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Stories from the November Vigil PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 19 December 2008

This year was the fourth time we had participated in the SOA Vigil in Columbus, Georgia at Ft. Benning. The trip was full of serendipity and inspiration for both of us. It began when Judy Liteky of the San Francisco SOA Watch invited us to stay in one of the rooms she had reserved. We flew together to Atlanta where we rented a car and Judy drove us and two students from the  University of San Francisco to Columbus. Judy wanted to drive out to the gates of

Greased Flagpole
Greased Flagpole
Fort Benning before we went to the motel so we did that and found a group hard at work greasing the flagpole! When I told my grandkids about this, they wanted to know why? “I guess they didn’t want us to climb it”, I said. The thought of their grandparents trying to climb a greased flagpole was greeted by howls of laughter. When we arrived at the Hotel it was too late for dinner, but Charlie Liteky, who had arrived earlier, joined us at a local diner.  

SOA Vigil - How it all began and other Spiritual Journeys

Judy and I had an opportunity to make a more personal connection on the drive. We were both surprised to discover that we had shared a mentor in Robert MacAfee Brown. Previously I had heard Charlie speak, and had read about his actions, but now thanks to our diner’s commitment to “slow food” as in ‘takes forever to come’, we too had some sharing time. I told an old story of being with a group of seminarians in Atlanta, Georgia in Oct. 1960, and the fear I had known then at a “prayer in” outside the Atlanta County jail, where Martin Luther King was imprisoned, and how this now informed my praying the Lord’s Prayer – “, but deliver us from the evil one” as a plea for deliverance not from an abstract evil but from a very personal threat.

Later I thought my experience must have been small stuff for Charlie, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as a chaplain in 1968 in Vietnam, for rescuing 20 wounded soldiers, one by one, while under heavy enemy fire.

Charlie Liteky
Charlie Liteky
Clearly for Charlie an even more fearful struggle came much later when he awakened to his being, and I quote, “a clerical hawk, the worst kind of political hawk, because we have brought moral sanction to given military endeavors. At that time I believed in the just war position as it was taught by the Catholic Church. I considered any war against communism just. I knew little to nothing about Vietnam and its centuries-long struggle to free itself from foreign domination: first by the Chinese, then the French, the Japanese, and the French again, before the U. S. arrived. To the Vietnamese we were just one more in a long line of colonial powers.  By the time I realized what I had done by supporting and participating in the Vietnam war (in which millions of civilians died), it was too late to be anything but sorry. I’ll carry the burden of that sorrow for the rest of my life.” Charlie’s wake up call came years later when, no longer a priest but still a Vietnam Vet, he and 10 others went to El Salvador in the middle of a civil war, on a “fact-finding trip regarding atrocities reportedly committed by the Salvadoran Army. Women seated in a semicircle—white-shawled and black-dressed, young and old – were holding photographs of mutilated male bodies, given to them by the military as visual aids to help them identify their mysteriously missing sons and husbands.” I guess it should not come as a great surprise that Charlie and his brother, along with Father Roy Bourgeois were the three original protesters who “crossed the line”. In 1990 they went into the School of the Americas, spreading blood on hallways and steps, and then lay down to express their opposition to a school whose graduates and teachers had been implicated in so many documented acts of torture, imprisonment, disappearances, death and brutal suppression in Latin America.

“Security” and Civil Disobedience

At Judy’s urging the next morning, one of the coldest ever in Columbus, we drove out to the gates of Fort Benning again. I saw for the first time what the entrance looks like when its, now three gates, are not closed. We also heard from Charlie about the earliest vigils. One apartment was pointed out to be the one Father Roy has lived in for 18 years. Later, as I went back to our car to warm up, I noticed a man in a nearby house watching our group while talking on his cell phone and then later taking a picture with his telephoto lens. I learned this place now housed “security”. In May of 2006 declassified FBI files revealed years of surveillance of our peaceful demonstration by the FBI’s counter terrorism Division. These reports admitted the peaceful nature of the vigil and our commitment to non-violence. Notwithstanding, by 2008 a temporary chain link fence surrounded the site and ran in front of the big Fort Benning sign that was been covered. Security takes a lot of work and must supply good overtime pay for the local police.

