The Common Good
March-April 1998

Final Exams?

by Judy Coode | March-April 1998

The movement to close the School of the Americas.

On November 16, 1997, nearly 2,000 people gathered outside the gates of Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia, to call for the closing of the School of the Americas (SOA), a U.S. Army-sponsored (and U.S. taxpayer-funded) program for Latin American soldiers. On that sunny but chilly day, assembled on the roads and lawns of the residential neighborhood that sits outside of the fort, the crowd of demonstrators watched a street theater performance, listened to speakers, sang songs of peace, and prayed. One of the speakers who addressed the protesters was Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, author of Brave New World Order and, most recently, School of Assassins.

Published by Orbis Books, School of Assassins is a short book (104 pages) written in an informal first-person format. Nelson-Pallmeyer offers the reader a quick history lesson about the SOA program, and then explains how the school illustrates the U.S. government’s seriously flawed foreign policy.

SOA, originally located in Panama, was established in 1946 as the Latin American Training Center-Ground Division. It changed its name to SOA in 1963 and moved to Georgia in 1985. Nearly 59,000 Latin American soldiers, police officers, and civilians have studied at the SOA, including some of the worst violators of human rights in the hemisphere, such as Bolivian dictator (and now president) Hugo Banzer Suarez, Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, and former Guatemalan Defense Minister Hector Gramajo, who a U.S. court held responsible for the 1989 kidnapping and torture of Dianna Ortiz, a U.S. Ursuline sister.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, who has lived in Central America several times during the last 15 years, has written School of Assassins for several reasons. First, he shows that the arguments used in support of the school—it teaches democracy and human rights; it exposes students to U.S. democratic values and ethics; the graduates who have committed murder and torture are simply a "few bad apples"—are without merit and baseless. Second, he demonstrates that the school’s priorities and the graduates’ conduct are in keeping with the more extensive U.S. foreign policy objectives, namely, protecting U.S. business interests at all costs. Third, he impels readers to join the movement calling for the school’s closure.

SCHOOL OF ASSASSINS is not going to give much new information to people who have been involved with the effort to close the SOA the last few years, but it could be astonishing to anyone who has never considered the U.S. relationship with smaller, poorer nations. The analysis of the school and its curriculum within the context of the entire U.S. foreign policy (including the war in Vietnam) is interesting and compelling. As a reminder that the "option for the poor" and liberation theology are considered detriments to U.S. business and therefore must be suppressed, this book is staggering.

Nelson-Pallmeyer is an emotional author who uses repetition as a tool: We are reminded several times that SOA graduates include those responsible for the El Mozote massacre, the assassination of Oscar Romero, the murders of the four churchwomen in December 1980, the murders of the six Jesuits and the two women in November 1989, among too many other offenses to list. He is harshly critical of the State Department and the U.S. military, and ravages big business.

One slight problem that could have been avoided with a quick fact-check: Sister Ortiz’s name is repeatedly misspelled as "Diana." It frustrates me that neither Nelson-Pallmeyer nor the editors at Orbis caught this glitch.

A couple of times during the November 16 gathering a spokesperson from Ft. Benning announced through a microphone to the crowd (which included, among others, peaceworkers, members of religious orders, and students from Christian colleges) that partisan demonstrations were not allowed at U.S. military installations, that the United States had other channels with which to challenge policies. In response, in silence, people in the crowd raised their white crosses, which had been distributed in memory of the victims of SOA graduates. A sea of makeshift gravemarkers rose in the air, displaying with chilling clarity that this was not any sort of partisan event; it was a remembrance of those who were sacrificed to preserve our "way of life."

JUDY COODE, a former Sojourners intern, is the office administrator for Maryknoll Justice and Peace in Washington, D.C.

School of Assassins. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Orbis Books, 1997., now available from Amazon.com

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