Fighting the SOA and Public Amnesia

The movement to close the School of the America (SOA) punctures the founding myths of American exceptionalism. These myths include the belief that the United States is committed to democracy for all, that it is essentially good, and that because it is good, the United States only uses its power for virtuous ends. The presumed innocence of the United States and its citizens insures that “we” are always the victims of the violence of others. This historical shortsightedness perpetuates a widespread amnesia about the naked violence that has supported U.S. imperialism and the acceptance of torture by U.S. officials for decades.

Lesley Gill

The movement to close the School of the America (SOA) punctures the founding myths of American exceptionalism. These myths include the belief that the United States is committed to democracy for all, that it is essentially good, and that because it is good, the United States only uses its power for virtuous ends. The presumed innocence of the United States and its citizens insures that “we” are always the victims of the violence of others. This historical shortsightedness perpetuates a widespread amnesia about the naked violence that has supported U.S. imperialism and the acceptance of torture by U.S. officials for decades.

The movement to close the SOA has exposed how instructors taught torture techniques at the School between 1987 and 1991, and how torture manuals used at the SOA were also distributed for use in Latin American countries long before the claims of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo burst into the headlines. These texts advocated the use of torture techniques that went beyond those displayed at Abu Ghraib, and they appeared to advocate the execution of enemies. Indeed, the road to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo began in military training centers, like the School of the Americas, and it passed through various third world countries along the way.

Beyond its immediate goal of shuttering a notorious military school, the movement to close the SOA wages an equally important battle over collective memory. It is a battle about how the legacy of the School and the history of 20th century U.S. interventionism in Latin America are understood in the United States at a time when the government’s imperial ambitions are on display in the Middle East. At stake are beliefs about the intrinsic benevolence of U.S. power and the strength of those beliefs to remain unexamined and accepted as good.

Misrepresenting the SOA and the legacy of U.S. militarism in Latin America has long been a concern of U.S. policy makers, liberal and conservative, but nowadays, this distortion of facts is important to maintaining the naked, militarized capitalism that the Bush administration promotes on a global scale, especially in Iraq.  It also justifies the existence of a military training center for Latin American security forces at a time when new political movements in Latin America are revolting against neoliberalism and demanding greater state control over national energy reserves.

The movement to close the SOA joins with numerous Latin American-based human rights movements, spawned during the dirty wars, that pressure governments to end impunity, account for past abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. Because of this pressure, newly elected, left-leaning governments in Latin America have more vigorously pursued the perpetrators of human rights crimes. The Argentinean Supreme Court has overturned amnesty laws that protected military officers who committed crimes during the dictatorship, and many former police, military and intelligence officers are now in custody awaiting trials. Civilian governments in Argentina and Chile have also converted former military torture centers into museums that commemorate the lives of people who died in them.

Human rights progress in Latin America stands in stark contrast to the United States, where silence and denial shape public perceptions of the United States’ involvement in Latin America’s dirty wars. Critical accounts of U.S. complicity in human rights violations receive only episodic projection into the public domain, and they remain excluded from official histories and government ceremonies. This is, in part, why the U.S. government can continue to dismiss evidence of torture in the armed forces and protect high-ranking authorities with the explanation that “abuses” are the product of a “few bad apples,” not a consistent policy. It also partly explains why the military can manufacture new justifications for retaining the SOA.  To counter movement charges that the SOA is a “school of assassins,” Army officials now use the language of human rights to couch their defense of the institution and to obscure the history of the Americas.

The Army began to appreciate, in the 1980s, how “human rights” could be advanced as one of its central moral values, even as U.S.-trained security forces displayed a near total disregard for life in El Salvador. The notion gained traction in the wake of the Cold War, even though the Clinton administration presided over an expansion of the United States’ global military power. The Bush administration’s subsequent declaration of a war on terror subsumed the rhetoric of human rights under a more strident assertion of America’s “moral values” and the American right to global leadership. Yet the policies of both Clinton and Bush were rooted in notions of American exceptionalism. They shared an unquestioning belief in the benevolence of American power and a conviction that the United States had a global mission, one that gave it the right to pursue national interests based on the universality of values that were labeled American.

