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Firepower Mentality

Recent reports from El Salvador indicate that aerial bombardment by government forces in the civil war there is reaching new heights of intensity. While the bombing is proving to be a useful military strategy, it does nothing to bring the country’s warring factions closer to a political settlement, which is the only way to end the fighting permanently.

After visits to several war zones in El Salvador and interviews with military and guerrilla leaders, human-rights officials and refugees, Times correspondent Dan Williams and other journalists have concluded that the intensified air war has not caused as much additional suffering in the civilian population as critics of the Salvadoran government claim. However, evidence indicates that the air war has not been as effective a military strategy as some Salvadoran officers insist.

The expansion of the air war is the most visible result of the increased military aid for El Salvador that the Reagan Administration was able to wrest from Congress this year. Not only is the Salvadoran air force dropping more bombs now, but the bombs are heavier. The military’s fleet of combat helicopters has increased from about a dozen to 49, with 10 more on the way. The United States has also provided two specially equipped AC-47s being used as “fire-support platforms” against guerrillas, and the Salvadorans hope to have five more in operation soon.

This dramatic increase in aerial firepower was bound to affect a country smaller than Los Angeles County. It has forced the five guerrilla factions fighting the Salvadoran government to adjust their tactics, moving from offense to defense. The rebels have given up large-scale attacks against cities and military bases in favor of small-unit assaults on the country’s infrastructure and isolated acts of terrorism, like the recent sidewalk-cafe assassination of several U.S. Marines.

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But, at the same time, the aerial attacks have not led to any appreciable increase in rebel casualties. And, while new military guidelines that prohibit indiscriminate air attacks against non-military targets have apparently caused a decrease in civilian casualties, the threat of aerial bombardment has caused an upsurge in the number of refugees leaving the countryside for the comparative safety of San Salvador and other cities. In short, the benefits of the air war are balanced off by the shortcomings.

All that this increase in aerial firepower has accomplished, like the rest of the military aid that this country is pouring into El Salvador, is to prolong a military stalemate that has existed for almost six years. It also further ravages a country-side already so badly damaged by warfare that it may never recover its economic viability. The new armaments also create the dangerous possibility that the Salvadoran government will come to have what one U.S. military adviser called “a firepower mentality"--an overreliance on military force to resolve the deep social and economic problems that caused the civil war in the first place.

El Salvador’s President Jose Napoleon Duarte, and the Reagan Administration, must pull back from this firepower mentality and press for a renewal of the peace dialogue between the Salvadoran government and the rebels that began late last year. For all their violence and hatred, the guerrilla factions fighting the Duarte government represent a significant political force in El Salvador. The war will not end until at least some of their moderate leaders are persuaded to give up the fight and to work for change peacefully rather than on the battlefield.


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