The cover story of the December 6th, 1993 issue of the New Yorker was akin to a thunderclap. Written by Mark Danner, the article entitled The Truth of El Mozote is a 22,000-word account of the My Lai-like massacre of nearly 1,000 villagers in the central American country of El Salvador. It begins:
“Heading up into the mountains of Morazán, in the bright, clear air near the Honduran border, you cross the Torola River, the wooden slats of the one-lane bridge clattering beneath your wheels, and enter what was the fiercest of El Salvador’s zonas rojas — or “red zones,” as the military officers knew them during a decade of civil war — and after climbing for some time you take leave of the worn blacktop to follow for several miles a bone-jarring dirt track that hugs a mountainside, and soon you will find, among ruined towns and long-abandoned villages that are coming slowly, painfully back to life, a tiny hamlet, by now little more than a scattering of ruins, that is being rapidly reclaimed by the earth, its broken adobe walls cracking and crumbling and giving way before an onslaught of weeds, which are fuelled by the rain that beats down each afternoon and by the fog that settles heavily at night in the valleys. Nearby, in the long-depopulated villages, you can see stirrings of life: even in Arambala, a mile or so away, with its broad grassy plaza bordered by collapsed buildings and dominated, where once a fine church stood, by a shell-pocked bell tower and a jagged adobe arch looming against the sky — even here, a boy leads a brown cow by a rope, a man in a billed cap and bluejeans trudges along bearing lengths of lumber on his shoulder, three little girls stand on tiptoe at a porch railing, waving and giggling at a passing car.”
But follow the stony dirt track, which turns and twists through the woodland, and in a few minutes you enter a large clearing, and here all is quiet. No one has returned to El Mozote. Empty as it is, shot through with sunlight, the place remains — as a young guerrilla who had patrolled here during the war told me with a shiver — espantoso: spooky, scary, dreadful. After a moment’s gaze, half a dozen battered structures — roofless, doorless, windowless, half engulfed by underbrush — resolve themselves into a semblance of pattern: four ruins off to the right must have marked the main street, and a fifth the beginning of a side lane, while an open area opposite looks to have been a common, though no church can be seen — only a ragged knoll, a sort of earthen platform nearly invisible beneath a great tangle of weeds and brush.
Relying principally on excavations by an Argentine forensic team sifting through the mass graves, and a Salvadoran woman, Rufina Amaya Marquez, who managed to escape the carnage, Danner tells the poignant story of what happened in a remote corner of the Americas over two days in December of 1981. In doing so, he rebuts the U.S. government’s steadfast characterization of the slaughter as a skirmish between CIA-backed Salvadoran troops and Marxist guerillas.
The New Yorker billed Danner’s Truth of El Mozote as a “parable of the Cold War” and, indeed, it shined a spotlight on the proxy wars that erupted across the global South, pitting the mostly Europeans who owned colonized settlements across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, against the black and brown workers who built them. Yet it also represents a triumph of nonfiction storytelling, and the intimate reportage that is its rebar, providing a showcase for a model of journalism, now defunct, that is transformative rather than transactional.
Danner’s artful prose has all-but disappeared from today’s media, replaced by 16-character tweets, memes, and something called listicles. Gone are storytellers who trafficked in deep and close-up reporting and interviews with the people-on-the ground, and in their place has surfaced bloggers and podcasters and pundits who seem preoccupied with gazing at their own navels and describing it for us. If the massacre at El Mozote were somehow published today, Fox News would doubtless assemble a junta of retired military generals to rebuke its most damning claims, CNN would interview some Juan Guaido-like character whose family is descended from the European elite that settled in El Salvador, MSNBC would pull from the golf course some Reagan-era Cold warrior or some fellow from the Hoover Institute to wax philosophically on the dangers posed by the communist menace, Democracy Now would interview a member of the (all-white) Argentine forensic team to recount their findings, and Jacobin would publish a Q and A with some scholar whose new ebook you can buy on Amazon for $19.99. Much like the leftist dissidents from Argentina’s La Guerra Sucia, or Dirty War, Rufina Amaya Marquez and her encounter with evil would be disappeared, airbrushed, as it were out of the picture, leaving the telling of her story to those who tried to kill her, and those who experienced it second-hand, if at all.
What is lost, ultimately, is an understanding of both the world and each other. Whether we realize it or not, we need stories; the best educators, trial lawyers, and politicians can attest to the power of storytelling. Narrative strengthens our humanity, informs our democracy, fends off ignorance and ennui. Journalism in the U.S. has never been good overall —I can make a compelling argument that the news media’s raison d’etre has traditionally been to head off class war in America by fomenting a race war — but at its best, as exemplified by Danner’s work in El Salvador, it can narrow the yawning divide that is the source of our discontent.
That the United States is today a colossal wreck reflects the abject failure of all of the country’s liberal institutions — from labor unions to the academy to churches to political parties — but none so much as the American news media. Today’s journalists have abandoned even the pretense of inquiry in an effort to reproduce inequality by asserting their authority, their singular expertise in addressing all that ails we, the people. This explains why they typically eschew narrative and reportage for access to the powerful and panels of pundits and politicians which continues to center the very same voices who are wholly responsible for the perfect storm of political, economic and environmental crises that are bearing down on us. Consider for a moment the architecture of storytelling like Danner’s, which centers not the journalist, but his or her subject.