God's Politics

God's Politics

Sojourners Interns: ‘We Train Iraqis to Attack Us': American Human Rights on Trial in Georgia

This weekend, the Sojourners/Call to Renewal intern program traveled to Columbus, Georgia to participate in the annual vigil and nonviolent direct action events to close SOA/WHINSEC. Be sure to check back often this weekend for on-the-ground updates, and let us know through your comments what you think!

First, a brief background. SOA Watch, an independent organization that seeks to close the School of the Americas (SOA) through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media and legislative work, was founded in 1990. The SOA, which was renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation” (WHINSEC) in 2001, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, situated within Fort Benning, Georgia. Many of its more than 60,000 alumni have been implicated and convicted in some of Latin America’s most horrific human rights violations, including the El Mozote massacre, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the 1989 University of Central America massacre.


Event organizers estimate that more than half of recent attendees are college aged and younger. They join a diverse group of faith communities and the nonreligious, local food vendors, and war veterans, all who offer a variety of perspectives on this event. We share their views with you below.

“We’re training them to attack us,” said Jesus Bocanegra, a veteran of the Iraq war, relating that many of the Iraqi insurgents learn new military tactics in similar training schools to WHINSEC that the U.S. military has established for the Iraqi army, and then use them against US forces. The 24-year old from Brownsville, TX, is now traveling around the country with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He explains why he came to Georgia this weekend: “Personally, we’re here because…we got used.”


“There’s got to be something better to do on a Saturday than this,” said a retired army veteran of the Iraq war who declined to give his name. “America is worth preserving.” Acknowledging that he would be a great army recruiter, the Jamaica-born resident of Columbus, GA continued, “I’ve seen some of the worst people become some of the best people in the military.” His U.S. citizenship application is awaiting review by the Immigration and Nationalization Service.

“This weekend, I want to see someone jump over the fence,” said Katie, a senior from Ursuline Academy in Springfield, IL, referring to the acts of civil disobedience conducted by some event participants.

“Half of the people of Columbus don’t understand what the protesters are doing; they think they’re protesting the military, but they isn’t protesting the military, they’re protesting training people to kill,” said Linda Simmons, a 37-year resident of Columbus, GA, whose husband is in the military. She’s selling “Proud to be an American” bumper stickers and water bottles this weekend and is happy for the annual vigil. “People are very respectful; they’re peaceful.” Besides, she says, “This event buys Christmas for my granddaughter.”


“I didn’t expect so many people bashing the President, saying ‘no war’ and stuff,” said a 17-year old senior from St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis. “I don’t think our government is intentionally sending these people out to kill and torture,” added one of her classmates. “I think [the problem] is bad communication from both sides, from both the military and the protesters.”

“It’s as much about connecting with people who care about things as it is about SOA,” said Jessica Kierson and Christine Novotny, high school students from St. Vider in Chicago.

“In this globalizing society, the U.S. has a responsibility to the rest of the world, and I think that SOA is a direct violation of that responsibility. The U.S. has a responsibility to advocate for justice, to advocate for peace, to fight a real war on poverty – not the fake war on poverty that was fought in the 60s – and to promote good will. There’s no way anyone could convince me the SOA has anything to do with that mission,” said Taria, a college student from Loyola University Chicago.


This annual gathering of concerned citizens from around the country presents our nation with a recurring opportunity to consider the very real human effects of America’s foreign policy decisions. As Americans’ support for the Iraq war reaches its all-time low, we keep in our thoughts and prayers both our servicemen and women and all those around the world whose lives have been affected by war and violence.

Laurel and Colin Mathewson are 2006-2007 Sojourners Interns.

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posted November 18, 2006 at 10:42 pm

That school needs to go ten years ago. It’s a horrible example of how we train terrorists around the world. p>

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posted November 19, 2006 at 3:51 pm

Thank you Sojourners for daring to put Jesus first, especially in an era when it is so incredibly unpopular to do so. That we live in an era of “pro-war/pro-torture evangelicalism” is a clear indication of just how far the modern-day Religious Elite have drifted.>

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posted November 21, 2006 at 5:46 am

How about a word of condemnation for Muslims that go to war? It is “their” religion that is killing people en masse all over the world. Ever thought about truth Jim?>

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posted November 21, 2006 at 4:50 pm

I think it’s more important that we take the log out of our own eye first. And it’s not the religion that is killing people, it is the misinterpretation of it by people who are killing people. Sounds a lot like us, except of course, we’re right and they’re wrong (this is me being sarcastic).>

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Andora McMillan

posted November 23, 2006 at 1:38 am

Re. Donny’s remarks: Charles Kimball spoke recently at our church about Islam. As he started his lecture, the first thing he said was something to the effect of “I want to present this information within the context of the Golden Rule. In other words, if a group is meeting in Baghdad tonight to learn about Christianity, would we think it would be fair if all they discuss is Waco, Texas?” I think the same point applies here, Donny. MOST Muslims do not condone the violence that extremists use. They do, however, understand the issues that work to push certain folks into extremism. I think they are no different from us. Most Americans, who have learned about the School of the Americas, can not condone the violent tactics that are taught to Latin American soldiers using our tax dollars. But, can I understand that fear can lead even well-educated leaders into using force and violence against their own people (ie. the legacy of the SOA)? Sure! I have fears for my own family….I want them to be safe, I want economic security, etc., etc. Take those concerns and a little power and a little greed and a big dose of being trained to use violence to get what you want…’ve got extremism in all its forms. Muslims, Christians, Latin American rulers. It’s time we ALL stopped pointing a finger at THEM (whoever that might be), and start taking care of putting our own houses in order. I have been involved in activities to close the SOA for 10 years or more now. I just can’t recall anywhere in the New Testament that Jesus says, “fix your enemies’ shortcomings first, and then yours….” I applaud Sojourners for becoming involved in this effort!>

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