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SOA should be shut down now

Recently, a student† wrote an article for The Wooster Voice defending the School of the Americas (SOA), a controversial military training facility in Fort Benning, Ga., that has been linked to egregious human rights abuses in Latin America. This is a response to that article and will explain why the SOA is responsible for these atrocities and must be shut down.

Supporters of the SOA claim that the school is generally justified in its campaigns against insurgent forces, but the use of this distinction against those who SOA graduates have killed and the efficacy of SOA tactics against legitimate threats are questionable. These “insurgents” have included clergy members, social activists and countless innocent civilians. Oscar Romero, the El Salvadoran Catholic bishop who was murdered by an SOA graduate while he celebrated Mass, was not an “insurgent.” Nor were the American Catholic missionaries Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel who were tortured, raped and murdered by an SOA-trained right-wing death squad.

It is a documented fact that SOA graduates have engaged in terrorism, murder and other extreme violations of human rights and that these acts were in accordance with their SOA training. The most well-known cases of SOA graduate violence occurred in support of right-wing militias in the El Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s. These atrocities include the murders of Romero, the four missionary women, as well as the 1982 massacre of between 200 and 1000 civilians, almost the entire population of the town of El Mozote, by a U.S.-backed right-wing death squad. The generally right-wing ideological nature of the SOA remains intact today;† In 2005, five men and three children in Uraba, Colombia were murdered by a division of the Colombian military that was headed by SOA graduates. The rationale for this massacre was that these individuals were members of a pacifist community which had vocally criticized U.S. interventionism and the right-wing Colombian military, according to The SOA Watch website. Throughout its recent history, SOA graduates have been linked to the violent suppression of activists for labor rights and the reform of land distribution in areas of abject poverty. The SOA is a political force that supports the interests of the U.S. and exploitation of the poor by violently suppressing perceived threats to pro-business and U.S.-friendly regimes, as exemplified by the violent involvement of SOA graduates in the 2009 right-wing coup in Honduras.

In 1996, the Pentagon released an SOA interrogation training manual used between 1982 and 1991 that explicitly condones that acts of false imprisonment, extortion, undue intimidation, physical coercion and execution can be used against potential guerillas to obtain information. These practices are illegal in U.S. and international law. Despite this apparent gesture of transparency, SOA graduates have continued to engage in similar atrocities in this era. Since the late 1990s, SOA graduates involved with fighting the drug trade in Colombia have regularly stepped over the bounds of reasonable retribution against civilian targets not associated with drug traffickers, and have even been tied directly to the drug trade according to The† Human Rights Watch† and The New York Times websites. Given this and the more recent atrocities mentioned above, there is no evidence that the SOA has removed war crimes from its training program.

Although the federal government and the SOA generally deny allegations of instructing atrocities, exemplified by their claims that SOA graduates undergo “human rights training,” it is absurd† to take these self-endorsements as an accurate portrayal. No government-endorsed description of SOA should be taken at face value, but rather the institution must evaluated independently, and evaluations have painted a disturbing picture. The historical record of SOA graduates’ actions shows a consistent history of atrocities, regardless of what the school claims of its curriculum. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “training alone, even when it includes human rights instruction, does not prevent human rights abuses.”

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with the School of Americas, beyond the atrocities committed by its students, is the imperialistic worldview that it represents. The view that the U.S. has the right to intervene in the affairs of sovereign Latin American states represents the antiquated, paternalistic and ultimately racist notion that the Western Hemisphere south of the Rio Grande is our country’s “backyard.” I do not necessarily condone isolationism, but it is wildly inappropriate and a breach of national sovereignty to make the training of foreign militaries a task of the U.S. To conflate the political, military, and economic interests of the U.S. with those of sovereign Latin American states invokes an attitude of racist paternalism and right to rule other peoples. The School of Americas continues to produce loathsome atrocities against the people of Latin America to preserve a nationalistic, violent and anti-egalitarian agenda.

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2 Responses to “SOA should be shut down now”

  1. Daniel Hanson says:

    See Lee, there’s two problems here:

    First is, well, everything. So it is appropriate for us to intervene with other states’ military endeavors? Gosh, mister, I thought imperialism was wrong, but if it’s good enough for the U.S. of A., by golly, it’s good enough for me. Same for the torture aspect. If good ole’ Uncle Sam thinks that the CIA released SOA handbook including torture techniques and the thousands of reports of atrocities at the Hands of SOA/WHINSEC graduates are false, I’m just inclined to agree. (That was sarcasm by the way) Given that your stated interest in the SOA/WHINSEC is a public affairs officer, it is clear that your description of the institution’s activities is nowhere near impartial. We know that the SOA did indeed teach torture techniques deemed illegal by the Geneva Convention, and we know that that it’s graduates have committed atrocities. You’re claiming that there’s no causality here. Really now?

    Oh yeah, I got the name wrong. My bad, I guess.

    Secondly, you’re an employee of the United States government on a payroll supplied by the American taxpayer and you are writing a response to an editorial in a college newspaper. I’m glad to know that this article apparently has a far more vast and influential audience than I would have expected, but seriously, don’t you have something more important to be doing? Or maybe your job is to Google “SOA” every few days and copy and past that paragraph into every anti-SOA editorial you can find and change the name at the beginning. Seriously, Lee, taxpayer money.

    I will be patiently awaiting your shipment, electronically or through mail, of a first class plane ticket to Georgia, 1 to 2 nights’ room and board in an at least 3 star hotel, transportation to the WHINSEC compound in Fort Benning, a full tour of your facilities (preferably given by yourself), and an independently sponsored investigation of every civilian murder by SOA/WHINSEC graduates in Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and elsewhere.

    Sincerely, Dan Hanson, probable insurgent in the eyes of WHINSEC.

  2. Lee Rials says:

    Mr. Hanson has produced the most inaccurate and uninformed article I have ever seen published about the ‘SOA.’ Perhaps the most egregious error, not the most offensive, is the comment that it is ‘inappropriate’ to train foreign militaries. That is a stated policy of the U.S. government, and more than 275 educational institutions of the Departments of Defense and Justice welcome students from partner nations around the world. We send students to other nations’ military schools as well; it is all part of transparency and building relationships with allies. More directly, the SOA, closed 10 years ago, provided approved U.S. training to U.S. military and partner nation militaries that was specific to subjects needed and requested by the U.S. or its partners. There has never been one example of anyone using what he learned at SOA or any of the other schools in this chain to commit a crime–not even one. It is a blatant falsehood to say that any criminal act was taught at the school, and a moral libel of the loyal American Soldiers who taught there. When Congress and President Clinton created the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation to replace the SOA, its charter in the law specified what its courses would provide and to whom. Every single student in every course (check out the WHINSEC website for its course catalog) starts his/her studies with democracy and human rights classes; those principles are then applied throughout the course. I’m not asking that you take my word for this; come and see for yourself. We are open to the public every workday. Visitors may audit classes, talk with students and faculty, and review instructional materials. Contact me for driving directions to our door; you get your visitor’s pass by showing a photo ID at the entrance to Fort Benning.
    Sincerely, Lee A. Rials, WHINSEC Public Affairs Officer

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