Racism, or honoring one’s family?

I saw an article yesterday about ‘a new Memorial Day tradition—burning the Confederate flag.’ My visceral reaction was that these were my ancestors who died in a bloody, awful war that literally pitted brother against brother. I hate it when the heartbreak of this history is trivialized to make someone’s point. I thought this article, although brief, captured different points of view, both valid. We need to hear each other.

By Jacque White Kochak

This article was first published May 6, 2009, in the Auburn Villager.

As a prelude to what turned out to be a poignant but peaceful Auburn City Council meeting Tuesday night, police stopped those attending at the door to check for weapons.

The Rev. Arthur Dowdell, the only African-American council member, stirred up a bee’s nest the week before Confederate Memorial Day when he removed miniature Confederate battle flags from the graves of Confederate veterans at Pine Hill Cemetery.

At the beginning of Tuesday night’s meeting, the council passed a resolution asking Dowdell to apologize for the act and, after a long meeting filled with citizen comments, Dowdell did so.

Dowdell said news reports had not told the whole story; when he was contacted by students about the flags, he didn’t know who placed them and feared a hate group might have been responsible.

Dowdell said he called Mayor Bill Ham as well as City Manager Charlie Duggan’s office, and no one could enlighten him. He even asked Mary Norman, a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, if she knew who placed the flags, and she said she didn’t.

In fact, the UDC did place the flags, but Norman was no longer a member of the Admiral Semmes Chapter that sought to honor the veterans at Pine Hill Cemetery.

“If I had known that the UDC put the flags there, we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Dowdell said.

“I’ve always thought I was American by birth and Southern by the grace of God, but I know racism is alive and well. Still, it is painful to me for someone to tell me I can’t honor my family members.”

As news raced across the Internet, many were enraged. Attending the meeting were Sons of Confederate Veterans from as far away as Tallahassee, Fla., and cities in Georgia.

One after another, they said placing the flags was not about racism, but about honoring their forebears. They said Dowdell had desecrated the graves, which are on private property, and violated their right to free speech.

Dowdell’s supporters were equally eloquent in explaining the flag’s power as a symbol to them of racism and terror. One showed a picture of three lynched black men that had been sent to Dowdell, and Dowdell described e-mails describing him as a “greasy monkey.”

In the end, however, even Dowdell seemed to agree the issues were free speech and property rights, not racism.

“The First Amendment doesn’t only protect things you like,” noted Sandra Fagin of Auburn. “I’ve always thought I was American by birth and Southern by the grace of God, but I know racism is alive and well. Still, it is painful to me for someone to tell me I can’t honor my family members.”

How Auburn kept its campus Koch-free

The other day a researcher with an organization called UnKoch My Campus contacted me. “That article has quickly become a favorite of mine, as I am compiling all known oversteps of the Charles Koch Foundation,” he said, referring to a piece I wrote in 2008. As it turns out, very few campuses have successfully deflected overtures by the billionaire Koch brothers—so stay tuned.

By Jacqueline White Kochak

The article was first published Sept. 18, 2008, in The Auburn Villager

For months, controversy has swirled around Auburn University’s new Center for International Finance and Global Competitiveness, with critics raising questions about the source of funding and the procedure used to hire the center’s director, Dr. Robert M. Lawson. Now, Rep. Craig Ford, a Democrat from Gadsden, has requested documents pertaining to the new center, housed in AU’s College of Business.

The center is being funded by an initial $300,000 grant from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, with a total of $5.5 million requested over five years, according to a memo distributed to AU deans by College of Business dean Paul M. Bobrowski on Jan. 10.

“…the Kochs share the conviction that the advancement of their philosophy is contingent upon investment in academia.”

Charles G. Koch and his brother David between them control three family foundations, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation.

The foundations have contributed so much money to advance conservative causes that they have caught the attention of liberal watchdogs such as the People for the American Way, which says that the Kochs share the conviction that the advancement of their philosophy is contingent upon investment in academia.

Koch is chairman of the board and chief executive of Wichita, Kan.-based Koch Industries, the largest privately held company in the U.S. with annual revenues of about $90 billion. According to Forbes Magazine, his personal fortune totaled some $17 billion in 2008, placing Koch at number 37 on the magazine’s list of the world’s billionaires.


Koch is also a libertarian whose foundation funds a network of conservative think tanks nationwide and is a growing presence in the academic world. In addition, he is the founder of the influential libertarian Cato Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

Koch is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation’s one and only benefactor. According to the foundation’s IRS form 990, accessed at guidestar.org, the foundation received $40,021,911 in 2006. Charles G. Koch is listed on the form as contributing exactly the same amount.

