Behind the Gates, a Clash of Views
Editor’s note: NCR has covered the annual protest at Fort Benning since the early 1990s, always from outside the gates of the fort. This year, we asked Paul Winner to report on the event from inside the fort. Winner’s story and a report by Patrick O’Neill, who has provided detailed coverage of this event for several years, are included on these pages. The full range of O’Neill’s reporting has been posted on our Web site, ncronline.org.
By PAUL WINNER
Fort Benning, Ga.
As a young man, John Kiser sat in a classroom with Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez and posed a direct question: Are Christians called to be pacifists?
Gutiérrez, the 70-year-old father of liberation theology, had come to Princeton Theological Seminary as a visiting professor. Kiser, a novice seminarian, had recently felt himself drawn to service as a military chaplain, but had not completely squared that calling with the Gospels -- at least, not yet.
Kiser, now a Presbyterian minister and one of the chaplains at Fort Benning, spoke recently during the weekend of the annual School of the Americas protest, a largely Catholic show of opposition to the training of Latin American military personnel, many of whom oversaw and committed human rights violations during the civil wars in Central America during the 1980s.
Kiser recalled how he and Gutiérrez pulled out their Bibles and discussed the Roman soldier of Luke Chapter 7, Christ’s measurement of the soldier’s faith, and how at no point did Christ instruct this man -- as he instructed the adulterer in the Gospel of John -- to “go and sin no more.” They finessed the finer points of the Hebrew verbs harag and ratsakh, “kill” and “murder,” as a means of unearthing the exact meaning of the commandment dealing with killing. For in the Torah, according to many Jewish scholars, the correct translation would be “ Thou shalt not murder,” which left open the possibility that even the taking of life could be tacit within the Law of Moses. The founder of liberation theology agreed that in some cases, killing of course takes place without criminal intent. But what cases, exactly? Those in wartime? And what did such a stunning sanction mean for following Christ’s example?
Both men believed that even pacifists retained “a moral imperative to protect innocent life,” and that a responsible Christian could be called into military service, the better to be “an ethical voice within the apparatus itself.”
Kiser ended up writing his thesis on the just war theory, then left Princeton to pursue a doctorate with the Oblates. Within a few short years, he was an officer in uniform, tending to the wounded and dying on both sides of conflict. Most recently, in Tikrit, Iraq, he served as an emergency room chaplain not only to military personnel but also to Muslim civilians, Iraqi children, and those designated by superiors as “enemy combatants.”
“I see the role of the chaplain as both pastoral and prophetic,” said Kiser now. “And I believe that the prophetic tradition in Christianity does not persuade us solely into pacifism.”
He reclines in his chair and rubs his eyes, briefly, then offers me a Coca-Cola from a mini-fridge behind his desk. He is a kindly, compact man in his 40s with a runner’s build and polite, boyish smile. He has been meeting with civilian visitors to Benning all day, and will continue presenting his case for a soldier’s ethical responsibilities well into the weekend.
“Well,” he says, “this is our Superbowl Weekend.”
* * *
It is, for many at the school, possibly the biggest weekend of the year. The reason is not the “God Bless Fort Benning” pro-troop demonstration in nearby Columbus, Ga. Nor does the weekend’s importance stem from the latest, most ominous headline in this week’s Army Times: “If you haven’t gone to war -- you’re about to: 37,000 targeted for deployment.” Rather, the size of the weekend is due to the demands imposed by this chaplain’s latest job, the very job he signed up for years earlier -- attempting to be a voice within the apparatus itself.
Kiser’s most recent post within the U.S. Army is as both chaplain and ethics instructor at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. WHINSEC, as it is called, was formerly known as the School of the Americas -- a training school, transplanted from Panamanian soil, for young officers of Central and South America. Established as a Cold War continuation of the Monroe Doctrine, the school has suffered from an image problem since its dedication on Georgia’s soil, stemming largely from the murderous reputation of Latin American militaries (and paramilitaries) in the latter half of the 20th century. Those forces, dedicated to suppressing dissent, often enjoyed shadowy help from the world’s leading democracy.
Dr. Luis Ramírez, a visiting scholar at WHINSEC who came to Benning from the Peace Secretariat in Guatemala, recently told a group of visiting protesters that he had observed the reputation of the United States in Latin America to be “on the floor” for so many years, he was shocked to witness the latest turnaround in attitudes inside and outside the military. “Now,” he said, “today, you can see in the students here at this school, the desire in them that human rights become the standard.”
