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What I Saw at the School of the Americas in 2003: From El Salvador to Georgia

Michael Latsch, a Catholic Worker in Houston, is an archeology graduate of Northwestern University.

Around 9 in the evening on November 22, I started walking home. I ambled southeast along
Victory Drive in Columbus, GA, heading away from downtown and toward the apartment I was staying in for the weekend, which sat a few hundred yards from the edge of the Fort Benning military reservation. It was a trip of about an hour and a half on foot, and at first I cursed my failure to find a ride.

As I got out of downtown, the stars started peeking out and a thin layer of fog spread beautifully across the grass. As the pavement was even, and I didn’t have to think about where I put my feet, my mind started slipping off as my feet shuffled along.

I’d come with thousands of others to eastern Georgia the day before to resist the continued operation of the US Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly and more infamously known as the School of the Americas (SOA). This institute provides military training to soldiers from across Latin America. Many past graduates of the school went on to commit serious human rights violations in their native countries. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the November 16, 1989 murder of 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad de Centroamerica in San Salvador (UCA), El Salvador. Salvadoran soldiers, many of whom attended training at the SOA, carried out the killing. This incident spurred an annual protest vigil organized by the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW). For more background, including a detailed listing of graduates who committed human rights violations, look to the SOAW’s web-site, www.soaw.org.

From El Salvador

As the lights of downtown Columbus faded behind me, replaced by a patchwork of glare from security lights broken up by islands of darkness. I realized I was completing a journey I began last August in San Salvador. I’d known about the Jesuit martyrs for years, and I wanted to stop off at the museum dedicated to them at UCA. I found pretty much what I’d expected to find: neat glass cases displaying pictures of and personal effects belonging to the religious killed in the course of the civil war, a museum doubling as a reliquary. I wasn’t expecting a guide to usher me into a conference room with several photo albums sitting on a table and invite me to look through them.

He stood over my left shoulder as I opened up the first. I looked down at the bullet-pocked walls and smoke-blackened walls of the Jesuit residence at the UCA-the physical damage inflicted in the 1989 attack. The album was plain, the type you’d buy at any drug store. Several were dark or grainy and the photographer’s shadow crossed the frame in many shots; composition was loose, reflecting neither a striving for insurance-claim exactitude or aesthetic perfection. The contrast between the informality of presentation and gravity of the subject portrayed was shocking. A few minutes before, while I strolled by fancy display cases holding the bloodied vestments of Romero and the crumpled cigarette packs of the Jesuit martyrs, I maintained an air of detachment-which now I lost.

While earlier I was a museum visitor, one of a crowd, now I felt like a guest, personally challenged to look closer, leaving behind pretension of objectivity. The guide broke his silence as I closed the first album, and handed me the second with a flat “Este es un poco más fuerte” (This one is a little stronger). His warning was not idle; the second album docu-mented the human damage caused by the assault. I looked at the pictures of the corpses of the martyrs as they lay, presented in the same direct, unhagiographic, style. Long shadows in the yard behind the residence stretched westward away from the rising sun. The same sun reflected off blood congealing in pools and spatters on the grass. The bodies lay disassembled like machines, component parts spread out as casually as if under repair, limbs sprawled in positions so contorted as to suggest death even from a distance. I hurried through the album and excused myself.

What Did This Mean for Me Personally?

In my experience at UCA, I came across the objective wrong of the 1989 Jesuit massacre. In subsequent, more intellectual reflection, I explored the complicity of SOA/WHINSEC and myself in that wrong. On both sides of the dispute over WHINSEC, there’s widespread confusion between the wrongness of the act of killing in and of itself and the wrongness of complicity in that act. Before exploring the wrong of complicity, it will be worthwhile to examine this confusion.

Defenders of WHINSEC reasonably prove that the institution cannot be held responsible for the killings as acts in and of themselves. They rightly deny that there can be a direct line of causality between SOA/WHIN-SEC training and human rights offenses. To claim otherwise is morally problematic, for it denies the right and responsibility of the individual soldier under free will to refuse to translate evil human intention into evil action. WHINSEC opponents often stray danger-ously close to making this claim, especially in the assertion that people killed by soldiers trained at the SOA are “victims of the SOA.” Perhaps the more dangerous error, however, is committed by WHINSEC defenders who falsely assert that their reasonable defense of the institution against claims of direct responsibility is also a valid defense against just accusations of complicity.