In 2005, according to tax forms, Koch contributed $30,020,760 to the foundation, and again was its only contributor. The form 990 for 2007 is not yet available online. Directors include Koch’s wife, his children and Koch Business Holdings, making up a majority.

“I have worked for some of these foundations and came up with the answers they wanted,” said one former AU professor who is concerned about the center. “I don’t have a problem with that, though I realize I wouldn’t have been asked back if hadn’t come up with those answers.”

To underscore his point, the professor pulls out a quote from the 2007 book “Radicals for Capitalism,” a 700-page tome that traces the lineage of the libertarian movement in the U.S.

“If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” David Koch told author Brian Doherty. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with we withdraw funding. We do exert that kind of control.”

“If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent.”

Although the public generally identifies libertarianism with politics, its ideas have actually been much more important in economic theory. In fact, the story of the American libertarian movement has been a combination of small numbers and big influence, to quote a review of “Radicals for Capitalism” that appeared in the New York Times.

“Why is a university working with a foundation like this?” the professor asked. “It might be a good idea to study the stuff they want to study, but if you don’t get the results they want, what happens?”


AU President Jay Gogue was apprised of the proposed institute in a memo dated Dec. 12, 2007, from Provost John Heilman, who said he had been briefed about the project several times. He said the center had the support of his office, and he recommended approval.

According to the memo, the center would “promote understanding of the concept and measurement of economic freedom, and the interaction of economic freedom, political freedom, individual liberty and economic growth and prosperity” through its “Economic Freedom Initiative.”

Key to that mission, the memo said, is “enhancing the research and teaching efforts around the Economic Freedom of the World Index.” The index ranks 123 countries on measures including size of government, top marginal tax rates, interest rate controls and freedom of citizens to use alternative currencies.

The index is published by Canada’s Fraser Institute, a libertarian think tank that has received funding from both the Charles G. Koch Foundation and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, according to the Web site Sourcewatch. The Cato Institute, founded by Koch, co-publishes the index as do more than 70 think tanks around the world, according to the Cato website.

Co-authors of the index are Lawson and economist Dr. James Gwartney of Florida State University, where Lawson received his doctorate in economics. Also receiving his doctorate in economics from Florida State is Dr. Dan Gropper, associate dean of AU’s College of Business and one of three people proposed to serve on the center’s board of directors.

The others are Dr. John Jahera, head of the College of Business finance department and Colonial Bank Distinguished Professor; and Dr. James Barth, the Lowder Imminent Scholar in Finance, who will also serve as co-director of the center.

Research efforts would include yearly production of the index, as well as a series of business case studies and academic symposia, perhaps in conjunction with the West Virginia University Center for Entrepreneurship or the Independent Institute. Both the West Virginia University Foundation and the Independent Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Oakland, Calif., were the recipients of Koch largesse in 2006, according to the foundation’s tax filing.

According to the memo, some of the center’s activities would involve marketing the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The center would produce high-quality Economic Freedom of the World maps to disseminate to schools and other organizations, as well as high-school-level materials. The center would also host a comprehensive Web site and produce a one-minute video series called “Freedom Minutes,” as well as other video projects.

Finally, a speaker’s bureau would offer a “cadre of well-trained faculty” to communicate with the press and general public about “economic freedom issues,” would invite seminar speakers, host lectures on campus, offer seminars for finance professionals and support a number of undergraduate, masters and doctoral level assistantships or fellowships.


Concern started percolating up through the ranks of the College of Business in January of this year, when many faculty members first learned of the proposed center after the memo to deans.

Key to the existence of the center, obviously, was recruiting someone associated with the Economic Freedom of the World Index, around which most of the center’s proposed activities would initially revolve. That someone was co-author Lawson, then George A. Moor endowed chair at tiny Capital University, an institution of fewer than 4,000 students in Columbus, Ohio.

According to the memo from Heilman to Gogue, the proposed budget called for a $95,000 supplement to the director’s salary, as well as $95,000 in salary from AU starting Aug. 16, 2008. It is unclear how much the director will actually receive in salary, but it appears that at least part of it would come from grant proceeds, straight out of Charles G. Koch’s pocket.

When they learned of the center, some faculty members asked if a national search had taken place and started looking for the job announcement. The job was not advertised on the AU Web site or on any of the recognized venues where economics faculty are usually recruited, they say.

“So we think that we have, and we will have, enough protections in order to ensure that it’s without strings.”

One professor said he finally found the job advertised only once on a Web site called Social Science Research Network. The advertisement was posted Nov. 4, 2007, with enquiries to go to Jahera. Review of applications was to take place Dec. 1, 2007. On Nov. 9, however, Lawson was already going to be on campus to give a seminar, according to e-mail to a College of Business faculty member on Nov. 5, one day after the job was advertised.

