Fort Benning, Georgia. War is peace. Terror is human rights. The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) is now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).
Some 7,000 demonstrators from all regions of the country descended on Fort Benning last weekend to disagree. Young and old, religious and secular, veterans and sympathizers, gathered with deep pacifist convictions reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights movement.
Despite requirements of the USA Patriot Act that no terrorists be harbored or trained in the United States, supporters of the movement to close a military training facility in Fort Benning, Georgia contend that foreign persons are indeed being trained by the US military in tactics that qualify as terrorist.
This knowledge is what moved protestors like Barbara Baker, a psychotherapist from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to come to Columbus, Georgia to protest the work of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). “We are fighting this war on terrorism, but here we are, the largest exporters of terrorism. We are supporting this particular school with our tax dollars. My small part is to be here and stand witness to what I really feel, which is my desire for peace and more non-violent work.”
According to the Intelligence Oversight Board, a federal panel commissioned in 1996 by President Clinton, SOA/WHISC used training materials that specifically condoned “executions of guerillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment”. This training directly resulted in atrocities by the SOA/WHISC trainees such as those detailed in the findings of a U.N. Truth Commission on the civil war in El Salvador, “Three quarters of the Salvadoran officers responsible for seven other massacres during El Salvador’s bloody civil war were trained by the Fort Benning school.” This is only one of the numerous examples that protestors cited as an example of grievous, deadly acts committed by SOA/WHISC trainees– graduates carrying on the work of US foreign policy.
Currently, graduates of the SOA/WHISC are being implicated by other international human rights organizations. Human Rights Watch found SOA graduates directly responsible for numerous human rights violations, and one graduate, Brigadier General Jaime Ernesto Canal Alban, exemplified the legacy of SOA training through his leadership of the infamous Columbian Calima Front and the forced disappearance of 2,000 persons as well as 40 assassinations.
With hopes of raising awareness for these US Army-facilitated atrocities and energizing activists through visible solidarity, SOA Watch organizes protests, vigils and educational activities each November at Fort Benning. Said Eric LeCompte, SOA Watch Outreach Director, “The protest is part of a very strategic campaign, and it’s important for the movement to gather. It serves as a mobilizing point to call people to do the legislative, media, outreach and education work required to close the SOA and ultimately last beyond the SOA.”
Non violence is also a guiding mission of the protests. On both Saturday and Sunday, protestors pledged commitment to and recited a vow stating that each protestor will “not assault_either verbally or physically_those who oppose or disagree with us…even if they assault us. We will protect those who oppose us from insult or attack…Our attitude as conveyed through words, symbols and actions will be one of respect toward all_including police officers, military personnel, members of the larger community, and all vigilers and members of the SOA Watch family.” This pacifist commitment to non violence was successfully upheld throughout the weekend.
With the opposition to the apparently violent operations of the SOA/WHISC, many protestors said they were traveling 1,000s of miles out of a broader objection to US foreign policy, which includes opposition to the actions to the Bush Administration’s desires to wage war with Iraq. Annie Quimby, student of Northland College, Ashland, Wisconsin, said, ” How can we say that what Iraq is doing is wrong when we are doing things (training soldiers at the SOA/WHISC) that are also wrong, if not worse?”
“An argument of the administration for war with Iraq is based on the danger that Iraq poses to the democratic freedoms of its population and potentially to other countries. Yet it is difficult to think of an action more antithesis to democracy than the training of individuals that ultimately cause torture and death to people who work to uphold social change, such as six Jesuit priests, their co-worker and her teenage daughter who were massacred in El Salvador by an SOA/WHISC graduate,” said another protestor who wished to remain anonymous.
Though there is legislation at the Congressional level to dissolve the SOA/WHISC, organizers foresee that more work will need to be done, especially in the congressional climate fostered by so called war on terror. “This can’t be a one-day-of-the-year kind of thing. If we are really serious about closing this school and ultimately transforming our foreign policy, we need to be doing work in between. That’s education, that’s legislative…It’s putting forceful constituent pressure on our representatives so that they are accountable to us”, SOA Watch’s LeCompte said.
As SOA Watch brings its campaign to colleges, high schools, churches, human rights groups, and union halls around the country, its contention that the US government has been actively training deadly terrorists around the globe for decades is all too believable.
LORI KORTE is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. She can be reached at email@example.com.