War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and Christian Faith
by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer


As the leading "have" power, we may expect to have to fight to protect our national valuables against envious "have nots."

-- General Maxwell D. Taylor, U.S. Army

Our country has been converted into a proving ground for experimental political, military, economic and ideological projects developed in the White House and the Pentagon. Your government has become the center of domination and subjugation of poor peoples of the world such as ours: peoples with an unsatisfied hunger for justice, a deep thirst for a better and more humane future, and an unquenchable yearning for life. In each heart lies the certain hope, growing like a baby giant, of building peace with justice.

-- Herbert Ernesto Anaya, President, Non-Governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador

I can understand how the [Nicaraguan] revolution cannot be very pleasing to the landholders since it took away the land they had piled up. Just as it can’t be very pleasant for the gringos, since the revolution messed up their fat profiteering . . . .

. . . Spanish greed, English greed, American greed, one after another -- always oligarchical greed. It’s about time that the rivers of Latin America, the peoples of Latin America, be freed of these greeds of Latin America. For too long the powerful have sucked the blood out of the "open veins" of our Americas!

-- Pedro Casaldáliga, Bishop from Brazil

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Central America suddenly became the most important place on earth for U.S. policymakers. The Nicaraguan people’s overthrow of a U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1979 and the existence of popularly based movements for social change throughout the region had caused great concern in Washington. "The national security of all the Americas is at stake in Central America," President Reagan had stated. "If we cannot defend ourselves there, we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility would collapse, our alliances would crumble and the safety of our homeland would be put in jeopardy."

El Salvador, and by extension the whole region, had been selected as "an ideal testing ground" for modern low-intensity conflict. The term itself is unknown to most U.S. citizens yet low-intensity conflict is the key strategy by which the United States seeks to project its power in the third world in order to protect perceived vital interests.

I have been living in, or a frequent visitor to, the Central American region since 1982. This book is in many ways a description of my own journey to understand the comprehensive nature and dangerous consequences of low-intensity conflict. Living and working in Central America, I witnessed a level of human suffering that would defy the imaginations of most U.S. citizens. The suffering endured by the people was often times not merely an unfortunate consequence of misguided U.S. policies but was in fact the actual goal of those policies.

In Central America I was confronted with a series of baffling questions:

• Why would the United States publicly condemn terrorism while at the same time create, fund and direct the contras in Nicaragua, whose principal tactic was terrorism against civilians?

• How could a popular, nationalistic revolution in the impoverished country of Nicaragua, a country with 3 million people, or in neighboring El Salvador constitute a threat to the security of the United States?

• Why did the United States work to undermine regional diplomatic initiatives such as the Contadora and Arias peace plans, which would have achieved goals publicly stated by the Reagan administration, such as no foreign military bases in the region?

• Why did major segments of the mainstream U.S. media allow U.S. government officials and agencies to determine the parameters of debate about the crisis in Central America? If the United States had a free press, then why were the U.S. people indifferent to or ignorant of the terrible human costs of U.S. foreign policy?

• If the United States were firmly committed to democracy, then why was Central American policy carried out against the wishes of the U.S. people and through clandestine and often illegal channels? Why did the United States label Nicaragua’s elections "a sham" when they received widespread support within the international community? In what ways did U.S.-supported elections in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America serve undemocratic purposes?

• Why was liberation theology, which seeks to awaken the dignity and hope of the poor, considered subversive and dangerous by low-intensity-conflict planners while religious philosophies that tolerated earthly misery and promised heavenly rewards received broad support?

The weight of human suffering in Central America led me to explore the theoretical and practical world of low-intensity conflict. The primary focus of this book is on U.S. low-intensity-conflict strategy in Central America because of my personal ties and experiences in the region. However, low-intensity conflict is a globalwide strategy played out in distinct ways in places like Angola, Afghanistan, and the Philippines. I hope that a detailed examination of Central America will shed light on U.S. policies elsewhere.

War against the Poor examines the stated and unstated assumptions of low-intensity-conflict strategy. The statements and position papers of U.S. policymakers when examined in light of my own experience and through the eyes of the poor have led me to disturbing, even frightening conclusions. I have come to believe that low-intensity conflict is for the United States a global strategy of warfare waged against the poor. Neatly packaged for public consumption, low-intensity conflict is like a deadly bomb wrapped with beautiful paper. It couples the use of explicit terror with rhetoric about "freedom," "democracy," and "national interest." When the wrapping paper is removed one sees how the unbearable suffering of the vast majority of people in Central America is the fruit of a calculated policy in defense of U.S. privilege.

The victims of low-intensity conflict are not limited to the poor. Also at stake is the future of our own democracy and the integrity of our faith. Low-intensity conflict is so broad in scope, so cynical in outlook, so damaging in practice that it presents Christians and churches in the United States with a situation similar to that faced by the Confessing churches in Nazi Germany. In short, low-intensity conflict presents us with a confessional situation that demands acknowledgment of our participation in a sinful situation, repentance, and creative action.

In chapter 1, "Redefining the Enemy," I describe the present global economic order as one in need of fundamental restructuring, and how the United States through low-intensity conflict seeks to block or control any such changes. The basic worldview that serves as the ideological basis for low-intensity conflict will be examined. This worldview regards changes in the present world order as communist-inspired threats against U.S. national security interests. The poor whose hopes for a dignified life or even survival depend on such changes are considered enemies.

Chapter 2, "The ‘Crimes’ of the Poor," will look more closely at the philosophy and actual reforms of the Nicaraguan revolution and the aspirations of the Salvadoran people. Nicaragua’s efforts to address the needs of its poor majority by reordering political and economic life will be examined in order to explain why these changes are considered dangerous to U.S. interests. Lessons will also be drawn from the courageous example of the Salvadoran people as they work to challenge the old order and replace it with a system more responsive to human needs.

Chapter 3, "Low-Intensity Conflict: The Strategy," will examine the economic, psychological, diplomatic, and military components of low-intensity warfare, with specific examples drawn from U.S. policy in Central America. I shall analyze how low-intensity conflict is a comprehensive, totalitarian-like project through which the United States seeks to manage social change in the third world in order to protect perceived vital interests.

Chapter 4, "Distorted Democracy," will discuss how low-intensity conflict undermines democratic institutions at home and abroad. Democratic freedoms are, or soon could be, trampled on by the misuse of elections, disinformation campaigns, the concentration of economic power, and the abuse of presidential powers cloaked in the secrecy of covert operations.

Finally, in chapter 5, "Faith and Empire," I shall examine scriptural challenges to people of power by a God who works for the liberation of the oppressed within history. Low-intensity conflict, which defines the poor as enemy, is clearly in conflict with a biblical God who takes sides with the poor. Our challenge as Christians who are also citizens of an empire is to find hope and guidance in biblical calls to repentance and conversion that inevitably confront people whose historical ties are linked to dominant powers that come under the judgment of God. I shall explore what It might mean to live as a confessing people in the context of the radical sin of low-intensity conflict and how we can faithfully respond to the present historical moment in which our participation in the structures of oppression call us to be prophetic witnesses and living signs of hope.