This is due, he swore, to the work of the institute.
The School of the Americas closed its doors in December 2000. By the time winter thawed, WHINSEC had opened in its place, with several new courses, a new stated mission and new faculty. Ramírez and Kiser were but two of the new faces arguing human rights down the elegantly curved halls.
Protest against the school, however, did not change. Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois had inaugurated a memorial demonstration outside the gates of Fort Benning one year after the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. His mission was to draw national and international attention to the place where many of those responsible for the Jesuits’ murder had trained, and to call for the school’s permanent closure. The protest eventually swelled into the thousands, increasing with each year.
Now, in balmiest November 2007, the protests outside the main gate of the fort will be met by presentations inside the gate by Chaplain Kiser and others about the school’s mission, and they will take questions from the protesters themselves.
* * *
Ten years ago, Gutiérrez and Kiser had stood in the Princeton classroom and been passionately engaged in exegesis. An exercise in contemplative scholasticism, exegesis is the main reason many come to seminary in the first place: to burrow into the Word at the subtlest, most fragile of levels, and better divine the will of God. It may seem like hairsplitting to an outsider, but to someone discerning whether he or she is born to faithful leadership, exegesis is the source and locator of authority, despite the starkly conflicting interpretations which exegesis inevitably brings to the surface.
It is not the best means of dialogue, however, between opposing groups outside of seminary.
This year, on Saturday, Nov. 17, hundreds of protesters -- from veterans’ organizations, peace fellowships, high schools and various colleges -- are crowded loudly into an auditorium on the base. Protesters line the walls and steps. There are banners and peace signs. Many students wear green T-shirts reading “I Will Shut Down the School of Assassins.” They have left school to come here, and have briefly been returned to student status as they sit through a detailed PowerPoint presentation. Slides offer a number of facts (“10 percent of every course content addresses human rights and ethics”), and is followed by an introduction of the afternoon’s panelists, including Chaplain Kiser, Lt. Col. Linda Gould, representing the school’s Board of Visitors; Maj. Tony Raimondo, professor of law and overseer of the school’s human rights courses; and the school’s commandant, Col. Gilberto Perez. Questions from the audience rise, slowly at first, and then with an almost natural force. Microphones are passed through the seats.
The moderator points to the wall. “With the bandana, yes.”
The question -- like many that follow -- begins with an admission of vagueness, the single phrase It is my understanding that ... This one ends with an observation that WHINSEC has been known to train militaries in a civil capacity, policemen and firemen, which seems outside the school’s charter. Panel members agree that the school does and should continue to train “first responders, much like our own National Guard.”
Another hand. “Dreadlocks, there.”
“I keep seeing pictures around this place with, like, a sword. And they’re asking me to follow them.” Several of the students stifle laughter.
Col. Perez jumps in to explain Benning’s infantry symbol -- a bayonet crowned with the words FOLLOW ME -- and how the building they’re all sitting in used to be home to the fort’s infantry school. “I am not,” Perez explains, “authorized to make changes to the school’s façade.”
Another student stands. “This is directed at the chaplain. When the Bible says, you know, ‘Do Not Kill,’ I want to know how that, like, affects your ministry.”
There is increased laughter this time. The mood in the room is changing. Kiser does not speak of the just war tradition, or the private conciliations each person of faith makes with nations at war. Instead, he leans into the microphone and decides to offer some of the exegesis he once shared with Gutiérrez involving Hebrew verbs. By the time he clarifies what he believes is the Mosaic injunction “to not murder,” the audience as a whole has succumbed to groans, hoots, and come on’s.
A blonde, middle-aged woman in jeans leans forward, trying to refocus the attention of the room on history and curriculum. “It is my understanding that interrogation tactics have been taught here?”
Maj. Raimondo takes up the question.
“We do not. Teach. Interrogation. Tactics. Here.” Immediately it is clear that no one in the audience believes this -- or they are taking exception to use of the present tense -- inspired, perhaps, by the previous answer’s exegesis. Raimondo delivers an analysis of his chosen subject, international law, presenting the topic in stark contradistinction with the more flexible legal policies of the Bush administration. He concludes with a claim that his program has been sanctioned by the United Nations, and studied with approval by Amnesty International. There is no follow-up to this answer, which hangs in the air between a sea of agitated hands.
A solidly built young man with dark hair and sunglasses perched on his head is waving at each new question. “Hello? Pick me, please? Come on, it’s a democracy ...”
