Tactical Survival in El Salvador

The story of El Salvador is one that gets little attention in the mainstream media on conflict early warning and operational response. Indeed, the story surfaces instead in the sociology and nonviolence literature. The best study on countering attack in El Salvador is Barton Meyer‘s “Defense Against Aerial Attack in El Salvador” published in 1994. Brian Martin, a prolific author in the field of nonviolent action, drew on Meyer’s case study in his excellent book on “Technology for Nonviolent Struggle” published in 2001. Finally, Casey Barrs, a Senior Protection Fellow, who has carried out substantial research in civilian protection, brought the story to my attention in 2006.

From Martin:

To survive bombing from El Salvador’s air force, both civilians and guerrillas developed and used a range of methods. No sophisticated warning systems were available, so people had to develop their own skills in detecting and identifying aircraft. When spotter planes were seen, people froze in place so they wouldn’t be seen; any moving target was subject to attack. When the spotter plane changed course, people would seek shelter, sometimes setting off a firecracker to warn others.

Concealment was widely used. Leafy trees were grown next to houses to hide them. Houses that were partly destroyed were left unrepaired to hide the fact that they were still being lived in. At the sound of aircraft, fires were quickly doused; alternatively, underground ovens were used with long tunnels to absorb smoke. Radio transmissions were not used by guerrillas to avoid being intercepted. Peasants wore dark clothing to avoid detection. They grew crops whose colour was not readily noticeable from the air and crops that were hidden by other plants.

Shelters were built and disguised. Natural features, such as forests and ravines, were also used for shelter. Guerrillas built extensive tunnel systems. In areas subject to frequent attack, shelter drills were carried out. When the government army invaded following air attack, guerrillas often would lead an evacuation of the
population, returning later.

The guerrillas, in the face of heavy air attack, dispersed their forces to groups of 4 to 15 fighters spread out over hundreds of meters. Larger units would have been more vulnerable to air power. The dispersed fighters were concentrated only for attacks or briefly at night. Another tactic was to deploy the guerrillas very near to government troops, where aerial attack might harm the government’s own soldiers.

As well as methods of surviving attack, other techniques of struggle were used, such as broadcasting reports of deaths or injuries of civilians due to air attack. Such human rights appeals were highly effective, and would be even more so in the context of a purely nonviolent resistance.

There is a great need for many more studies like that of Meyers, as well as a need to circulate the findings to people who can use them. Unfortunately, the contemporary field of disaster studies has neglected the study of war as a disaster. One factor behind this may be that most war disasters occur in poor countries whereas disaster studies are largely carried out in the rich countries which sponsor and provide weapons for these wars.

As well as knowing how to respond to aerial attack, there are many other areas in need of investigation, including firearms, landmines, biological agents, chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. A first step would be to provide basic technical information that is accessible to nonspecialists and which can be used to provide a realistic assessment of dangers and possibly to expose uses of the weapons.

My iRevolution question: some 14 years later, how can at-risk communities today use ICTs to get out of harm’s way? Conflict prevention can no longer afford to be a non cross-disciplinary effort. We in the conflict early warning community have much to learn from lessons learned in nonviolent action and tactical survival. For more examples of survival tactics in conflict, please see my previous blog entry and this piece by Casey Barrs.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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