contemporary U.S. policy makers often characterize the U.S. countrerinsurgency experience in El Salvador as a successful model to be followed in other contexts. This article argues that these characterizations significantly overstate the positive lessons of El Salvador, and ignore important cautionary implications. (Politics & Society)The article is part of a special edition of Politics & Society where several analysts look more closely at historical counterinsurgency campaigns that have been used (for better or worse) to understand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I would have liked to see the authors delve into the lessons for Afghanistan and Iraq in greater detail, their discussion of El Salvador is top-notch. These are two of the best analysts on El Salvador. Elisabeth Wood (co-organizer of the project) and David Holiday provided comments on the paper and they are two other Salvadoran experts. (David used to run Central America and Beyond, a site that I really enjoyed.)
One of Peceny and Stanley's key findings is
that indiscriminate violence against civilians early in a conflict can create dynamics that are very difficult to overcome in subsequent stages.In El Salvador, a traditional counterinsurgency campaign did not really begin until 1984. By that time, the indiscriminate violence carried out by death squads and the military had already left their mark. A successful strategy aimed at winning the "hearts and minds" of Salvadorans after such brutal violence is extremely difficult to achieve. In El Salvador, government-directed violence against civilians in the early years of the war continued to provide recruits and good will towards the FMLN for the entire conflict.
In "The Legacy of Violence on Post-Civil War Elections: The Case of El Salvador" (2010), I argue that the legacy of violence that Peceny and Stanley discuss carries into postwar elections.
Over the last several decades, numerous civil wars have ended as a consequence of negotiated settlements. Following many of these settlements, rebel groups have made the transition to political party and competed in democratic elections. In this paper, I assess the legacy of civil war on the performance of rebel groups as political parties. I argue that the ability of rebels to capture and control territory and their use of violence against the civilian population are two key factors explaining the performance of rebels as political parties. I test these hypotheses against the case of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador using one-way ANOVA and multivariate regression analyses. In analyzing the FMLN’s performance in the 1994 “elections of the century,” I find that, as a political party, the FMLN benefited both from the state’s violently disproportionate response and its ability to hold territory during the war.Peceny and Stanley do a much better job of looking at the changing nature of the civil war in El Salvador. In that sense, it is similar to Hugh Byrne's El Salvador's Civil War: A Study of Revolution (1996). Repression varied both temporally and spatially. In my paper, I use a crude measure to operationalize whether a municipality was a conflict zone during the war. Someone pursuing their Ph.D. right now might want to try to improve our understanding of the level of violence in each municipality and how it varied over the ten plus years of the war. Maybe each municipality can get a score that takes into account both the intensity and duration of the violence in that particular area.
I also think that the papers in Politics & Society, especially this one, are part of what we are looking for in political science. Through their research on El Salvador, the authors are engaging in the current debate on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I do wonder, however, how receptive the paper will be or has been to those making policy.