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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 1
Título: 1998

David E. SPENCER. Vietnam to El Salvador:From The Saga of the FMLN Sappers and Other Guerrilla Special Forces in Latin America. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. 170 p.

This book by David E. Spencer carries the advantage of being based on the capture, in 1982, of a large cache of documents belonging to the “Popular Liberation Forces” by the army of El Salvador. It thus has the distinction of authenticity about guerrilla operations during the civil war in El Salvador (or, as the Introduction calls it, “. . .the armed conflict carried out . . . against International Communism during the decade of the 1980’s.”)

The book begins by breaking down each special force into four categories and then explains the importance and structure of each. This includes a history of that category within El Salvador and a personal testimony from a member of each respective group. The following chapter takes each special force category and goes into an in-depth description of the tactics and techniques used by each. Inserted, where relevant, are detailed descriptions of the proper procedures as were required of and implemented by the special force team in regard to such things as breaching either a minefield or wire obstacles. Also, there is an excerpt from a captured FLP sapper that recounts how the commandos attacked a bunker. Later, this chapter reveals the methods of combat training for amphibious attack swimmers through a somewhat detailed outline of the unit organization of the mission complete with names and objectives.

The book continues with a chronological listing of the special forces operations through various offensive attacks of the FMLN. It includes the different divisions of the special forces and their specific plan of attack. It also contains a captured reconnaissance report that describes a detailed and precise attack that occurred by the group in 1987. The next two chapters proceed with a recount of the actions of the ERP, a militant faction of the FMLN that is described in earlier in the book, and the FAL. The coverage of the ERP is detailed and particular. It contains more specific personal accounts and documents that are actual physical evidence of the platoon mission, the team mission, individual missions, and a series of tactics and objectives as were carried out by the faction for a specific encounter. It even lists the equipment issued to each team including the number of rounds and explosives.

The accounts of the FAL are also chronological in nature, but carries its coverage of this special force through the year 1989. The previous two chapters did not give coverage to that late of a date going to only 1987 and 1986 respectively. However, it lacks the personal testimony or captured reports of the two previous chapters and the coverage is less specific in detail. Following along the same lines, the next part of the book tries to give some area for comparison as it provides examples of the work of special missions forces within all of Latin America. It starts with Cuba and goes through Guatemala and Mexico. It supplies brief and general accounts of each with the exception of Argentina where a fairly thorough description is given. The final portion of the book is an overview where the conclusions and analysis of the author are applied for specific cases. Spencer evaluates the FES and tries to find a pattern in their operation. He also offers his ideas for strengthening the special missions force through refinements in areas of operation and training.

The major part of the book describes twenty-seven operations carried out by the guerrillas, of which seven were outright failures. The factual accounts of why success (or failure) happened will be useful in the future training of young officers in conventional, “regular” armies. However, readers should not be misled by the term “Sapper”. (Sappers are the Corps of Royal Engineers in the British Army: they do much more than blow things up. They build roads and bridges and river crossings, to enable the infantry to move.)

David Spencer makes a valid comment when he observes that guerrillas succeed best against “sloppy, idle, badly-commanded, conventional armies.” Of course they do! Conversely, they cannot eventually succeed against professional, organized, well-disciplined, well-trained armies.

The fact that the book relies so heavily on captured documentation to provide an account of guerrilla operations will enhance its usefulness as a reference document. However, as a military textbook it would have been improved by a more critical analysis of operations, as opposed to reportage.

Formerly of the Corps of Royal Engineers                                                                                                              GILBER HUNT
Washington, D.C.