Georgia On My Mind: Hard Thoughts on Closing the SOA
It's been a long time since I last wrote in depth about the US Army's School of the Americas, and the movement to shut it down. But living in Syracuse, a major anti-SOA hotbed, this time of year it's hard not to write or at least think about the training center located in Fort Benning, GA. Each November it is the site of major protests. This month marks the 10th anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, by proud SOA graduates in El Salvador.
Last fall, some three thousand activists "crossed the line" onto the military base to deliver petitions contained in symbolic coffins. If this November is like the past few, thousands more will add their bodies to the civil disobedience on Sunday the 21st.
The overall strength of the movement to close the School of the Americas has grown steadily since the early 1990s when almost no one, even on the Left, was aware of its existence, much less it's policies and practices. The anti-SOA movement has in many ways been inspirational to me. At the same time, I have long questioned some elements of the strategy and outlook employed by the movement and many of its leaders.
There's no question that the School is the US Army's -- and notably the CIA's -- primary contact point for influencing Latin American militaries. The SOA is one of a number of schools where Latin American troops receive training in the repression strategy that has become known as Low-Intensity Conflict. SOA students -- typically officers hailing from a range of countries south of our borders -- learn the delicate arts of thwarting democracy, rebellion and essentially any substantial trace of freedom. They learn to fight not against invading militaries, but against peasants, civilians, and occasionally guerillas. Along with the ever-expanding Drug War and arms trade industry, the SOA is a significant feature of the United States' ability to manipulate Latin American military policies.
At the same time, we need to look at the SOA in perspective. As part of the Pentagon's more comprehensive International Military Education & Training (IMET) program, the School at Fort Benning is one of many which regularly train foreign troops on US soil. While it may be the most prestigious and infamous of these facilities, it is hardly the heart of the IMET program or the head of the institutional worldview behind today's military. I think many anti-SOA activists are well aware of this, but most don't seem to be, in my experience, which is cause for concern. The question really is whether the SOA is the Achilles heel of IMET and the ideology of foreign military influence -- that is, can resistance focused against the SOA strike a significant blow against the overall policies? Or would shutting down the SOA lead to no significant changes?
My feeling is that, objectively speaking, the closing (or more likely relocation) of the SOA would be almost entirely insignificant, at least in the short term, as far as the impact of counterinsurgency warfare on the people of Latin America is concerned. It's hard to believe that even a complete revocation of the SOA's relatively miniscule budget would save a single Latin American life. That's just the reality of how institutions work when they are part of much larger systems.
In fact, as hard as it may be to admit, it's quite likely that if the SOA is relocated to the Caribbean or South America, it would become a far fiercer college for wholesale terrorists. Well outside the oversight of SOA Watch and other activist groups, the freedom afforded by secrecy could well find the School training soldiers in far more severe tactics -- as seems to have been the case when it was located in Panama until 1984 -- than it is presently allowed to under intense public scrutiny and pressure.
Take into account the (at least 17) other bases currently training Latin American troops on US soil; as well as the very active presence of US Special Forces throughout the hemisphere (notorious for training foreign soldiers in actual torture by example, among other exploits); and one can't help but wonder why the Pentagon and Congress have fought so hard to keep the SOA running in Georgia. There are several reasons. First, the SOA is a source of great pride to some in the military (though also shame to perhaps many more). Additionally, the School is currently considered a very special treat for Latin American officers who get to pass in and out of the States without crossing through customs, and who are taken on field trips to places like Disney World. Furthermore, we shouldn't forget Washington's inability to admit it's wrong-doings -- in this case particularly harsh policies that, after so many decades, are hard to pass off as "mistakes" or aberrations.
Yet objective factors are by no means the only, or even the most important, to consider in evaluating the relevance of social movements. Despite some anti-SOA movement leaders who have thus far failed to extrapolate the cause beyond this one, relatively insignificant institution to the whole military-industrial complex, the growing movement against the SOA has great potential for protracted resistance to more generalized policies. Actor Martin Sheen may have humiliated the more radical sectors of the anti-SOA movement last fall by pretending to speak for the 7000 present when he proclaimed that the US Army is a "noble institution" with a "proud tradition," and the protestors' only beef (yes, he said "we") was with the SOA in particular; but my hope is most of the folks who've committed themselves to this cause are more aware of reality than that.
The key is to draw connections with other movements against war and militarism, at the very least, and well beyond whenever possible. If SOA activists can continue to build momentum until they achieve their goal, that will be significant. If they can then use that momentum to fuel further resistance against the US's policies and practices of war, that would be truly wonderful.
One of my criticisms of the anti-militarist Left in the States is our inability of late to actively address war-making institutions in relative peacetime. The anti-SOA movement is doing just that, recognizing that there is no peace so long as the US is actively backing repressive regimes throughout the. So there's plenty the broad Left can learn from these dedicated individuals and affinity groups.
The conclusions I've arrived at after many years of intensive discussions of the anti-SOA movement's role in ending international violence are not perfectly comfortable. I wish the movement was not so focused around one spectacular institution, as those focuses tend not to be scalable -- that is, they don't logically lead to anything beyond their myopic perspectives on specific protests. Additionally, the overbearingly christian nature of the movement is exclusive and, well, nauseating, at least to me.
However, it's quite possible that the elements I note as shortcomings are the greatest assets of the anti-SOA circles. Plenty of non-christians have found their way into the movement, and perhaps it's one of few progressive milieux in which christian activists can feel comfortable and appreciated. Young people are finally beginning to penetrate the adult-dominated movement, and more people of color seem to be taking notice. I see this all as signs of terrific improvement and potential. If the anti-SOA leadership will just catch up with the more radical and rational tendencies within the movement, begin looking beyond the SOA and working for sustainability, become more inclusive with youth, non-christians, and people of color in leadership roles, we stand a great chance of seeing substantial strides made by an increasingly-integrated movement against the military as a whole, and the other institutional forces which presently drive it, including white supremacy, patriarchy, adultarchy, capitalism and colonialism.
Brian Dominick is an activist and journalist, presently working with the On the Ground collective in Syracuse, NY. He has been writing about and standing against the US Army School of the Americas since 1993.