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Anyone remember El Salvador?
This small Central American country—less populous than some U.S. cities—attracts one-sixth the U.S. news coverage it received a decade ago. Back then, President Ronald Reagan committed American money and material to the right-wing Salvadoran government’s bloody 12-year battle against Marxist rebels, involving our country in a civil war that claimed some 75,000 lives and displaced a million more. With the U.N.-sponsored peace accords signed New Year’s Day 1992, American foreign policy interests—and American press interest—in El Salvador waned precipitously.
Amid reports of resurgent lawlessness (e.g., “Tactics of New Death Squads Revive Fears in El Salvador,” in the July 30 Washington Post), anthropologist and Marxist apologist Mark Pedelty weighs in with a timely look at media coverage of the Salvadoran civil war in War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents. Based on Pedelty’s title, though, readers won’t recognize the emphasis on Central American reportage. A more appropriate subtitle would have confined itself to correspondents’ coverage of the war in El Salvador, period.
Pedelty tagged along with reporters affiliated with the Salvadoran Foreign Press Corps Association (SPECA) during the last two, admittedly unrepresentative, years of the war, yet applies his insights to correspondents stationed in other countries. Pedelty finds that war correspondents (read: those in El Salvador) conduct more business at the front office than the front lines; that Hemingwayesque memoirs and movies like Salvador romanticize reality; that consolidated corporate ownership of the media affects reportage; that ethnocentric Americans want news produced by and for their own countrymen; and that U.S. foreign correspondents, either because they don’t know better or because they know their editors perfectly, reduce nations’ complexities to stereotypes. Such stuff is hardly news—Michael Parenti said it all in Inventing Reality 10 years ago—and scarcely requires 250 pages of dense academese, billed as “ethnography.”
“I have borrowed,” the author writes, “…from Communications Research, Journalism, Literary Criticism, Sociology, and, of course, Anthropology, and hope this work may serve as a bridge between those fields.” It doesn’t, mostly because Pedelty’s methodology is tainted by his prejudices. Pedelty himself concedes that “I have never been very good under pressure, which is one of the many reasons I would make a horrible journalist.” On more prominent display in War Stories are elements of travelogue, “new” journalism, Freudian dream interpretation, socialist agitprop, college lecturing, or an awkward hybrid of all of the above.
Consider this typical passage on the patronage of local prostitutes by foreign correspondents, part of a chapter entitled “Recreational Rituals.” While failing to suggest recreational alternatives, Pedelty accurately includes sex as one of three basic “rituals” the reporters practice (the others being self-aggrandizing storytelling and alcohol and drug use):
Whatever their attitudes, the foreign correspondents engage in…sexual tourism [which they] put on naked display at places like the British Club, where American military advisers and AID [Agency for International Development] workers sit around bragging about their encounters with Salvadoran putas (prostitutes), collapsing the bodies “self, social, and politic” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock, 1987) in an ongoing orgy of neocolonialist domination (Sturdevant and Stoltzfus, 1992).
If gossiping about foreign whores is a form of “neocolonialist domination,” then sex itself, Pedelty argues, is akin to a military engagement:
Reporters are attracted by the relative “weakness” of Salvadoran women. Sex is a source of personal empowerment, a means of reaffirming their potency via the reproduction of others’ powerlessness….A good journalist…tries to “establish a human relationship with the subject.” Conversely, these correspondents establish a relationship of intimate exploitation and “dispassionate” power. Whereas, healthy sexuality involves a narrowing of social distance, the correspondents’ sexual activities are ritual reenactments of the war itself, symbolic of the staff correspondents’ relationship to the Salvadoran people in general….Through sexual exploitation, journalists “mimic the savagery they have imputed” to their Salvadoran victims as they passionately participate in the same culture of violence they coldly condemn in their reporting (Taussig, 1987:3-36).
Pedelty’s subjects would likely find these passages incomprehensible, laughable, or maddeningly wrongheaded. An “ethnographer”—especially one who acknowledges that SPECA members derided him as “baldy” and that he suffered from “a limited perspective” because he was “neither a participant nor observer of this activity”—ought not to condescend to or condemn his subjects.
On other occasions, Pedelty inappropriately interjects himself into his subjects’ affairs. For example, he interrupts a SPECA photographer’s session with a Marxist guerrilla, imploring the latter not to wear the khaki green military cap he is proudly preparing to don. “I could not help myself….The cap seemed uncharacteristically martial, thus unrepresentative of Car melo’s pleasant face-to-face demeanor,” the researcher writes. “Furthermore, Carmelo seemed to be playing into the American stereotype of the Marxist guerrilla.” Realizing his own gall, Pedelty later proffers an “embarrassed” apology to the “shocked” photographer. Elsewhere, Pedelty admits to “feeling bad” about having “subverted” an official’s public oratory with tart questions, and stifles an impulse to scold militarists. Such interventions are not conducive to the close—but detached—observation ethnographers need in order to dissect their subjects’ lives.
