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War Is Not Peace

For decades, School of the Americas Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois has argued that embracing militarism will never bring us the security we seek. But he thinks he knows what will.
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Christa Hillstrom: People today might say that Latin America has changed and these corrupt dictatorships are no longer the norm. Is there any truth to WHINSEC's claim that it helps train police to fight crime and insurgency and promote democracy?

Father Roy Bourgeois: They have made cosmetic changes, including the name, but this school is still about men with guns. What's so clear to those of us who come from the military is that you do not learn democracy in the military.

Christa Hillstrom: What about in Colombia, where you are focusing a lot of your current work? WHINSEC argues that the government needs a lot of help when it comes to combating drug cartels. Can the training be used for good?

Father Roy Bourgeois: I don't see how, with the corruption in the military and police we see in Colombia.  It's common knowledge there that many are involved with the drug runners. I don't believe that the answer is to have the military fighting the drug war. It's not necessary in a democracy. In a country with such a sad military history, there's not trust between the people and military.

SOA Watch crosses photo by Ashleigh Nushawg

Crosses commemorating those killed by WHINSEC graduates at the 2006 School of the Americas Watch protest.

Photo by Ashleigh Nushawg.

Christa Hillstrom: But now you speak of a great "sea change" across the continent.

Father Roy Bourgeois: Yes. In these countries that were brutalized—Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador—they're electing presidents who are more closely aligned with the poor. They're distancing themselves from their militaries and the U.S. as they build human rights and democracy.

So I'm feeling a lot of hope. What I see in these countries, as in the Middle East and Africa—and especially among the youth—is that you can only oppress people for so long. And they're going to say—Basta! Not anymore. Every country is unique, but there is always the point where they will say no.

Christa Hillstrom: You've said before that solidarity and compassion, not war, breed security. What can people in the U.S. learn from those Latin American social movements?

Father Roy Bourgeois: That we all have power. I'll never forget that in Bolivia, there was so much division in the beginning. There were so many parties representing workers, the campesinos, the factory workers, the tin miners ... they just couldn't get together. That was part of the government tactic there.

What's so clear to those of us who come from the military is that you do not learn democracy in the military.

What happened is that, eventually, they started coming together, as they did in Libya and Egypt. The poor make up the majority of the country, and they started uniting their voices. They discovered that there's something for everyone to do.

Christa Hillstrom: Do you see this kind of shift happening in the U.S. as well? Are people finding their voices?

Father Roy BourgeoisWell, it's a bigger challenge. There's a lot of apathy here. And so many distractions. In the barrio, it wasn't as difficult to talk about oppression.

But I do believe that, with our high unemployment and so many getting poorer, this is the climate for change. I have a good friend here in Georgia who's losing his house. He's lost his job, and he's very upset. There are tens and tens of thousands going through that experience.

I meet a lot of people who are searching for some kind of meaning and hope and peace in life. A lot of people feel despair from the economic situation. They're working two or three jobs, or they're unemployed.

Christa Hillstrom: You once connected the suffering of the Bolivian barrio to the havoc wrought in Vietnam. Do you recognize those same forces at work here?

Latin America LeapsDemocracy Rising:
Latin America's marginalized are mobilizing and changing the face of their nations' politics.
From increasing national oil
profits to rethinking regional trade plans, they are empowering themselves and lessening their dependence on the U.S.

Father Roy Bourgeois: Yes. I live in a military town where about 30,000 soldiers are being trained to go off to war. They're young. The vast majority are right out of high school. I see myself in them.

Kids can't find jobs in their own communities when they leave high school. So where are they going? They're going to the military. Recruiters are sweet-talking them, telling them how they'll be able to go to college. They play down the fact that they might not be alive to spend the money.

All over this town there are young people, many of them minorities coming from poor schools, preparing for war.

Christa Hillstrom: Meanwhile, the nation is facing massive budget cuts that will be debilitating for a lot of people, making fewer and fewer options available outside of the military. What about WHINSEC's funding?

Father Roy Bourgeois: The budget is in the millions, which is a big issue in the midst of cuts in Georgia and around the country. While schools and health care and services for the the elderly are getting cut, we've got millions of dollars going into the training of thousands of foreign soldiers—and it's all paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Christa Hillstrom: That's a lot to be angry about, especially for someone like you who's been witnessing injustice for decades. Don't you ever feel like hitting back?

Father Roy Bourgeois: When you see what we're really doing to the world, how many are being killed, and the people's money that foots the cost—I'm reminded how much you have to keep the anger in check. It can start consuming us, and when that happens we start to lose joy and hope.

What built our movement and other movements was that we have to also take care of ourselves. The struggle we're in is a marathon, not a sprint. We're in this for the long haul.

Christa Hillstrom: There are so many people who feel mired in rage right now, and it's a challenge to harness and channel that into something productive. Your movement, in a sense, has chosen civil disobedience as a tool. At one point, 2,000 of you crossed the line together at Fort Benning, and more than 300 of you have spent time in prison—you yourself for years altogether. What's so confrontational about disobedience?

Father Roy Bourgeois: Dr. King said that when you perform an act of civil disobedience, you expose injustice to the public. You call attention to something that's wrong when you protest, especially when you are arrested and go to prison.

Rosa Parks mug shot

Rosa Parks' mug shot.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Caballero.

When Rosa Parks said, No, I'm not going to the back of the bus ... well, that was an important moment. It just energized people. It caused people to say, wait a minute ... what's going on here?

In the early days of crossing the line, I remember old "Maximum Bob," a judge, sending people away to jail thinking he was going to stop the movement. He believed that others would not come back and cross the line. Well, he sent us to prison for six months or a year and a half. And what happened was that that brought even more people the next year.

Christa Hillstrom: Was there a Rosa Parks moment for you?

Father Roy Bourgeois: They actually have the actual bus Rosa Parks sat in in Birmingham. To be honest, going to the bus where she was arrested was my Rosa Parks moment. Really! I just felt: Wow. We can also do this. This is doable. And we can also do something to bring about peace.

Christa Hillstrom Christa Hillstrom wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Christa is web managing editor at YES!


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