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Hidden in Plain Sight PDF Print E-mail
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Articles - Reviews
Written by Dave Kehr, NY Times   
Friday, 07 November 2003

a School for Future Leaders, an Anthology of Atrocity

Hidden in Plain SightJohn H. Smihula's "Hidden in Plain Sight," a documentary on the United States Army's School of the Americas, brings together material from several politically engaged films about the government's activity in Latin America, creating a sort of anthology of atrocity.

The school, founded during the cold war to train Latin American soldiers in the techniques of withstanding Marxist aggression (and, not incidentally, protecting United States interests), was shut down in 2000 under the threat of a Congressional investigation. It soon reopened as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the name it continues to operate under today, in the hope that its cold war associations have been expunged. The school, at Fort Benning, Ga., conducts its classes largely in Spanish and graduates 800 students a year. The Army says they are learning leadership skills; others say the school produces torturers and dictators, pointing to past graduates like Manuel Noriega of Panama and Gen. Leopoldo F. Galtieri of Argentina. Mr. Smihula has little difficulty establishing a grave record of human rights violations by graduates of the institution. Scenes roll by of villages massacred, nuns raped and murdered, children maimed and tortured and politicians assassinated, all seemingly at the hands of soldiers trained by the School of the Americas — as almost everyone outside the bureaucracy continues to call it — or under the leadership of its graduates.

Just what goes on at the school remains hard to determine. Demonstrating admirable fairness (though within a context of obvious political commitment), Mr. Smihula interviews officials of the school and Congressmen who support its programs, including Representative Mac Collins, Republican of Georgia. They contend that military training is only a small part of the educational program, and that torture is definitely not on the syllabus. (A how-to handbook on torture was, in fact, issued, but quickly recalled, the officials say.)

Arguing the other side are familiar spokesmen like the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a peace activist who leads an annual nonviolent demonstration at Fort Benning. (This year's protest is scheduled for Nov. 21 to 23), and Noam Chomsky, the busy linguistics professor, who condemns the school as a blatant tool of United States imperialism, serving to keep markets open and access to natural resources unimpeded.

The film's title comes from Professor Chomsky's description of the program: while everyone is looking for the secret tools of American influence, its physical plant is there for everyone to see. Mr. Smihula's film, opening today in New York, is a sober, focused piece that asks Americans to take another look at what is going on in their own backyard.
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