The Americas 61.2 (2004) 350-351
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The public disclosure of disturbing photographs documenting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the United States military opens many questions. Who ordered the torture, how systemic was (and is) its use, and where else does the U.S. practice such barbarity in the name of national security? Many in Latin America have asked similar questions, especially as it concerns the "School of the Americas" or SOA. Recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), the School of the Americas (as it is still commonly known) is one of several United States military bases where Latin American military officers receive training. Formerly located in Panama, the SOA now resides in Fort Benning, located in Columbus, Georgia. With over 600 graduates having committed human rights violations in Latin America, the SOA is a center point of debate, largely generated by the activist group, School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), which seeks to shut down the SOA. The documentary under review offers multiple perspectives to this debate by presenting the history of the SOA and the SOAW. While advancing the SOAW argument, the video offers multiple perspectives and is carefully documented.
The producers provide abundant voice for SOA advocates. We hear from former commanders, and congressional representatives. The director does not take words out of context, nor use fancy editing to make the pro argument look bad. He counters the assertion of a SOA spokesperson with contrary evidence only once. Despite such fairness, the video needed additional pro-SOA voices, such as testimonies from Latin Americans about the positives of the SOA. From the advocates we learn that the SOA promotes democracy and a professional military. Those who commit atrocities after attending the SOA are just a few bad apples; the SOA is not responsible for teaching officers to commit mass murder. These are important arguments, especially if we assume a realist international relations perspective. Latin American militaries are fully capable of torture and committing massacres without United States instruction. The SOA can restrain negative behavior by teaching "proper" techniques and norms.
The producers depend on a familiar cast of characters to counter these arguments: Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galleano, and Christopher Hitchens. These voices assert that the SOA is an instrument of United States economic interests and thus a mechanism for controlling the impoverished in Latin America. The school, in other words, is an open and deliberate means of imperial intimidation. The producers call upon several Latin Americans to give testimony, especially regarding their experiences [End Page 350] with torture. William LeoGrande offers analysis of Plan Colombia. He is the only source in the video with academic specialization in United States and Latin American relations. Finally, the SOAW is extensively represented, especially the organization's founder, Father Roy Bourgeois. A democratic society, he argues, has no place for the SOA; it is contrary to the values of our republic.
The video is well suited for any class covering the topic of United States and Latin American relations. I have used the video multiple times and it always provokes considerable debate among students. It shows the complexity of the issue, provides expert analysis, offers diverse perspectives, and carries a punch.
Glen D. Kuecker