CAMILO MEJIA was the first U.S. soldier who served in Iraq and went public with his refusal to re-deploy. He spent nine months in military confinement for deciding to follow his conscience.
Since his release, he has been a tireless antiwar campaigner–at the side of Cindy Sheehan when she began her antiwar vigil outside George Bushâ€™s ranch in Crawford, Texas, and traveling to New York to support the St. Patrickâ€™s Four, activists on trial for opposing the war. His book, Road from ar Ramadi, is forthcoming from New Press.
Camilo spoke to Socialist Workerâ€™s ERIC RUDER as organizing intensified for the national antiwar mobilization on September 24.
HOW DID you come to be against the war?
I WAS against the war from the very beginning–from before there even was a war.
Politically, it seemed that the U.S. government was forcing this war on everybody. There was no approval from the United Nations Security Council. There was no approval from the people here at home. And there was no approval from historical allies like Germany and France and the other big powers.
9-11 just seemed too fake as a justification–a lot of the actual hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and yet we were invading Iraq. And as far as weapons of mass destruction, North Korea was flaunting its weapons, and yet we were invading a country that we donâ€™t even know for sure has such weapons. The United Nations inspectors are saying that we donâ€™t know if they have weapons. So politically, it just didnâ€™t make a lot of sense.
A lot of people think I came to be against war during my stay in Iraq. I had been against war before that, just as many people in the military are against war, or at least against this war.
But many people donâ€™t have an understanding that signing a contract and wearing a uniform doesnâ€™t mean that we canâ€™t make our own decisions or that we canâ€™t, based on our political and moral beliefs, make the decision to refuse a particular war, or to refuse war, period.
If you truly disagree with something, thereâ€™s no uniform, and thereâ€™s no Uniform Code of Military Justice, and thereâ€™s no order that can force you to do it. In the end, you always make your own decision.
I failed to understand that at the time, and even though I disagreed with the war from the beginning, I deployed. And then thereâ€™s a transition. You go from being politically and impersonally and distantly against the war to being more morally and more personally against it, because this isnâ€™t just something that youâ€™re reading about.
Youâ€™re not just reading about prisoner abuse, but conducting prisoner abuse. Youâ€™re not reading about killing civilians, but youâ€™re killing civilians. Youâ€™re not reading about occupation but youâ€™re occupying, youâ€™re raiding homes, and youâ€™re enforcing a curfew.
All these things are abstract when youâ€™re reading them, and then they become more than real, because they become a part of your conscience and a part of your memory and a part of who you are–every decision that you make and you fail to make becomes you.
So it can no longer stay simply political opposition to war. You become the opposition. I canâ€™t say that this was the case for everybody, but it was the case for me.
The first mission we had was to deprive prisoners of sleep for periods of up to 48 hours–creating a lot of noise, treating them worse than animals and breaking them up morally, psychologically, spiritually. We performed mock executions to keep them awake. This is the beginning of the occupation–April 2003.
And then we move on to other missions. We end up in Ramadi, which is in the Sunni Triangle. At first, itâ€™s no big deal. Thereâ€™s very little opposition–not so much because there isnâ€™t real opposition, but because the opposition isnâ€™t very organized, and in part because people were still trying to figure out if the U.S. is staying or just came to kick out Saddam.
But weeks go by, we stay, and the insurgency gets more organized, and attacks get more frequent, more intense, more sophisticated. We respond in turn, and we start messing things up in Iraq.
In Ramadi, nothing ever gets fixed. The deadlines we had for training the cops and letting them take control of the city–nothing happens. Power isnâ€™t restored, water isnâ€™t restored, the sewage system isnâ€™t fixed. Trash thrown all over the place–Iâ€™m telling you the stench and the fumes were horrible. Schools were not operating.
An occupation is such a horrible thing. And in the midst of it, thereâ€™s no sense that youâ€™re helping anyone. None. We were just there watching our own backs, and making sure we donâ€™t get killed.
DO YOU think a lot of soldiers who start out in favor of the war are being transformed by deploying to Iraq?
EVEN THOUGH I had my eyes somewhat open, I can say from personal experience that this happens. Sometimes, I ask myself how the hell I believed some of the things I used to believe.
