“What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters, more than what actually occurred.”
—David Petraeus, “American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam”
America’s recent wars have been fought based on a doctrine tested throughout the Western Hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century and taught at the controversial School of the Americas. It may have changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), and added a patina of human rights training, but a pig wearing lipstick is still a pig, as the 2009 coup in Honduras led by alumni of the school shows.
Since its founding in 1946, the School of the Americas has trained tens of thousands of police and military personnel in Latin America and the Caribbean. Not by coincidence, its graduates were involved in some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century – from filling the ranks of Haiti’s brutal Tonton Macoutes to training the founders of Mexico’s paramilitary narco-cartel Los Zetas. It’s no exaggeration to say that the School of the Americas has painted an entire region in blood.
While the School left a permanent mark on countries throughout the hemisphere, the doctrine it expounded has also metastasized into an intellectual cancer infecting the way NATO countries in the post-Soviet era fight the Wars on Drugs and Terror. This is a story of studied incompetence, torture and murder. And judging by the militarized response of American police departments, from Occupy Wall Street to Ferguson, the trend isn’t just going global: it’s also coming home.
School of Assassins
The School of the Americas was in Panama until it moved to Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, in 1984. Its mission was to train foreign armed forces in “anti-communist counter insurgency,” a doctrine that American military leaders have introduced into every conflict since at least as far back as Vietnam. In the news media, this doctrine, usually called COIN, has been promoted in the name of “winning hearts and minds,” or population-centric warfare.
But this narrative usually ignores the dark side of the story. While it’s true that roads and schools might get built during the day as part of COIN strategy, it’s what happens under the cover of night that feeds insurgencies. This was revealed to the general public when a training manual from the SOA was released in 1996. It “advocated the use of fear, payments of bounties for enemy dead, extortion, beatings and false imprisonment…” in the fight against enemies of the state.
The honor roll of high-ranking police, military and intelligence figures who attended the School reads like a list of key figures in Latin America’s “Dirty Wars.” But rather than simply going through their names and reviewing their crimes, it may be more helpful to look at one of the School’s supposed success stories and its influence on more recent events halfway across the world, in Iraq.
The King, The Colonel and the Salvador Option
El Salvador is often touted as a School of the Americas success story. The country of 6 million was embroiled in a civil war for 12 years, pitting a Soviet-sponsored rebel group, the FMLN, against security services and the 10 oligarchic families who have ruled the small Central American country for most of its history.
In the process of “pacifying” El Salvador, an SOA trained thug, Roberto D’Aubuisson, let loose paramilitary death squads who killed rebels, “sympathizers” (a very broad category, by all accounts) and innocents alike. Over 70,000 died, their mutilated bodies left in mass graves and on streets until the government and rebels finally signed peace accords in 1992.
Counter-insurgency experts from their comfortable armchairs at American think-tanks and at the Pentagon have been patting themselves on the back for the Salvadoran “success” ever since. But in a revealing twist, the current government of El Salvador is descended from the FMLN – the same group U.S. taxpayers spent $6 billion in the 1990s to defeat.
The awful events that happened in El Salvador are blamed on local forces, while the role of American trainers and military advisors in those war crimes is ignored. One American who played an important part in the war was [Colonel James Steele](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Steel_(US_Colonel), the man in charge of special forces advisors to “frontline battalions of the Salvadoran military (which developed a reputation for its death squad activities).” Steele’s success brought him to the attention of an ambitious young major named David Petraeus, who stayed with Steele in the country during the death squads’ reign of terror.
Flash forward to 2004, when those overseeing the privatization (or “occupation”) of Iraq had unwittingly unleashed sectarian violence they couldn’t control, in a country they didn’t understand. Now a two-star general, nicknamed King David by his admirers, Petraeus stepped into the void. He had some success tamping down the insurgency in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and had a solution in mind for Iraq as a whole: Salvadorization. He also had just the right man for the job: retired Col. James Steele.
In photos of Steele taken in Iraq, he is usually accompanied by Col. James Coffman, Jr., who reported directly to Petraeus, and Adnan Thabit, a former General in the Iraqi army who’d been a little too ambitious for his old boss, Saddam Hussein. To confront Sunni groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, and elements of the old regime who had allied with them, Steele and his colleagues created police commando units based on the Salvador model, made up of former Shia militiamen. Bodies soon piled up and rumors swirled of police torture centers.
Journalist Peter Maass had rare access to Steele and wrote a revealing story for the New York Times Magazine in May of 2005 that should have caused a bigger uproar than it did at the time. When the reporter was brought into a police detention center to interview a Saudi jihadist whom the commandos had captured, not only did the prisoner appear to have been beaten but there was blood all over the desk, presumably from a previous interrogation.
Maass tried to proceed with the interview but another prisoner was screaming so loudly elsewhere in the building that it was impossible to continue. Steele left the room for several minutes and by the time he returned the screaming had stopped. This makes it hard to believe he was unaware of the torture and other human rights abuses committed in these makeshift prisons.
Failing Upward or, How to Lose Wars and Keep Influencing People
Failure tends to get rewarded when you have power. From Wall Street to the Pentagon, the bigger the boondoggle, the bigger the reward – from promotions to bonuses to a place to pontificate on national TV. For his media enablers, David Petraeus was just the right mix of John Wayne and John Cusack, sensitive enough to appear tortured by the fact he had to burn the village down to save it, but still strong enough to light the match. With such intentions, what could possibly go wrong?
As recent events show, a hell of a lot. To give credit where it’s due, Petraeus’s crew were actually quite good at capturing hearts and minds in Washington, DC. They just failed to do so in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. The current mess in Iraq is the culmination of bad policy from day one, but the COIN evangelists need their share of the blame. By encouraging the rise of Shia death squads in the country, and turning their backs on the Sunni tribes who’d almost purged Al Qaeda in Iraq during the Sunni Awakening, they helped create ISIS.
Rather than a jail cell, Steele lives in a gated golf community and gives paid speeches about his experiences as a COIN warrior. Petraeus has had a slightly rougher road, due to the fact that he was cheating on his wife with his biographer and may have given her access to classified documents. When you think about it, it’s a similar offense to what his Beltway admirers want to hang Edward Snowden for.
Still, it looks like Petraeus’s time in the wilderness may be coming to an end. He has “landed a job at powerhouse private equity firm KKR, has academic perches at Harvard and the University of Southern California and, according to White House sources, was even asked by President Barack Obama’s administration for advice in the fight against Islamic State.” Of course, this is all in reward for the great job he did in the past.
Courageous voices like the activists from School of Americas Watch, who have risked jail for 25 years in their protests against the school and the doctrine it teaches, inspired this story. As an article by JP Sottile celebrating the group’s long battle makes clear, the School’s teachings have gone global. One of the main battlefields ahead will be Africa, so look for the Salvador option to start making appearances there soon. Then again, considering the mainstream media’s affection for the COIN warriors, you might not hear about that battle at all.
To learn more about Petraeus and COIN, check out the late reporter Michael Hastings’s archive at Rolling Stone.