According to a faculty recruitment checklist posted online by AU’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity, a search committee is mandatory. The search committee reviews the advertisement and sets a timetable to review applications. The search committee then screens applications on the basis of advertised criteria, requests letters of reference and prepares a short list of candidates to be interviewed. Then candidates are interviewed and a candidate is selected.


After learning of the center in December and finding out that many senior faculty did not even know about the project in January, Gogue purportedly urged more openness. On Feb. 12, the center was included on the agenda for that month’s University Senate meeting.

At that time, Bobrowski told faculty members that the College of Business had looked at other universities, both public and private, that had engaged with the Koch Foundation, which he described as an umbrella organization including many charitable organizations.

“So we think that we have, and we will have, enough protections in order to ensure that it’s without strings,” he said. “Therefore, it is not any kind of strategy that guarantees a certain outcome based on funding source.”

The College of Business has been troubled by dissension within the economics department for years, and Gropper told senators there were people out to destroy the proposed center.

“They’re out to get the provost, and they’re out to get the dean,” he said. “I’ve seen the emails. I’ve seen the schemes for the last few years.”

“I don’t know if it would hold up in court, but it sure looks suspicious for Auburn.”

Gropper said the college had the opportunity to move forward, bring in money, build programs and support graduate students.

“At a time where we have a chance to bring in potentially millions of dollars, it’s sort of incredible to me that somebody would say, ‘Well, let’s slow that up. Let’s not do this. Let’s cast aspersions and so on,'” he said.

By that time, however, Lawson had already been hired and the center was a fait accompli. He is now an associate professor in the department of finance.


The state representative, Craig Ford, did not respond to several calls from The Villager. In his letter, however, he asked for an array of documents pertaining to the creation of the center and the hiring of Lawson, as well as copies of all announcements of the position of director and the dates and outlets where they were published.

He also asked for all responses to the advertisement, the dates they were submitted, the list of final candidates and the dates they visited campus. He also asked for e-mail traffic related to the center, the position of director and the hiring of Lawson between the office of the president, the office of the provost, Bobrowski, Gropper, Jahera, Barth and others.

“…it has been brought to my attention, by persons both inside and outside the university, that there may have been a number of administrative ‘irregularities’ in both the creation of the center, the design of the center’s administrative structure, the funding of the center, and in the hiring of its director,” Ford wrote in his May letter to Gogue.

“Given current investigations into the two-year college system in this state, I am deeply troubled and concerned by potential improprieties at Alabama’s largest universities and specifically in the College of Business at Auburn University (my alma mater),” he wrote.

According to the June 10 minutes of the College of Business executive committee, the Koch Foundation memorandum of understanding had been signed, with provost Heilman signing for AU. Sometime in July, the college would receive $300,000 as called for in the memorandum.

At the time, Gropper noted that Florida State had just signed a memorandum of understanding, as well.

“The center is fine as long as they produce independent research,” said one of several professors interviewed by The Villager, none of whom wanted to be named.

“I don’t know if it would hold up in court,” he said, “but it sure looks suspicious for Auburn.”

Woman takes chance as a father seeks a handout

I wrote this a long time ago. It first appeared in the Westchester Opinion section of the New York Times. Although little Tommy is all grown up, I wouldn’t say my point of view has changed very much.

By Jacque White Kochak

As I wove through the crowds in Grand Central Terminal on my way home from work one day, I saw a man carrying a child and pushing her stroller. The little girl was plump, and her white shirt stuck out below a red jacket. A tiny face peeked out below a fringe of curly bangs.

The man was young, with a light shadow of beard and an open, unmarked face. The stroller was fairly new and nondescript. Nothing about the two particularly spoke of poverty. Yet the man walked along, chanting in a singsong voice. The words he chanted, walking along with the crowds ignoring him: “Can you help me feed a homeless child?”

I don’t deny that I was a perfect mark. I have three children of my own, and this little girl was just the age of Tommy. A picture of homeless children in a newspaper is enough to set me sobbing. I have a soft spot for children, of course.

I can also, sometimes, almost, see myself in that picture. Not as the parent, but as the child. By the time my mother was 22 years old and my father was 24, they had had five children, all born in four years. When I was 4, my sister was 3, my brother was 2, and the twins were newborn. My brother had cystic fibrosis. My parents had no insurance. I was very young, but I think things got kind of tough. I remember eating a lot of dried beef gravy on biscuits for dinner, and one year wearing shoes that scarred my instep because they were too tight.

I’m from Kansas, so New York-style poverty is alien to me. But once, when I read about a young couple with their children living out of a dilapidated car as they chased chimerical jobs across the Southwest, I imagined how easy it might have been to slip between the cracks.

