What Can We Learn from The School of the Americas?

KQED public radio’s Forum program had a discussion on the infamous “School of the Americas” yesterday, which you can find archived online in RealAudio format from program page (the air date was 10/1/02). Listening to the discussion on this one tiny aspect of U.S. military and foreign relations, I was struck by the way it represented much of the debate surrounding America’s role in the world more broadly.
First, terminology. In 2000, the School of the Americas officially closed, and was soon replaced by a “new” school, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which happens to be in the same location at Fort Benning, GA. Depending on who you ask, this was either a fundamental change in the mission of the facility, or a cosmetic filing-off of the serial numbers to confuse the clueless.
Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch and one of the guests on the program, would definitely suggest the latter. And did, repeatedly. On the other side of the argument were two U.S. Army officers, one from the Pentagon (Colonel Marc Morgan, Division Chief for the Regional Politico-Military Affairs Division of the U.S. Army) and the director of the school itself (Colonel Richard Downie).
The battle lines were simple, and stark. Father Bourgeois and his organization want the school, whatever it is called, closed. Period. He believes with all his heart that graduates of the school are some of the worst human rights abusers Latin America has ever seen, and are responsible for a significant part of the mayhem that region has been subjected to over the past few decades.
Without claiming to be an expert on Latin American history and the United States’ rather significant involvement in it during the Cold War, I’m inclined to believe him on this charge. We did some nasty things and supported some nasty characters during that period, and my limited knowledge suggests that the old SOA was indeed one of the spots where the deeds were done. (On this point, I’d have to say I found the Army representatives to be less than completely candid.)
But… does that justify closing the school now? Is it really still the same old awful source of thugs and murderers?
Father Bourgeois’ answer was simple: it doesn’t matter. Some places and institutions are simply too awful to redeem; they can only be closed.
And that’s where I veered wildly off the Father’s course.
The central argument for the school’s existence seems fairly clear to me. In a nutshell, there are military and police personnel significantly involved in keeping the peace and protecting the citizenry of Latin America. We have a choice: we can help train them to be competent professionals who respect civil rights, the rule of law and civilian oversight, or we can just ignore them and hope it all turns out ok.
But, again: Does the current WHINSEC do that? Or does it train killers in torture methods?
Impossible to know for sure what goes on in a military facility from the outside, of course. But WHINSEC certainly looks like its doing the right things. They’ve published their course list on their website, and a fairly innocuous sounding list it is. “Civil Military Operations Course” might be a euphemism for Advanced Thumbnail Removal, “Human Rights Instructor Course” might describe how to instruct human rights protestors that it would really be best if they not protest anymore, and “International Operational Law Course” might be about how to get around it.
But frankly, it seems unlikely. Given the massive attention the old SOA drew upon itself, and the scrutiny that the new school is under, it would be the height of foolishness to allow even the slightest civil-rights-abusing shenanigans to take place at WHINSEC. To take a very cynical view: it is entirely possible some part of our government and military is still training nasty people in how to do nasty things. But I suspect that Fort Benning, GA is the exact last place you should look to find them. And if you’re still not convinced, they invite you to visit in person — -an offer which Colonel Downie repeated to Father Bourgeois during the discussion yesterday, the frustration clear in his voice, and an offer which the Father refused outright (again).
But even if he accepted that the school had changed its ways, it seems Father Bourgeois would still want it shut down. It has done evil things, and cannot possibly be redeemed.
A rather un-Christian view to take, if you think about it. And one that to me, sums up all too well the attitude of many on the left who oppose military action in Iraq, or the way we are prosecuting the war against terrorism more generally.
For people like Father Bourgeois, the United States is a sinner. We’ve committed crimes against the world; there is blood on our hands. But their solution is not for the U.S. to recognize the errors it has made, and actively work in the world to both fix past wrongs and do better next time.
It is to withdraw; to shut down, to simply accept that our crimes are too great to ever permit us to try to act for the good ever again. So it must be with the School of the Americas; so it must be with America itself.
I try my best to not ignore the crimes that America has committed in the past. I’ve written of some of them on this weblog, and will continue to do so.
But for me, the crimes of the past should not be used as a convenient excuse for inaction in the present. The world is out there; history happens every instant of every day and the future we will live in is being created all across the planet at this very moment. As it is with training Latin American military officers, it is with engaging the world as a whole: we can either learn from our past mistakes and try to do better, or we can just ignore them and hope it all turns out ok.
I choose the active course. It is the one with the greatest chance of sinning again; but it is also the only one that truly offers a chance at redemption.