With God on Our Side

Medals can't cleanse the horrors of war

By Roberto Lovato
Published on LatinoLA: February 28, 2003

With God on Our Side

As talk of war fills the air, a Salvadoran American who's spent time in a strife-torn land warns against using the language of "good" versus "evil." War means real killing and we should beware of bestowing medals on defenders of civilization.

From President Bush to Colin Powell to chaplains on aircraft carriers, voices exhort us to war in the name of good versus evil. I am no stranger to this kind of talk because I've worked in El Salvador and know that "good" has a way of turning into evil, and such black and white discourse is a lie, a very old one.

Leaders will only compound the tragedy if they bestow medals on those who bomb and kill to defend civilization.

In El Salvador, I've held the heavy shrapnel from government bombs that left the skin of a baby girl grafted onto the ruins of the adobe walls of her home. I've worked with women and men mutilated with electric drills by soldiers who were later decorated for their deeds.

In the United States, presidents bestow the U.S. Legion of Merit on veterans like Audie Murphy and Norman Schwarzkopf. Military manuals stipulate it shall be awarded "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the United States."

Service is in the eye of the beholder. Joining a long line of Legion of Merit recipients are Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Rene Emilio Ponce, two leaders of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military during the civil war of the 1980s. The former President Bush also rewarded Vides Casanova with U.S. residency. The general was the "power behind the throne" commanding Salvadoran National Guardsmen who raped and murdered four American religious women in l980, according to declassified U.S. State Department documents.

Last July, a Florida jury ordered Vides Casanova and another retired Salvadoran general to pay a Salvadoran woman and two other plaintiffs $54 million in damages for horrors they experienced at the hands of the generals' troops. Trial transcripts detail how Vides Casanova oversaw soldiers who abducted, raped and tortured Neris Gonzalez, who was eight months pregnant and volunteered as a church worker teaching adult literacy at a time when such work was considered subversive. A son died two months after birth from injuries in the womb.

Vides Casanova's U.S.-trained and equipped troops forced Neris to watch the torture and execution of another prisoner and made her drink his blood, according to court documents.

Not long after Gonzalez was abducted, President Ronald Reagan awarded Vides Casanova a Legion of Merit medal. In l993, Gen. Colin Powell, himself a decorated war hero, presided over a ceremony in San Salvador to "express once again, my admiration for the El Salvadoran armed forces, for the leadership that Minister Ponce and the other gentlemen here today have given to those armed forces."

Powell graced Ponce's neck with a medal too, even after it had become known that Ponce was ultimately responsible for troops who shot out the brains of six Jesuit priests in l989. A U.N. Truth Commission Report condemned Ponce, Vides Casanova and the Salvadoran armed forces for overseeing more than 85 percent of wartime atrocities over a 12-year period, resulting in the deaths of more than 75,000 persons.

The Legion of Merit medal hanging on the sun-drenched walls of Vides Casanova's spacious south Florida living room bears the same pyramid and eye of providence found on the Great Seal and dollar bills (it was also the original logo for the new Information Awareness Office, headed by John Poindexter). Above the eye are words from Virgil's "Aeneid," the foundational poem of Roman civilization: "God has favored our undertaking."

Like some kind of cleanser, medals invoking God are a powerful means of getting at hard-to-remove bloodstains on military uniforms. Powell's support for the Salvadoran military and questions about his involvement in the cover-ups of the My Lai massacre in 1968 and the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s have not visibly tarnished his own many medals.

A closer look at the Legion of Merit -- the medal likely to decorate future Gulf War veterans and new favored allies -- reveals that its simple, lofty words about the triumph of civilization over evil are surrounded by bullets.

In the end, God and civilization may well side with the United States if war breaks out. Of course, if you look at Iraqi medals, inscribed with the words "Loving the country is faith," God and civilization might side with Saddam Hussein. They have certainly supported Salvadoran generals -- just look at their medals.

About Roberto Lovato:
Lovato is CEO of Lovato and Associates, a marketing consulting firm. He can be reached at

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