So, I followed the man, through the crowds, until I caught up with him. A squat little woman, probably with grown children of her own, stuffed a dollar in the man’s cup. “God bless you,” he said.

I stuffed another dollar in his cup. “God bless you,” he said again. I imagined the people around me sneering. What an easy mark I was! The man was probably using the little girl to provoke pity, then he would take the money and spend it on booze or drugs.

Then someone called out. “Why don’t you put her in foster care?” the voice said. The young man reeled, furious and sincere.

“Yeah, and never see her again!” he yelled at no one in particular. “Only a moron. . . .” and his voice trailed off. The little girl just looked at him, with that uncanny patience and innocence that toddlers show before they really understand what is going on around them.

I am an easy mark, but I am also fairly sophisticated about poverty. I once worked for an organization that raised money for orphanages, schools, feeding programs and a child-sponsorship program in Latin America. It was my job to break vulnerable hearts with heart-rending tales of malnourished children. I know the techniques.

I also have traveled extensively, and I know that beggars can be very businesslike. I have seen gypsy women in Madrid who make a living begging. They find a comfortable spot, perhaps in an overpass shielded from the sun, and spread themselves out. They bring along two or three dirty-faced kids for effect, and one wily woman even displayed an enlarged black-and-white poster of herself with six or seven more children of all sizes.

And I have dealt with pint-sized beggars in Santiago, Chile. Their alcoholic parents dress them in rags and send them out to beg. The parents keep out of sight; they know that the children will be more effective alone. The money the kids collect goes for liquor.

But I also remember another man I saw in Madrid. He huddled against a wall, his face hidden in shame. Next to his begging cup lay a hand-lettered sign. “I am a poor man from Andalusia,” the sign read. “I sold my house and came to the city to look for work. Now I can’t find work, and my children are hungry.” Somehow, I believed him.

What can I say? I’m an easy mark. I gambled that my dollar would go for a nourishing meal for the little girl, just the size of my Tom. And really, a dollar is such a little bit of money.

And then I looked at the people around me, the ones who would chide me for being a sucker. They hurried by, dressed in their heavy coats and their winter boots, maybe not prosperous, but surviving. Not one of them would have missed a dollar. Yet, many of them wouldn’t hesitate to drop 10, 20, even 100 times that measly dollar in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. And that made me mad.

I prefer my gamble, thank you.

A general’s spiritual journey

On the occasion of retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore’s death, I am re-publishing an article I wrote about him several years ago. This surprising portrait of a complex and interesting man was first published in The Auburn Villager.


By Jacque White Kochak

Retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore of Auburn is best known as the man who led 450 soldiers into the valley of death at Ia Drang in 1965. His unlikely victory over some 2,000 Vietnamese troops was chronicled in first a book and later a movie starring mega-star Mel Gibson.

At the time this article was written in 2008, Moore had just been chosen by Armchair General Magazine as one of the 100 greatest generals in history. A second book about his adventures called We Are Soldiers Still was set to be published by Harper-Collins that September. Like Moore’s first book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the book was co-authored by journalist Joe Galloway.

There’s another side to this stern warrior, though. Moore stays after Mass every Sunday morning at Auburn’s St. Michael’s Catholic Church, on his knees praying for every man he lost. Their names are alphabetized on 3 x 5 cards.

Sometimes, Moore attends daily Mass, spending three hours a day praying for the men who died in his command.

“At the age of 86, I realize I’m not long for this planet,” he said. “I want to stack the deck so I’ll make the cut for eternal life.”

This complex man’s spirituality isn’t something new, though, occasioned by fear of impending mortality. Moore’s long spiritual journey, beginning when he was just a boy in Kentucky, has now been chronicled in yet another new book by, of all people, a local man we’ll call The Driver because he has asked not be identified, in the book or in the press.

When Moore lost his beloved wife, Julie, in 2004, his friends around the country feared Moore would give up and pass on, too. They asked The Driver, who lived in Auburn, to keep Moore company and redirect his thoughts. Besides visiting with Moore, The Driver started acting as an unofficial chauffeur. And over four years’ time, on long excursions to the airport or to the cemetery at Ft. Benning to visit Julie and his men, Moore started talking. The Driver listened, and went home to recount the stories to his wife.

“You have to write this down,” she said.


The Driver approached the general about writing his stories, only for his family and close friends. Moore agreed. The Driver wrote for a month, and presented a draft for Moore’s approval.

“Why would you think I would deserve this? This may be the greatest thing I’ll ever leave my children,” Moore said when he saw the draft.

As it turns out, more people than just Moore’s children are now reading the modest treatise, entitled A General’s Spiritual Journey. After it was written, a group called Operation Gratitude requested 70,000 copies to be included in care packages going to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Carolyn Blaschek, founder of Operation Gratitude, said she was just looking for a letter from someone prominent to include in the care packages. Armchair General Magazine put her in touch with Moore’s representatives, and she heard about the book.

