• Narrow screen resolution
  • Wide screen resolution
  • Auto width resolution
  • Increase font size
  • Decrease font size
  • Default font size
  • default color
  • red color
  • green color
Member Area


Apr 21st
¡Presente! Home
Fighting the SOA and Public Amnesia PDF Print E-mail
article from the Spring 2008 issue, by Lesley Gill

The movement to close the School of the America (SOA) punctures the founding myths of American exceptionalism. These myths include the belief that the United States is committed to democracy for all, that it is essentially good, and that because it is good, the United States only uses its power for virtuous ends. The presumed innocence of the United States and its citizens insures that “we” are always the victims of the violence of others. This historical shortsightedness perpetuates a widespread amnesia about the naked violence that has supported U.S. imperialism and the acceptance of torture by U.S. officials for decades.

The movement to close the SOA has exposed how instructors taught torture techniques at the School between 1987 and 1991, and how torture manuals used at the SOA were also distributed for use in Latin American countries long before the claims of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo burst into the headlines. These texts advocated the use of torture techniques that went beyond those displayed at Abu Ghraib, and they appeared to advocate the execution of enemies. Indeed, the road to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo began in military training centers, like the School of the Americas, and it passed through various third world countries along the way.

Beyond its immediate goal of shuttering a notorious military school, the movement to close the SOA wages an equally important battle over collective memory. It is a battle about how the legacy of the School and the history of 20th century U.S. interventionism in Latin America are understood in the United States at a time when the government’s imperial ambitions are on display in the Middle East. At stake are beliefs about the intrinsic benevolence of U.S. power and the strength of those beliefs to remain unexamined and accepted as good.

Misrepresenting the SOA and the legacy of U.S. militarism in Latin America has long been a concern of U.S. policy makers, liberal and conservative, but nowadays, this distortion of facts is important to maintaining the naked, militarized capitalism that the Bush administration promotes on a global scale, especially in Iraq.  It also justifies the existence of a military training center for Latin American security forces at a time when new political movements in Latin America are revolting against neoliberalism and demanding greater state control over national energy reserves.

The movement to close the SOA joins with numerous Latin American-based human rights movements, spawned during the dirty wars, that pressure governments to end impunity, account for past abuses and bring perpetrators to justice. Because of this pressure, newly elected, left-leaning governments in Latin America have more vigorously pursued the perpetrators of human rights crimes. The Argentinean Supreme Court has overturned amnesty laws that protected military officers who committed crimes during the dictatorship, and many former police, military and intelligence officers are now in custody awaiting trials. Civilian governments in Argentina and Chile have also converted former military torture centers into museums that commemorate the lives of people who died in them.

Human rights progress in Latin America stands in stark contrast to the United States, where silence and denial shape public perceptions of the United States’ involvement in Latin America’s dirty wars. Critical accounts of U.S. complicity in human rights violations receive only episodic projection into the public domain, and they remain excluded from official histories and government ceremonies. This is, in part, why the U.S. government can continue to dismiss evidence of torture in the armed forces and protect high-ranking authorities with the explanation that “abuses” are the product of a “few bad apples,” not a consistent policy. It also partly explains why the military can manufacture new justifications for retaining the SOA.  To counter movement charges that the SOA is a “school of assassins,” Army officials now use the language of human rights to couch their defense of the institution and to obscure the history of the Americas.

The Army began to appreciate, in the 1980s, how “human rights” could be advanced as one of its central moral values, even as U.S.-trained security forces displayed a near total disregard for life in El Salvador. The notion gained traction in the wake of the Cold War, even though the Clinton administration presided over an expansion of the United States’ global military power. The Bush administration’s subsequent declaration of a war on terror subsumed the rhetoric of human rights under a more strident assertion of America’s “moral values” and the American right to global leadership. Yet the policies of both Clinton and Bush were rooted in notions of American exceptionalism. They shared an unquestioning belief in the benevolence of American power and a conviction that the United States had a global mission, one that gave it the right to pursue national interests based on the universality of values that were labeled American.

These understandings informed the School’s appropriation of human rights discourse, and they guided Army officials in the development of a public relations campaign to deal with the anti-SOA movement’s efforts to close the institution. Army officials claim that a concern for human rights is intrinsic to U.S. military doctrine and always has been. They direct skeptics to a law that requires all students to receive at least eight hours of instruction in human rights and democratic governance, and every year, they tout a week-long series human rights event to the media in an effort to counteract the claims of critics that the institution remains unreformed.

