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Joseph Blair's Op-Ed PDF Print E-mail
Written by Pamela Bowman   
Sunday, 21 January 2001 00:00
Major Joe Blair is a former instructor at the School of the Americas where he served from 1986-89. He is a career political military officer who specialized in Latin America and has been awarded the Bronze Star and five Meritorious Medals.

21 January 2001

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Dear Editor:

To those who have steadfastly protested against the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), the Congressional legislation that renamed SOA the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) can be likened to Exxon's renaming their Valdez oil tanker in order to appease outraged Alaskan environmentalists. Unfortunately, although spilled oil can be cleaned up, the suffering and memories of blood, murder, rape, torture, and oppression by the hands of Latin American SOA-trained armies will endure forever.

Just as you can not ask Holocaust survivors to forget Hitler, you can't simply ask those who seek peace, social justice, and accountability from the Conquistador armies to forget the past and judge the SOA history book by its new cover. It comes as no surprise that the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's editorial board calls for critics to be open-minded and give credit where it's due. However, their views are based on the false premise that substantial change has occurred. An objective review of WHISC clearly shows that not only has nothing of note changed for the good, but in fact, the new SOA will have substantially fewer restrictions and control over how it operates in the future.

In the crucial area of instructional curriculum, WHISC will not only teach everything SOA did; it now has the added open-ended mission to teach "Any other matter the Secretary of Defense determines appropriate." Whereas SOA's funding was previously closely scrutinized both by annual Congressional Foreign Assistance Act military aid legislation and Department of Defense operations and maintenance funding, the new WHISC legislation allows DOD to pay its fixed costs from "any funds" from fiscal year appropriations. Student tuition fees are also exempt from including fixed operating costs.

Like SOA, WHISC continues to be commanded by a US Army colonel and the Commanding General of Fort Benning and has essentially the same powerless oversight advisory Board of Visitors that has a limited scope of responsibilities that is restricted to "inquiry into and review" of curriculum and a token role in making "recommendations" to the Secretary of Defense. A voting majority of eight of 13 board members is also either appointed by or subordinate to the Secretary of Defense.

The new WHISC legislation has many glaring omissions. It fails to establish criteria for selecting foreign students, it places no policy limits on how the institute will be used to promote sales of US military equipment, has no limits on teaching state-of-the-art military technology, places no restrictions on using WHISC to man mobile training teams that would operate in Latin America, places no restrictions of foreign officer use of US military housing and medical facilities, places no limits on the selection of Latin American military faculty, does not make public the names of students and faculty members, and has no requirement to use English as the primary instructional language.

WHISC like SOA will continue to function as a quasi Latin American army school since the majority of its ranking faculty members will be foreign officers, and its Deputy Director or Commandant is also a non-US officer. With a Board of Visitors that is not even required to speak the Spanish language, how can they reasonably be expected to oversee a Spanish-speaking institution?

The current US military initiative in South America, Plan Colombia, that will spend $1.6 billion to fight the losing drug war in Colombia appears to now be logically linked toWHISC's mission and future. Weekly reports of kidnapping, brutal murders, and paramilitary oppression in Colombian villages routinely describe apparent army- uniformed personnel involvement. Where's the evidence in Colombia of SOA's past successes from its human rights, democracy, and military professionalization training? What will WHISC do that SOA didn't, and what was eliminated from SOA's mission that WHISC will not do? If there are legitimate answers to these questions, open minds will give credit!

In the last days of his presidency, Bill Clinton had the moral courage and noteworthy superpower perspective to have the world criminal court treaty signed even though our defense department objected to it. If WHISC is a legitimate change for the advancement of democracy, human rights, peace, and social justice in Latin America, then it is time that WHISC be used as our instrument of foreign policy to promote the cause of bringing all past Latin American military criminals to trial. Past executive pardons for assassinations, rape, murder, and torture should be ignored and overturned. There must be accountability for crimes against humanity, prosecution, punishment, repentance, and concrete evidence that SOA and now WHISC are making a moral, political, and military difference in our Western Hemisphere.

To use WHISC to do anything less makes the case for protestors that the SOA name change retains the same institutional shame. WHISC will be nothing more than an acronym change designed to ignore the central issues. WHISC will mean nothing more than We Hide In a Semantic Cover-up of SOA's failures by sweeping a dirty past under a US Army rug.

The protest against WHISC on its first day of existence and the arrest of seven protestors demonstrated the resolve that will continue to exist in the movement to shut down SOA's offspring. Photographs of protestors being man handled and physically abused by Fort Benning's military police, their federal imprisonment for exercising US Constitutional rights of free speech, our US Army's insistence that political activities and speech is a right of the military alone, and the failure to pardon past nuns, priests, and missionary protestors have done nothing to change widespread public opinion that there's still evil at Benning--not peace, justice, and the American way.

Sincerely,

Major Joseph A. Blair Ret.





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