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23 July 2013

Dos Erres, Guatemala: an essay on the connection between language and violence

So, this isn't my best academic work. Not even close. As you can see from all the notes at the end, my brain wanted to take this farther. It's been a battle to complete it without turning it into a massive research project. But it's overdue, so I'm turning it in and moving on to the next piece. 

When we read about any of the atrocities humans have committed against other humans, one question dominates our thoughts: How could human beings do these things to other human beings? The answer, in small part, lies in the words we use. In the case of Dos Erres, Guatemala, the words killed, and words allowed killing to continue.
The descriptions given by the Guatemalan soldiers', of their training and culture in the Guatemalan Kaibiles (whose job and training is similar to that of the US Army Special Forces), gives the first hints to how words have shaped events. In the broadcast, “465: What Happened at Dos Erres,” from This American Life, two soldiers from the unit which perpetrated the Dos Erres Massacre are interviewed. During this interview, one of them describes the training of the unit. In this description, any military person might recognize the themes from their own training: each level or branch of military training has a sense of pride in itself which is encouraged from the top down, and inculcated from the bottom up. This pride is not based on being the most ‘humane’ unit; it is based on being the most effective unit in their missions. Effectiveness, in a military mission and within the military culture, is related to completion of the task, but it is also related to brutality in the sense that the ‘best’ soldiers are thought of as those who are able to divorce themselves from emotion – a weakness when it shows – and do the task, no matter the obstacles. Brutality is also encouraged in that the one emotion which is not considered weakness is anger, and violence as an expression of anger is acceptable, even a sign that the person is fully engaged with the military culture. At its best, this culture provides governments with a cohesive unit that is willing and able to act decisively to complete a mission. At its worst, a culture like this does not allow for the humane aspects of humanity; within its worst actions, an act of humanity is revolutionary, and takes revolutionary courage. Any counteraction makes the actor stand out as ‘against’ the unit – a very difficult and dangerous place for an individual to stand.
Euphemisms are integral to how we – how humans – talk about these events. In this case, the euphemisms are covering the horrific nature of what the Guatemalan government – the government which the US put in place and encouraged – has done to its own people. But the importance of euphemisms in this event goes beyond how we talk about it now; in no small way, euphemisms allowed the genocide to happen. The use of euphemisms begins with the training of nearly every military in the world, which encourages one unit to stand taller than others, and develops a troop mentality which places anyone not in the unit, below the unit – a less productive, less worthwhile human being.1 (This is a hypothesis is supported by research conducted in the studies of the psychology of warfare.2) Incrementally, the stain of ‘otherness’ becomes more pronounced as the social distance from the soldier’s unit becomes greater. As the ‘otherness’ becomes more pronounced, euphemisms for groups of people become more pronounced as well. As language influences thought (and vice versa), speaking of other people as lesser, provides a psychological basis for treating other people as lesser. This is how hate crimes happen; this is how genocides happen; this is how the atrocities committed by our own troops, happened. 3
In Guatemala, the ‘otherness’ which became euphemized was drawn most prominently along racial lines. Indians by any name were seen and treated as lesser humans, or as Rigoberta Menchu described, as less than a dog (Menchu, 2010, p109). Menchu’s testimony in fact is so laden with the effects of racism that it is, I think, impossible to select any one chapter from her book which does not show some reflection of the racism which Indians in Guatemala faced; her comparison of her treatment with that of a landino family dog is just one of the more direct and obvious examples. For the military commanders, then, it would have been a simple thing to use the racism already present in Guatemalan society to instigate the soldiers’ willingness to treat Indians inhumanely – even for those soldiers who were Indians themselves.4 In all likelihood, the commanders would not have even made that choice consciously – it was ingrained in them, too, though they certainly saw things differently than Menchu and other Indians did. Ricoardo Falla, in The San Francisco Massacre, July 1982 (p. 374), elucidates it this way: “Though variations occur, the basic truth remains. Some testimonies pass through second and third hand sources, but they should not be dismissed because some data is mistaken or numbers changed.” There are conflicts in the testimonies of the Guatemalan people; the truth remains, that their culture was so violently divided by race, that the massacres were in some ways, only the next step.
The Guatemalan culture was full of euphemisms which softened the reality of their government’s war on its people. People weren’t “murdered” by their government, they were “disappeared” – a description which clouds the murders with mystery, as though the people were just gone, not murdered. From the perspective of the persecuted, softening the reality probably was beneficial. They didn’t need their words to remind them of the horrors they were facing, and the mind can only take so much. However, when these events were communicated to the rest of the world, euphemisms worked to soften the perception of violence happening in Guatemala. American people (for example) were hearing that it was bad, but not that it was violent, horrifying, or atrocious. It was easier, then, for foreign people to look away, to not demand some sort of intervention. Of course, the American people didn’t know how involved their government already was, or how their government was involved. The layers upon layer of subterfuge concerning American involvement in the Guatemalan genocide acted euphemistically; words, intentionally softened and twisted, masked the reality in Guatemala. We talked about “rural pacification” (Intent to Destroy, Guatemalan Reader, p 362), and the chances that “repression” might be successful (We Cannot Confirm nor Deny, Guatemalan Reader, p379). The Guatemalan embassy’s letter to the US Secretary of State (October 22, 1982; Guatemalan Reader, p 383), even as it decries rumors of atrocities committed by their government, highlights their “civil defense patrols” – a tidy euphemistic name for the groups of Indians forced to commit acts of violence and vandalism against their neighbors.
Looking specifically at the Dos Erres Massacre, we can delineate the ways in which euphemisms worked throughout this event. In the instructions given to the Kaibiles, the village of Dos Erres was described as a communist enclave that was aiding the rebels; the village was positioned against the Guatemalan government and was helping the same rebels who had killed some soldiers. That wasn’t true, but the Kaibiles didn’t know that. Though this wasn’t specifically a use of euphemisms, it provides the basis of anger in the minds of the Kaibiles through the use of intentionally inaccurate descriptions. The Kaibiles shared the embarrassment and retributive passion sparked by hearing of the deaths of their fellow soldiers – a lesser group of soldiers, but still higher in rank than non-soldiers. This same ranking might have discouraged the Kaibiles from hearing the denials of the villagers; when a lesser person declaims what a higher person has said, the higher person is believed. It’s easy to imagine that the Kaibiles’ perception of the villagers as lying about the supposed aid to rebels might have increased the Kaibiles’ anger and desire for retribution. The next step – the escalation of anger into violence – was already part of the culture and training of the Kaibiles.
Fifteen years later, it was the Kaibiles’ cook, Favio Jerez, who proved to be the “weak link” in the unit’s code of silence; he was the first to confess. (Habiba Nosheen, What Happened at Dos Erres) His ‘weakness’ that allowed him to break that code and confess was that he had never been a full member of the Kaibiles’ culture, having not completed more than two weeks of the training. Favio, spared the indoctrination of Kaibiles culture, was able to see through the euphemisms to the humans on the other side.


