The Sutras of Abu Ghraib
Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq
By Aidan Delgado
2007, Boston, Beacon Press, 228 pp.
Road from ar Ramadi
The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía
By Camilo Mejía
2007, NYC, New Press, 320 pp.
The Deserter’s Tale
The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraq
By Joshua Key, as told to Lawrence Hill
2007, NYC, Grove/Atlantic, 256 pp.
A climbing wall had been erected in the parking lot of Aidan Del- gado’s college in Sarasota, Florida. Army recruiters invited students to give it a shot. It was 2001, Delgado had been kicked out of his Buddhist class and his situation, both socially and scholastically, felt impossible. Suddenly he imagined a solution: “Maybe I should join the Army Reserve, you know, get away from school for a while, get some discipline, get my life in order. Become an Army of one.”
An Army of one—that’s a good way to describe Delgado’s fight against the U.S. military, as well as Camilo Mejía and Joshua Key’s stories of becoming war resisters. All three were in Iraq during the first year of the war, but none of them have returned to the battlefield. Instead, they have taken their message to publishers, illuminating how their experiences in Iraq made it impossible for them to continue. They give compelling accounts of moral struggles, but also a close-to-the-ground perspective of a war against Iraqi civilians.
Delgado signed up in the morning of September 11, 2001. Minutes later the first plane hit, sparking pride in the 19-year-old: now he was going to prove to his doubting parents they were wrong, now he was truly going to serve his country. “Stupid fucking kid,” Delgado says of himself six years later in The Sutras of Abu Ghraib. Delgado picks up his lost Buddhism before basic training, but it’s still unseasoned when he takes off for Iraq in March 2003. His beliefs have been more of an intellectual endeavor; it’s for real now. Delgado, even though he is a mechanic, is part of a war machine that occupies a country. “I know what I believe. What am I going to do about it?”
When Delgado grasped the conflict between his involvement in warfare and his innermost beliefs, he stood at an important crossroads. To suppress the moral compass, he would have to play the game and justify his involvement in “the mission,” for himself and for others. Delgado chose another option: he filed for CO (Conscientious Objector) status early in his deployment—a decision that cost him harassment from fellow soldiers and commanders, who labeled him a traitor and coward. Today those words don’t bother Delgado. What still gets to him is the guilt of having been part of an occupation that he thinks serves no other purpose than to cause suffering. Delgado handed in his weapon, but still served his tour in Iraq. He got his CO application granted when he was back home, nine months after he filed it.
Joshua Key and Camilo Mejía’s path to resistance was less deliberate. They didn’t get on flights back to Iraq after their two-week leaves about six months into their respective deployments. They had had enough, but still didn’t dare to resist—the sense of duty and responsibility towards fellow soldiers was too strong. “I had to go back to Iraq, brutalize the people, rape the land, and possibly die there,” Mejía writes in Road from ar Ramadi, “I had to swallow my guilt and my values and my conscience.” In the end, though, he couldn’t muster the energy to get out of bed on the day of departure. That struggle was his own, but the decision would give him new allies. With the help of soldiers’ rights activists he went underground for almost five months until he held a press conference and turned himself in to the Army in March 2004. Mejía, who was part of the Florida National Guard, became the first combat veteran to publicly resist and criticize the war. He was convicted of desertion, got discharged with a bad conduct sentence, spent nearly nine months in prison, and lost all of his GI benefits after eight years of duty. But when Mejía was escorted to prison he felt “that there is no greater freedom than the freedom to follow one’s conscience. That day I was free, in a way I had never been before.” Like Delgado and Key, Mejía keeps fighting to put an end to the war and today he is the chair of IVAW, Iraq Veterans Against the War, the largest organization for anti-war soldiers and veterans of the global war on terror.
Popular explanations for the failure in Iraq range from blaming failed strategies to wondering at a fraught domestic situation in which Iraqis kill each other. Listening to resisters of the Iraq war adds a different perspective. They give a story of two wars, one against U.S. troops, the other perpetrated by them—terrorizing and killing Iraqi civilians. The war we imagine taking place in Iraq, between insurgents and U.S. soldiers, is close to non-existent.
Joshua Key, in The Deserter’s Tale, explains. “It was a strange way to fight a war. We never saw the people who shot at us, never spotted the mortar launchers, and never located the people who used rockets to propel grenades at us. Because our enemy remained invisible, our fears and frustrations mounted, but we could always take those frustrations out on the civilians.”