“I thought, Omigod that would be amazing,” Blaschek said. “I said, I need to have those books, not just a letter.”

The books were printed by another of Moore’s friends at Wild Goose Ministries in Colorado. The ministry agreed to print 90,000 more copies, and at the time he was interviewed Moore had received perhaps a thousand e-mails and letters from soldiers and others touched by his thoughts. Chaplains around the world had asked for copies, and Moore had been asked to appear on the Catholic television network EWTN as well as Larry King Live. The book is about spirituality, not a particular religion. Although Moore is Catholic, Blaschek is Jewish and the founder of Wild Goose Ministries is Baptist.

“What I am learning from this book is reconciliation, reintegration and renewal,” said one correspondent. “I feel like I am fighting the toughest battle of my life right now with grief. Grief of great loss is worse than my falling on a grenade in Vietnam and losing my legs and one arm. If Hal Moore can do it, I can do it!”

Neither Moore nor The Driver sought compensation for their effort. All proceeds from all of Moore’s books, as well as the blockbuster movie, go to the Ia Drang scholarship fund to educate the children of the men Moore lost in Viet Nam.


“Gen. Moore once asked me, ‘Do you think God will forgive me for all the men I killed?'” recalled The Driver. “When he goes to the cemetery, he goes to every tombstone of every soldier who fought under him, and tells me something about each one. He ends up at Julie’s headstone.”

Moore admitted that people who read the book seemed to be surprised that a general officer had deep spiritual beliefs, but he pointed to Gen. Robert E. Lee and Douglas MacArthur as other examples, although he didn’t count himself in their company. He agreed the book might not have had the same impact if written by an insurance salesman, because generals are looked on a little differently than businessmen. He said he believed, nevertheless, that many presidents of large corporations cared about their employees as much as Moore cared about his men. They just don’t make the news, and they don’t lead men to their deaths.

“I did my duty,” Moore said. “My proudest accomplishment is that I never left a man on the battlefield, never a prisoner of war, never missing in action.”

In 1993, Moore returned to the Ia Drang Valley with the Vietnamese commanding officer against whom he fought. The men were stranded for the night in the remote valley in the central highlands, some five miles from the Cambodian border. When a shower of shooting stars illuminated the black sky, they stood mute.

“I never saw such a phenomenon,” Moore said. “It crossed our minds that these could well be the spirits of men on both sides who fought and died, spirits coming back to tell us hail and farewell, we’re with you one last time on this night.”

That familiarity with death, the awareness that each of us is balanced precipitously on the edge of forever, may be part of Moore’s intense spirituality.

“I never thought about it, but probably subconsciously that was in my mind,” he said. “It’s just a crapshoot whether you get shot or struck in the helmet by a bullet.”


Moore was born in the backwoods of Kentucky, in the little community of Bardstown. Bardstown was the first Catholic community west of the Alleghenies, settled by pioneers from the Catholic colony of Maryland. His father was Catholic, but his mother was Methodist. She agreed to raise her children in their father’s faith.

Sometimes, Moore’s mother went to both Catholic and Methodist services, and during the wars in which her son served she visited the local cathedral almost daily to light candles, their smoke wafting her prayers to God.

“Most other religions believe in a supreme being,” Moore said. “I certainly do, and my mother did. During battle, I would pray that I would prevail with the least loss of life and get guidance from above.”

Moore’s father attended daily Mass, slipping out at 6 a.m. while the rest of the family slept. The boy attended a Catholic grade school, continuing his education at a high school run by the monastery where the famed Thomas Merton lived. Moore tried to read every book in both school libraries, he said.

Moore recalled that he always wanted to be a soldier, though, partly because he loved the outdoors. He flirted with the idea of being a priest, mainly because he wanted to be a military chaplain. He attended West Point, where Moore said he was smart in English language and history, but not so good at math, physics and chemistry courses. That was tough, he said, since West Point was an engineering school. Moore graduated in 1945, just as World War II was ending.

“I personally knew upperclassmen who were killed in action,” he said. “We were under no illusions what we were headed for. I probably would have been killed jumping into Japan, because everyone had been issued pitchforks to attack paratroopers.”

Moore said West Point left its mark on him; he took seriously the honor system requiring cadets not to lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who did. He attended Mass almost daily, and when he graduated Moore spent the weekend at a silent retreat.

“I trusted in God,” he said. “I raised my right hand and took an oath to follow orders. It was as simple as that.”


