There’s a certain fascination with why and how people join armed movements. All the more so when what’s at issue is apparently “assimilated” Western Moslems turning to terror. Obviously, this process engenders a great deal of anxiety, which is no doubt why it also has to be retraced and narrativized over and over.
This is one context for what I’m trying to understand in writing about the Salvadoran FMLN…
It soon became apparent that the Salvadoran revolution would prove a “long war” (to use Dunkerley’s phrase) in more ways than one: not only could it trace its inspiration back to the 1932 Communist uprising, bloodily repressed by the oligarchic state; it would also become one of the most sustained guerrilla insurgencies ever seen in the Americas. And by the mid-1980s the unsuitability of the FMLN’s strategy for such a long war had become apparent. Hugh Byrne records that by the end of 1983, “the guerrillas were winning the war. However, the FMLN had military weaknesses. Its concentration of forces made the insurgents vulnerable to the assets of the armed forces, particularly helicopters, aircraft, and artillery” (104). Byrne goes on to observe that “a quasi-regular war played to one of the strengths of the ESAF [El Salvadoran Armed Forces]: its access to sophisticated equipment and extensive funds to wage a high-technology war (104). The FMLN therefore had to resort to flexibility, mobility, and nomadism to maintain its challenge to the Salvadoran state, abandoning ideological as well as military rigidity, even to a large extent abandoning ideology tout court. For Bracamonte and Spencer, it was this “lack of ideological trappings [that] allowed the FMLN to continually develop successful tactics that worked to near perfection” (8).
In place of ideology, affect. Joining the FMLN involved not the adoption of any specific set of beliefs, but a change in affective state, indeed a shift from the individualized subjectivity associated with emotion to the depersonalized commonality characteristic of affect. Almost all guerrilla testimonios testify to the trauma and the intense affective charge of the transition to clandestinity. For instance, Ana María Castillo (“Comandante Eugenia”) is quoted to explain how becoming guerrilla is a form of social death: “You [. . .] will leave your family and friends, people dear to you will die. Members of your family, perhaps, will be captured to see if they can give you up. You won’t be able to do a thing about it” (Alegría and Flakoll, No me agarran viva 55). Dialogue and discourse with the rest of the world, or the world left behind, become impossible: “You will even see people in the street who know you and your whole heart will be turned inside out with desires to say ‘hi’ at least, but you won’t be able to. You’ll have to keep on past them [. . .] and it’ll hurt” (55). Clandestinity produces a separation for which the guerrilla returns apparently as specter: she can see and (here, at least) be seen, but cannot look back and cannot speak. She is suffused with desire (as well as hurt), but also helpless, desubjectivized, strangely passive: “you won’t be able to do a thing about it.” Her motives will have to go unrecognized, taken to be snobbery (“perhaps they’ll think ‘How stuck up that Eugenia is'” ) or, Eugenia later suggests, treachery: “All the comrades among the workers may even believe that I’ve betrayed them. That I’ve gone who knows where” (55). She has gone, and if she is brought back, it will only be as a corpse: “no me agarran viva” (“they won’t take me alive”).
At the same time, if the transition to clandestinity is a scission, and a desubstantialization, a becoming spectral, for the guerrilla it is also a bodily passage to union. Going underground is an immersion in the material that desubjectifies the guerrilla as he or she becomes immanent to the struggle and to the revolutionary movement. Charles Clements, a pacifist US doctor who spent a year with the FMLN around the Guazapa volcano, notes this emphasis on the corporeal in a conversation with the guide leading him to the war zone. Faced with the question “¿Porqué un gringo se incorporó?” Clements notes “the question puzzled me. I didn’t understand the verb. ‘¿Qué quieres decir por incorporarse?’ (What do you mean by ‘incorporate’?) I asked. He explained to me that when you join the struggle, you ‘incorporate’ with the guerrillas–literally, I suppose, to join their body” (Witness to War 30). When Clements later himself realizes that he, too, despite himself and his sense of difference as gringo, as doctor, and as pacifist, has incorporated, has joined the social body and lost his sense of individuality (“I had altogether ceased to be Charlie Clements” ), he feels this as a crisis. His aim had been to keep neutral, to keep his distance. But in the Front, the “Zone” that the FMLN traverses, desubjectification is inevitable. And for the fighters, incorporation is also the fulfillment of a desire to be subsumed in the collectivity: while there is hurt and perhaps terror in the inhabitation of spectral excess, in the end there is the joy of commitment, of being fully enfolded within the struggle.
For incorporation is experienced less as excess than as plenitude. This is the source of guerrilla joy. In No me agarran viva, Eugenia’s husband Javier, also a guerrilla, says of her death: “In my view Eugenia died complete. Completely happy. Her death simply crowned with heroism a life profoundly given over, without any remainder” (147; my emphasis). Becoming-guerrilla is social death, but asocial rebirth. According to Edwin Ayala, “Here in the Front you are born again, everything is new, you learn everything, you start on your first steps” (El tope y más allá 60). So returning to social order could be quite as traumatic as becoming clandestine. Concluding his testimonio with an account of his 1992 demobilization, Ayala lists everything he will miss about guerrilla life, from singing to making tea on an open fire or constructing air-raid shelters, and the collective affect of “feeling everyone’s happiness at the moment of a victory.” He contemplates a future of “boredom what with all the hassle and navigating the world of ‘civilization’ again” (277). At the threshold between what is implicitly “barbarism” and his reinsertion into “civilization,” he meets the mother of a fallen comrade: “I left the multitude to go up to a person; at first I hesitated, but up I went, it was Leo’s mother. Standing before her, I couldn’t find anything to say. She was sitting down. So I crouched down and asked, ‘Are you really Leo’s mother?'” (276). For Ayala the shock of re-entering civilian life is a transition from the multitude back to the individual, from silence to a speech that names family ties and social position. From affect, to an affectless boredom and emptiness.