I wrote the following article in the Muscogee County Jail in early February while serving my 90-day sentence for "crossing the line" at Ft. Benning last November. The mentality of slavish obedience described in the article is the same mentality which we see today as having led to the torture of Iraqi prisoners.
During the last week of January in Columbus, GA, 27 persons were sentenced for "crossing the line" onto Ft. Benning in a November 23 protest against the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The protesters, only a small fraction of the 10,000 on hand for a two-day demonstration outside the base, denounced the school's record of using torture manuals (as admitted by the Pentagon in 1996) and training many Latin American soldiers who have returned to their countries to become torturers, assassins, and even dictators.
We also criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the participation of troops from Latin American countries in the occupation, calling for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy.
As Johnny Cash sang it, "I'm in the jailhouse now," serving a 90-day sentence in the county jail in Columbus, GA.
We are allowed to subscribe to the local Columbus LEDGER-ENQUIRER, which contains a considerable amount of national and international news. In "No Time To Waste" (January 31, 2004) the reporter describes the training of the Ft. Benning-based 3rd Brigade in the California desert.
"There were some 70 ‘civilians' in Eastlake Village (a mock town) before the Air Force dropped a mock 2000-pound laser-guided bomb on an enemy tank in the heart of town. It took out the tank, but killed the mayor and 19 other civilians, as well as 15 enemy combatants. A later infantry attack, with house-to-house fighting and booby traps, took out the rest of the enemy and the rest of the civilian population."
Is there a misprint in the last sentence? It's appalling enough that the 2000-pound bomb killed the mayor and 19 other civilians, but it is outrageous that the infantry "took out" the rest of the civilian population, even in a mock attack.
According to the traditional just-war doctrine of Christianity and of other ethical systems, a war becomes unjustifiable when it begins to take an inordinate number of civilian lives. And yet, the Knight-Ridder article reports nonchalantly that the soldiers took out all the civilians. I don't presume that the writer is presenting the mock wipe-out as ethically acceptable. But what do the military officers, including chaplains, say about it?
In my trial in federal court in Columbus, GA on January 28th, I served as my own lawyer, defending myself against the charge of trespassing at Ft. Benning in the November, 2003 protest. After some solders, both old and young, had testified as to the facts of our case (which I did not contest), I asked them whether a soldier is obliged to obey any order from a commanding officer. To my shock, they answered in the affirmative -- one after a short pause.
Thus it seems that the Army is training troops to carry out any order -- presumably, in view of the training of Ft. Benning's 3rd Brigade, even to kill civilians.
One day before he was assassinated on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, in a Sunday sermon broadcast throughout El Salvador, ordered the Salvadoran army to "stop the repression." And to the soldiers he solemnly stated: "No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God". Any soldier who does not understand and follow this moral principle may find himself committing war crimes and crimes against humanity like a "good Nazi" described graphically by Thomas Merton in 1967.
"Given the right situation and another Hitler," the Trappist monk wrote, "places like Auschwitz can be set up, put into action, kept running smoothly, with thousands of people systematically starved, beaten, gassed, and whole crematories going full blast. Such camps can be set up tomorrow anywhere and made to work with the greatest efficiency, because there is no dearth of people who would be glad to do the job, provided it is sanctioned by authority" ("Auschwitz, A Family Camp," Catholic Worker, November, 1967).
If some or perhaps most soldiers at Ft. Benning have this attitude of idolatrous obedience to orders, does it rub off on the Latin American trainees at WHINSEC? If these trainees read the article in the Ledger about the 3rd Brigade taking out all the civilians, would this message negate the human rights lessons which WHINSEC claims to teach?
If the trainees learned about the loud martial music which Ft. Benning blasted out to drown out the speeches at our legal demonstration outside the gate of the base on November 22, would this example by the U.S. Army affect their attitudes and behavior toward demonstrators and protesters in their own country? Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, who was a front line commander in Iraq before becoming commanding general at Ft. Benning, said on November 23: "We played that music to lift the morale of our troops and the Columbus police officers. We had a lot more decibel power that we didn't choose to use" (Columbus Ledger–Enquirer, November 24, 2003). Franciscan Father Jim Hoffman, in a letter to the Commandant of WHINSEC and to U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth (the judge in our case), noted: "Blasting loud music is a torture tactic. Maybe the blaring music was a class demonstration for the students of WHINSEC."