These understandings informed the School’s appropriation of human rights discourse, and they guided Army officials in the development of a public relations campaign to deal with the anti-SOA movement’s efforts to close the institution. Army officials claim that a concern for human rights is intrinsic to U.S. military doctrine and always has been. They direct skeptics to a law that requires all students to receive at least eight hours of instruction in human rights and democratic governance, and every year, they tout a week-long series human rights event to the media in an effort to counteract the claims of critics that the institution remains unreformed.

“Human rights” gives the school a mission, one that strives to place the school above the political turmoil that swirls around it. Officials redefine human rights in accord with their own agenda and decide which rights to emphasize and how best to do so. They claim to espouse universal humanitarian principles that represent the moral concerns of all peoples and thus recast imperial politics as non-political ethics. Human rights provide them with a rationale for the pursuit of U.S. interests, regardless of state borders. The result is a narcissistic promotion of American nationalism and the values supposedly associated with it.

Through human rights training, instructors communicate a moral message to trainees, whom they perceive as either unwilling or unable to curb their violent propensities, but they sidestep discussion of Latin America’s dirty wars, U.S. involvement in them, accountability for war crimes, and reparations for victims. Human rights training has in fact very little to do with reforming Latin American security forces. It is intended less for Latin American trainees, who have developed their own self-serving appropriations of human rights discourse, than for U.S. domestic audiences.  The primary concern is to rehabilitate the tarnished image of the SOA and its clone–the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation–in order to remoralize and relegitimate U.S. militarism in Latin America. The strategy appeals to deeply ingrained, xenophobic beliefs about the special qualities of American culture and feeds on fears of a disorderly world characterized by failed states and a variety of internal and external enemies. It promotes the idea that only the United States can bring human rights and the rule of law to a chaotic, immoral world.

The movement to close the SOA challenges the Army’s strategy by keeping alive an alternative explanation of U.S. militarism in the Americas, one that disputes public perceptions of the historic benevolence of U.S. power and the amnesia about torture in the armed forces. It sets forth an understanding of U.S. militarism in the Americas that presents the United States military less as a paladin of democracy and Christian morality than as an accomplice to torture and other human rights crimes.

Torture, military rule, and economic shock therapy created more inequality and instability than wealth and order in Latin America, and today, we see many of the same failed policies at work in Iraq. The U.S. invasion blew open the Iraqi economy and installed neoliberalism with even more violence than in Latin America. The ensuing economic shock therapy failed to stimulate corporate investment, and the U.S. occupation sparked an insurgency fueled by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and widespread civilian casualties. Yet even as the Bush administration justifies torture, its Iraq policies, and the broader “war on terror” in the name of preventing future terrorists attacks, it seeks to erase past U.S. crimes in Latin America and the involvement of the School of the Americas in them.

By privileging the lives of victims and highlighting the violence of SOA graduates, the movement to close the School of the Americas reminds us that torture did not suddenly emerge in the U.S. military following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Torture has been a consistent part of U.S. policy for decades. The struggle over the School keeps the boundaries around interpretations of U.S. policy in the Americas, and the world, from closing too tightly, and it opens the possibility for more critical truths to emerge. Fighting the amnesia that grips the American public is now more important than ever, as war, torture and trauma only generate additional violence and make us all more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks. It depends on the ability of U.S. citizens to break the vise of fear and xenophobia that has gripped the United States more tightly since 2001, and on their willingness to empathize with the victims of U.S.-sponsored terrorism elsewhere. The fight against the SOA offers one way of loosening this vise.


Lesley Gill is a professor of anthropology at American University, the author of The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence (Duke University Press, 2004). This article was first published in the Winter/Spring edition of ¡Presente!, a publication of the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), for issues of ¡Presente! to distribute in your community please visit its website.
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