School of the Americas: training ground for officers

At the invitation of Yale’s Department of Latin American and Iberian Studies, I was asked to discuss the now-closed U.S. Army School of the Americas and its relationship to U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. For those who may not be aware, the School of the Americas, like many other Department of Defense training and education institutions, provided military instruction to U.S. and Latin American officers in accordance with U.S. law and policy.

Unfortunately, over the past 15 years the School of the Americas has become a rallying symbol for a political movement that disagrees with U.S. policy in Latin America. As in all political movements, however, symbols have become more important than reality, and myth repeated often enough has become accepted as fact. Despite its closure in December 2000, opponents continue to find the school a convenient target. The importance of this symbolism to the movement should be clear now the School of the Americas has been tied to the latest headline: the war on terrorism.

Since Sept. 11, opponents allege that the Department Of Defense conducts a “training camp for terrorists at Fort Benning, Georgia.” I have heard these exact words in interviews, and read them in letters and e-mails. Quite simply, the terrorism accusation is ludicrous; unless, of course, you accept the premise on which it is based — that all legal and government sanctioned military training falls under the terrorism rubric. In that case, critics should be protesting at their local National Guard armory.

The myth is that the United States taught torture to Latin American students at the School of the Americas. Yet even the head of the Catholic Maryknoll Order has stated, “We know you do not teach torture, but we say that because you are the symbol of a wrongheaded foreign policy toward that region [Latin America].”

The accusations have been investigated on 12 separate occasions, including by the General Accounting Office of the U.S. Congress. All have found the accusations to be without substance. Yet the myth persists. The reality is that the courses covered nothing more than standard instruction given to all U.S. military officers, the only difference being the courses were conducted in Spanish.

Critics claim that because less than 1 percent of graduates later committed criminal acts, their behavior was somehow acquired at the School of the Americas. But look more closely at the names of “notorious” graduates and the courses they took. Argentine junta leader Leopoldo Galtieri took a motor maintenance course some 33 years before taking power. Does anyone really believe that coup plotting is part of your typical engine repair class? These types of accusations require either a great leap of logic or a very profound misunderstanding of the U.S. military.

Most critics neglect to mention that over 2,500 Costa Rican officers attended classes at the School of the Americas and not one has been cited for human rights abuses. Over 1,500 U. S. officers have graduated from the School of the Americas and serve this nation honorably. How could this be if they received the same instruction? Anyone familiar with the complexities of Latin America knows that the roots of violence in the region are more likely to be found in regional history and development than at Fort Benning, Ga.

To set the record straight, Congress voted to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas and it ceased operations on Dec. 17, 2000. As a reflection of the changes both in the region and in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, the same legislation also created the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. This institute has a broader mission to provide professional education and training to rising civilian and law enforcement leaders, as well as military officers from throughout the hemisphere.

The Congressionally mandated mission focuses on promoting democratic values, military professionalism, human rights and civilian control of the military. The institute’s courses offer the most extensive human rights training of any school in the Department of Defense. Courses cover medical assistance training, disaster relief, counternarcotics, border observation, peacekeeping, and officer career courses to name a few.

The institute is open to the public and anyone can visit, talk to the students and faculty, and sit in on classes. My hope is that those who disagree with U.S. foreign policy have the intellectual honesty to make their case on the merits. But I suspect that this political movement is unwilling to give up its symbols and myths.



Colonel Marc Morgan serves in the Pentagon and his office has oversight for the new Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. He will participate in a panel debate on the SOA this afternoon.

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