Another demonstration of ostensibly acceptable military behavior was given by the soldiers who hog-tied one of the arrestees, Kathy Kelly. In the processing center Kathy was being treated very harshly by the MPs -- frisked very roughly by the female soldiers, shouted at, and cussed out. She asked why she was being treated this way, but it did no good. Finally, she said she may not be able to continue to cooperate with the dehumanizing treatment.
Immediately four soldiers were on her and put her on the floor, one pressing a knee to her back--a potentially lethal move since Kathy suffers from pulmonary problems. Having just been brought to the entrance of the building, I heard muffled cries and moans. Then I realized they were from Kathy as I saw her being carried away, hog-tied. (She soon returned on
foot.) In my cross-examination of a member of the Ft. Benning legal department who testified as to procedures in the processing center, I asked him whether he saw the incident and heard the muffled moans and cries. He answered that he had seen it but heard nothing. In response to my next question, the official said he was only about 20 feet from the incident--closer than I had been.
Learning of this, a relative of mine wrote to me in a letter: "I am horrified at the hog-tying incident. If soldiers do this in a non-threatening situation, one can't imagine what they would do when they are serving in the midst of fear and violence." If the troops in training at WHINSEC heard about this incident, how will they handle non-violent protesters back home? Will their generals and presidents fear that U.S. military aid could be cut off for using unnecessary force on prisoners?
This raises a larger issue: do the many "bad examples" given by the U.S. military, starting with the wars against the Indians, render it incapable of inculcating in foreign soldiers a respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights?
Shortly after the 6 Jesuits and the 2 women were assassinated at the Central American University in San Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989, I went to
Washington, D.C. to begin denouncing this atrocity.
After Phil Berrigan and I threw some of the Jesuits' blood (mixed in some soil of the garden where they were slain) on the gateposts of the White House, I spent a night in jail and was released by the judge the next day on time served.
When a speaking tour took me to Georgia, I visited the SOA and talked with two U.S. instructors there -- one civilian and the other military. They confided that everyone at the SOA knew that the Salvadoran army had carried out the assassinations. When I asked about human-rights courses at SOA, they said the matter was not taken seriously. "When we bring up human rights, you know what the Latin American trainees throw in our faces? Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
Now they could throw in their faces the invasion of a sovereign country, Panamá, with extensive "collateral damage" to civilians; the genocidal economic sanctions against Iraq; the illegal invasion of Iraq with "collateral damage" to thousands of civilians; the holding of hundreds of suspected terrorists incomunicado on Guantánamo, including youngsters 13-15 years old; the suspected handing over of prisoners alleged to be terrorists to governments which profess no delicacy concerning torture; the erosion of constitutional rights in the U.S. under the anti-terrorist banner; and other abuses.
Soldiers from Latin America studying at SOA/WHINSEC could also "throw in the faces"of their U.S. human-rights instructors some stories they could hear from Vietnam veterans, such as the testimony given by decorated Vietnam War hero John Kerry in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Speaking on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry said:
"Several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. . . .
"They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country"(cited by Jonathan Schell in The Nation, March 1, 2004).
Not only did the soldiers on the witness stand at my trial know nothing of the moral limits of military obedience, but I was also surprised to hear them say that they knew nothing about "conscientious objection." They didn't know what the term means nor that a soldier has a right to apply for C.O. status if he or she cannot justify participating in war.
I would hope that the chaplains at Fort Benning would help the soldiers to form their consciences about this crucial moral question and that the military lawyers would help the soldiers to know their rights. Or is participation in the occupation of Iraq so frightening and so unjustifiable that the military chiefs must instill in the troops who fight and die a blind, unquestioning obedience?
The author, a Catholic priest from Detroit who works in Nicaragua, served a 90-day sentence for the Nov. 23, 2003 protest action at Ft. Benning. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org