THE SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS
Military Training and Political Violence
in the Americas
By Lesley Gill. Duke Univ. 281 pp.
The memorandum to Richard Cheney, stamped SECRET, informed him that a Defense Department inquiry had discovered "improper material" in U.S. military intelligence training guides. The Army manuals -- on interrogation, the handling of sources and counterterrorism -- counseled "motivation by fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum" during questioning of detainees.
Part of the paper trail leading up to the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison? No. These were military manuals used to train thousands of Latin American officers and soldiers who passed through the School of the Americas during the 1980s and early '90s. And when this March 10, 1992, report to then-Defense Secretary Cheney was leaked to the press, the ensuing scandal helped fuel a powerful, religious-based protest movement that, as Lesley Gill writes in this small but passionate book, "transformed a relatively obscure army school into a public pariah and pushed Congress to within a few votes of shutting down the institution."
When the U.S. military opened the Latin American Ground School at Fort Amador in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946, and three years later reorganized the training center as the U.S. Caribbean School, it was indeed an obscure facility. Instructors initially trained small groups of troops on the use of advanced artillery and weapons systems that Washington began selling to Latin American countries such as Argentina after World War II. But in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban revolution, the U.S. Southern Command significantly broadened the school's core curriculum around the military doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare and expanded enrollment to train -- "inculcate" is the word Gill uses more than once -- Latin American militaries in the cause of anticommunism. In 1963 the facility was renamed the School of the Americas, or SOA, as it was commonly known until a concerted, decade-long human rights campaign forced the Army to temporarily close it down in December 2000. In January 2001, SOA reopened under yet another name: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
"New name, same shame," retorts SOA Watch, the organization founded by Catholic priest Roy Bourgois that has led a campaign to permanently shutter the facility. As Gill relates the genesis of this unique activist movement, in November 1990 Bourgois and two colleagues commemorated the first anniversary of the infamous assassination of six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers by SOA-trained Salvadoran soldiers by pouring blood and planting a cross on the school's grounds. They were arrested and sentenced to several months in prison. Since then, in an annual act of civil disobedience, every November thousands of demonstrators descend on Fort Benning, Ga., where 20 years ago the school was relocated from the Canal Zone.
One of SOA Watch's singular achievements was to obtain through the Freedom of Information Act a comprehensive list of the school's 60,000 graduates. The roster of alumni is a Who's Who of the most infamous dictators, death-squad directors and mass murderers in the Western Hemisphere -- if not the world. Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, who now resides in a Florida prison for international narcotics trafficking, is an SOA alum. So was the godfather of the Salvadoran death squads, Roberto D'Aubuisson, who masterminded the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and hundreds of other killings. So was the violent former dictator of Bolivia Gen. Hugo Banzer. The list goes on and on.
Tarred with the label "School of Assassins," the facility has reformulated its course offerings (titles now include "Democratic Sustainment," "Humanitarian De-Mining" and "Civil-Military Operations"), instituted a mandatory human rights curriculum and thrown open its doors to public scrutiny. Gill, an anthropology professor at American University, was able to attend Human Rights Week at the school in February 2000 and spend considerable time with Commandant Glen Weidner, discussing his efforts to educate the Latin American corps in the concepts of the "professional soldier," military ethics and just-war doctrine. The week culminated with a special panel on the My Lai massacre that, Weidner suggested to Gill, "would demonstrate to the Latin Americans that the United States could examine its own mistakes and hold itself accountable." During another session that Gill attended, a Red Cross official led a class discussion on whether torture was ever permissible. U.S. law, the instructor counseled, "did not contain any exceptions condoning the use of torture, even in cases where life and death appeared to hang on the information held by detainees."
With the Bush administration's decision to reinterpret the Geneva Convention and authorize the physical abuse of detainees, that statement is unlikely to be repeated in future courses on this subject. Indeed, as Gill correctly points out, "September 11 has altered the moral radar of broad sectors of the American public." The danger that U.S. tactics in the war on terrorism may reinforce the proclivity of Latin American militaries to violate human rights makes her work extremely timely.
Regrettably, the case Gill builds against the School of the Americas is significantly diluted by the broader agenda of her work: to indict the United States as an imperialist power dedicated to using the facility for "training new cohorts of [Latin American] officers ready to defend the ramparts of the American empire." With some repetition and rhetorical flourishes, she revisits this theme from beginning to end; by the book's conclusion it is clear that her objective is to push the anti-SOA movement "to look beyond that one training site" (as one activist puts it) and set its goal as "ending U.S. imperialism and dismantling the military apparatus that supports it . . . " For that reason, The School of the Americas is likely to find a limited audience, albeit an activist one.
Still, in the wake of recent revelations that suspected terrorists captured by CIA and U.S. special forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have been deliberately hidden from the Red Cross, severely tortured and in some cases abused to death, this book remains immediately relevant. The questions at the heart of the controversy over the school -- is the U.S. military teaching the art of atrocity to Latin American soldiers, and do Americans bear responsibility for the horrors that many of the supposedly "professionalized" graduates of the school have committed? -- take on new meaning as the United States engages in actions that bear a damning resemblance to the dirty wars fought in years past in Central and South America. *
Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. His book "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability" has just been published in paperback.