Interview with Mark Danner: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Being a Writer: Conversation with Mark Danner, staff writer, The New Yorker; 3/3/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Use of Words

In all of your writings, a theme that emerges again and again is the use of words by actors, by politicians, by statesmen responding to events. How do you compare your use of words as a writer with the use of words one is constantly encountering by the actors in your writing? I have a quote here. Assistant Secretary of State Niles said with regard to concentration campus in Bosnia, "We don't have thus far substantiated information that would confirm the existence of the camps." You discuss the fear of Clinton administration officials to use the word "genocide," lest it create a situation where they would have to act. Or in the Reagan administration's response to events in El Salvador.

A very good question. And a very big one.

Niles, of course, is part of a longer theme of shying away from things that might implicate first the Bush administration and then the Clinton administration in taking action that it had to take according to international agreements. If they started to identify what was happening in Bosnia as genocide, the genocide treaty would come into effect. That has never happened, so it was not clear what would happen. Presumably they would have [been obliged] to act in some way. So they shied away from using that term. The ironic effect of the genocide treaty was the lying or misrepresentation at the highest level of government about what was going on. Niles' statement was a remarkable effort, after the camps had been made public, to deny that the government knew about them. I later found, published in a later piece in that same series in the New York Review of Books, a document from the Pentagon that they declassified by mistake in a Freedom of Information request. [The document had] three columns: in the first column was name of camp, in the second column number of prisoners, and the third was the number liquidated. This was in the Pentagon. It went on for three pages in that tiny type that they use for cables. So you had these vast numbers of people killed; the date was blacked out, but it certainly was July of 1992 at the latest.

To get back to your original question, the use of words. Obviously the government uses words for all sorts of reasons and never innocently. That is to say, every word they use officially means something. It is a matter of record, they have put themselves on record as taking responsibility for something, as commenting on something. Every use, every time they speak, it is political in some way. I do something different, which is, I try to tell a story, try to tell what happened; which is a very different thing. I have a great deal more freedom in a way. It can be a difficult task, and anybody who has tried to do this sort of thing knows it, but it is a lot easier in a funny way because the implications following from each of these words are not the same on the level of government. I am simply trying to find out what happened and tell the story. And, however modest that sounds, that is, in the end, the fact. You are trying to tell it in a way that people will be able to read it and be fascinated by it and you are trying to do it in a way with certain complications and images that you talked about. I spend a lot of time in my pieces, as you're implying by your question, analyzing how people in government speak. You have to.

Perhaps it is helpful that I spent a lot of time reading novels and learning how to analyze writing in novels; it helps me look at how people talk and try to understand it on a deeper level. I did that in El Mozote, where the main actors is called Todd Greentree, a name you couldn't have made up. If you used it in a novel it would have been far too obvious.

He was a young diplomat.

The youngest member of the embassy. A green tree. An innocent who came down and immediately was confronted with this moral conundrum because these people [El Salvadoran peasants] had been killed. He had been placed in the situation of a) investigating it and b) concluding, he eventually told me -- I interviewed him from Nepal where he was later stationed-- that it did in fact happen. The massacre. Writing a cable that essentially denied it happened, but if you look closely at the cable, if you analyze it closely, you can find all sorts of odd things in it. They are almost like dream imagery in a funny way. Perhaps a very experienced diplomat would not have put the things he did in this cable. Although he had an executive summary that essentially denied this event.

And it was important for the Reagan administration that this event not have occurred in order to get the funding for its programs for El Salvador.

Yes, again it is the world cooperating. This massacre was made public the day before the so-called certification went to Congress. The Reagan administration was then required to certify that the Salvadorian government was improving in its respect for human rights to get foreign aid, which was crucial to the war. Anyway, Greentree wrote this cable that if you analyze it at length, as I tried to do, along with an interview with him, you can discover in the cable that is a contemporary document, that he had enormous doubts about what happened. He didn't say it explicitly, but they are all over it. You don't have to read them into it. There are all sorts of strange quotes and things he shouldn't have included, certainly, but I took that to mean that he was rather guilty about what he had said and what he had concluded. He was playing the good soldier but he couldn't quite do it. He couldn't quite pull it off. With respect to that story, he is still like that in a way, though he is a much more experienced diplomat.

Next page: Coaxing Out the Story

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