Prisoners of ConscienceOf course there is one way that SOA Watch has been engaged in illegal activities right from the beginning. Since 1990 286 persons have been convicted of trespassing on the grounds of the SOA. Collectively they have served a total of almost 100 years in federal prison. I have always seen the value of non-violent civil disobedience as a powerful way to stand up for a just cause. We learned this from King and the civil rights movement.  In this case we were generating publicity, as each individual who “crossed the line” became the center of support from friends, family and religious communities. By their willingness to go to prison they demonstrated the depth of their commitment to close the school and stand in solidarity with those who have suffered at the hands of its graduates. They leave prison with a new “authority” to speak for the cause. Their arrest, their trial, their imprisonment, their release all become “teaching moments” to tell the story of the SOA. Of course we are seeking to overthrow the policies of our government! By doing so nonviolently, and taking the consequences of our actions, we gain a moral power that makes it difficult for the Powers that Be to claim they are only upholding law and order, but instead are “pimps for the Pentagon” as Father Bill O’Donnell said of his judge.

In the last couple of years the prison witness has come to serve a new purpose.  Beginning in 2006 the Latin American initiative led by Father Roy and Lisa Sullivan, who has lived for 31 years in Latin America, and now works for SOA Watch from an office in Venezuela, began visiting the countries of Latin America to request that they no longer send their military to the SOA for training. They visited many grass root groups as well as heads of state and defense ministers. Because of the changing political climate they did not have to explain the history and actions of the SOA. Many leaders in governments today in Latin America were victims of torture and imprisonment. They know what the SOA stands for. However, Roy and Lisa have found that when they report that  American citizens have gone to prison to protest the SOA, this news comes as a surprise, and gives their efforts the moral authority to be heard. To date five countries have pledged to no longer send troops to the school for training. Others may do so soon.

Perhaps this is the reason that more and more Latinos are coming to the vigil. Some are survivors or relatives of those who were tortured and imprisoned in Latin America. I especially noted their presence in many of the workshops we attended. Irene participated in one that dealt with the involvement of the American Psychological Association in torture. It included several survivors of torture. The increasing presence of people from Latin America over the years has added a note of urgency and authenticity to all our words. The names we chant on Sunday are connected to real people. This was brought home to us at the Funeral Procession on Sunday. We stopped to talk with Rabbi Deborah Kohn Lerner, wife of Rabbi Michael Lerner, who had spoken at a plenary session on Saturday. Knowing that Rabbi Kohn is from Argentina I explained that the Magen David that Irene was carrying had the names of four Jewish young people who “disappeared” in the late 70s in Argentina. She looked at the names and pointed to one saying, “I knew him and his family.”

Poverty and Utopian Thoughts

The most famous “Latino” at this vigil was the Rev. Jon Sobrino, SJ, the only member of the faculty of the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador, who was not murdered on Nov. 16, 1989. 

Jon Sobrino
Jon Sobrino
Born in Spain he has lived in El Salvador for 52 years and now runs the Bishop Oscar Romero Peace Center built on the spot where his colleagues, their cook and her daughter were killed by 26 members of the El Salvadoran military, 19 having trained at the SOA. At the time of the murders he was on a speaking tour in Thailand. At the vigil, Pax Christi awarded him their annual book award for his latest, “No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays” (Orbis Books). The ballroom at the Howard Johnson Hotel was packed when he spoke. Though not a dynamic speaker, his message and the authority of his person meant the whole room was hanging on to every word. Here is some of what he had to say,  “When Ellacuria (one of those killed) ‘took hold of the reality’ of the Third World, he grasped it in an important way as a ‘crucified people’… Ellacuria said that the crucified people are one of the main features of our time, not merely something factual that we may consider, but something central that must be considered, without which we do not have a full grasp of reality.”  At other times Sobrino said, “I feel joy being here with you all. We have to say No to the SOA, but that is not my last word. We also have to say Yes to the love great people – the six Jesuit martyrs, their co-workers Julia Elba and Celina, the four churchwomen, Archbishop Romero and all the martyrs…. They were always on the side of the oppressed, even when it was dangerous…. Behind the hatred on this planet, there is great love, which makes people work for justice. So the last word is not no but Yes…. Hunger can be eliminated, but we don’t want to do it. Every few seconds a child dies. We should say instead, every few seconds a child is assassinated.”  He’s been saying it all his life, teaching that the poor can redeem our humanity. If only we defend them, walk with them, share our lives with them, become one with them. When the weekend was over he told John Dear, another Jesuit, that he had no idea there were so many North Americans siding with the crucified people of Central and South America. “This is such a good thing!” he said in joy and wonder. “I’m so glad I came.”  We were glad too that he could help show us what it means to be human.