The standard operating procedure was retaliation. After firing in the direction of an attack, houses in the area would be raided. Key estimates that his squad raided at least 200 homes during his time in Iraq. He describes the raids as violent: blowing up the front door, shouting, screaming, and hitting the inhabitants; then rounding up and sending all men over five feet tall to interrogation, breaking furniture, stealing money and jewelry, finding nothing. Orders were also given to raid houses that were said to harbor terrorist elements. On his first night in Iraq, Key was woken up at 3:00 AM to raid a house in Ramadi. They found only a compact disc with speeches by Saddam Hussein. “It was one of the most exciting things I had ever done,” Key says about his first raid. “I wanted to catch those fucking terrorists and I figured it was only bad luck that had prevented us from nabbing them the first time.”
Key’s account is packed with brutalities and killings of civilians. One day, Key says, a sergeant in another platoon gets badly injured by a roadside bomb. “Tonight it’s retaliation time against the city of Ramadi,” one of Key’s sergeants said. During that night Key witnessed two soldiers laughing and kicking around heads of decapitated Iraqis. The event went unmentioned by the commanders.
It was a hopeful and proud 23-year-old that joined the Army’s 43rd Combat Engineer Company in 2002. Already starting a new family, he was desperate for money and stability. He fled the Army the following year, feeling remorsful, bitter, and guilty; but at least he wouldn’t continue to terrorize Iraq. He went underground with his wife and 3 kids for 15 months, hiding in cars and hotels until he got in contact with the War Resister’s Support Campaign in Canada. He is among dozens of ex- soldiers fighting for the right to stay in Canada.
These resisters give two main reasons why Iraqi civilians are terrorized, killed, and dishonored after their death. The first is a mix of fear and racism bred by being attacked by people you never see, the constant repetition that Iraqi equals Muslim equals terrorist, and a shoot-first-ask- later policy. Add the overwhelming amount of weapons at hand—such as the 50 caliber machine guns being used with such force that they cut Iraqi heads from their bodies—and we can better understand occurrences like the frequent killings at roadblocks when Iraqis “come too close.”
But, as Delgado says, there is “a deeper and more disturbing failure: a failure of policy.” He was stationed at the Abu Ghraib prison during his last six months in Iraq. As a radio operator, he got a unique insight into the situation for the prison’s 4,000 inmates. The Abu Ghraib that Delgado describes is understaffed and there is a deep mistrust between Iraqi police and U.S. troops. It is overcrowded, the vast majority of prisoners guilty only of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Confusion reigns over which prisoners are at Abu and which are not there anymore, creating a mass of “phantom prisoners.” The inmates are packed together in tents of 60 and sickness spreads fast. They die and scream and protest.
It’s against this tense backdrop we have to understand the incident at on November 24, 2003, when 12 prisoners were gunned down by U.S. soldiers and 4 of them died. Delgado, analyzing accounts from soldiers, as well as reports of the incident, explains what happened. Prisoners protested their living conditions. They were angry and started throwing stones. Soldiers used non-lethal ammunition, but then reportedly ran out and opened fire using lethal rounds. The soldiers were afraid and didn’t understand what the Iraqis were saying or what they might do next. Many were trigger-happy and some of them later expressed pride over having taken down an Iraqi.
Within this mess, Mejía, the only resister who ranked as high as a staff sergeant, describes a Soviet-like corruption and opportunism among his commanders. The Combat Infantry Badge was a priceless trophy for Mejía’s senior officers, as they “knew that the award was essential to their further progress up the officer ranks.”
Because of stupid orders from combat-seeking commanders, Mejía argues, his squad got ambushed several times. Like the time when a shoebox bomb exploded near Mejía’s Humvee and bullets were raining down from blown-out buildings beside the road. Mejía thought that this was going to be the end, but they managed to make it back to the base. Mejía’s captain didn’t share their joy of escaping unscratched. “You sent the wrong message to the enemy,” he said. Mejía left the command post, “wondering who the real enemy was in Iraq, and just how close we were sleeping from it.”
Chris Holmbäck is a Swedish journalist and researcher who for the last year has been writing about veterans and resisters of the Iraq war for Swedish and Spanish media and for UC Davis.