Depending on who you ask, Fort Benning's innocuously named School of the Americas is either a responsible peace-keeping effort that helps keep Latin America safe for democracy, or a boot camp for dictators, death squad leaders and sundry other human-rights violators. Conceived in 1946 as a means by which the U.S. government could protect its interests in...read more
Depending on who you ask, Fort Benning's innocuously named School of the Americas is either a responsible peace-keeping effort that helps keep Latin America safe for democracy, or a boot camp for dictators, death squad leaders and sundry other human-rights violators. Conceived in 1946 as a means by which the U.S. government could protect its interests in Latin and Central America, the SOA — nicknamed the "School of Assassins" by the growing ranks of those who believe the world would be safer without it — was originally located in Panama, but relocated to Georgia in 1984. SOA defenders like Major General John LeMoyne and Colonel Glenn Weidner claim the school continues to teach security and development, a benign curriculum rounded out with some combat and field training. Critics claim the SOA specializes in anti-guerilla combat, counter-insurgency techniques and psychological warfare, strategies by which governments can minimize "internal security risks," using the military to oppress their own rebellious citizens. It's clear on which side of the debate English professor-turned-filmmaker John H. Smihula stands, and the evidence his well-researched documentary presents — including on-camera horror stories told by those who claim personal victimization by SOA graduates — is, to say the least, troubling. Of the 60,000 Latin American soldiers who've passed through the SOA's doors, 600 are considered serious human-rights violators (a startling 47 of the 60 officers held responsible for the worst atrocities of El Salvador's civil war are SOA alumni). But while graduating classes have included the likes of Panama's drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega and Roberto D'Aubuisson, architect of El Salvador's death squads, SOA defenders argue that that a 100-to-one ratio of unremarkable government officials to high-profile human-rights violators isn't bad. In an effort to shut down the SOA for good, Vietnam veteran and torture survivor Father Roy Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, and such Congressional Representatives as Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) joined the cause. The annual demonstration outside SOA's gates ranked as this country's largest and most theatrical anti-war protest since the end of the Vietnam War. In 2000, the House of Representatives actually voted to shut down the SOA, but a suspiciously similar agency calling itself the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) opened at the same address a month later — a move that would be hilariously absurd if it weren't so scary.
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