The 1998 School of the Americas Vigil: Finding the Bottom Line
By Jackson H. Day
The United States Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Georgia, trains soldiers from Latin American countries. Many of them have been accused of committing atrocities - rape, torture, disappearances, killing - after their return. The School of the Americas has been accused of having manuals that teach torture in its curriculum. Its Hall of Fame includes graduates who have come to power through coups and death squads. Among its guest instructors are a number who came to instruct after they were known for involvement in atrocities. Hence for a decade there has been a growing movement calling for its closure, SOA Watch, which conducts an annual vigil on the anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador by School of the Americas graduates.
This year's vigil took place Saturday and Sunday, November 21 and 22. Challenged by a fellow Vietnam veteran to seek out both sides, I went early to spend Friday afternoon at the School of the Americas itself and hear another side. The atrocities were terrible but the result of a few graduates for whom the SOA could be no more responsible than Harvard need take responsibility for the Unabomber. The manuals in question were sent over to the SOA to be translated into Spanish, and the translators came in horror to the faculty, who agreed that such things should not be taught at the SOA, and they aren't. Selections for the Hall of Fame were made not by the SOA but by U. S. ambassadors in the respective countries. The school teaches democracy and things would be ever so much worse in Latin America without it. The SOA faculty talking to me were nice people and one would like to believe them.
The focal point of the weekend was to be "crossing the line" on Sunday, becoming guilty of "criminal trespassing" by stepping onto Fort Benning as part of a protest. While first offenders might expect only a "bar and ban" letter prohibiting re-entry onto Fort Benning for five years, second offenders in the past had received six-month jail sentences and $3,000 fines. I had flown to Fort Benning undecided as to whether to cross. Saturday, hearing powerful speeches but knowing such speeches were not persuasive to those who had spoken to me at the SOA, did not help resolve the issue. It was hard to imagine the SOA chaplain teaching torture or the young policewoman from Colombia leading a massacre.
With the new day on Sunday came the necessary clarity. To cross the line was to join a memorial procession, with caskets and crosses and pictures, and each represented a human being by name who was dead, and in one way or another, SOA graduates were involved in those deaths. Theories could be argued, and facts disputed, but one thing was absolutely certain: each name was the name of someone who was dead, someone who would have had a whole life in front of them if they had not been killed. At that moment, the issue for me was not about breaking the law, or about risking arrest, or about crossing a line painted on the road to mark a border; it was not even about which friends I would agree with and which I would disagree with; it was not even about closing the SOA. It was about whether I would stand with those who had been killed, or turn my back on them. There was the bottom line.
Those of us who were to cross were given crosses or pictures of the dead to carry. I received and carried a picture of a young man, inscribed on the back, Antonio Maria Barrera. I do not know Antonio; I know nothing about him except that he was killed and somehow the SOA was implicated.
At 11 a.m., led by coffins for the six Jesuit priests and four female church workers raped and killed in El Salvador and small ones for the children massacred at El Mozote, I entered Fort Benning for Antonio Maria Barrera. The School of the Americas Watch had called for 5,000 to demonstrate and 1,000 to cross the line. As it turned out, over 7,000 came to the vigil and 2,319 crossed the line. Up the hill in an almost endless column of fours, and around a corner, out of sight of the vigilers outside the Fort Benning gate, awaited buses. The column stopped. Police took the caskets, the crosses, the pictures. We were divided into groups of 44 and put onto the buses. We understood that the buses would take us to processing centers where we would be formally charged and then, hours later, after interminable paperwork, those of us who were first-time offenders would be let go.
The long convoy of buses set forth deeper into Fort Benning, then at the first intersection made a right turn off the post, and a mile later turned into a ballpark and stopped. After a little wait, people got off the first bus. Some came running down the line of buses saying we were not going to be charged. Soon everyone exited the other buses. There was a feeling of intense euphoria. We had stared the Army in the eye, and the Army had blinked. We re-formed into a column of fours and began walking the mile and a half back through civilian communities to the Fort Benning front gate where the other vigilers waited with cheers to greet those of us who were returning. There were so many of us the Army simply had not had the resources to process us all.
On the 6 p.m. news, the Army explained to the world that most of us in the procession were well-meaning people who had been misled by the protest leaders, and therefore they had decided to make no arrests. But the Army never attempted to explain the names on the crosses. They never tried to explain why Antonio Maria Barrera is dead.
Jackson Day is a member of VVAW and was an Army chaplain in Vietnam from 1968-1969.