View Full Version : Insurgencies in Central America

Bill Meara
01-22-2007, 06:57 AM
My book, "Contra Cross" deals with the Cold War insurgencies of Central America. I thought it would be of interest to this forum. I'd very much like to discuss it. Here are some blurbs:

"A boots-in-the-mud personal memoir from the battlefields of El Salvador’s Marxist revolution and Nicaragua’s Contra War, Contra Cross is also an eerily timely admonition of the challenges and pitfalls of today’s ‘transformational’ efforts to democratize the world. It is a warning that victory will require both a very long-term commitment of major national resources and some serious attitude adjustments by us, beginning with our military and diplomatic corps."--Dr. Timothy C. Brown, The Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of The Real Contra War

"Dead-on accurate, readable, and honest, this book will give no comfort to those gringo politicians still mourning the communist failures in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Bill Meara is someone who has the insurgency-counterinsurgency era in Central America nailed."--Col. John Waghelstein, USA (Ret.), Naval War College and former commander of U.S. Military Group – El Salvador and of the 7th Special Forces Group

"Contra Cross is not only a refreshing and an uplifting change from most war memoirs, it is also punctuated with the beautifully written highs and lows of everyday life. Meara studiously avoids both personal aggrandizement and being an apologist for American politicians. His clear and uncommon common sense is refreshing and does much more: It adds weight to his observations both as a Green Beret trained officer and a U.S. State Department foreign service officer. For the military historian as well as anyone seeking a deeper understanding of how American overseas assistance worked, this book is a must. The fact that the writing reflects intelligence, candor, and fairness to all sides is a terrific bonus."--Loyd Little, former Green Beret and author of the award-winning Vietnam novel Parthian Shot


01-23-2007, 01:28 AM

Welcome. I just finished your book two weeks ago. I wrote a review on Amazon.com. I posted it below. A great book, I really enjoyed it. I am a DoD intel type who was down in Central America last October doing some cultural field work.

Quantico, VA
my Amazon profile

Tales of a Cold War Grunt, January 14, 2007
Reviewer: Art (Virginia, USA) - See all my reviews
Contra Cross is unique among personal memoirs of former soldiers, government officials, diplomats, and intelligence officers. The author is humble. He had a front row seat at the numerous Central American proxy wars the United States engaged in during the 1980s. Despite this experience, the author never believed he was as important as the events around him, a trait that so many memoirs lack. He was a Cold War grunt and he knew it.

The numerous insurgencies and counter-insurgencies fought in Central America are slowly being forgotten. Located between the large and divisive Vietnam War and the even larger Global War on Terror, the proxy wars in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador are now seen as the last gaps of the Cold War. Despite this hindsight, during the 1980s it was where the action was.

Since the author was involved at the ground level, he is able to give the people of the area a real human feel, which is lost in the Cold War rhetoric of policy makers from Washington.

The author makes several outstanding points about the need for cultural and language skills when dealing with local conflicts. While our current conflict is called the Global War on Terror it is the really combination of thousands of local conflicts tied together. Having the deep local cultural knowledge is the real key to winning our current war. While the book is far from being the seminal book on U.S. involvement in Central America, it never tries or claims to be. Its true strength is how it depicts dedicated Americans, whether military or Department of State, attempt to implement strategic policy made thousands of miles away in Washington into actual action on the ground amongst real people.

Bill Meara
01-23-2007, 07:03 PM
Thanks Art. I really appreciate your reviewing the book. Bill

Tom Odom
01-28-2007, 02:30 PM
It is often quipped that the mark of a brilliant man is that he agrees with what you believe; I read Bill Meara's book Contra Cross yesterday and I would use the word brilliant and brilliantly delivered to describe it.

Let me back up in time a bit. In 1988 just back from UN duty in Lebanon and Egypt I sat down in my 15-man section at CGSC and we did the "where I have been and what I have been doing" confessional. My section leader looked at me and quipped, "you have not been in the Army." I simply asked him and the larger group, "Have any of you been shot at lately?" No one answered. Later the same guy in discussing low intensity conflict remarked, "I cannot see anyway the US Army will ever get involved in a counter-insurgency again after what happend in Vietnam." I asked him what exactly he thought was going on in Central America at the very moment. He suggested that what was happening was not really the US Army. Six years later I greeted that same individual as he arrived in Goma with a water truck task force. He had a stunned look on his face. I said, "Welcome to my world."

Contra Cross is about Bill Meara's world, one like and at once unlike my own. The book is from the foot soldier's perspective and it offers unique insights on the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Bill was an SF officer trained in PSYOP and as a FAO. He served in uniform with the MilGroup in El Salvador and later as a Foreign Service Officer as liaison to the Contras from Honduras. Like any good read, Bill's book offers key themes and messages, weaving them through the pages, repeatedly exposing the reader to them in the hopes they will imprint. I will list some here:

Culture and Cultural Understanding is Critical

Language is Fundamental

COIN and Guerrilla Warfare Target the Minds of the Population, Not the Enemy

The Greatest Cultural Gap is Between DC and the Field

The Unconventional Warrior is Indeed From Venus and the Conventional Warrior Refuses to Visit From Mars

I tell every Soldier that I coach, teach, and mentor that I have two fundamental rules for cross cultural understanding:

They do not think like you do

They have an agenda in every interaction with you

Bill's narrative hammers home the first point and his story reinforces the second. His self-reflection on his role as an US government representative while serving as liaison to the Contras is one of the books greatest strengths.

I would recommend this book to all from Strategic Corporal to the White House. I only wish that it had come out earlier.

Great job, Bill!