“Human rights” gives the school a mission, one that strives to place the school above the political turmoil that swirls around it. Officials redefine human rights in accord with their own agenda and decide which rights to emphasize and how best to do so. They claim to espouse universal humanitarian principles that represent the moral concerns of all peoples and thus recast imperial politics as non-political ethics. Human rights provide them with a rationale for the pursuit of U.S. interests, regardless of state borders. The result is a narcissistic promotion of American nationalism and the values supposedly associated with it.

Through human rights training, instructors communicate a moral message to trainees, whom they perceive as either unwilling or unable to curb their violent propensities, but they sidestep discussion of Latin America’s dirty wars, U.S. involvement in them, accountability for war crimes, and reparations for victims. Human rights training has in fact very little to do with reforming Latin American security forces. It is intended less for Latin American trainees, who have developed their own self-serving appropriations of human rights discourse, than for U.S. domestic audiences.  The primary concern is to rehabilitate the tarnished image of the SOA and its clone–the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation–in order to remoralize and relegitimate U.S. militarism in Latin America. The strategy appeals to deeply ingrained, xenophobic beliefs about the special qualities of American culture and feeds on fears of a disorderly world characterized by failed states and a variety of internal and external enemies. It promotes the idea that only the United States can bring human rights and the rule of law to a chaotic, immoral world.

The movement to close the SOA challenges the Army’s strategy by keeping alive an alternative explanation of U.S. militarism in the Americas, one that disputes public perceptions of the historic benevolence of U.S. power and the amnesia about torture in the armed forces. It sets forth an understanding of U.S. militarism in the Americas that presents the United States military less as a paladin of democracy and Christian morality than as an accomplice to torture and other human rights crimes.

Torture, military rule, and economic shock therapy created more inequality and instability than wealth and order in Latin America, and today, we see many of the same failed policies at work in Iraq. The U.S. invasion blew open the Iraqi economy and installed neoliberalism with even more violence than in Latin America. The ensuing economic shock therapy failed to stimulate corporate investment, and the U.S. occupation sparked an insurgency fueled by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and widespread civilian casualties. Yet even as the Bush administration justifies torture, its Iraq policies, and the broader “war on terror” in the name of preventing future terrorists attacks, it seeks to erase past U.S. crimes in Latin America and the involvement of the School of the Americas in them.

By privileging the lives of victims and highlighting the violence of SOA graduates, the movement to close the School of the Americas reminds us that torture did not suddenly emerge in the U.S. military following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Torture has been a consistent part of U.S. policy for decades. The struggle over the School keeps the boundaries around interpretations of U.S. policy in the Americas, and the world, from closing too tightly, and it opens the possibility for more critical truths to emerge. Fighting the amnesia that grips the American public is now more important than ever, as war, torture and trauma only generate additional violence and make us all more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks. It depends on the ability of U.S. citizens to break the vise of fear and xenophobia that has gripped the United States more tightly since 2001, and on their willingness to empathize with the victims of U.S.-sponsored terrorism elsewhere. The fight against the SOA offers one way of loosening this vise.


Published in the Spring 2008 issue. 

Discuss this article on the forums. (0 posts)

Hits: 42581
Comments (1)Add Comment
SOA and the public
written by Fred Jakobcic, May 21, 2008
On April 11th, 1995 I finished reading THE MASSACRE AT EL MAZOTE, authored by Mark Danner. I still have it in my library and I have never forgotten it. Its seems that I am constanly reminded of it, not jsut because of SOA Watch, but through other reading material and because of today's current events and policies of the bush administration and the horrors of torure et al, associated with this administration. Is it amnesia or is it the way we mythologize our history that so few are aware of SOA/WHINSEC and the backlash associated with it? I won"t go into all the books I have read but I would like to mention one or two by Stephen Kinzer 1) ALL THE SHAH'S MEN: An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror, and 2) OVERTHROW-America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq. It is all apart of a long established foreign policy by our government and with it all the lies and manipulation to help perpetuate the lies and policies put out by our "leaders."

So many have suffered with loss of life, limb, and by other means suffered and yet our mainstream media offer little publicity on these matters, often taken the current administrations side on the matter. There are two sides and we all too often do not hear the other side, the reasons why, the truth and belatedly of the cover-up, as with the Massacre at El Mozote. One aspect of our nations history often hidden from wiew are the many cover-ups, i.e. Mai Lai, Vietnam and there are so many others. It is not hard to figure out way they hate us, or why we have them to fear. We manufacture the hate that leads to the terror we now fight. We are the cause of most of it, if not all of it and that is a truth we dare not face or reveal often enought if at all.

