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The SOA and its Devastating Legacy

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Thursday, June 8, 2006
COHA Opinion:

Torture is Un-American: The SOA and its Devastating Legacy

Today, an attempt will be made to eliminate the final refuge of the former School of the Americas (SOA), an immensely controversial military training base for “qualified citizens of the Western Hemisphere,” located in Fort Benning, Georgia and funded by U.S. taxpayers. Representative James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) will introduce an amendment to the FY 2007 Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, proposing the elimination of funding for SOA’s re-incarnate: the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). This facility was created in 2000, after Congress officially closed the SOA due to its foul aroma, and established WHINSEC in its place. SOA’s divisive past includes the use of military training manuals, which instructed students in the implementation of torture as an acceptable method for obtaining information from potential suspects.

Scores of SOA’s graduates eventually became Latin America’s military dictators or their servitors, as well as becoming prime human rights abusers. They put their U.S. acquired military training to demoniac use in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Violations included detaining civilians indefinitely, employing torture tactics, “disappearing” victims and engaging in an entire range of unspeakable abuses, which blatantly violated fundamental human rights. Its critics therefore insisted that the SOA be closed down, but sanitized by a name change, the facilities remained open. Critics argue that such torture facilities are un-American, and are not consonant with the best aspects of U.S. military tradition.

The legitimacy of the School of the America’s and its successor institution, WHINSEC, diminishes exponentially upon examining the facility’s history. SOA’s graduate roster is teeming with pathological alumni including infamous Panamanian dictator and convicted drug trafficker Manuel Noriega, ex-head of the Argentine military junta Leopoldo Galtierri, and organizer of Salvadorian death squads and author of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Roberto D’ Aubuisso. In the 1986 El Salvadorian massacre, 19 out of the 26 individuals, who were implicated in the killing of 6 Jesuit priests and a female employee at a Jesuit mission along with her teenage daughter, happened to be SOA graduates.

Perhaps the notoriety of SOA’s graduates is just coincidental, but in 1996, the Pentagon declassified seven SOA training manuals used at the school between 1982 and 1991, which suggest otherwise. Proponents of the SOA claim that simply because the school has produced a few bad apples, the entire establishment is not liable. They further argue that SOA merely taught its students standard military tactics, and if certain individuals wrongly interpreted or misused the information as providing carte-blanche permission to commit human rights violations, they constitute a tiny minority of the school’s graduates. But, in fact, SOA students did not merely misinterpret their training materials or lectures; they were given U.S. Army-issued training manuals which detailed unconventional and coercive interrogation tactics which routinely condoned human rights violations. These guides came to be known as the “torture manuals.” According to a Defense Department summary of the handbooks, the U.S. military spelled out acceptable methods for acquiring information which included “beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum.” In an attempt to rectify historically controversial practices, the WHINSEC’s charter of 2001—a revamped version of SOA’s earlier mission statement— stipulated that students of the institution must receive a minimum eight hours of training on the importance of human rights and the dire consequences for those who abuse them. The argument has been made that it would be implausible if the average member of the U.S. military would ever be in a situation where he or she would have to choose between upholding an individual’s human rights or deciding to violate them; however, such an argument would come to be challenged years later by prison records in Guantánamo and Iraq. For an institution with such a nefarious track-record, WHINSEC’s suspected only token concern for its human rights curriculum is unsatisfactory.

WHINSEC’s mission statement asserts that the institution advocates the “democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of the American States,” with the hope of educating citizens of the Western Hemisphere in the nuances of the military’s notions of justice, freedom and peace. Section 911 of the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act, from which the organization derives its funding, claims that educating individuals in such principles will hopefully foster “mutual knowledge, transparency… [and] respect for human rights.” The rhetoric is highflying; however, in practice, its execution falls short.

The School of the America’s reprehensible history, in combination with the revelation of questionable interrogation and military tactics exercised by current United States military personnel in Iraq and Guantánamo, deems members of the United States military as not being automatically immune from such charges. Currently, U.S. marines are under investigation for the murder of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha. The Guantánamo Bay prison camp remains open even though the United Nations Committee Against Torture suggested that “torture and ill-treatment of detainees by its military or civilian personnel,” warranted its closure.

One might ask how WHINSEC students can take their instruction seriously when the United States military continues to perpetuate policies that are contradictory to conventional interpretations of defending human rights. With an annual budget of $9.7 million for the 2004 fiscal year, WHINSEC is a veritable black hole in which to pour away scarce funds that would perhaps be better spent on social justice projects throughout Latin America. Many Latin American democrats, some who have been victimized by SOA’s alumni, deeply feel that Congress should vote in favor of Representative McGovern’s amendment, ending the controversial military institution’s existence, while simultaneously terminating the hypocrisy behind the U.S. military’s training of Latin American military personnel, who more likely will turn out to be the progenitors of human rights violations, rather than their protectors.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Charlene van Dijk

June 8, 2006

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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