The Salvadoran Crucible

The Salvadoran Crucible

The Failure of U.S. Counterinsurgency in El Salvador, 1979-1992

Brian D’Haeseleer

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2017, 272 pages

Book Review published on: March 30, 2018

Brian D’Haeseleer, an assistant professor of history at Lyon College, presents a timely examination of the U.S. counterinsurgency (COIN) intervention in El Salvador during the period 1979 to 1992. While it does not offer a new theory on counterinsurgency warfare, The Salvadoran Crucible provides a historical overview of U.S. COIN policy and in-depth examination of COIN efforts in El Salvador. The book is broken into five chapters and a conclusion. The first two chapters establish the groundwork for the U.S. intervention into El Salvador. Chapter 3 analyzes the war in El Salvador between 1981 and 1983, when U.S. interests in the conflict and the violence was at its peak. Chapter 4 discusses the “stalemate” phase of the conflict (1984–1988). Chapter 5 begins in 1989 and continues until the end of the conflict. D’Haeseleer concludes in examining American policy makers’ attempt to use the El Salvador approach in Iraq in 2003.

The Salvadoran Crucible opens reviewing twentieth-century COIN operations in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Malaysia, Algeria, and Vietnam. D’Haeseleer notes the Philippines, Nicaragua, and Vietnam COIN are exemplified as successful COIN operations and have formed the basis of U.S. COIN doctrine despite facts to the contrary. He asserts that our COIN operations in these three conflicts concluded for differing reasons and actually increased the suffering of indigenous populations caught between insurgents and counterinsurgents forces.

Among D’Haeseleer’s many significant observations and reflections, three stand out. First, success in COIN requires addressing the indigenous population’s grievances. The El Salvador government was unwilling and unable in addressing the grievances of its constituents. El Salvador feared giving credibility to the insurgent Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) if it addressed Salvadoran grievances. Failure of the government to address the grievances only increase support to the FMLN.

Secondly, land reform is a COIN basic tenet with potential negative consequences. El Salvador’s attempts to redistribute land from wealthy farmers to the poor quickly lost the support of the government by the elite. This was further exacerbated when the poor received nonproducing redistributed land.

Third, U.S. COIN efforts often result in making the supported government dependent on U.S. aid and support. D’Haeseleer describes how U.S. COIN programs in Vietnam and El Salvador resulted in making those governments dependent on U.S. support. D’Haeseleer observes such dependency eroded the perceived legitimacy of both governments and gave credibility to insurgent propaganda that depicted those governments as U.S. puppets.

D’Haeseleer challenges the claim that U.S.-led COIN efforts in El Salvador were successful in ending the conflict. He counters that it was the consequence of a mixture of events, including some that happened far from El Salvador’s borders as well as internally. After 1989, Salvadoran society had grown weary of the war. Both sides realizing a military victory an impossibility looked to the negotiating table to end the war. Media reports of death squads and other excesses of U.S.-trained Salvadoran army forces resulted in a loss of U.S. Congressional support for continuing U.S. COIN operations to El Salvador. Forced recruitment by FMLN forces in local villages lost the FMLN support of the populace. The Salvadoran people simply had enough.

D’Haeseleer concludes in comparing the El Salvador experience with U.S. COIN efforts in Iraq. It is eerily similar in its nonviolent approach that ultimately focuses on eliminating the insurgents. As a result, terror and violence become part of the fabric of the conflict. D’Haeseleer reminds us that history is replete with examples of counterrevolutionary forces trying to out-terrorize the insurgents and losing or achieving only a stalemate.

The Salvadoran Crucible excels in providing a broader understanding of the challenges and limitations in COIN operations. This book is a must read for COIN stakeholders at policy and practitioner levels.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas