Army School of Americas Attacked Unfairly

A Response

Published on the Vineyard Gazette, Martha's Vineyard, MASS

Friday, November 26, 1999 Ó

October 16, 2008
They’ve already started to congregate at the front gate at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., as they have in November since 1992. By Nov. 19, the anniversary date of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter in El Salvador in 1989 by Salvadorian army personnel, hundreds of clergy, students, entertainment luminaries Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen and the Indigo Girls possibly among them and others will have gathered for prayers, speeches and acts of civil disobedience. Their goal is to close down the U.S. Army School of the Americas, which the demonstrators refer to as the "School of Assassins." Congress almost eliminated the school’s training budget this year. Although I have never been to the regular SAO protests at Ft. Benning, I have been directly involved in helping protesters get there.
Few of the demonstrators know much about Latin America beyond what they have heard from Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois, who has dedicated several years and several prison terms to a crusade against the school. To appreciate how misguided the demonstrators are, one must know something about Latin American realities and the Maryknoll order. Most of the demonstrators know a lot more about Latin America than the average member of the "military-industrial complex," by which I refer to ordinary American voters, not Pentagon officials.
The demonstrators believe that torture and other abuses of human rights are skills that the Latin American military have learned at the school. The reality is that these practices have been commonplace in Latin America going back 500 years to the conquistador colonizers. As in Spain and Portugal until recent decades, the Latin American military have regarded themselves as above the law, a posture reflected not only in widespread abuses of human rights but also in pervasive corruption and repeated military coups. God's Law says "Thou shalt not kill." In this respect, every soldier in every army regards himself (or, tragically, herself) as "above the law."
The idea of civilian control of the military, so central to our own concepts of civil-military relationships, has been alien to Latin America until recently. The only country that has succeeded in avoiding military abuse and corruption is Costa Rica, which did away with its armed forces after the 1948 revolution. Yet Costa Rica values the school’s training highly: 2500 members of its police forces have studied there. I'm happy to concede that the military in a Christian nation is less inhumane than armies in atheist or pagan nations. Individuals on both sides are capable of great evil and great virtue.
Abuse of human rights, including torture and assassination, has not been confined to right-wing caudillos like Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Argentine generals and admirals who prosecuted the "Dirty War" of the 1970s, and Pinochet in Chile. The caudillos of the left Castro and the Sandinistas as well as left-wing terrorists around the region, have behaved similarly. I harbor no illusions about the peaceful nature of left-wing dictators.
A comment in 1845 by the renowned Argentine author and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento is relevant: "Terror is a sickness that infects people like cholera, smallpox or scarlet fever. ... Don’t laugh, people of Latin America.. .. Remember that you are Spanish, and that is how the Inquisition educated Spain. Be careful, then!" Mass popular delusion is all too common. It is intensified by nationalism and other collectivist thought-patterns. As Christians mature, they repudiate mass violence. As non-Christians become more consistent with their opposition to the Prince of Peace, they become more and more characterized by an escape from reason and harmony.
Carlos Alberto Montaner, the most widely read columnist in the Spanish language, recently described the blaming of the School of the Americas for the abuses of the Latin American military as "absurd." He added, "When it comes to torture and other human rights abuses, Latin America is not underdeveloped."
Maybe this is why Thomas Jefferson, in his First Inaugural Address (1801), said 
I deem [one of] the essential principles of our government, and consequently [one] which ought to shape its administration,…peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.
Especially alliances with their military.
The Maryknoll Mission has long pursued left-wing causes in Latin America, and many of its priests and nuns have supported Castro and the Sandinistas. The Maryknollers continue to blame the United States for many of Latin America’s ills at a time when blaming the United States is out of fashion in Latin America. Growing numbers of Latin American intellectuals and politicians are concluding that traditional Latin American culture is the source of those ills. The federal government is arming that violent culture, and giving it more sophisticated military training, just as it did with the Afghan "freedom fighters" who were fighting Communists in Afghanistan, later to be known as "al Qaeda" and the "Taliban."