Tom Odom
Author Journey Into Darkeness: Genocide in Rwanda

02-06-2007, 03:32 PM
El Salvador turns war history into tourism (http://www.irishexaminer.com/breaking/story.asp?j=30392336&p=3x39z44x&n=30392520&x=)

...or a fee, former guerrillas will take visitors on tours of former battlefields or mountain hideouts, while museums display war memorabilia. The government has applauded the effort as a way to draw more tourists to El Salvador.

The former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which led the guerrilla uprising, has teamed up with local business leaders to create the so-called “peace route".

The mountain town of Perquin, east of San Salvador, was considered the “guerrilla capital” during the fighting, and it served as the FMLN’s headquarters. Today, it is home to the “Museum of the Revolution,” and features cannons, uniforms, pieces of Soviet weaponry and other weapons of war once used by the FMLN....

Bill Meara
02-15-2007, 06:23 AM
We often assume that if there is any training or advising to be done, we Americans naturally should be the trainers and advisors, and the third world folk should be at the receiving end of our knowledge distribution effort.

I worked with the Contras in their base camps in Honduras, but I never crossed the border into Nicaragua, so in spite of my time with them, I never really got a complete picture of how they were operating in their country. It was obvious that some of them were operating and succeeding as true guerrillas -- they were not dependent on air drops, they were being supplied by civilian supporters in their areas of operation. But I didn't understand how they were doing this.

After the war, Tim Brown, the guy who'd been my boss in Honduras, went back and took a very close look at how, exactly, the contras had operated in Nicaragua. He wrote a book about it, "The Real Contra War." It is a fascinating look at how a third world peasant army successfully organized itself for guerrilla war. As I read Tim's book, I found myself thinking that the contras should have been advising us on G warfare.

It's not too late. Tim's book describes how they did it. A must read for anyone interested in guerrilla warfare. The Nicaragua focus will make it of special interest to the Forum's Marines. I have a link to the book on my web site (below).

02-15-2007, 11:19 AM
they were not dependent on air drops, they were being supplied by civilian supporters in their areas of operation. But I didn't understand how they were doing this.

Weren’t the contras involved in a number of atrocities against civilian targets and largely funded by drug money? This would more likely show why they could gain supplies of the local populace and didn't need air drops?

02-15-2007, 12:26 PM
Bill can correct me if I my memory is faulty; but as I recall one of the main Contras tactics was the dispatch of long range, long duration infantry patrols into Nicaragua from Honduras. Ops of that kind could not have worked unless the people of the countryside were not willing to cover for them; so there had to have been genuine support for the Contras.

Tc2642 implies they terrorized everyone into compliance. Did those patrols hang around any one area long enough to do that? In order to survive they would not only have had to insure compliance but silence, which is rather harder to do. The Sandinista army probably had greater mobility inside Nicaragua so if the Contras had been dimed out on a regular basis they would not have lasted long.

The Contras were as successful as they were because a lot of Nicaraguans wanted them to be. That is something the American left and mainstream media DO NOT want to admit.

02-15-2007, 01:16 PM
Tc2642 implies they terrorized everyone into compliance.

No, I am not so naive to believe that they did not have any support within the countryside but that terror played a large part within their strategy, especially within areas that did not have their support, but even then it might act as a big incentive to the populace not to inform if they found that old "Juan" in the next village along had his family killed because he was thought to be an informer.

Bill Meara
02-19-2007, 08:27 AM
Well, I think the assumption that terror must have been a part of Contra strategy and tactics is a result of the very successful pro-Sandinista PSYOP directed at European and North American audiences. The communists were very successful in their efforts to vilify the Nicaraguan anti-communist resistance.

As I said, I never went into Nicaragua with the Contras, but based on my conversations with them in their camps along the border, I would be surprised if terrorism was a delberate part of their operations. In those border camps I met Contras who were true guerrillas, and the defining characteristic for that group is dependence on popular support. These "true G's" understood the critical importance of winning the support of the people in their areas. Also, it must be remembered that the contras themselves all came out of the areas in which they fought. They were operating on home turf. These factors argue against the idea that terrorism was a part of their plans.

The Contras do not get enough credit or attention. They were the largest popular uprising in Latin America since Emiliano Zapata. I sometimes think racism and condescension towards Latinos (especially poor rural Latinos) is why the Contras never got the attention or respect they deserved (both during the war and now).

As for terrorism, many of the academics who pilloried the Contras during the war underwent post-conflict conversions -- they came to realize that the real terrorists in that conflict were the Sandinistas, the darlings of the European and American left. Better late than never...

02-19-2007, 12:53 PM
Having done a small bit of research I have found claims and counterclaims all over the place. I think the politics of it tends to muddy the issue somewhat, Call me cynical but I find it hard to believe that there were not major atrocities carried out on BOTH sides.

Please don't think I was in anyway being racist or condesending towards Latino's, I merely used the name "Juan" much in the same way "Joe Bloggs" would be used, no offence was meant.

Please put up any links you have or give us a few names of academics who have now changed their position on the Contras.

Bill Meara
02-19-2007, 02:59 PM

05-14-2009, 02:50 AM
I'm strongly leaning towards writing my next term paper on US government (read: CIA) successes in Central America in the 1980s, primarily because I know nothing about it. Also, I'm in the process of joining a Reserve Intel unit soon which focuses exclusively on South and Central America, and I intend to start familiarizing myself with the region now.

Can you guys point me towards the best books and articles and maybe help me narrow my focus a little bit? I'm leaning towards researching and writing about the long term improvements in El Salvador, as seen by the free elections recently held there in which the FMLN were victorious. However, if there is a better example of US involvement in that region then I would love to hear about it.

Thanks in advance for any information.

05-14-2009, 04:17 AM
is here (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?p=68589#post68589), though it meandered off into other areas.

JTF (post #1 in linked thread) is very smart re: your present area of interest - and in other areas as well.