War Is Not Peace
It’s known as the School of Assassins among the poor of Latin America; a vessel for the spread of democracy among its U.S. military proponents; and one of the world’s most infamous human rights offenders for the thousands of protesters who gather in Fort Benning, Georgia, each November to honor the names of union leaders, campesinos, priests, and children who have been gunned down by its alumni.
This week, activists led by longtime peacemaker Father Roy Bourgeois are fasting in Washington, D.C. to demand the closure of the “School of the Americas,” a training center, funded by U.S. taxpayers, for tens of thousands of Latin American soldiers and police forces.
The institution was initially founded to curb the spread of communism in the region—training, arming, and supporting some of the 20th century's most deadly regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Bolivia, and on. With an eerily Orwellian turn of phrase, the school, originally founded in Panama in 1946 before it was relocated to U.S. soil in 1984, was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, in 2001.
According to Bourgeois' watchdog group, the School of the Americas Watch, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people—from Jesuit priests to village children—have been traced to the more than 60,000 graduates trained during the school's 59 years of operation.
Bourgeois, a veteran and firsthand witness to the carnage in Vietnam, first went to work in Latin America in 1972 as a priest. Five years living with the poor on the outskirts of La Paz, Bolivia, exposed him to the United States' complicity in atrocities committed by General Banzer’s regime. “I met my country there,” he says. “We were the ones giving them guns and teaching them how to use them.”
Bourgeois' outspokenness eventually got him arrested and effectively deported, but it also got him rolling. Every Sunday, he spoke at different churches throughout the U.S., explaining how our own military might, money, and expertise were supporting some of the world's most merciless oppressors.
In 1989, a congressional task force investigating the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker, and her teenage daughter, revealed that some of the killers had been trained at Fort Benning. Bourgeois organized a 35-day fast at the base’s gate.
Two decades later, Bourgeois' activism has spread, with tens of thousands of participants from all over the world demanding the closure of the school. Bourgeois has personally petitioned leaders—from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Bolivian President Evo Morales—to discontinue their militaries’ involvement with the school.
Bourgeois believes that American people must find new ways to be in relationship with the rest of the world—with or without the official support of our leaders. Militarism, he argues, has been an American addiction for years. But with drastic unemployment, languishing social services, widespread insecurity, and the creeping consolidation of power, we may finally learn how to say, enough is enough.
Christa Hillstrom: These days the world is a dangerous place to be—with looming food crises, religious fundamentalism, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns. People are looking for security, and we tend to associate that with a strong military. But you’re saying that this whole “culture of militarism” is infectious, corrosive, and ultimately insecure. What do you mean by that?
Father Roy Bourgeois: For me it began in Vietnam. As a young man in the military, I didn't question the myth that we were the good guys. Our cause was noble. We were going to be the liberators. That's what they told us about Vietnam, and so I volunteered. That was the beginning of my awakening, and when I went to Latin America and started living in a barrio in Bolivia, that's when I saw up close my country's foreign policy.
At that time we were supporting a string of dictators: in Bolivia, General Banzer; General Pinochet nearby; the generals in Argentina; and the thugs in El Salvador and Guatemala. We were not in these countries as partners—we were there as conquistadors. We were there to exploit vast natural resources and cheap labor in order to enrich ourselves. To do that, you need men with guns. You can't get away with that top-down relationship without the guns.
Christa Hillstrom: So you saw this disconnect between what you first believed when you heard the language glorifying Vietnam and decided to be part of it, and then the reality on the ground.
Father Roy Bourgeois: Oh yes! When ignorance is so prevalent—and I see our greatest enemy in the United States as ignorance—we rely on what our leaders tell us is true, and we don't know what our foreign policy means to those on the receiving end. Our leaders told us we were going to free Vietnam from the communist enemy, but they saw us as invaders. It wasn't until I went there that I saw it too—the lie. They will try to get you to not ask questions, to not critique. So our only hope is to ask questions.
Christa Hillstrom: You were wounded there, came back and received a Purple Heart, went to seminary, and then joined the anti-war movement and returned the Purple Heart before you headed to Bolivia. That’s quite a winding road. How did you connect what you saw happening in South America with the militarism you experienced, from the other side, in Vietnam?
Father Roy Bourgeois: When I got out of language school in Bolivia, the people welcomed me into their barrio. I rented a little room there. We had a faucet in the backyard, an outdoor bath, and no running water. Most people didn't have access to health care, so a lot of the children were dying before three years old. That was kind of a microcosm: Most people in the world are living on the edge, and in this barrio they were struggling for survival. They were not receiving a living wage, and when they got sick they didn't make it.
What really angered and saddened me was when I went to visit the U.S. ambassador and asked what our relationship was to General Banzer. The ambassador said, "He's an ally.” We were friends! And I realized then that we were on the wrong side—in Bolivia and throughout Latin America.
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By my fifth year there, repression had intensified. The jails were filled. Many were killed, and I was among the many arrested. I was speaking out against the dictatorship and U.S. foreign policy, so I was kicked out of the country and denied reentry.
When I came back to the U.S. I was filled with anger. I would be talking in colleges, and most students had never heard of Banzer or Pinochet—you had to actually start with a map. But it reminded me again about how little we know about other countries, and that made me pause and stop blaming my audience—church folks, college students, and others—for foreign policies, and instead introduce them to the connection they had to the people of Bolivia. I was trying to surface this compassion we all have in our hearts. But ignorance is an obstacle to compassion.
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