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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

By James Hodge and Linda Cooper
Orbis Books, 244 pages, $20
Roy Bourgeois’s mission to close SOA

Reviewed by CHRIS WHITE

I first met Fr. Roy Bourgeois when he spoke to a class I was teaching at the University of Kansas on modern Latin American history. While I am not religious, I recognized, as did my students, that Fr. Roy’s faith-based dedication deserves admiration, for it stirs him to attempt to end the oppression in Latin America in which our government plays a role.

Fr. Roy’s background as a naval officer who worked extensively with the poor and victimized in Vietnam and his work with the impoverished and marginalized masses of Bolivia and El Salvador as an ordained Maryknoll priest helped establish a level of credibility even with my skeptical students. They saw, as do the authors of this diligently researched in-depth biography, the true significance of activism, which is not to pursue hero status, but to lead by example and honesty. To Fr. Roy and those whom he leads at School of the Americas Watch, this means challenging the U.S. government and the American public to look in the mirror and examine our own role in the violence that plagues the planet.

This book depicts Roy Bourgeois’ life as one of travel, conflict, service, activism, sacrifice and reflection. Authors James Hodge and Linda Cooper trace Fr. Roy’s life from the Louisiana bayous of his childhood, to his stint as a naval officer and orphanage volunteer in Vietnam, to his ordination as a Maryknoll priest, to his service in rural areas of Bolivia and El Salvador, to his resistance to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. His experiences living with the marginalized populations of Latin America opened his eyes to the role of the U.S. government in supporting often corrupt and violent militaries during the Cold War and after in the region.

During the 1980s, Fr. Roy became an activist leader. This occurred after U.S.-supported Central American death squads massacred tens of thousands of unarmed civilians, many of them Catholic. His own struggle to discover the truth proved life-threatening as well, as described in detail in this book. Eventually, he began a quest to expose the U.S. link to the violence in Latin America. This led him to the School of the Americas, the U.S. Army school that has trained close to 60,000 Latin American military officers. His efforts to close the school have perhaps won him as many enemies as fans.

As founder of SOA Watch, Fr. Roy has led a movement that transcends national boundaries for it regards the school as a lens through which to comprehend and eventually rectify U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Fr. Roy has delivered speeches to crowds all over the United States, helped produce literature and documentaries exposing the school’s human rights record, engaged in intense protests involving food strikes and other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, and forged bonds with researchers and politicians in order to make a solid case for closing the school permanently. After a decade of work to close the school, Fr. Roy has garnered considerable support in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has voted several times on whether to eliminate enough of the school’s budget to cripple it indefinitely. The bill has not yet passed, but Fr. Roy and company continue to strive to permanently close the school, which was closed in December 2000 and reopened a month later under the name of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The same general mission in training Latin American military officers remains, but the effort goes forward in the post-Cold War context of the Drug War and the War on Terror.

This book portrays Fr. Roy’s legacy of leadership and sacrifice in a coherent, meaningful manner, accessible to any reader with the desire to learn from the example of a selfless human being. Even Fr. Roy’s detractors would learn from this book that although his message may anger them, his honesty and compassion stem from rigorous self-examination. Fr. Roy calls on all of us to similarly reflect and act on our conscience out of duty to humanity.

Chris White is a doctoral candidate who teaches Latin American and U.S. diplomatic history at the University of Kansas. Like Fr. Roy, he is a member of Veterans for Peace.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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