Historical Memory and Military Training
The weekend before Thanksgiving, about two thousand activists descended on Fort Benning Georgia to protest the continued existence of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). WHINSEC, the successor organization to the School of the Americas (SOA), trains the security forces of countries in the western hemisphere primarily in Spanish. With instability in the Middle East, the resurgence of Russia, the “pivot” to China, and recent terrorist acts in Beirut, Paris, Nigeria, and Mali hemispheric concerns have naturally taken a back seat. It is therefore more critical that the Army, and more broadly the U.S. government, efficiently use the limited resources taxpayers dedicate to the Western Hemisphere. According to the WHINSEC website, the institution is a “bargain” for U.S. taxpayers at 11.5 million dollars annually.[i] It very well may be, but perhaps the U.S. government could receive a better return on its investment.
Historically, institutional U.S. Army efforts to train Latin American security personal began in 1949 with the establishment of the U.S. Army Caribbean (USARCARIB) School in the Panama Canal Zone. The school focused on specific technical training and was little more than a sideshow, until the Cuban revolution and the rise of Castro led to increased emphasis on the school, and the eventual reflagging of the USARCARIB School to the SOA in 1963. SOA’s importance over the next thirty-seven years would ebb and flow, peaking during the Reagan administration where the school served an important role in training the El Salvadoran military. Organized opposition to SOA began in the wake of Reagan’s support to El Salvador when security elements, trained at SOA, massacred six Jesuit priests on November 16, 1989 in the country. The main protest organization, SOA Watch, linked the actions of the Jesuit murderers, and other security force personal trained at SOA accused of atrocities, directly back to the school. While the premise that SOA had culpability for the crimes of graduates is certainly debatable, the sustained protest was enough to close SOA and reflag the institution once more into its current incarnation as WHINSEC, which has a broader geographic mission and mandated human rights training in every course.
Two specific aspects of the WHINSEC’s mission deserve further analysis. The first aspect is their mission to “provide professional education and training” to hemispheric partners. On a day to day basis WHINSEC provides common Army training in Spanish in a centralized location. For example, the current course for Majors has the same Army accreditation as course that most U.S. Army Majors attend at Fort Leavenworth. The use of up to date translations of military manuals and doctrine, close supervision of the Army, and the extensive use of partner and U.S. instructors suggests the training is top notch. Where the institution may be struggling is in another portion of its mission to “foster mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence, and cooperation among the participating nations.”[ii] In a legalistic sense the institution may be meeting its mission with partner nations that attend the school, but what about with the nations that do not participate? Despite the name and mission change, the tainted legacy of the SOA is still sufficiently recent and substantial enough for Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to justify not sending any military or police personal to WHINSEC for training. These nations perceive the continued existence of WHINSEC in its current form as an institution that retards confidence and cooperation.
These nations, and even many countries that send students to WHINSEC, are still looking for engagement among security force personal. For instance, in April of this year the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) created the South American School of Defense located in Quito, Ecuador. The defense minister of Ecuador Fernando Cordero, called the chartering of the school a “new era,” contrasting specifically with SOA “which operated under the pretext that military personnel trained there were who would go against our democracies. Those are times that have thankfully passed.”[iii] The UNASUR Secretary-General Ernesto Samper has also stated he “hoped that the difference from the ineffable School of the Americas was that the new school would prepare our armies not for war, but for peace.”[iv] While WHINSEC actually addresses many of their criticisms, the legacy of SOA and the Cold War is recent enough to invoke when making major policy decisions.
When the boycotting countries speak out about not sending security personal for training, the leaders focus on the past, and not the present mission of the school. For example, in 2012 President of Nicaraguan Daniel Ortega called the school “a symbol of death, a symbol of terror” referring to accusations that SOA taught torture methods.[v] The same year the President of Ecuador Rafael Correa announced that Ecuador would also stop sending soldiers to WHINSEC invoking the historical memory of SOA calling it “a school of darkness for Latin America.”[vi] Correa made his announcement after conferring with members of SOA Watch.
What could the U.S. government do to counteract the historical memory associated with WHINSECs predecessor SOA? One possible solution is to convert WHINSEC from a U.S. funded and led entity to a truly hemispheric institution by copying the successful model of the Inter-American Defense College (IADC). A cooperative institution run through the Organization of American States would reduce some of the paternalistic undercurrents present in the current institution.
Permanent closure should also be on the table. Why should the United States train foreign troops on U.S. soil in a different language when to my knowledge no such school exists from French, Arabic, or any other language? The 11.5 million dollars could be spent increasing mobile training teams for countries that desire training in Spanish or Portuguese, or allocated to other priorities in Latin America. The United States could also encourage the new found unity among UNASUR nations and offer to provide instructors, resources, and students to the new institution as a way to stay engaged. If the current Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs had 11.5 million dollars to spend on a long term project, would the end result look like WHINSEC?
Finally, the United States needs to have an open and honest dialogue with our hemispheric partners to determine what should be the future vision regarding military training and cooperation. In an increasing globalized world if the United States is not seen as a reliable partner, willing to take their concerns seriously, the region could look to other global powers such as China to fill the void.
WHINSEC is no producer of monsters and serves an important role in promoting military engagement in the region. One high ranking retired officer who worked at U.S. Southern Command believed Latin American militaries sent their best officers to WHINSEC/SOA and that the influence of the U.S. Army was instrumental in bringing back democracy to the region in the 1980s. The makeup of the instructor population is also heartening if coalition building is the goal, since the school currently hosts fifty partner-nation instructors from fifteen different countries, according to the WHINSEC Public Affairs Officer. WHINSEC is also unique since its existence is codified in U.S. law and it would take a literal act of Congress for any major changes to take effect.
Even though changes would be hard, it would still be valuable to have an ongoing discussion both within and without the military profession to ensure every piece of the security establishment is doing its best to support U.S. interests.