Moore served in Korea, and by 1965 was a lieutenant colonel. He and 450 men parachuted into the Ia Drang Valley in Viet Nam, only to discover they were surrounded by some 2,000 enemy troops. Ia Drang was the first major battle of the nascent Vietnamese War, and the battle that made Moore’s reputation. He lost 79 men, but the Vietnamese lost a thousand.

“Is he the blood and guts General Patton we need in Vietnam?” one headline asked afterwards.

“To his soldiers, he is Daniel Boone, Wild Bill Hickok, James Bond, Teddy Roosevelt and William Tecumseh Sherman all rolled into six feet of bone-hard Kentuckian,” the author said. “The Vietnamese feel the same way. He is one of the few American officers who is greeted on the street with traditional Asian half-bow, from civilians as well as local officials and troops.”

Moore was welcome in the inner sanctums of the powerful Buddhist monks,and enjoyed the same closeness with Christian leaders as well.

“Both spiritual groups say, ‘He has won our understanding,'” the article said.

“In the battles I was in in Viet Nam, I was always the first man on the ground, in the lead helicopter,” Moore said. “The officer is always the first man out the door.”

When Julie died, Moore turned his attention to an organization called The Public Trust, signing on as founder. He spent much of his time traveling to speaking engagements, accompanied by The Driver. In A General’s Spiritual Journey, the last section was devoted to “unfinished business.” He considered that little book part of his unfinished business, Moore said.

“When I make talks, I emphasize the brevity of life on earth when compared to eternal life,” he said. “I’m hoping to reach younger people, because they look on life as unending.”

He didn’t try to impress his particular religious beliefs on others, however. One has to arrive at those beliefs on his or her own, he said.

As for The Driver, he visited Moore daily, often taking supper. He took him to the cemetery to visit Julie and his men, and to the airport for his speaking engagements.

“It was a privilege for me to be in the same space,” said Moore’s unofficial chauffeur. “I was Hal Moore’s driver, and you didn’t have enough money to take my job.”


A vortex churning at the mouth of Hell

As the Peace Corps pulls out of El Salvador, I figure it is time to share my memories. The first draft was written a year ago upon my return to the U.S. after visiting my daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in the highlands of El Salvador. As the situation worsened, I updated last summer.

At 6:30 a.m., I am sitting on a sofa in the home of Dorita, a nurse from San Salvador in the violence-torn country of El Salvador. A black Chihuahua is curled by my side, and the savagery seems far away. Outside, the cocks crow one after another, as if in response to each other, perhaps offering defiant challenges. The controlled cacophony punctuates the background chatter of birds, barking dogs and an occasional old truck sputtering down the steep track.

I am accompanied by two of my daughters, the three of us visiting my youngest daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer in La Laguna, located in the highlands of Morazán Department along the northeastern border with Honduras. During El Salvador’s vicious civil war, which encompassed the entire decade of the 1980s, Morazán was the most troubled of the country’s zonas rojas, and the site of the notorious El Mozote Massacre. Members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion slaughtered as many as a thousand civilians in and around the village of El Mozote during the war. The Reagan Administration at first hotly denied reports of the atrocity, which were later proven to be accurate.

Until recently, the highlands of Morazán were safe, far distant from the drug-fueled turbulence that has plagued the region since the construction of the Pan-American Highway made transportation of drugs from the south much easier. Then, a government-brokered truce between the gangs disintegrated. The violence escalated. In a recent crackdown, the Salvadoran government transported some of the worst gang leaders to a high-security prison in the capital of Morazán, the hot, bustling city of San Francisco de Gotera. Gotera for short, the municipality is located on the optimistically named Ruta de Paz—Route of Peace.

The presence of the tattooed gang leaders caused the country’s miasma of violence to seep northward into Gotera and the surrounding countryside. In June, the country’s newspapers reported that 10 Morazán residents had been murdered in just 48 hours. One of the victims, a 52-year-old woman who was thought to be a collaborator with the national police force’s Prevention Committee in Morazán, was attacked by a gang of men who invaded her home in the pueblo of Cacaopera, just 15 miles from my daughter’s site.

The canton of La Laguna

La Laguna, where my daughter lives, is a canton of the pueblo of El Rosario, but use of the word “pueblo” is perhaps deceptive. El Rosario is a random collection of small homes for a few thousand souls, scattered up and down steep green hills and reached only by a dirt road. There is no downtown shopping district, no hospital, no fire department, no infrastructure to speak of. There is a clinic, although most of the neighbors visit Dorita with their minor health concerns.

A couple of our friends in La Laguna.
A couple of our friends in La Laguna.

Two plastic bookshelves crammed with over-the-counter medications, bandages and mysterious elixirs are the only sign of her profession. Above the shelves is a handwritten sign, proclaiming in Spanish: “Good faith died, killed by bad payment.” The same sentiment is shared at the front door, before prospective patients enter. By 9 a.m., Dorita had already received two patients, one a little girl with a slight fever, another a woman with a headache.

