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Remembering Oscar Romero, El Salvador and Iraq

This weekend marked the 33-year anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. An unofficial saint to much of Central America, Romero was killed shortly after petitioning then U.S. president Jimmy Carter to halt aid to the Salvadoran government, as well as admonishing soldiers to prioritize their conscience over orders to kill civilians. While people of faith will honor Romero across the United States this Palm Sunday, their government and military continue to sacrifice innocent people, alongside transparency, in Iraq.

The connections between Romero’s El Salvador and the occupation of Iraq struck me pointedly a month ago in circumstances whose intersections may be more closely related than many U.S. citizens—let alone Catholics—would like to admit. I was sitting in a military courtroom in suburban Maryland covering the pre-trial hearing of army whistleblower Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is facing life in prison for his own controversial, salvific act.

Forcing the comparisons too far would be inappropriate. One was a committed member of the clergy assassinated for daring soldiers (as Christians) to spare their country’s most vulnerable from violence as part of “a preferential option for the poor.” The other was a public-service-minded U.S. soldier confronted with endemic abuse and damning secrecy. One spoke in moral absolutes, motivated morally by faith. The other openly concedes the difficulty of his decision driven by the ethical rule of law. A further difference is that while Romero was martyred in death as a peacemaker, the U.S. government still has the chance to avoid Manning’s martyrdom through incarceration.

Despite the vast differences between these two men many regard as heroes, the intersections of their stories are worth observing on this anniversary of Romero’s death. Both demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their own lives. Both confess a call to conscience. And, perhaps most importantly, both challenge our assumptions about the relationship between the military and those it ostensibly serves.

Seated a row apart from me in this heavily guarded courtroom was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. Decades ago, Hedges witnessed some of the most calamitous effects of a military-without-conscience as an embedded reporter in Romero’s El Salvador. He has also come out in support of Manning.

In his books, articles and interviews, Hedges has spoken strongly against what he describes as  “repressive, authoritarian movements that seek to crush or inhibit the rights of others.” He has seen firsthand how humanity and its fragile social contract are negated in “voiceless” places–places where the lines between civilian and combatant are blurred, places where the military operates without adequate discipline or leadership, places where critics and journalists are themselves in jeopardy, labeled and prosecuted as subversives. Suffice to say, Manning’s statement in the courtroom brings those parallels between the El Salvadors, Kosovos and Iraqs in our lifetimes into stark clarity.

Not that the parallels have gone unnoticed. In 2005, The New York Times published Peter Maass’ article, “The Salvadorization of Iraq,” exploring how U.S. strategies in Iraq had been honed during its interventions in the “dirty wars” of Central America.

Now, euphemistic terms such as “intervention” seem bankrupt as new evidence demonstrates a direct link between Salvadoran and Iraqi “death squads” and U.S. advisers such as retired Lt. Col. James Steele, handpicked by Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. David Petraeus to do what he does best. These crystallized allegations from U.S. and Iraqi witnesses appear in a recent Guardian/BBC Arabic documentary prompted by information contained in Bradley Manning’s leaks.

Maass, photographer Gilles Peress, and the makers of the Guardian documentary offer no shortage of horror stories from the counterinsurgency techniques at play in Iraq. In his statement, Manning himself details a February 2010 incident where roughly a dozen academics with no ties to terrorist groups are picked up by the Iraqi Federal Police, and most likely tortured. Upon bringing evidence of their innocence to his superiors, Manning was told to stand down and to help the Federal Police find more “bad guys.”

In Iraq as in El Salvador, this complicity with local paramilitary forces, quick with torture, yields not results but scandalous violence and human rights abuse. Thanks to Bradley Manning, Americans now know as a matter of fact that: 1) torture was used and promoted at a policy level; 2) statistics provided to the public dramatically downplayed the rate and extent of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan; 3) U.S. soldiers were officially commanded not to investigate reports of torture at the hands of their local partners; and, 4) the U.S. occupation has failed to stabilize the violence and corruption in the region.

Such knowledge brings with it grave responsibility. Speaking of abuses in 1980 El Salvador, Oscar Romero specifically emphasized the transformative power between speculation and the researched fact. In the final sermon before his assassination, he built towards his conclusion by listing the most recent documented atrocities:

“We have lived through a tremendously tragic week. I could not give you the facts before, but a week ago last Saturday, on 15 March, one of the largest and most distressing military operations was carried out in the countryside … The operation brought tragedy: a lot of ranches were burned, there was looting, and—inevitably-people were killed.”

From here, Romero goes on to index no less than 112 murdered civilians within just a few days’ time—all of this comprising information “I could not give…before,” information made available, not just so individual families might properly grieve but so that the Salvadoran people could be empowered with the agency that knowledge affords.

