mechanized armies sought to destroy their opponents through rapid ‘deep penetration’ of their defensive lines, concentrating on the destruction of command-and-control, logistical and supply networks in order to avoid the loss of life that sieges and assaults on heavily-defended cities entailed.

Such tactics have been a consistent feature of American warfare, from MacArthur’s ‘island-hopping’ campaigns in the Pacific and Patton’s slashing advances into Brittany to the ‘hail Mary punch’ campaign devised by ‘Stormin Norman’ Schwarzkopf uring the First Gulf War.

The ridiculous depiction by one of the Macon Telegraph‘s commenters that Sherman’s army was the ‘ISIS of its time’ is so far removed from anything that his army did or intended to do that it would be laughable, were it not for the fact that there are Southerners who still believe such nonsense.

Sherman’s campaigns are troubling precisely because Sherman was not a monster, but a sensitive, intelligent and humane American general, who nevertheless came to regard unarmed civilians as a legitimate objective that could be attacked in order to ‘shorten war’, and eloquently and persuasively expressed the view that attempts to mitigate the violence of war were counterproductive and even hypocritical, and that cruelty and brutality in the short-term were ultimately more humane and moral than protracted military confrontations that killed tens of thousands of uniformed soldiers on ‘the battlefield’.

It was true that Sherman mostly concentrated his efforts against property rather than people, even though such property sometimes consisted of food that civilians as well as soldiers depended on.

Other armies and governments have adopted a very similar philosophy, with far more destructive consequences, in counterinsurgency campaigns and the bombardment of cities and population centres, in blockades and sanctions aimed at the enemy population as well as its government.

Again and again, such actions have been justified, like the March to the Sea, as an attempt to ‘save lives’ and ‘shorten war’.  The US Army is no exception, and American generals and politicians have frequently invoked Sherman’s famous declaration that ‘war is all hell’ as a justification for intensifying its hellishness.

For all these reasons, the March to the Sea is worth revisiting and remembering, and not only in Georgia or South Carolina, because the motives and actions behind it can tell us a great deal not only about the American Civil War, but about the evolution of war in the twentieth century and beyond, and because the moral and ethical issues that they raised are still surprisingly pertinent to the wars of our own era.