Dorita’s house is luxurious for La Laguna, with an indoor toilet and shower utilizing water from a well. The shower is for the hardy, since there is no hot water. My daughter and I washed breakfast dishes outside in the guacales, which hold rainwater collected from the metal roof via a pipe. We filled two tubs with cold water, and then my daughter scrubbed the dishes with a soapy sponge before dipping each one in the first tub to remove the soap. I rinsed in the second tub. All clothing, even at Dorita’s home, is washed outdoors by hand with cold water, scrubbing relentlessly. The only way to get rid of trash is to burn it. Dorita’s front and back doors are always wide open, and sometimes a chicken from the backyard pen comes exploring inside. Neighbors appear unexpectedly, as well. There is no such thing as privacy.

Remesas and La Renta

Several small homes have been built in the neighborhood with remesas sent by relatives living in the U.S. Remesas translates roughly to “remittances,” and these payments are vital to the region’s economy. In fact, they are vital to the economy of the entire country; the estimate of the number of Salvadorans living in the U.S. is equal to one-third of El Salvador’s current population, and the U.S. dollar is the standard currency. In the early 1820s, newly independent El Salvador even petitioned the U.S. government for statehood. Every child I met had an American name—Gladys, Cindy, Katelynn and Evelyn are a few examples.

Economic prospects in Morazán are virtually nonexistent, but migrating to San Salvador or another city means dealing with the gangs. Like almost everything else in El Salvador, the gangs—the two biggest being Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13)—have an American connection. Mara Salvatrucha, for example, evolved on the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s, and most of the members were the children of Salvadorans who fled the country’s civil war. In the 1990s a wave of deportations removed the gang members to El Salvador, where none had lived since they were small children—if they had ever lived there at all.

Now, the warring criminals in some ways rule the country. Children as young as 10 who live in poor neighborhoods are forced to join one of the gangs or face retribution. Almost every business is required to pay la renta, or protection money. Many of the businesses in the better parts of San Salvador have security guards posted, their guns in clear view. Visiting a McDonald’s protected by armed guards is a disconcerting experience.

The requirement to pay la renta is an effective deterrent to entrepreneurial efforts, and tourism is efficiently strangled by the presence of armed guards on beaches and outside restaurants, along with the coiled barbed wire atop the walls surrounding facilities like our hotel, which was perfect in every other way. That is a shame, because the country boasts rugged Pacific vistas, mountains, volcanoes and shimmering crater lakes. As the venerable Frommer’s tourism guide notes, much of the violence is between gang members, and the Salvadoran people are both friendly and gracious.

Twin threads of fear and hope

They are also anxious to get out of the country. My stay in Morazán Department reminded me that the quest for economic gain does play a role, but it is difficult to tease apart the twin threads of fear and hope. My daughter’s friend, another Peace Corps volunteer living in a nearby pueblo, reported that 14 youngsters left her village just in the week I was there. Neither violence nor drugs were a problem there at the time, but choking poverty is pervasive.

All of the young people have family in the United States, and members of their extended families pool their funds to engage coyotes, the name for the businessmen who arrange transport. Although the trip is inherently dangerous, some of the coyotes are trusted because family members have previously utilized their services.

My daughter says the average cost is $7,000 for a trustworthy, reliable coyote. Relatives could just as easily pool their dollars to start a small business, but why bother when extortion will bleed away profits? And there are almost no jobs in the safer regions like Morázan. The privileged few are teachers, nurses or policemen, but most men work the land in one capacity or another. Gladys’ stepfather, for example, labors as a caretaker on the estate of a wealthy landowner from the city of San Miguel. He earns just $2 a day.

Gladys lives with Dorita and my daughter because her stepfather said he couldn’t afford another mouth to feed. She goes to school in the pueblo and had been staying with a teacher, for whom she worked as a maid in exchange for room and board. When 13-year-old Gladys broke her arm and couldn’t do the heavy work, the teacher kicked her out.

The government provides free health care, so Salvadorans are fairly healthy. Diabetes is a problem, and serious health issues can be difficult to address because of poverty combined with the inaccessibility of more sophisticated care. Vilma, a neighbor who helped Dorita during our stay, is thin and tires easily because she has a heart problem that was treated with a mechanical valve when she was 3 years old. The valve is nearing the end of its useful life, but Vilma is unable and unwilling to travel to San Salvador for the regular cardiac care she needs. For one thing, the cost is too high. A bus ride costs $10 each way, an impossible sum.

