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SOA quick fix won’t cleanse U.S. policy

When funding for the School of the Americas was nearly cut last year, Army Secretary Louis Caldera registered his indignation by vowing he would not allow the Army’s reputation “to be dragged through the mud every year.”

“I don’t want to go through another fiscal year with this torture,” he said.

Poor choice of words.

Caldera’s “torture” was quite insignificant compared to that experienced by thousands in Latin America at the hands of military thugs trained at the SOA. His fix for the problem, narrowly approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, is Orwellian: renaming the school the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation and making cosmetic changes to its curriculum. Except for denying chanting protesters the easy-to-manage sound of SOA, the changes do nothing to affect the Army’s reputation or to deal with the far deeper underlying problem.

For the School of the Americas is more than a collection of courses and some errant foreign students. The school is symbolic of both a state of mind of the military forces and the training that goes on in many more places than Fort Benning, Ga.

Further, it is not training done in isolation. The commando tactics and other techniques and methods of intimidation taught at the school may be carried out by soldiers of other countries, but they are carried out in service of U.S. policy. Ultimately, then, the gruesome record of SOA graduates is one that we, as a people, sanction because they act ostensibly in our interest.

Surely we wouldn’t continue to train them if that were not the case.

That is why a simple name change and cosmetic alterations won’t do.

As Massachusetts Rep. Joe Moakley aptly put it, we might as well be sprinkling “perfume on a toxic dump.” The documentation of horrors committed by SOA graduates, the record of dehumanizing tactics taught by the school and the silence of U.S. leaders in the face of the overwhelming, disturbing evidence is what really ought to be disturbing Caldera and others.

Should the Senate, as expected, go along with this sorry charade, Caldera’s troubles are far from over. Judging from the initial reaction around the country to the House’s attempt at legislative sleight-of-hand, the School of the Americas by any other name is still a deeply embattled institution.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000