My apolofies for my lenghty meandering and wandering afield. I wish I could do more to support your efforts but time and money is at a premium with me. When I can I will. Please keep up the good work and I feel for those who have paid the price of prison time. Today the Summer/Verano '08 issue of !PRESENTE! which is why I have not taken the time to write this.

Thank you.
report abuse
vote down
vote up
Votes: +2

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters

< Prev   Next >
Featured Article
Download the Spring 2016 issue of Presente

The Spring issue contains mobilizing information for the SOA Watch Border Convergence, which is taking place from October 7-10, 2016 at the US/Mexico border in Nogales, and also focuses on recent developments in Latin America and within the SOA Watch movement.

Click here to download a PDF version of the Spring 2016 issue.

As this issue of Presente went to print, our hearts were heavy. The assassination of our dear friend and comrade Berta Cáceres, and the increased repression against social movement groups, have left us shocked and saddened. SOA Watch Latin America liaison Brigitte Gynther traveled to Honduras the morning after she learned about the assassination and has been coordinating SOA Watch’s response together with our partner groups on the ground. If you do not already receive Urgent Action emails from us, please click here to sign up now.

The recent decision by the U.S. judge in North Carolina to extradite one of the perpetrators of the 1989 massacre at the University of San Salvador gives us hope that justice will prevail in the end. It will take all of us to create change! Please join us as we mobilize to the U.S./Mexico border from October 7-10, 2016!

Other articles in this issue cover a protest by SOA Watch in Chile against US bases in Latin America, the FBI surveillance of SOA Watch, updates from Colombia and Mexico, news about the first Border Patrol agent to receive training at WHINSEC, background information about Direct Action, the Youth Encuentro in Guatemala, and more.

Download this issue of Presente here.

SOA Violence
Image SOA Grads Responsible For UCA Massacre Face Extradition, Military Officers Arrested in El Salvador The 1989 massacre of 16-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, that galvanized opposition to the U.S. relationship with Central American death squads and that sparked the movement to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas, is making headlines again.
International Human Rights Encuentro in Bajo Aguán, Honduras

fathermila.jpgInterview with Father Fausto Mila in Honduras

SOA Watch participated in the International Human Rights Encuentro in Honduras in February 2012. Laura Jung spoke with Father Fausto Milla, a religious leader in the Honduran movement who has been persecuted by the State of Honduras.  

Local Organizing
For 25 Years the SOA Watch Movement has been on a Journey A journey to live into the radical hope that marked the lives of  14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba, and Jesuit priest dissidents Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., Joaquín López y López, S.J., Amando López, SJ.
Direct Action
Moving the 2016 November Vigil to the Border? The 2015 Vigil is still going to take place at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, but there are discussions within the SOA Watch movement to move the 2016 vigil to the militarized U.S./Mexico border. What do you think?
Image Latin American Resistance & U.S. Solidarity Latin America has a 500 year history of resistance to the violence of colonialism, militarization, and elite domination. It is a legacy to treasure and honor.
SOA Watch in Latin America
SOA Watch Chile Declassified List with Names of WHINSEC Graduates

By Pablo Ruiz, Equipo Latinoamericano of SOA Watch
SOAW Chile achieved an important victory; to declassify the names of over 760 Chilean soldiers who took courses at the School of the Americas/WHINSEC during the past decade.

Image Looking Back to Move Ahead I was asked to write a piece about people of color organizing to attend the 2009 SOA Watch vigil and about our plans for 2010. I believe everything happens for a reason.
Ron Teska Ron Teska, a stone carver and organizer from Wind Ridge, Pennsylvania worked on this piece of art throughout the November Vigil weekend in Georgia.


Love is so short and forgetting is so long.

-Pablo Neruda


Book Tip

Cover of Leslie Gill's book



flickr  facebook MySpace twitter YouTube


On the Line

On the Line  

A challenging new documentary has quickly become one of the widest-reaching films to encapsulate the history of the SOA Watch movement.

Taxi to the Dark SideTaxi to the Dark Side

An in-depth look at the torture practices of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, focusing on an innocent taxi driver in Afghanistan who was tortured and killed in 2002.



Which part of the campaign to close the SOA are you most interested in?

Who's Online

We have 7 guests online


Newspaper Delivery
Educate your community. 


Place your ad in ¡Presente! 


Piggy Bank
We rely on donations from supporters like you.

Contact Us

Contact Us
Complaints, suggestions, feedback or ideas?