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Turning the Tide : U.S. INTERVENTION IN CENTRAL AMERICA AND THE STRUGGLE FOR PEACE by Noam Chomsky (South End: $10, paperback; 298 pp.)

June 08, 1986|Bradford Burns | A professor of history at UCLA, Burns contributes Op-Ed pieces on Central America to major journals. and

In Nicaragua, the United States is involved in the second longest war in its history. Only the conflict in Vietnam exceeded it--thus far.

Evidence at hand suggests that U.S. planning for that involvement began in 1979, when the CIA gathered together remnants of the defeated Nicaraguan National Guard, the genesis of today's contras . In December, 1981, CIA director William Casey belatedly informed congressional intelligence committees that President Reagan had embarked on a covert war in Central America. Covert became overt as the conflict intensified over the past half decade.

Such lengthy and lengthening participation extracts a toll from any society. A disaster for Nicaragua, the war has devoured half its budget and many of its youth. The contras have targeted professionals such as doctors, nurses, and teachers who are proportionately few in number and greatly needed if the revolution is to achieve its goal of greater social justice. As an underdeveloped economy reeled under the realities of war, every sector of society has suffered.

Likewise, the war has dislocated the impoverished economy of Honduras, a country which, in everything except name, has been occupied by the contras and the U.S. military. Even the once successful economy of Costa Rica staggers under the impact of the regional war.

The toll on U.S. society also mounts. American public opinion has not been so polarized since the Vietnam War ended. The conflict has infused so much disinformation into the media that citizens increasingly distrust both them and the government. It magnifies a worrisome tendency during this decade to opt for military rather than legal or diplomatic solutions to international problems.

The Administration reports spending $1.2 billion in Central America during 1985. More penetrating minds add to that figure of economic and, primarily, military aid the cost of building and maintaining all manner of military installations; of endless and extravagant land, sea, and air maneuvers; and of military salaries and benefits for sometimes in excess of 25,000 personnel. They calculate that the total for 1985 might have surpassed 1% of the national budget.

That sum exceeded the combined national budgets of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Thoughtful people speculate about what that money might have done for Central Americans had it been infused into their shaky economies. Others wonder about the wisdom of cutting programs for the aged, handicapped, undereducated, and children in the United States so that Washington can flex its military muscle south of the border.

On these troublesome questions of U.S. intervention in Central America, Noam Chomsky shines a relentless spotlight in his disturbing "Turning the Tide." This book is a welcome antidote for a public overly dependent on the media coverage of events in Central America. Indeed, the author convincingly demonstrates that such coverage more often than not simply repeats Washington's handouts and shuns investigative journalism. Providing information that the front pages of the major press rarely report, he enlightens the debate over U.S. policy in Central America.

Our denunciations of holocausts and terrorism ring hollow as long as both regularly take place in Central America without arousing our rage. Decimating Indian populations in Guatemala, bombing peasants in El Salvador, attacking civilian populations in Nicaragua characterize the contemporary devastation of Central America. U.S. contributions in the forms of military training and equipment, covert CIA operations, and bankrolling the contras are realities most Americans might like to ignore, but in this powerful book, Chomsky refuses to let them. As he did two decades ago during the Vietnam War, he prods the American conscience with disagreeable facts.

Chomsky examines the causes of the crises on the isthmus, particularly the historical role of the United States in creating or exacerbating them. Looking at the impressive evidence he marshals, the reader will find it difficult to conclude that Washington ever favored democracy or social justice in that unhappy region, despite official rhetoric.

In Chomsky's thinking, the U.S. role in Central America conforms to its wider patterns of international behavior: an intolerance of reform, labeling any manifestation of it as "communist," and a willingness to exploit the "fifth freedom," cloaking it in language of "national interest." Further, that behavior is "deeply rooted in the structure of power in our society and the global concerns of dominant institutions."

"Turning the Tide" holds up a mirror to reflect ourselves in our behavior abroad. The image startles. It should initiate a kind of intellectual shock therapy. Before this war drags on any longer, Americans will be well served to educate themselves about its causes, to ponder its possible consequences, and to understand the Central American crises within the broader context of U.S. international behavior. Reading this book is a major step toward achieving those goals.

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