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Voyage Into Darkness

Salvador By Joan Didion Simon and Schuster, $12 95.108 pp

By Antony J. Blinken

THE SALVADORAN SOLDIERS moved ever so slowly down a sidewalk, hugging the buildings and doorways with their backs. They looked right, left, in the air, behind themselves. Suddenly a movement, and shots from machine guns pierced the silence of the scene. For a moment, there was confusion. Then the situation became clear. The soldiers had shot someone, and they gathered round their victim in an attempt to identify him. One stepped forward, the eldest-looking, and picked up the dead man by the hair. Then he smiled at the camera and said simply, "Communist."

I had watched this segment of the "CBS Evening News" with morbid fascination. But as the reality of the death that had occurred before my eyes set in. I began to feel sick and turned off the television. The image of the victim's face stayed in my head. He had been young, probably no more than 20. Now he was dead, his two decades of life gone with the pull of a trigger, his entire existence made meaningless save for the statisticians. I wondered how his parents, if they were still alive, would react. I cried. Then I got angry.

During her two-week stay in EI Salvador last summer, writer Joan Didion must have gotten angry too. But she channeled this emotion productively and produced Salvador, an account of her visit to a country that is slowly being destroyed by inbred antagonisms and the misguided efforts of other nations to serve the causes of self-interest and peace at the same time Salvador is short and quickly read Yet Didion's eloquence and the tragic, almost absurd nature of her subject gives this book a weight and power that transcend the limitations imposed by the number of pages. Didion provides not only a brutal look at EI Salvador, but also an agonizing peek at the bell the human condition sometimes becomes.

It is difficult, even impossible, to discuss the situation in EI Salvador without expressing some sort of political viewpoint. Didion makes her own position clear, sometimes explicitly, but usually implicitly. Her unflattering portraits of rightist leaders like Robertod' Aubisson, and her constant comparisons of the Salvadoran reality she perceives with the White House's roster view demonstrate her opposition to current U.S. policy. And she mocks the notion that true progress has been made on the human rights front Indeed, she finds a language common to Washington and the Salvadoran Right that has replaced the word "change" with the word "symbol". The solutions is not to make things better, but rather to make them look better. A commission is created here, a soothing phrase handled about there, a new "policy" put forth. But it is only a game of public relations people are still murdered in the streets. As Didion writes:

La solucion changed with the market Pacification although those places pacified turned out to be in need of repeated pacification, was la solucion The use of the word "Negotiations", however abstract that use may have been, was la solucion. The election, although it ended with the ascension of a man. Roberto d' Aubuisson, essentially hostile to American policy (i.e. the minor attempts at reform) was la solucion for Americans.

So we are left with cosmetic changes designed simply to calm human lights groups and garner periodic Congressional approval for new guns and funds. The lyrics change, but the song remains the same.

YET THE TRAGEDY OF Salvador goes much deeper than cynical politics or even the dangerous ideological posturing of the United States and the Soviet Union. For every physical death, there are countless more moral ones' each and every murder debases human life and dignity. The greatness of Didion's book lies not in its political argument but in its ability to show the moral decay of a society.

Didion writes of a visit to a "body dump" outside of San Salvador, not unlike garbage dumps in this country--with the sole exception that human remains replace refuse. Overlooking the dump on a hill, Didion came across a man teaching a woman to drive, with three small children looking on.

We did not speak, and it was only later, down the mountain and back in the land of the provisionally living, that it occurred to me that there was a definite question about why a man and a woman might choose a well-known body dump for a driving lesson. This was one of the number of occasions, during the two weeks my husband and I spent in EI Salvador, on which I came to understand, in a way I had not understood before, the exact mechanism of terror.

In her masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that Hitler and Stalin used terror as a tool to fabricate a new kind of man devoid of individualism and self-respect, Didion correctly sees a similar phenomenon taking place in EI Salvador Indiscriminate, random killing deemphasize the value of human existence Murder no longer shocks Salvadorans; it is a natural part of life.

