Strength and Suffering: A Transforming Experience

I am one of thousands who participate in the powerful nonviolent movement to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), formerly the Army School of the Americas (SOA), located at Fort Benning in Georgia. This school has trained military personnel from all over Latin America since the 1940s. Many have been documented for leadership and participation in massacres, assassination, torture, and disappearance.

Over 70 people in this movement to close the school have served time in prison after participating in civil disobedience actions. Others have engaged in lengthy fasts. Thousands have crossed the line onto Fort Benning property illegally over a period of many years in solemn memorial procession and other actions, risking arrest, fines, and prison. This is in accord with the point, in the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., to take suffering upon ourselves rather than inflicting it on others. We seek creative ways of dramatizing the record of this school.

I, too, committed civil disobedience in November of 2000 and originally assumed I would repeat such an action at each annual demonstration, thus risking a prison sentence. In April 2002, I received word that I was one of 43 called to trial, to be held in July. Accompanying this article is the trial statement I wrote—but in the end never needed to use. Before writing it, I found myself in a spiritual struggle that taught me some lessons.

In April, I was suffering from a broken arm and shoulder, and ongoing back pain, from surgery many months before. I had not intended to risk prison this year. A lawyer volunteering his services to the SOA Watch 43 was working to have my case dropped, but there was no guarantee. I dreaded a prison term, and felt that my witness would lead to that. Journaling, I sketched myself in tears, and prayed that I would feel God’s arms wrapped around me, that I would be given strength.

A few days later, I accompanied my daughter to her church. The sermon was about the Ascension, and the pastor described the disciples, bereft, looking up as their beloved Jesus disappeared into the heavens. An angel appeared and firmly said, "Quit standing there. You have been taught. Now get to work. You will be given the strength to do what you need to do."

Somehow, this message entered me. My fears disappeared, and from then on I felt calm and in the Spirit. I knew that this work, to close the SOA, was my spiritual path, and that I would be given the strength to go wherever that path might take me. I was opened to insights that make me laugh, they are so obvious: I had thought I could choose when and how much I would suffer. I could go to prison when I was ready. The ridiculousness of this feeling of control struck me. People who are massacred or survive massacres and brutality don’t choose that. No one is given health tests to determine if they qualify for prison. Luck and my social class have given me life experiences of assuming that I am in control.

Spiritually and emotionally freed, I was able to focus enough to write a trial statement. As I waited to learn where my future would take me, I felt solid support from my spiritual and activist community, from the broader community of Eugene, Oregon, and from the national SOA Watch community that has formed around the need to get the school closed.

My case was dropped, a few days before I was to leave for Georgia. Thirty-six others received sentences, some for probation, most of them for 3-6 months in prison, plus a fine. They are walking on an important spiritual path, spiritually and practically supported by hundreds of others.

Draft Trial Statement

In November 2000, I crossed the line into Fort Benning and received a five-year "ban and bar" letter, instructing me not to enter onto Fort Benning property for five years, or I would risk up to six months in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

At that time, members of my affinity group had draped ourselves in black and carried dolls, wrapped for burial, each one representing a child who was massacred in Guatemala in the early 1980s. We buried these dolls, wailing until the military police arrested us. I carried small rag dolls who represented the sibling and mother of a Maya Achi young man whom I know personally. He was about ten at the time of the 1982 Rio Negro massacre. His parents and all but one of his siblings were massacred. He watched his baby brother be slaughtered. His community had protested the World Bank-funded Chixoy dam that was to flood their, and many other, prosperous communities. The result was this and several other massacres. This was during the period of the dictatorship of General Lucas Garcia, who is a graduate of the SOA—now WHISC.

There is overwhelming evidence of military authorship of almost all (around 90 percent) of the massacres, assassinations, and disappearances of 200,000 people in Guatemala over a 30-year span. Yet these military officers have never been brought to trial. The SOA (WHISC) has never taken responsibility for its part in these massacres; nor has it stood behind those who would bring the perpetrators to trial. My Maya Achi friend is attempting to secure justice in this regard and receives almost daily death threats.

In November 2001 I had planned to risk arrest and prison by violating my previous "ban and bar" letter and crossing the line. However, I changed my mind because of slow healing from back surgery. I visited my brother-in-law, who served in the Navy in World War II and later in the reserves. He is heartsick, and does not believe his beloved country could have been involved in such atrocities. He urged me to visit the "new" school.

When I learned that the school had issued an invitation for the public to attend workshops there, I hopped in our van. We were stopped just over the line, and I realized I had, after all, violated the terms of the "ban and bar" letter. A Catholic Sister and I were arrested and processed, and given "permanent ban and bar letters." Our arrest warrants indicate that we "willfully" crossed the line. This was not the case.

If I am sentenced to serve in prison, I will do so with the realization that no one who was massacred planned that. I will feel honored to stand beside those who are courageously working to bring the perpetrators to trial.

I am a war tax resister, not willing voluntarily to pay a fine to a government so deep in military slaughter and buildup. I would be quite willing to donate the fine to a worthy, life-giving cause, such as Afghan relief. I would be unwilling to promise not to cross the line again. I am committed, in the best way I know how, to follow the leadings of the Spirit.

But, I must demand, why is the focus of the court system, and the military base, on those of us who nonviolently seek to draw attention to such a despicable history, when so many authors and perpetrators of massacres, assassinations, disappearances and torture throughout Latin America, walk freely and with complete impunity?

I am reminded that, as individuals, when we commit acts that are harmful to others, we are invited to confess openly, and to seek forgiveness. Institutions throughout history have authored atrocious crimes. As human beings, we are flawed. I would urge the United States Department of Defense and the school itself publicly to denounce its past involvement in Latin American atrocities, and to seek forgiveness.

Authors and perpetrators must be encouraged to do the same, and they must be brought to trial. In addition, the survivors of massacres, assassinations, torture and disappearance, must receive generous restitution, so they are truly able to find their way out of poverty. The policies of the U.S. government must abolish all participation in the slaughter of innocent people. We should truly seek economic instruments that lead to the alleviation of poverty around the world.

"How beautiful, sincere lament, the wisdom born of tears,
The courage called for to repent the bloodshed through the years.
America! America! God grant that we may be
A nation blessed with none oppressed, true land of liberty."
—Miriam Therese Winter, 1993

Peg Morton

Peg Morton, a member of Eugene (Oreg.) Meeting, is a former rural counselor with a comprehensive health center. She has been a civil rights activist (in Carbondale, Illinois) and a volunteer in a women's center. She is currently active in the Latin America solidarity and war tax resistance movements, and she find herself "standing on street centers in vigils a lot nowadays." She authored a Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Walk With Me: Nonviolent Accompaniment in Guatemala. A different version of this article has appeared on the website