Military Training, Violence, and Human Rights: The School of the Americas

Lesley Gill, Anthropology, American University

Research Grant, 2001

Training and arming international terrorists has long been a practice of the U.S. government. Yet confronting the seamy side of the United States’ involvement in global affairs has never been easy for U.S. citizens because of widespread amnesia about twentieth-century U.S. empire building. My project examined a notorious U.S. military training school for Latin Americans—the School of the Americas (SOA)—and explored how the United States built a transnational military apparatus in the Americas over the last half of the twentieth century and trained some of the western hemisphere’s most infamous human rights abusers.

It argues that the SOA facilitated the expansion of state-sponsored violence in the Americas.

The research examined how the U.S. military formed “professional” soldiers who defined their agendas in distinctive ways and whom the U.S. depended on for cooperation but did not entirely trust. It considered the lessons soldiers—U.S. and Latin American—learned about the dirty wars that raged across Latin America and the extent to which the soldiers were then willing to accept, excuse, or condemn the violation of human rights. It further explored the relationship between the order produced by security forces and the disorder wrought on thousands of people during and after the Cold War, and it asked how this shaped the demand for military training in the present. Finally, the project considered how the U.S. government dealt with its own citizens who demanded that the School of the Americas be closed, and who staged large, annual demonstrations against the SOA. To accomplish these objectives, I drew on the experiences and perspectives of three different groups: U.S. and Latin American soldiers who train at the School of the Americas, Andean coca growers who currently bear the brunt of state-sponsored violence in the Americas, and U.S. activists who oppose the U.S. military’s policies.

A book based on my findings will be published by Duke University Press (The School of the Americas: Military Training, Political Violence and Impunity in the Americas, 2004). It argues that the SOA facilitated the expansion of state-sponsored violence in the Americas. The School did so not only by teaching trainees a variety of combat skills. It also provided them with an opportunity to construct relationships with U.S. officers and to participate in a world of power, comfort, and consumer opportunities that the U.S. military describes as “the American Way of Life.”

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