 I have to say as a Presbyterian that it has been a source of real joy for me to know so many Catholics dedicated to Tikun Olam as Jews might say or to the mission of Justice and Peace, as Protestant Christians might call it. Though the breadth of the movement continues to grow there is no doubt that the heart of it lies with the progressive Catholics. It is they who have made sure that thousands of young people attend the vigil every year. They do this with little support from the “official church” hierarchy. The Vatican has threatened Father Roy Bourgeois with excommunication for the heresy of advocating Women priests. The last day for him to recant was the day before the vigil began. I was also pleased to see a good contingent of Presbyterians at the vigil. I had gone this year with the blessing of St. John’s in Berkeley. I broke bread with 75 others at a breakfast sponsored by the Presbyterian Peace fellowship and later marched with their banner at the Sunday vigil. We too can regain our humanity when we work in solidarity with the poor. We have our work cut out for us. To question the school is to question the worldwide reach of the Pentagon as the power behind the flag wherever we plant it. Is there a groundswell of demand in Latin America for this school, for us to train the military of Latin America? Has anyone ever thought to ask the American people, north or south, if half of all aid by the U.S. should be guns and training of the Military?

Audacity of Hope

The number of people present for the first time heartened me, especially the young people. It was also clear that the recent election had raised our hopes – not that Obama could carry this fight, but that if we can keep up our pressure on Congress, especially the Senate, there would not be an automatic NO from our top executive, assuming the real top is not the Pentagon. When 35 congress people who voted for the SOA in the last congress were defeated, never has our opportunity been so bright. We begin this new year with a

petition for Obama that is also an attempt to address the nation to expose this dark side of our nation’s past so that it might be changed.

I must mention the breakout sessions that were broader and stronger than ever. Reports from Labor leaders from Colombia were gut-wrenching and stories from many other countries in Latin America spoke of a very different reality than what we read in our most prestigious newspapers. We as a country have an important decision to make as to which reality we will address – the one that reflects people’s lives in Latin America or the one we need to believe in to justify “business as usual.”  While the well-planned workshops at the convention center engaged the head, the rally on Saturday was full of song, powerful testimonials and speeches that engaged the heart. And in between there could be moments of serendipity such as when we were without wheels and had to hitch a ride with a total stranger to go from the center to Fort Benning. Imagine our surprise when the driver turned out to be Lesley Gill a professor of anthropology whose book on the School of the Americas gives a unique look at the soldiers who have participated in the program. These insights she gained through first hand interviews in four different countries. I had read her book and one on Bolivia and heard her speak in SF several years ago. Another serendipity moment came during the procession, when we were engulfed in huge hugs by Judy and Bob Dunsmore, formerly of Bolivia, and now living in Atlanta. We wish we could have spent more time with them and others. I suspect we were not the only ones making new friends and meeting old ones.

Crossing the Line and Staying the Course

I have not been one of those who have crossed the line to be arrested and sentenced to 3 to 6 months in federal prison and have questioned why not, and why then do I continue to come to these vigils. I have not crossed the line because I lack the courage to do so.  I continue to come because there are folks who do cross the line and by so doing make my efforts to close the school more urgent and legitimate. They empower me and I see my work as a “thank” offering to them. The vigils have also brought me into contact with a band of brothers and sisters, both young and old who make me proud to be among them and hopeful for our future together.  

David and Irene McPhail
December 2008

 

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Comments (1)Add Comment
Aclaraciòn mi paìs COSTA RICA ,Si continuarà enviando policìas a entrtenarse militarmente a la Escuela de las Amèricas.
written by Gerardo Brenes, December 24, 2008
Hemos visto frecuentemente en este medio que nuestro paìs COSTA RICA no va a envìar màs policìas a entrenarse militarmente.Por lo que deseo hacer esta aclaraciòn Costa Rica SI va a continuar enviando policìas a Fort Benning a entrenarse militarmente.Existe mucha informaciòn al respecto favor solicitar al Centro de Amigos para la Paz con la Sra. Isabel Mac Donald , o bien a la Srta. Holly Sonneland correo This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Desearìa sinceramentemente que nuestro paìs no envìe màs personas a este lugar ya que lo considero nefasto y peligroso para nuestra democracia , por este medio hagamos una cadena para solicitar al Premio Nobel de la Paz Dr. Oscar Arias Presidente de Costa Rica , para que No envìe màs personas de la Fuerza Pùblica a Capacitarse Militarmente en Fort Benning.Soy egresado de la Escuela de las Amèricas y estoy de acuerdo para que la Cierren y esos millones de dòlares los utilicen en alimentos,vivienda,educaciòn,salud , etc para las personas màs pobres en Estados Unidos y como van a sobrar unos millones los envìen a nuestros paìses en latinoamèrica.Gracias que Dios los Bendiga y Felìz Navidad y Pròspero Año Nuevo.(Tambièn saludos a todos los Soldados que hoy se encuentran fuera de sus familias,espero que regresen pronto a abrazar a sus seres queridos.).Muchas Gracias.
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