Sorrow vs. honor

It was as profound as Clare had promised. On holy Sunday, Nov. 18, more than 3,000 people were walking through a cold, steady rain, advancing toward possible jail time, or worse. Thrusting up white crosses, they declared “Presente,” each time the announcers solemnly proclaimed the name of one of the thousands of people killed — terminated — by Latin American soldiers trained at the School of the Americas in Columbus, Ga., the target of this nonviolent attack. The parade’s numbers were swelled by 28 students and professors from Warren Wilson College, eight from UNCA, and about 10 adults from Asheville.

Most in the procession were students, many from Catholic universities. At least one-fourth were middle-aged and older; there were quite a few Latinos, plus a sprinkling of African-Americans. Most of those I talked to seemed to believe that the worst thing that could happen to them would be “processing.”

But it seemed a brave and truly holy crusade, a slow-turning turbine generating mourning and nurturing healing. It reminded me of Civil War paintings of gray or blue soldiers packed on long roads between dense trees, stretching forward and backward as far as the eye could see, Rebel or American flags whipping in the wind. Instead of infinite bristling bayonets, however, we had an endless expanse of ascending crosses.

Actor Martin Sheen validated the nameless thousands with a patina of Hollywood glamour. Facing almost certain incarceration, he was risking the life of a star as he prepared to cross the line for the fourth time. In a very low-profile speech, he affirmed: “I’m an actor to make a living. I do this in order to have a life.”

They all headed for what many hoped would be merely a command by the soldiers to turn around. Or else they hoped their names would just be taken and processed, creating the threat of incarceration should they return next year. The next step would be boarding the bus with the rest of those who might be arrested. Or going limp and being carried off to military jail by strong, unhappy soldiers, a lifelong prison record the reward for their courage. Or maybe a soldier would crack under the stress of the rainy cold and the insulting presence of so many who declared his job to be murderously immoral, and just start beating people.

But by all reports, the military personnel were really very civil. And they certainly went beyond the call of duty in allowing so many protest options. You’d have thought they’d be edgy, after the anarchy of the recent WTO protests in Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Evidently they believed the clear, faithfully repeated vows of nonviolence taken by all who crossed the line of legality — that and the record of 10 years of peaceful protests.

So the pageant proceeded like the most profound choreography. Lamenting the suffering in Chiapas, the murderous Fourteen Families of El Salvador, the depredations of the Contras of Nicaragua, shattered Honduras, the murdered Father Romero, the Maryknoll nuns, Augusto Sandino, Allende, Arbenz, and on into the hundreds of thousands. Lamenting Pinochet and troubled Chile; Panama’s nightmares; tens of thousands of unknown, missing Argentines; the Paraguayan death squads; and on and torturously on.

As the huge army of peacemakers continued to disappear into the fort, Clare came sliding down a slippery hill. I caught her from a fall in the mud that undid many, and we shared a comradely hug. Her twinkling eyes obviously reflected some wild, courageous scheme. “Look up on the left,” she said with a smile. “We’ve got a special action planned.”

After about three hours of watching the memorial service and the trudging marchers, I retreated to our warm bus — back to dry socks, shoes and clothes. I began quizzing Warren Wilson students as they slowly returned from their civil disobedience. “There was a flanking movement,” explained a heartbreakingly vulnerable, tiny redheaded woman. “We were the solemn frontal attack when suddenly on the left, in the trees on the hill, they appeared chanting: ‘How many babies did you kill today? SOA go away. School of the Assassins.’ They held tall puppets of skeletons, Uncle Sam covered in blood, and other horrible sights.”

“It was so beautiful,” said a tall, determined blonde woman. “Our long praying had become a solid hum of pure fervor. There was no heckling or judgment of the soldiers. Just mourning for the tragedy to all involved. But suddenly, on the hill, a group broke out in ferocious chanting.”

“After our hours of prayer, their raucous surprise attack was really energizing,” said the redhead. “‘Let’s go!” someone yelled. So I and hundreds of others ran towards the hill demonstrators. More soldiers suddenly appeared from behind the hill. I lay down in the soggy grass and got ready for the blitz. Only they began to threaten that students arrested would lose their college grants. Chilled, muddy and afraid of the camouflaged soldiers dragging chanters away, I jumped up and ran, all the way back across the illegal line.”

