The US and the Contras

With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua

by Christopher Dickey
Simon and Schuster, 327 pp., $18.95

Nicaragua: The Human Rights Record

Amnesty International Publications, 36 pp., $5.00

As far back as a quarter of a century ago, some American policy analysts and military strategists were discussing, in broad outline, plans for a war like the one the United States is sponsoring in Nicaragua. We should undertake “counter-revolutionary offensives in countries subverted to communism,” according to a March 1961 article in Military Review, to give them a dose of the “political warfare” they wage against us.Military Review, a US Army journal, defined political warfare as

a sustained effort by a government or political group to seize, preserve or extend power, against a defined ideological enemy…. It embraces diverse forms of coercion and violence including strikes and riots, economic sanctions, subsidies for guerrilla or proxy warfare and, where necessary, kidnappings or assassination of enemy elites.

“Counterrevolutionary offensives” were much on the minds of some US officials when that article was published. Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba just two years previously. And John F. Kennedy, who was committed to developing America’s capacity to fight unconventional wars to stop communism, had just become president.

Today, a quarter of a century later, the United States is mired in the most drawnout “counterrevolutionary offensive” we have yet undertaken. The political warfare we launched to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua has dragged on for more than four years—longer than our participation in any war in US history for which we have had primary responsibility except the war in Vietnam. The end of our war in Nicaragua is nowhere in sight. Though the wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador, in which we are also engaged in varying degrees, have lasted longer, they differ in that the forces we are aiding would have engaged in combat, or did engage in combat, without us. As Christopher Dickey makes clear in With the Contras, there would be no war in Nicaragua except for the United States. We organized, recruited, trained, guided, financed, and supplied the contras, and we speak to the world in their behalf. That does not mean that they would now disappear if we withdrew our support. Nor does it mean that we exercise control even though we provide essential support. Regardless of the limits on our ability to exercise control, however, the contras are our creature, much as Frankenstein’s “miserable monster” was his creature after getting out of control. We are responsible for the contras.

That the contras murder civilians, and rape, torture, and execute prisoners, has been reported previously by others. Amnesty International discusses several cases of abuses by the contras in its new report, Nicaragua: The Human Rights Record, and concludes that “the number of captives tortured and put to death by FDN forces [the largest of the contra armies] since 1981 is impossible to determine, but is believed to total several hundred.” Dickey’s approach is different, however. Other accounts have focused on the victims. As Dickey’s title suggests, he focuses on the killers. Reading Dickey makes it all the more plain that it is…

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