the green fields beyond


Location: Charles City, Virginia, United States

Thursday, December 06, 2007

More on the SOA

Follow-up to my post of a couple weeks back...some of you had asked for more information about the School of the Americas, particularly information from sources other than the (sometimes-shrill) SOA Watch folks.

Not everything that the SOA does is 100% bad, of course. They've trained Latin American officers in all kinds of useful skills that will help their countries. And it is also true that, under pressure from protesters and from Congress, the school has recently made changes. Problem, though: the new "human rights" classes are almost all OPTIONAL, while the counterinsurgency/interrogation/etc classes (85% of the curriculum) are NOT optional. Funny, eh?

Some of you have asked about the "a few bad apples" possibility. You're right that people can take anything to an extreme. There are bad apples in every barrel. I wish that were the case here. But hundreds of SOA graduates have been deeply implicated in murder and torture and all kinds of abuses. They've been convicted by local courts, by U.S. courts, by international courts. At some point we have to say, "maybe their training had something to do with this."....especially when some of them have testified that they learned all their methods at the SOA. If you want to see some of the manuals that were used at the SOA and in other training areas, you can read about them and even download them here: (that site is an independent, nonpartisan database sponsored by George Washington University. As you scroll down, notice that even when the Secretary of Defense--who is now our Vice President--and other high-ranking officials learned of the manuals, they made no changes).

One problem is that the SOA trains these officers to see people who speak against their governments in black/white, "enemy" terms. They're not trained to see much distinction between, say, a Marxist rebel terrorist and a newspaper editor who wants to bring land reform to a corrupt system. Both of them are treated as the enemy.

If you want more info from non-SOA Watch sources, check these out:
This is a transcript of a PBS Newshour report...well worth reading. It gives the Army a chance to give their side of the story, it addresses the "a few bad apples" issue, and it includes testimony from former instructors at the school.
That page features lots of good info, including quotations from Senators, Congressmen, and others who have tried to close the school.



Thanks for calling my attention to the SOA and its critics. Interesting stuff. Several cautions come to mind, in addition to the "shrill" rhetoric of some critics, as you've pointed out. There are a few factors involved here that make me quite a bit less dismissive than you are regarding the "bad apples" issue.

1. In any discipline, academic or otherwise, there will always be a certain percentage of unethical people, or people who can easily turn to or be led in unethical behavior. Period.

2. This is a school devoted to the discipline of warfare. This means that your percentage of unethical people happen to have the capability of grave evil - much more capacity, generally, than your average greedy graduate of Harvard School of Business.

3. The students are from Central America, where political upheaval, government coups, dictatorial regimes, Marxist revolutions, etc., are common. That means that, unlike, say, West Point, the *likelihood* graduates are going to actually be put in combat-related situations, complete with opportunity to do horrific acts of evil, is extremely high. This means that a high percentage of your generally low percentage of "bad apples" actually get opportunity to behave badly.

Given these factors, I actually find the (undisputed, as far as I can see) figure, that 1% of the 60,000 SOA students have been convicted of human rights abuses, to be quite low. Even if that number is low, and there are many more unreported or unknown cases, the rate is surprisingly low, given the kind of upheaval Central America has seen for the past six decades, not to mention the moral ambiguity inherent in many of these conflicts anyway.

If I were to guess, I would suspect that a lot more than 1% of graduates from Columbia Law School, say, engage in unethical legal practices over the course of their careers, whether caught and sanctioned, or not. It so happens that usually embezzling money from clients or withholding discovery from the opposition is not as catastrophic as a soldier raping and murdering people. My point is, it is not *obvious* to me that SOA is a bad idea or necessarily doing a bad job. For some people, simply pointing to particularly gruesome examples is enough; not for me. Renegade Che Guevarra types abound in the history of the region; the fact that some soldiers, trained in maybe the finest school available, get on the wrong side of things and in with wrong crowds just isn't surprising. And it is precisely *because* of that history that the *idea* of SOA is actually pretty good (I can't comment on the execution of the idea, because I don't know).

I've got no bag to carry for them; if they need to be shut down, so be it. But I find the critics to rely heavily on pure emotional appeal, and, given the above, I can conceive of a rational apologetic for the phenomena of bad soldiers that doesn't imply that SOA is "to blame."


5:44 PM  

Thanks for reading, and thanks too for the thoughtful interaction. I respect your arguments enough that i want to respond to some of them. You're right that only 1% of SOA graduates have been convicted of serious human rights abuses (although, given the usual ratio for such things, one wonders how many have committed crimes and have gone unpunished).
But a couple of things: first, your analogy w/ Harvard and Columbia grad schools breaks down. See, those schools may produce some graduates who embezzle, but they don't hold classes on HOW TO embezzle, and they don't produce manuals & curriculums on how to embezzle. Yet the SOA and its partner institutions did just that, for years, with torture classes and extortion manuals, etc. This is undisputed fact, publicly available. And yet even when the government was made aware of the manuals' contents, it either ignored the revelations or made slight cosmetic changes. In cases like this we ARE allowed to hold schools accountable, since the graduates are practicing what they were taught.

Second, as you acknowledge, there is a difference between crimes committed by crooked lawyers & businesspeople, as bad as they may be, and the crimes committed by military officers who supervise terror, torture, rape, and murder. I think we are allowed to hold such people to a higher standard of scrutiny. In an analogy with tools, we might say that a thumbtack and a shotgun are both capable of causing harm, but if i have both in my house, I keep much better track of where the shotgun is located, and what condition it's in, and how well it's locked up, and who is given access to it, because it is exponentially more dangerous. I'm sure that many, even most, of the sixty thousand people trained at the SOA are decent folks who want to build up and defend their countries. But if six HUNDRED people trained there are convicted of horrible crimes, yeah, that's enough to make me say, "let's put this on hold until we really fix it."

Third, you mention that the SOA's graduates find themselves in some harsh situations where bad things sometimes happen. Yes, many of the SOA's students come from an unstable part of the world, and yes, there are some very bad people in their neighborhood who need to be guarded against, but sadly, some of Latin America's worst instability has been fueled by the SOA's graduates and by the actions of US governments who were "just trying to help." The 1954 coup in Guatemala, America's illegal support to the Contras (who were not only human-rights abusers but were also responsible for selling crack cocaine all over the Western Hemisphere), the 1973 coup in Chile and all the repression that followed, Operation Condor, Argentina's "dirty war"...the list goes on and on and depressingly on. If the SOA were the US's only involvement in Latin America, i might give them the benefit of the doubt. But that benefit went away a long time ago.

Sorry for the rant. I really do appreciate your taking the time to follow the links and to find out more about this.

11:20 PM  

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