Evil Empires: Blood Meridian, War in El Salvador, and the Burdens of Omniscience

By Shaw, Jonathan Imber | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Evil Empires: Blood Meridian, War in El Salvador, and the Burdens of Omniscience


Shaw, Jonathan Imber, The Southern Literary Journal


In the months following the death of former President Ronald Reagan in June 2004, a seemingly endless succession of pundits, politicians, and historians enjoined their audiences to remember a number of things about his two terms in the Chief Executive's office. Heading many lists of things to remember were his reinvigoration of a U.S. conservative movement that had been in various states of dolor and disarray since the defeat of the Goldwater ticket in 1964; his management of the closing years of the Cold War and his demand, delivered by the Brandenburg Gate on a summer day in 1987, that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this [Berlin] wall"; and most of all his famously effective blend of personable, folksy charm and morally absolutist rhetoric. But what few of the speakers seemed interested in having their audiences recall was Reagan's remarkable capacity to forget. Probably the most notorious example of his forgetfulness came to the public's attention in 1987, following the release of the Tower Commission's report on the Iran-Contra affair. The report confirmed the story that had been circulating through the national press for months: that a team of U.S. military intelligence officers operating under the aegis of the National Security Council had orchestrated illegal sales of arms to Iranian terrorists and then funneled the profits from those sales to anti-Sandinista forces fighting an insurgent campaign in Nicaragua. Frances FitzGerald writes that "Reagan, the [Tower] commissioners reported, had initially told them that he authorized the first shipment of arms to Iran, but in a second interview, after a conversation with [White House Chief of Staff] Donald Regan, he told them he had not. Later he wrote them that his recollection had been influenced by that of others, and that, try as he might, he could not recall 'anything whatsoever' about the event" (413-414).

Reagan's own diaries from 1985 and 1986 suggest that he knew a good deal more about the affair than he was willing or able to recall just a year later (FitzGerald 386-387). In FitzGerald's analysis of Secretary of State George Shultz's recollection of Iran-Contra, Shultz presents a kind of backhanded defense of his former boss: "Meeting with the President on November 14 [1986], Shultz found the President adamant that what was done had been right.... Shultz then realized that reason would not prevail: Reagan truly did not believe that what had happened had in fact happened. 'I had seen him like this before on other issues,' Shultz tells us in his memoir. 'He would go over the "script" of an event, past or present, in his mind, and once that script was mastered, that was the truth--no fact, no argument, no plea for reconsideration, could change his mind'" (382-383). Whatever the condition of Reagan's state of mind, it is likely that he very much wanted to forget--and not just about the Iran-Contra debacle, but about the whole range of U.S. foreign policy failures in Central America. By the late 1980s, America's involvement in various armed conflicts in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador had produced few (if any) tangible successes; rather, especially in El Salvador, the United States' considerable investments of economic aid, military training, and equipment had yielded little more than escalating civilian body counts and accusations of the military's participation in counterinsurgency operations that had gone horribly awry. If the rendition of 1980s history presented by the aforementioned pundits, politicians, and public intellectuals represents anything like a consensus, Reagan's desire to claim forgetfulness is very similar to a subsequent willed blankness in the nation's collective memory. It seems that no one wants to remember what life was like in El Salvador in the early and mid-1980s.

In this essay, I seek to redress that blankness through investigation of an unlikely--but I believe a crucial--source: Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985). …

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