Pulling out the first time

In late 2011 and early 2012, the Peace Corps pulled out of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—known as the Northern Triangle of Central America—after a Peace Corps volunteer was shot accidentally during a bus robbery in the troubled Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. The volunteer group returned to El Salvador in 2013 after reassessing safety measures. My daughter, among the first crop of returning volunteers, was instructed to stay out of San Salvador and use only approved transportation. She felt safe, and she was safe. That is the paradox of El Salvador, which I have come to view as the vortex churning at the mouth of Hell.

The Peace Corps has not yet returned to Honduras, which until this year claimed the dubious honor of having the most murders of any country in the world outside of a war zone. Volunteers were hanging on in El Salvador until the country’s death toll surpassed that of Honduras. In 2015, a total of 6,657 people were murdered in tiny El Salvador, not quite the size of Massachusetts. The Bay State, by contrast, suffers an average of 170 homicides a year. El Salvador’s murder rate is the highest of any year since the end of the civil war in 1992, and the country recently claimed Honduras’ title.

Clearly, the already impossible situation has deteriorated in recent months. Gang killings of bus drivers have paralyzed San Salvador’s transportation system, and in late July two motorcycle-riding gangsters tossed a grenade into the restaurant at San Salvador’s exclusive Sheraton. Windows shattered, but no one was hurt. At one point, rumors swept the country—reaching even remote La Laguna—that gang members were targeting women with blonde or red hair, so the salons filled up with desperate women dying their hair brown or black.

With the gang violence comes extraordinary abuse of women. Gang rape is common, sometimes as an initiation, sometimes as punishment, sometimes as threat, and sometimes out of sadistic indifference. A young girl was gang-raped at a site near La Laguna, and my daughter worried about the girls on her soccer team. The girl joined family in the United States, where she is seeking asylum. Last fall, U.S. immigration attorneys told the Associated Press they were seeing an exponential increase in the number of women and girls from Central America seeking asylum after being kidnapped and raped.

The most nightmarish aspect of the chaos, though, is that the good guys and the bad guys sometimes seem to be interchangeable.. The specter of the civil war still haunts the country; the governing party is the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, which started life as a coalition of guerrilla fighters. The main opposition is the conservative ARENA, founded in 1980 in response to the FMLN insurgency. Now, the FMLN, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén (a former guerilla leader) and the national police have adopted a crowd-pleasing mano duro (iron fist) approach; they have been accused of complicity in the kind of “extrajudicial killings” made infamous by right-wing death squads during the civil war. At the same time, government officials are pointing fingers at the “oligarchic right wing,” suggesting they are spreading rumors and lies to undermine the democratically elected government.

The gangs

All the while, the gangs continue their depredations, a third force estimated to be at least 60,000 strong (in a country of six million), with a support network possibly in the hundreds of thousands. By contrast, the FMLN guerilla force never numbered more than perhaps 15,000. As police violence against the gangs escalates, a few journalists have penned articles that sounded vaguely sympathetic, quoting gang leaders saying they are somehow in touch with the country’s poor and downtrodden.

People are suggesting that another kind of civil war is evolving, between the gangs and the state. The army has launched several “rapid response battalions” to react to gang violence, and the National Association of Private Enterprise, the country’s most prominent pro-business organization, hired former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as a consultant. He talks of “annihilating” the gangs. In early August, the nation’s bishops issued a statement pleading with their Divine Savior to protect and save their nation. They asked every parish priest to organize a holy hour, fasting, the praying of the Rosary and processions.

Much has been written in the U.S. press about a wave of unaccompanied minors that last summer swept across the porous border between the United States and Mexico. Most of the youngsters came from Central America, and they will continue to come, like drowning people fighting to board a lifeboat. The flood of young immigrants prompted the passage of a massive U.S. aid package, a plan that includes increases in programs that have already promoted militarization of the region’s security forces, as well as measures promoting social programs and private enterprise. Critics say any attempt to find a military solution to the gang problem is a big mistake in a country with a history of violent repression.

The situation calls to mind theater of the absurd, with repetitious and meaningless dialogue and confusing plots that defy logic. I flash back to the early 1980s, when I worked for an organization providing aid to Salvadoran refugees at a camp in Honduras. I collected the peasants’ stories about fording the Rio Lempa, seeking safety in Honduras, as the Salvadoran military fired upon them. They were poor so they must be revolutionaries, and the U.S. was providing aid to the Salvadoran government in hopes of defeating the leftist FMLN, who were allegedly supported by the Soviets and Cuba. Helicopters firing from overhead bore the insignia of the U.S. government, the refugees told me.

A few weeks ago, police arrested a La Laguna resident, and there were murders at two of the formerly peaceful Peace Corps sites in Morazán. “I don’t worry about myself,” my daughter says. “I can return home. I worry about all those who can’t leave.”

the girls in el salvador2
The girls and I in El Salvador.