This story, "the odyssey of the men who love to kill," begins in 1979, with the Rattlesnake unit of the Guardia Nacional — commanded by a very tough hombre called El Suicida — escaping from Sandinista rebels. We follow the soldiers desperate flight from Nicaragua to El Salvador, where we leave them briefly for a discussion of parallel events in the United States. But when we return they are no longer the Guardia; they are the original Contras, "beginning their own war."
President Reagan, in calling for greater assistance to these men, refers to them as "freedom-fighters" and compares them to the American Founding Fathers. But Christopher Dickey, the Washington Posts bureau chief for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean from January 1980 to September 1983, regards them otherwise, and his book has provided intellectual aid and comfort to those who oppose the Presidents request for resumption of military aid.
In With the Contras, the rise of Ronald Reagan, "a former cowboy star riding a strong current of frustration and anger" to the White House in 1980, is presented in counterpoint to the rise of the Contras. The most striking characteristic of Dickeys method — his rhetoric about "the men who love to kill" notwithstanding — is its subtlety.
For instance, he has nothing to say on the question of whether the CIA helped to create the Nicaraguan counter-revolution or whether it merely supplied support once that counter-revolution became established. But, with his repeated references to the CIA and the desire of Americas top brass to punish the Sandinistas for aiding the Salvadoran rebels, one is led ineluctably to conclude that the problem is far less difficult of solution than that of the chicken and the egg.
"Subtle" is also the word to describe Dickeys glossing over the Sandinistas shortcomings. Torture by the Contras is described through direct testimony from a Contra militiaman: "The three doctors were all torn up, naked, their bodies black and blue all over from the blows, as from whips. You saw the blows on their chests and their arms." There follow grisly descriptions of the deserters throats being slashed.
Contrast this with Dickeys (only) description of torture by Sandinista troops, in which, through the repeated use of attribution, he effectively reduces the testimony to mush.
It was a dramatic story that changed from telling to telling. How much of it is true is difficult to say. The Sandinistas made her eat her own feces, she told a woman who knew her in Honduras . . . She said her feet were smashed with rifle butts by the Sandinistas and her toenails pulled out. She told a story of being stripped and forced into a room with a wet floor and an exposed electric wire strung across it. She was made to touch it, she said, and the third time she passed out . . . Her children, she said, were taken by the Sandinistas, and she did not see them again.
She said, she told, she said.
One can argue, of course, that the title of the book is not With the Sandinistas. To some extent, Dickeys problem lies in his trying too hard to present the Contras in a vacuum. In his articles on El Salvador, he appears to take the line that government oppression makes "wars of liberation" more or less inevitable. Yet he does not apply this argument to Nicaragua today.
Having chosen to focus his report on the Contras, the author restricts his field of vision still further, concentrating on a mere handful of lower-ranking soldiers, rather than upon their leaders. Perhaps this flaw is owing to the fact that Dickey is writing about his personal experiences on patrol with a Contra unit.
Even at that, this is not the work of a reporter who spent months with his subjects, sharing their joys and suffering their agonies. Dickey describes only one short excursion, perhaps a few weeks in duration. Most of his interviews apparently were conducted in safe areas, while the trip "into the wilds" with Suicida and his men appears to have had little purpose other than photography (Dickey took the pictures that accompany the text) and justification for the books snazzy subtitle.
Of the Contra leaders, only Eden Pastora, the most controversial Contra and the one with whom the United States is least associated, receives detailed treatment, being described as egotistical and a womanizer. On those infrequent occasions when Dickey mentions other Contra leaders he has nothing disparaging to say about them or their motivations, which causes one to wonder whether this is, indeed, why they appear so rarely.
In the epilogue, Dickey states candidly what has long since become obvious — that he is trying to persuade us to generalize from the misconduct of a few lower-ranking soldiers to the invalidity of the cause itself, just as opponents of the Vietnam War did with Mylai. One Contra is quoted as saying, "Whatever happened with Suicida and Krill, whatever they did, that does not reflect the FDC Nicaraguan Democratic Front, the main Contra force. They were particular people who did crazy things."
To which Dickey replies, "Yet, just as the special case of Mylai grew from the common horror of Vietnam — symbolized it, epitomized it — as the history of covert action against Nicaragua emerged in the months after Suicidas execution by his own commander, who had found him overly zealous in ordering the execution of others , it was clear that he represented much of what was wrong with the Secret War, and much that could never be set right with it."
Dickey does not deny that the top commanders of the Contras are almost all ex-Sandinistas. But he never asks why. Have all these men left their homes and families to fight simply because they "love to kill," or is there a force at work here that Dickey refuses to reckon with?
Robert S. Leiken, who once testified before Congress against aiding the Contras, later confessed in the pages of The New Republic that ". . . the Sandinistas failure to preserve the revolutionary alliance with the middle class and small producers as well as sectarian political and cultural policies had polarized the country, led to disinvestment, falling productivity and wages, labor discontent, and an agrarian crisis."
According to Leiken, "Sympathy with the Contras is becoming more open and more pervasive. I was stunned to hear peasants refer to the Contras as los muchachos, the boys — the admiring term used to describe the Sandinistas when they were battling the National Guard." Writing in The New York Review of Books, Leiken has stated: "But well before the Contras became a significant military force, political and economic discontent was already creating its own recruits for counter-revolution."
One mans word against anothers? Perhaps. But the sheer numbers of Contras, fighting daily in hot jungles with poor equipment and no pay, indicate that Dickeys view of the Nicaraguan turmoil is a partial one at best. Isolated incidents of American brutality did not make the North Vietnamese any less vicious or imperialistic, nor do the actions of Suicida and his like excuse Dickey, the Nicaraguan people, or any of us, from making a choice between the Contras and their opponents.
On the one hand we have despots; on the other we have, perhaps, potential despots. But any inclinations the Contras might have in that direction are tempered by a knowledge the Sandinistas could not have had when they seized power. The Contras know that it is not enough for the Nicaraguan people that the Somozas were thrown out. They know Nicaraguans want true freedom and that they are determined to keep on toppling governments until they get it right.
Read additional book reviews by Michael Fumento.