With only his anthropological experience and considerable nerve to stand on, Pedelty even berates a group of SPECA reporters—some of whom have been covering El Salvador a decade longer than he has—because they’ve dared question the authenticity of human bones gathered at the site of an infamous massacre where some 1,000 people were slaughtered, probably by the U.S.-backed army. Even if Pedelty was correct in thinking the reporters’ skepticism absurd, one senses that it was not the procedural impertinence that so irked Pedelty on this occasion, but the reporters’ political incorrectness.
Repeatedly in War Stories, the author’s polemical fervor suffocates his common sense. Consider this incredible passage on changing American military tactics, wherein Pedelty plays military historian:
Learning from their failures in Vietnam, Pentagon strategists have moved away from the use of American ground troops in situations where they are at great risk of prolonged engagement and high death tolls. Their use of surrogate armies, including the Nicaraguan Contras and Salvadoran military, has increased considerably, as has their application of mechanical surrogates (“smart weapons”)…[as was] witnessed and celebrated during the Panama Invasion and Persian Gulf War. [These] strategies serve to limit the number of U.S. deaths, thus pulling attention away from war’s human effects and dulling public criticism.
This passage illustrates the dangers of straying from one’s disciplinary expertise. Pedelty portrays as sinister the Pentagon’s rational efforts to distance war from Americans’ lives, without considering the similarities between El Salvador and Vietnam, where the U.S. sought to fight another country’s battles. When the U.S. supplies arms to forces that its elected officials deem allies (for England in World War II, or for Israel during the Six-Day War), are these nations allowing themselves to be used as “surrogate armies”? Are there no foreign armed forces deserving of U.S. material assistance? Should the Pentagon desist from developing “smart weapons” any more than bomb squads should stop using robots in dangerous situations? Every American who reads this book should be incensed by Pedelty’s counterintuition that the Pentagon thinks first of “dulling public criticism” and secondly of saving lives.
When not tainting his research with inappropriate personal intervention or attempting ill-advised alchemy with the professional disciplines he aspires to apply, Pedelty drifts into plain irrelevance. In his chapter on war photographers and their work, whole pages slog on without mention of either. At times, he pauses to describe lush pine forests, lively dances, brilliant murals, individuals whom “I must say, I did not like all that much,” and so on. Pedelty muses that one guerrilla leader reminds him “of the men and women I worked with while I was growing up in Iowa, the cattlemen and workers at my father’s stock auction market, work-strengthened and life-educated “peasants.’ ” Later, he observes that Salvadoran cuisine turns his feces green (an “essential bit of ethnographic detail” that he “apologizes” for including).
Another shortcoming, recognized as “unfortunate” by Pedelty, is that his subjects are identified by first names only, so we never develop any real grasp of his main characters. How to differentiate “Joe” from “Paul” from “Ronald,” etc.? War Stories also boasts a swiss-cheese index and an unacceptable number of misprints, grammatical errors, and incorrect usages of affect and effect. One hopes Pedelty doesn’t pass such poor habits on to his students at Ohio’s Miami University, where he serves, unsurprising, as assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies.
Were it not for Pedelty’s biases and procedural effronteries, War Stories might be recommended for students of the Salvadoran conflict and for aspiring foreign correspond ents. But by striving to advance his socialist/politically correct agenda (beware anyone who cites Todd Gitlin for the “considerable contribution” the unrepentant Berkeley radical made to his “educational development”), Pedelty prevents War Stories from ranking among the postwar classics of live-in sociology like Lebow’s Tally’s Corner or Gans’ The Urban Villagers. But one does get a genuine feel of what reporters in El Salvador typically experienced: obstructionism from corrupt military officials and ever-spinning “Western diplomats”; heavy-handed editing of writers and photographers alike by narrowly focused New York editors; jealousy that pits full-timers against free-lancers, local journalists against foreigners, print media against TV, men against women; the infrequency of real “action”; and the inevitable hunger for violence that grows within the reporters.
In spite of itself, Pedelty’s central argument survives: that the conception of the “war correspondent” as the heroic, ruggedly independent truth-seeker of faraway lands is grossly distorted. This myth is far from the truth in an age when Edward R. Murrows’ medium confines its coverage to 90-second packages, and Hemingway’s faces extinction altogether.