1 As a former soldier, I want to make it clear that what I’m describing is the worst case scenario; it is the most extreme form of the mindset which lies at the base of military cohesion development. In most cases, the mindset I’m describing is not elevated above that of light-hearted teasing of other military units as being ‘less hardcore.’ Certainly, any unit I’ve ever served with has retained its culture of humanity, tempering the degree of dehumanization to the level of semantics – a far cry from a mindset which would allow for the destruction of another human being.

2 Lt. Col. Grossman, author of On Killing: the Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (2009), does a compelling disposition on how this works, going into far more detail than I have the space for here. See Section IV – An Anatomy of Killing: All Factors Considered, in particular, for relevant discussion. Lt. Col. Grossman includes a selected bibliography of his references, which is no less of a comprehensive resource for being ‘selected.’

3 The examples which come to mind immediately are Matthew Shepard (hate crime), the genocides in Rwanda and, of course, Guatemala, the human rights violations at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (crimes of American troops), and stories of war crimes by American troops in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Each and every one of the perpetrators in any of these crimes, was likely able to act as they did because they didn’t see the victims as being of equal humanity.

4 People who have been bullied, are more likely to bully others. There are numerous resources for this; Olweus (2013) is one.


Embassy Guatemala. "We Cannot Confirm nor Deny." In The Guatemala reader history, culture, politics, edited by Greg Grandin, 378-385. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.

Falla, Ricardo. "The San Francisco Massacre, July 1982." In The Guatemala reader history, culture, politics, edited by Greg Grandin, 373-377. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.

Grandin, Greg. "Intent to Destroy." In The Guatemala reader history, culture, politics, edited by Greg Grandin, 361-365. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011.

Grossman, Dave. On killing: the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society. Boston: Little, Brown, 2009.

Nosheen, Habiba, and Ira Glass. "What Happened At Dos Erres." This American Life. (accessed July 19, 2013).

Olweus, Dan. "School Bullying: Development and Some Important Challenges." Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 9 (2013): 751-780. (accessed July 22, 2013).

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