Symbolic of the Maryknoll association with the far-left in Latin America were Maryknoll priest Miguel d’Escoto, who was the Sandinista foreign minister, and, in a very different way, former Maryknoll nun Geraldine Macias, whose husband, Edgard, was the vice minister of labor. The Maciases grew increasingly concerned about the failure of the Sandinistas to abide by their commitments to political pluralism and nonalignment. The Sandinistas threatened Edgard’s life, and he sought asylum in the Venezuelan embassy.  
The Maciases and their children left Nicaragua and arrived in Washington, where they were treated as outcasts by many left-leaning church people, including Maryknollers, who had formerly been their friends. In a letter that circulated widely, they wrote that the Sandinista methods "resemble Somoza’s to the point where they appear as a mirror image: rapes, torture, disappearances, murders. . . " So why does the United States have to support either Somoza or the Sandanistas?
These, then, are the realities that many Maryknollers, Father Bourgeois prominently among them, do not speak of. The Maryknollers expose genuine evil. To rationalize that evil by speaking of evil on the other side is called "triangulation." It is designed to disarm the extremes of left and right and come to a "centrist" position which is still one of naked political power.
The School of the Americas has since 1946 been promoting the professionalization of the Latin American military, including military subordination to civil authority. It is true that four manuals introduced from outside the school in 1989 contained some sentences 26 in 1,100 pages suggestive of improper tactics in handling intelligence sources. The manuals were withdrawn as soon as the school authorities discovered the offensive language. They had been issued as supplemental readings to 48 students over a two-year period. Those who inserted the sentences were not afraid to do so. They figured that they were acceptable to the general culture of the SOA. We have no evidence that they were withdrawn because the tactics of torture were officially unapproved, or withdrawn because they were secret and shouldn't have been revealed to the public.
To be sure, some Latin American military personnel who have attended the school less than one per cent of the school’s 61,000 graduates have engaged in human rights abuses. But, in the light of the centuries-old traditions of torture and other abuses of human rights in Latin America, to blame the abusive behavior of these personnel on the school is akin to blaming Harvard, as some Mexicans do, for the allegedly corrupt behavior of former president Carlos Salinas Gortari, who studied there. If Harvard University were a government institution, I would vote to abolish it if I were a member of Congress. Harvard is an enemy of "Liberty Under God" and education as America's Founding Fathers envisioned it. Those who founded Harvard in 1636 would not have admitted a Latin American thug for study, and would not have graduated a Latin American dictator. In many ways, even "private" universities are arms of the government.
The manual, and the behavior of some graduates, notwithstanding, the school has for more than 50 years promoted professionalism, respect for civil authority, respect for the law and commitment to democratic institutions in a region historically bereft of these ideas. The school has an important role to play today, particularly as military reform gathers momentum in Latin America for example in Argentina, where the military budget has been drastically reduced and as military forces around the hemisphere are increasingly involved in counter-narcotics and international peacekeeping activities.

An honest military is probably not as important to the spread of capitalism in Argentina and Latin America as honest money and the end of inflation.

The demonstrators at the Fort Benning gates are attacking a U.S. government institution that has made a helpful contribution to the professionalization and democratization of the Latin American military, as well as to communication among the military establishments of the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. Out of ignorance and misguided ideological fervor, the demonstrators contribute to the troubling erosion of trust in our governmental institutions of recent decades, which ultimately translates into our mistrust of one another. Every government institution makes some limited, helpful contributions to something or other. There are always better ways to accomplish more good at a lower price with fewer lethal side-effects than a military institution.
Lawrence E. Harrison, a year-round resident of Vineyard Haven, is a senior fellow at the Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University. He directed five USA ID missions in Latin America between 1965 and 1981. His most recent book is The Pan-American Dream (Basic Books, 1997).  
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