In two short weeks, Didion herself felt the terror that every Salvadoran must live. Eating on the porch of a restaurant one evening, she noticed two armed men across the street observing her and her husband.

It seemed to me unencouraging that my husband and I were the only people seated on the porch...The candle on our table provided the only light, and I fought the impulse to blow it our. We continued talking carefully. Nothing came of this, but I did not forget the sensation of having been in a single instant demoralized undone humiliated by fear, which is what I meant when I said I came to understand in EI Salvador the mechanism of terror.

WHAT IS to be done? Didion offers no soluction, but clearly lays out the problem it is at one political and moral. So any remedy has to be two pronged. It must seek to eradicate the political tension EI Salvador is living and also counter moral decay.

A snap of the fingers will not end the Salvador an nightmare. The complex issues delay easy answers. Yet at the same time there are myths that should be dispelled in order to understand the situation better. To repeat the obvious does not make it any less true: the root of the Salvadoran dilemma is inequity--political, economic, social not communism. Which is not to assert the angelic nature of the Left. There are plenty of Marsist guerrillas who by not means constitute the panacea for EI Salvador. Still, the left is pluralist. And its voice remains too strong and popular to be muffled successfully.

La solucion, then, has to incorporate the Left. Even seen through Washington's bipolar lenses, such a prescription has a certain appeal of necessity. Our own intelligence tells us that the guerrillas are slowly defeating the Salvadoran military. The choice for U.S. policy makers is clear: either continue to prop up the present government and die a drawn out. Vietnam-like death, or press for real negotiations and come away with a compromise in the form of a coalition government.

Assuming Washington opts eventually for the latter course, that still leaves the moral dilemma. Jimmy Carter's human rights policy was an attempt to come to grips with this problem. But Carter's rights framework, laudable as it was from a moral perspective, may have shunted political concerns too far aside to be practicable. with drawing all aid from the Salvadoran government--i.e. acting on the human rights ultimatum--would likely lead to the collapse of the present government. Then either the extreme Left would take over or outright anarchy would ensure: neither scenario is in the interests of the Salvadorans, or the United States.

Washington's best bet would be to seek immediately a negotiated, political solution that insures the fair participation of the Left and then to push hard for human rights. A greater degree of political stability will mean fewer deaths. And with an acceptable government in place, Washington should be able to eliminate most of its military aid to EI Salvador and demand respect for basic human dignity at the same time. Only then can the moral decay be arrested.

Some would argue that this prescription differs only semantically from the policy that this Administration is applying. Yet, Washington has failed to see in the Salvadoran Left anything more than an advance party for the evil force of Soviet communism. Few significant efforts at negotiation have been made. And most terrifying of all, more arms and advisors are arriving daily. The greater U.S. military involvement, the harder it will be to compromise and pull out.

MOST OF US have an idealistic side that is disgusted and feels cheated by attempts to rationalize a problem. Watching the death on CBS, or reading Didion's book. I had an urge to scream out, to curse my government for the folly of its policies. But short of revolution, such emotion serves best as the catalyst for thought. When the anger subsides for a while, the mind takes over, you have to ask yourself to what extent each side will compromise, and how far each party can be pushed.

There is no black and white in EI Salvador. The communists aren't evil, as this Administration maintains. Nor are they, on their own,la solucion. as some liberals contend. But our present action in EI Salvador is of a much darker shade of gray than it need be, U.S. guns continue to take too many Salvadoran lives, our military involvement escalates daily and no progress is being made. In short, the momentum still carries everyone in the wrong direction.

With luck, more stumbling blocks in the form of congressional animosity will clutter the Administration's path, forcing it to the pragmatic realization that a change in course is necessary. Salvador seems one such potential trip wire. This little book has just the right mix of passion and reflection to get people angry, and then make them think. That's really all you can ask.

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