The moderator calls on two others, then cheerfully focuses his attention.
“I believe we have someone with a question.”
The young man lowers his hand. “Thank you,” he says, and proceeds to deliver an otherwise impromptu-sounding speech involving the CIA, the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in Chile, the use of pesticides in Latin America, and the American military being an arm of elite economic interests. He issues a condemnation of “you guys” who claim to “assist in the search for democracy.” He closes with information of his personal experience and points his finger at the panel. “You are protecting a corporate agenda.” As he sits, there is sustained applause.
Lt. Col. Gould asks the crowd to look at the numbers. “Almost 60,000 officers have come through the school since its inception. Five hundred of those officers have been investigated for violations. One hundred have been convicted of a criminal act within their home nations ...” The numbers make a case that the school has enjoyed a 99 percent success rate among graduates.
A girl near the front row asks, “But how do we know? Why can’t you keep better track of graduates?”
Gould says, “We can’t do that. You wouldn’t want us doing that. Keeping tabs on visitors when they go back to their home countries?”
From the back row someone asks, “How presumptuous is it that we train, and teach human rights, given our own record of abuses?”
Kiser takes up the question, insisting that as a man of faith, he can’t work within an apparatus that tolerates abuses to human rights. “These are aberrations. Abu Ghraib is an aberration.”
The session has crept past the 45-minute mark. Several students have stopped paying attention. Many of them whisper jokes, or take pictures of the assembly. A slight, boyish-looking student in a dark shirt stands to quietly condemn the United States government for its role in manufacturing the revolution in his home country of Guatemala in 1954. His voice increases with each sentence until the young man is nearly shouting. “American foreign policy has destroyed Central America. Destroyed South America. Get out. Just get out.”
Through the applause, Gould asks, “Are you an American?”
“No,” he says. “I’m ... from Guatemala.”
“Then why don’t you go back to your home country and work through the democratic process to ask that the government ...”
The young man is momentarily at a loss. “Because!” he finally blurts. “It’s a corrupt government!”
“The school did not exist in 1954. There is no causal link between what you claim and this school. Have there been American foreign policy mistakes? Of course. But this place, this school, doesn’t teach torture, rape, pillaging ...”
“The CIA overthrew Guatemala!”
The moderator informs the audience that time is short. Only a few questions remain. Some thank the panelists for their openness. They hope to continue the dialogue throughout the rest of the day, if not into the coming years. In the room remains a kind of pent-up energy, as if the purpose in today’s open house had not yet been fully brought to fruition. The weekend’s protest, after all, is an argument with history. Considerable energy is directed from all corners of the room against our nation’s total history of secret -- and not-so-secret -- foreign policy decisions that subverted democratic processes or enabled ruthless dictators to be designated friendly.
A muscular staff sergeant -- one who had accompanied these guests of the school on buses from the gate to the auditorium -- appears behind the back row and listens to the general murmur. He takes a sip from a can of Diet Coke.
“Lively group,” he says. “Sorry I missed it.”
* * *
The tensile energy in the auditorium could be described as another variation on the blue-state, red-state divergence that characterizes a depressingly large segment of our political discourse. After an hour in the auditorium, it is clear to many assembled that there are those who simply do not like, or trust, men and women in uniform. And there are those who see the protesters as simply juvenile, not to say ill-informed, and their defiance as tending to the agenda of their own survival.
Kiser returns to the building with the terra-cotta roof. He will continue teaching the school’s expanded curriculum on human rights. He will conduct exercises designed to highlight ethical behavior in crises, peaceful conflict resolution, and the role of a responsible soldier within a democratic populace.
Atrocities in wartime are still aberrations, to him, without a doubt -- a fact that should never go overlooked. But even if atrocities are “less than 1 percent” of the norm, “it is still too much when we’re dealing with human lives. ... All of this troubles me.”
But he reminds me that he is, unlike the soldier in Luke, not a centurion -- merely a pastor to centurions. He does not bear arms. This is a crucial distinction in the calling he answered many years earlier, and vital to understanding his commitment to staying in the service, and at the school.
“I truly believe that God uses voices within the system to change and be that ethical, prophetic voice of morality.” His firm belief, in the end, is in a Christ who wanted centurions who believed “to effect and transform the Roman Empire.”
This is his commitment to God, he said. His faith in such a commitment has gotten more unshakeable over the years. “Who is anyone to question my faith?”
Paul Winner, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York, teaches at a Christo Rey school in East Harlem, N.Y.
National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007
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