Thereâ€™s a huge dam at al Haditah, and this was one of the biggest assets that the U.S. was going for and that the Republican Guard was defending, because this dam at some point powered 75 percent of Baghdad. They had all these engineers who worked there, who were very smart and experienced, and they spoke fluent English. They were showing up even though they werenâ€™t getting paid, and they couldnâ€™t do much because they didnâ€™t have the parts they needed.
So theyâ€™re sitting around, and weâ€™re sitting around guarding the dam, and we had a lot of free time to talk with them. I remember telling one guy that a lot of money was going to start coming in, and Iâ€™m pretty sure that they would be making a lot of money, because an engineer like them in the U.S. working at a facility like this makes a ton–maybe even $100,000. I told them, â€œYou guys are going to be set, youâ€™ll have jobs and power.â€
I really thought that. I really thought that some aspects of this occupation were going to help the people of Iraq–that the U.S. was going to give money to Iraqi contractors so they could develop their own country. And then you start finding out the hard truth about imperial occupation.
It was a shock when we started seeing the mistreatment of the people–even for hardcore, gung-ho, pro-war people. After a while, you realize youâ€™re only there to get out of there alive. Itâ€™s a big shock.
The indoctrination in the military is so strong, however, that people can see this, and say that it sucks, but I signed a contract.
People are able to see through the hypocrisy and the lies that weâ€™re there fighting for freedom and democracy and justice. They realize that this war is just for oil or money and geopolitical position for the empire. And theyâ€™ll tell you that theyâ€™ll never reenlist, but theyâ€™re still performing their jobs, because they have a sense of duty to the military, to the country and to one another, and itâ€™s hard to break.
GEORGE BUSH would say that the U.S. will only stay until Iraq is in a better condition, and the troops will come home as soon as possible. What do you think about that?
YOU CANâ€™T force democracy with the muzzle of an M-16 or a tank or bombs or Apache helicopters. There canâ€™t be democracy when thereâ€™s occupation, because when thereâ€™s occupation, thereâ€™s fear, and when thereâ€™s fear, thereâ€™s no freedom. And people are very afraid in Iraq. Theyâ€™re afraid of the insurgents and the occupation. Theyâ€™re afraid of speaking out or leaving their homes.
The biggest part of the problem is us. For the war hawks and the corporations, a little insurgency is healthy. They know that theyâ€™re creating the problem, and itâ€™s in their best interest to continue it, because as long as thereâ€™s violence, they can continue to justify the presence of a foreign military.
When you look at Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, all these countries were being ruled by military dictatorships that were placed there and financed and trained by the U.S. They need repression, violence and fear in order to ransack countries and exploit them and take the benefits and the profits.
DO YOU think the U.S. has a responsibility to stay or should troops be withdrawn immediately?
THERE SHOULD be immediate withdrawal. To say that the Iraqis need 160,000 people armed to the teeth in order to succeed is straight-out racist.
Thatâ€™s like saying that you have a family, and that somebody with a stick needs to be in your house in order for you to be able to run your house. And then every mistake you make, you get smacked upside the head because somebody else knows whatâ€™s good for you better than you do.
It would be like 1 million foreign invaders coming to the U.S. and saying that weâ€™re going to stay because you have problems. You have a president who steals elections, and you have racial minorities left behind to fend for themselves in hurricanes.
People say weâ€™re there because they mistreat women, but every eight seconds, a woman gets beat up in the U.S. Women donâ€™t get the same salaries as men, donâ€™t get the same job opportunities, get degraded on television. Every five minutes thereâ€™s a detergent commercial where you have a beautiful, young, sophisticated woman on her knees cleaning a toilet or making food for a bunch of guys watching a football game.
The hypocrisy is incredible. We demand that the Iraqis have 25 percent female representation in Congress. And what is it here? Itâ€™s 14 percent! And yet we use all these arguments as reasons to stay–I donâ€™t really mean â€œwe,â€ I mean the government.
How can we even speak about freeing anybody when weâ€™re not free ourselves? We have one of the worst, if not the worst, education system of any industrialized nation. We have more than 40 million people without health insurance. We have an education system that charges people to go to college.
We have this beautiful Bill of Rights and this beautiful Constitution that unfortunately have never applied to everyone, just very select groups. We need freedom here before we can even think about helping anybody with their own freedom.