“Yeah,” agreed the tall coed. “I wanted to rush towards the chanters too, but was also angry that they were breaking our solemn holiness. We hadn’t accused anyone; just mourned. But I felt I had to go up there. They were forcing us with confrontational inspiration. I just wasn’t prepared. So I held back strong instincts to rush to their greater sacrifice.”

“You’re so brave,” I said, tipping my wet cap. “And it’s true, most of the SOA soldiers are teens who don’t deserve insults. They probably got the bum’s rush to join the military, hoping for a decent job, college money, or a little taste of Rambo excitement. Whereas we know they are hired killers and cannon fodder for American ideals and economic interests. Yet you, too, sort of got the bum’s rush. You’re the same age as most of them. Inspired by your professors, you’ve just risked your lives — and you’ve hardly even tasted life yet.”

“No,” claimed the tall coed. “The whole time, they constantly emphasized that driving down on the bus was enough of a witness. Crossing the line was a completely personal option. I’d made my choices carefully and didn’t want to risk the jaws of the law.”

“When you crossed that line, they could legally destroy a good chunk of your future,” I countered.

“You’re wrong about the bum’s rush,” interrupted an adult psychologist in our group. “The purity and uncomplicated will of new generations has so often been the difference in any major change. It’s the collective-unconscious way. The ageless wonder of brave young adults using old ideals to see current atrocities clearly. Their eyes unencumbered by the crustaceans of historical justifications and the accumulated disappointments that hobble their elders.”

By 5 p.m., we were heading back to Asheville, bumper-to-bumper with the rest of America on Interstate 85, many of our fellow drivers accelerating home from football weekends. Soon we were amazed by the brilliantly lit skyline of Atlanta, shooting its fantastic, Oz-like architecture toward the foggy heavens — somehow involved in the dark murders in Latin America. Having left three of our riders behind in military confinement, we hoped the lagging van would pick them up. We felt as if we were returning from a war zone, with casualties left writhing on the battlefield.

As we reached Greenville, the Warren Wilson students began sweetly singing corny Christmas carols, inspired by the year’s first snow. Then they started mixing in some bawdy Ani DiFranco ballads. Maybe next year I can achieve the spirituality of those nonviolently aggressive thousands, instead of standing on the sidelines with thousands more, a voyeur of others’ amazing bravery.

Almost certainly, there will be future marches. Many at this year’s procession had insisted that the SOA must shut down now, for its only legitimate pretext, the Cold War, is over. They argued that bananas, coffee and a little oil aren’t good enough reasons to destroy the peace of a continent.

Nope. Although Clinton has renamed SOA (it’s now a mouthful called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), the buzz was all about Plan Colombia. Poor Colombia (where, according to the extensive coverage of the protest by the Columbus daily, homicide is by far the highest cause of death, with cancer a distant second). An average of two soldiers and 10 civilians are killed every day in the drug violence alone. This is the place where 70 percent of all the world’s kidnappings occur and 80 percent of America’s cocaine is produced. Where, for 10 years, the United States’ drug war has helped fracture a country into vicious factions: drug lords, land-reform guerrillas, paramilitary police and the regular army.

The most prominent bumper sticker seen at the SOA rally was: “You think Vietnam was something? Wait till you see Plan Colombia.” The local paper claimed the U.S. has already spent more than $7 billion on weapons and military training to help this bleeding country of 37 million souls destroy its most important financial resource: cocaine. Plan Colombia calls for shipping another $1.3 billion to the Colombian military, and for financing U.S. advisers there.

It sounds like a new quagmire, growing ever stickier as I write. If you think the jungles of Vietnam were hard to fight in, try the 15,000-foot Andean peaks bordered by Amazon rain forest. And know that the war will probably spread to Peru and Ecuador. And deal with the amazing irony that the most important foreign-policy initiative of the alleged former cokehead who is now president will be to destroy Colombia for making a drug that he used to pay tens of thousands of dollars to snort. Just as he decimates America by brutalizing millions jailed for decades for doing what he probably did freely for 20 years.

But where was Clare? Last reports were that, after several hours in jail, she was released — unharmed and feeling pretty frisky.

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