The denial of indirect avenues of moral responsibility is a serious problem in a world dominated by what anthropologists quite appropriately call “complex societies.” To follow such avenues is to take up Peter Maurin’s task of making a world “where it is easier for people to be good.” Here, I argue that the road I was walking along that Saturday was one such avenue and the WHINSEC, and in turn, I am complicit in killings such as the Jesuit massacre.

Evaluating the complicity of the SOA/WHINSEC in the 1989 UCA massacre (which I will here use as a test case) means evaluating the relationship between the action of instructing the guilty students and those students’ commission of the massacre. I start with the assumption that killing unarmed clergy in their bedclothes is an unjustified use of violence. The act itself being firmly con-demned, the question lies in ascertaining to what extent training the students aided them materially and morally in carrying out the massacre. Laying aside the accusations that the SOA in the 1980s taught techniques that were definition-ally unjust even to a permissive just war theorist (torture, death squad operations) I’ll take the Army at its word in describing the SOA of that period as essentially an advanced combat school. Under this assumption, and the further assertion that the killing of unarmed clergy requires little in the way of military skill, the SOA itself cannot be held to have been materially complicit in the Jesuit massacre. However, the SOA was morally complicit in the Jesuit massacre. By training officers of the Salvadoran Army at a time when that institution stood accused of gross and repeated human rights abuses, the single worst of which was the massacre at El Mozote, the SOA made it easier for the soldiers trained to decide to kill the Jesuits. The training that the SOA offered constituted tacit approval of the killing.

Federal Taxpayer and Citizen

While the WHINSEC’s complicity in murder lies in its responsibility as an instructional institution; my complicity in WHINSEC lies in my responsibility as a federal taxpayer and citizen. I’ve never made much money (and thanks to the Houston Catholic Worker I have the opportunity to work in service of the poor without making any) but I’ve made enough to pay federal income taxes. Everyone who pays taxes invests in the government as a whole, including WHINSEC. I couldn’t tell you the exact (and certainly minuscule) percentage of your federal tax dollar that goes to the school, but rest assured it’s a portion, and by footing the bill you share in the responsibility for its operation. In addition, as an enfranchised member of a representative democracy, the actions of my government are in theory an extension of my will. As someone who has a vote, I am responsible for these actions.

Having established the objective wrong of the complicity of the SOA/WHIN-SEC in the Jesuit massacre and the subjective wrong of my complicity in the operation of WHINSEC, it wouldn’t hurt to step back and ask, so what? To pay taxes to (or even exist within) this military nation state is to connect oneself to a web of evil means too complex to catalog–Dorothy Day’s “dirty stinking rotten system.” On my more anarchist mornings, I yearn to see it gone. For the present, all we can do is to work steadily to separate ourselves from it, and take responsibility for creating the peaceable kingdom within our own lives and families. Part of this is patiently identifying the worst links of complicity and acting against them. Right action against them is dual. First, exhortation against the objective wrong (Dorothy Day drew the connection to the spiritual Work of Mercy of exhorting the sinner) and penance for subjective complicity with that wrong (Ammon Hennacy’s extended fasting comes to mind). Both aspects are important, and it’s a credit to the SOAW that both are manifested at their annual protest.

Ecumenical Protest

I walked alone towards the gate that Saturday night, but that afternoon and again the next morning thousands of others joined me. This number repre-sents both a quantitative strength, and a qualitative diversity of origins and arguments. The brown robes of Franciscans swished by saffron robes of their Buddhist brother religious, some Catholic anarchist CWs’ sported shirts printed with Eichenberg’s Christ of the Breadlines while the secular anarchist puppeteers ambled along in paint-spattered overalls. The veils of Catholic women religious mixed with the hijab of a Muslim activist. Union members wore t-shirts proclaiming their organization while SOAW organizer Eric LeCompte’s infant’s outfit proclaimed, “I will not be pacified until they close the SOA.”