Listening to Manning’s statement read just a month shy of the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, one could not help but wish someone had spoken up even sooner about the failures of the subsequent occupation.

The courtroom colloquy between Manning and his presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, at moments took the flavor of a dialogue regarding the role of individual U.S. soldiers and the local forces they are called to support. Manning claims to have released the documents, in part, to spark public debate about the nature and pursuit of the sort of “asymmetrical warfare” seen three decades ago in Central America and today in the Middle East. During this conversation, Lind pointedly asked Manning if he, himself, had any authorization or duty to make decisions about U.S. foreign policy. Of course, from a legal perspective, he did not. However, our own history of dirty wars suggests we also may no longer want a military emphasizing blind obedience.

Sadly, there is no shortage of stories from recent wars about soldiers too willing to defer to disconcerting orders in the high-stress theater of war where the line between combatant and civilian is sometimes obscured. There are also numerous stories of soldiers suspending their own moral judgment or having it break down entirely without badly needed psychiatric and emotional support. But if we see so many soldiers stepping off course towards the illegal, the cruel and the inhumane, rarely do we assign to them the sort of pariah status reserved for those who veer towards the unconventionally conscientious. Instead, we make allowances and rationalize the “few bad apples” who go on horrific civilian killing sprees, all while pathologizing those who break rank in order to stop the killing.

Rodney Watson, Kimberly Rivera, Andre Shepherd, Micah Turner, Jules Tindungan, Robynn Murray, Brad McCall, Skyler James and the late Joshua Casteel—these are but a handful of the individuals who have put their livelihoods, well-being, families and reputations on the line by laying down their weapons. Some have endured harassment and assault, others have been separated from their families, others still live in exile as “AWOL,” and all for acting like pragmatic, humane soldiers.

When all attempts to petition the government failed, a desperate Romero made his final sermon a direct appeal to individual soldiers in positions similar to Manning, saying:

“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military… No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

As Romero soon learned, it is a dangerous thing to challenge the ineffability of the military. That his audience failed to immediately validate his higher expectations does little to quiet the revolutionary potential of his appeal. His sermon, like Manning’s court statement or the resistance of the GIs above, furthers the exact sort of larger debate regarding the role of our military from which our nation (and, no doubt, others) might benefit:

What kind of military do we want for those who serve?

Who do we want to serve us?

What should we ask them to do?

What do we want them to do when they witness war crimes or abuse done in our name?

While many would no doubt answer the above questions in different ways, it’s crucial to not gloss over the active response they demand. If we would cry for an accountable military and government, we too must be an accountable people—people who rise to support those who act bravely, if in sometimes controversial ways, to preserve our shared dignity and most cherished values.

Its dark side exposed, the military is seeking to make an example of Bradley Manning, and for this reason, scores of thousands of people worldwide insist we thank, support, and defend him from spending the rest of his life behind bars. Despite the polarizing differences of political opinion the Manning case can invoke, we would do well to apply what Romero has to say about the empowering property of knowledge:

I could not give you the facts before, but… now we know our soldiers were ordered to turn a blind eye to torture.

I could give you the facts before, but… now we know that our own countrymen shot reporters, shot children, shot the good Samaritans who tried to intervene.

I could not give you the facts before… because no one had come forward.

I could not give you the facts before, but… now someone has. So what sall we do with him?

As a number of legal scholars and journalists have already cautioned, the U.S. public may wish to answer that question carefully. According to Chris Hedges, “we are all Bradley Manning.”

In December 2011, the government of El Salvador offered an official apology for the murder of Oscar Romero, as well as the infamous El Mozote massacre, which slaughtered some 800 unarmed civilians. What kind of apology do we in the United States already owe the people of El Salvador, Iraq and Afghanistan? And, should mercy not be shown in his trial this summer, what will we as a nation say about Manning 30 years from now?

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was shot dead when the ugly logic of counterinsurgency intersected with his struggle to liberate his public through theology and faith. Today, Bradley Manning faces life in prison for hoping to liberate his public through information and reflection.

If it remains a sore point that Romero’s own church failed to fully embrace liberation theology in Central and Latin America, it should be nothing short of a national scandal that the U.S. government has chosen to repeat in Iraq the same oppressive tactics that claimed not only the life of Romero but of some 75,000 of his compatriots.

If we live, move and breathe in the past victories of heroes like Romero, how can we relegate their lessons to the abstract or superficial? In lieu of platitudes, it’s high time we make a living, active tribute to the peacemakers, whistleblowers and prophetic voices in the here and now, who call for sound governance and responsible use of power.

Oscar Romero offered an antidote to state violence 30 years ago. He offers the same today.

Michael McKee, a member of the Bradley Manning Support Network, is covering the Manning trial for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: michaelpatrickmckee@gmail.com

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