restricted access The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas (review)
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Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Photographs, bibliography, index, 304 pp.; hardcover $69.95, paperback $19.95.

As its role became better known in the 1980s, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) became a symbol of U.S. foreign policy perversities in Latin America. By then, many graduates of the school were already infamous in their own countries for their leadership of, or involvement in, savage counterinsurgency campaigns and human rights atrocities. The SOA was known in the region as the School of Assassins or the School of Coups. The names of SOA graduates are familiar to Latin Americanists: dictator Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, who took power in a bloody coup; Leopoldo Galtieri, Argentine general and member of the "dirty war" junta in the 1980s; Roberto d'Aubuisson, leader of Salvadoran death squads; General Efraín Ríos Montt, overseer of massacres of indigenous peasants as dictator in Guatemala; Chilean Miguel Krassnoff, DINA officer and torturer; the list goes on. The U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador found that 60 Salvadoran officers were responsible for the worst atrocities of that country's dirty war; more than two-thirds were SOA graduates (Franciscans International et al. 2000, 4). More than 60,000 Latin American officers have trained at the SOA.

The SOA's reputation was further stained after the 1996 declassification of several of its training manuals, under pressure from a Baltimore Sun lawsuit. The manuals provided documented evidence that SOA instructors had taught and advocated methods of torture, extortion, kidnapping, and execution in the counterinsurgency wars. The Pentagon claimed that the manuals contained only isolated "objectionable" passages, and continued a long pattern of denial by arguing that the manuals had not been properly cleared and did not represent U.S. government policy. Given the historical record, those denials were not credible.

Beyond their more heinous passages, moreover, the manuals were suffused with suspicion of public gatherings and general political activity in developing societies; they imparted lessons in population control, mass registrations of communities, censorship, infiltration, surveillance, and other repressive methods. One declassified 1983 CIA manual used to train Central American armies, "Human Resource Exploitation Manual," was drawn directly from a 1963 CIA manual, demonstrating that the "objectionable passages" were not "mistakes" but longstanding and [End Page 189] integral components of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. The SOA and CIA manuals provide stunning proof of U.S. sponsorship of, and training in, repressive methods of social control in Latin America.

In recent years, the SOA has embarked on a public relations campaign to improve its image, even changing its name in 2001 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Lesley Gill took advantage of this opening to conduct an in-depth study of the school and its role, aided by the relatively open access allowed her by the school's commander. The result is a fascinating book and an unflinching look at U.S. complicity in human rights crimes in Latin America.

A notable contribution of Gill's study is its theoretical framework, which places the school squarely in an analysis of U.S. hegemony and what Gill calls the U.S. imperial project. Gill argues that through the SOA and other training schools, institutions, and programs, Washington transformed the Latin American security forces into "extensions of its own power in Latin America and internationalized state-sponsored violence in the Americas" (p. 7). The SOA shaped Latin American militaries into proxy forces under U.S. control, Gill posits, thereby extending U.S. control of political developments throughout the region.

Gill thus argues that the SOA is one of the instruments through which Washington imposes its political will and pursues its economic interests in other countries. Seeking political, military, and cultural domination, she writes, the U.S. government also has established a constellation of military bases worldwide, an enormous defense budget, a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons, and a system of ongoing alliances with repressive regimes. U.S. imperialism, Gill contends, means more than military interventions and intrusive economic policies: it is a "way of life...