Nonviolent Protest Only

During the Sunday procession, all we differently attired folks walked in neat lines of ten, orderliness reflective of an underlying unity of purpose and methodology. These points of unity are explicitly stated in the SOA Watch Nonviolence Guideline, recited by protest participants on several occasions during the weekend. The guidelines state, “Our goal is to expose and close the US Army’s School of the Americas/WHIN-SEC” and “We will use our anger at injustice as a non-violent force for change. We will act with full respect for the diverse nonviolent tradition that SOA Watch embodies.” As I walked along, passing a fellow Catholic Worker headed back into town, I reflected that this combination of a shared purpose and methodology lent a great strength and unity to this protest absent in many larger, noisier ones. I passed by the local VFW hall. There was a dance going on; the parking lot was packed with cars, and there were a great many people inside-none of whom I recognized from the protest of that day. I don’t think there were many of them there. Although the SOA Watch protest involves a great diversity of people and brings them into an admirable degree of unity, many people-especially resident of Columbus remained outside of the fold of involvement.

In examining this fact, I’d like to expand the “fold of involvement” to include not just those participating in the SOAW demonstrations, but all those participating in dialogue about the existence of WHINSEC. In doing this, I’d like to highlight the fact that although many in Columbus oppose efforts to close the SOAW, there was a mutual failure to engage in dialogue about the issue. Too often the SOAW vigil participants failed to respond to supporters of the WHINSEC in their own terms, and too often supporters of the WHINSEC failed to respond to SOAWers in their own terms. When this failure occurred, communication among disagreeing people re-sembled a shouting match in which no preconceptions were risked and no understanding was gained. I found evidence of this failure in my own experience and in reading the pages of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

The grossest failure of dialogue over the weekend was the threat of violence. Some students I spoke to who slept over Saturday night on the protest stage to keep an eye on the sound equipment reported individual people driving up during the night to yell threats. Dialogue also failed in the midst of what an editorial called the “dueling decibels.” On Saturday, the Army played music and a warning not to enter the base toward the protesters from speakers placed just beyond the gate. The reasons behind the unhappily cacophonic meeting of Lee Greenwood (on CD) and Peter Seeger (live) are less important than its effect. Blasting music all day Saturday succeeded in hampering dialogue among protesters and police or soldiers. The comments of individual citizens also reflect that many who supported the WHINSEC did not com-municate well with the SOAWers. Counterdemonstrator Jay Hickey said of the SOAW crowd, “The truth of this statement can be evaluated, but it fails to substantively address the content of the propaganda presented, dismissing it a priori.

Mass Protests and Social Change

This failure lies more in the nature of mass protest than in anything particular about the collision of SOAW and Columbus, Georgia. There’s a tension between changing individual persons’ minds, and changing the actions of large institutional bureaucracies. The mass non-violent protest method is effective at the latter, yet oftentimes very ineffective at the former. Crowds of thousands can motivate minders of institutions, but can threaten individual people into inaction. As the instigators of the protest, it is up to those who come to Columbus to take the initiative and act as persons by engaging others in dialogue in addition to acting as members of a crowd to pressure the government.

Thinking about the difficulties of changing people’s minds with large protest movements was getting fairly depressing and I sighed as I came alongside the doorway to a cheap motel. As I passed by, a man walked out and approached me. I remember be-fore when I was in school and lived in an apartment I’d get nervous when people would come up to me at night on the street. Now I didn’t feel very nervous, in fact I was kind of glad to have someone to talk with after walking so long. He asked, “Are you a soldier?”

I said, “No, I’m here for the protest.”

“Oh, something about a school, or something. . .”

I explained about the SOA/WHINSEC, and why I was there–about the UCA massacre. We talked about Iraq, and he said he didn’t think the US should be in there poking around where we weren’t needed.

“Where you comin’ from?”

“Uh, just over downtown way.”

“Man alive, that’s a good walk from here!” We turned the corner south onto Ft. Benning Drive, walking directly toward the apartment, and a few hundred yards beyond, the gate. The man said he was homeless, and that he’d lived in Houston for a time, said he liked it; I said I did too. We walked along a bit further in silence. As we came up on the apartments I saw some folks sitting out on yard chairs around a video projector showing a movie about the Argentinian uprisings of the fall of 2001. We passed my door and kept going toward the gate. Just then, the man stopped, “Well, I’d say this walk did me some good. My name’s Antwan”.

We shook hands, “Good to meet you.”

“Pray for me, will you?”

“Yeah, I will. Have a good night.” “Good night”

He turned around and walked back north. I kept going south, past the stage where the students slept in bags and to the white line which marks the edge of the base property. There, with the mute Army loudspeakers facing me, I knelt and prayed a bit–for Antwan, for the dead at UCA and all over Latin America, for the soldiers of Fort Benning and of Latin America. Then, I got up and walked back to the apartment.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January-February 2004.