Should the School of the Americas be Shut Down? Print
Wednesday, 07 June 2006 00:00

Joshua Holland, AlterNet

You're probably familiar with the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) by its old name, the School of the Americas (SOA).

Based at Fort Benning, Georgia, thousands of foreign troops have trained at SOA/WHINSEC on your tax dollars.

And while people like Wesley Clark vigorously defend the program as the best way to share America's martial "values," studies have shown SOA/WHINSEC graduates to be more prone to human rights violations than their fellows that didn't train in the program (PDF).

This week, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MASS) -- one of the House's true good guys -- is offering an amendment to the Foreign Operations Bill that will prohibit taxpayer funds from going to the SOA. Cindy Buhl, McGovern's Legislative Director, tells me that he tried to add a similar amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill but -- quelle surprise -- the Rules Committee didn't allow it to come up for debate.

Cutting funding for the SOA is a necessary baby step, and I support it, albeit with some hesitation. You can lend your support here.

The reason I'm a bit hesitant about just cutting the school's funding is that -- absent a more comprehensive effort to evaluate who we're teaching and what we're teaching them -- I fear that shutting down the SOA will have unintended consequences.

Sanho Tree, the Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (where I have an office), pointed out that right now there's some transparency at SOA/WHINSEC. We know what's going on at Fort Benning. If you shut down SOA, they move that training to other bases, where it's harder to monitor. The worst-case scenario is that they scrap military training for foreign troops in the U.S. altogether and start training them in-country, where we'd have a much harder time monitoring what they're doing.

The SOA was originally established in Panama in 1946 as the Latin American Training Center. Between 1946 and 1984, when it was moved to Fort Benning, it operated with significantly less oversight than it does today.

Going back to those days is a real concern, but I'm for shutting it down anyway. Simply put: it's the least we can do in today's political climate. I find it an unacceptable symbol of America's darkest policies.

Last year, McGovern, along with over a hundred co-sponsors, offered up HR 1217, a proposal to take a more comprehensive look at these issues. The bill (which you can read by going here and entering H.R. 1217 in the search box) would:

  • Suspend operations at the SOA
  • Create a join Congressional taskforce to evaluate "the kind of education and training that is appropriate for the Department of Defense to provide to military personnel of Latin American nations"
  • Create an independent commission to investigate human rights abuses at the SOA itself and among its graduates. It would also investigate the use of training manuals that detail torture, which came to light in 1999.

I'll take that a step further. I don't think it's possible for us to play a constructive role in Latin America until we reconcile with our past. Most of our Latin American clients in places like Chile, Argentina, Honduras and El Salvador have had some sort of "truth and reconciliation" process to understand and, in some cases, punish those responsible for the "Dirty Wars" of the 1970s and 1980s. Admittedly, those efforts have been mixed, at best.

But we've done nothing to face our own crimes in Latin America -- terrible crimes by proxy spanning over decades. Instead, we lionize Reagan, who arguably made the U.S. into the greatest state sponsor of terrorism the world has ever known, as a "liberator." That kind of white-wash prevents us from a serious discussion about what our role in the hemisphere -- especially when it comes to military training and assistance -- has been in the past and should be looking to the future.

Joshua Holland is a staff writer at Alternet and a regular contributor to The Gadflyer.