Every war produces its own iconic protestors. Vietnam, for example, had Ron Kovic, disabled in combat, and part of the campaigning group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, whose memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, was eventually made into a movie by Oliver Stone. One day, if the United States ever gets to look back on the occupation of Iraq, rather then being embroiled in a seemingly endless calamity of its own making, the story of Camilo Mejía, the Iraq war’s first conscientious objector, may also get the Hollywood treatment.
An immigrant from Nicaragua, Mejía, like many immigrants, joined the US army shortly after arriving in the United States in 1994, at the age of 19, and after working in a succession of badly-paid menial jobs with which he attempted to put himself through college. “The army,” he explains, “offered financial stability and college tuition, two benefits that seemed tough to find anywhere else.” He also felt that the military “held out the promise of helping me claim my place in the world.”
After three and a half years of active duty service in the infantry, mostly at Fort Hood in Texas, Mejía decided to return to college. It was only at this point that he was informed that anyone entering the military actually signs up for eight years’ service. After three years of active duty service, the remainder can be served in the regular army, or in the Reserves or the National Guard, but “soldiers are always subject to being called back to active duty until the eight-year contract is fulfilled.”
Mejía signed up with the Florida National Guard, returned to college, and had a daughter, Samantha, who was born in 2000, although the relationship with her mother did not last long. He explains that, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, his feelings about the military had “changed radically.” Although he still regarded the army as family, and was familiar with “the lifestyle, the food, the mentality, the discipline and structure, the language, and even the sense of humor,” he had become disappointed by the manner in which the system “preyed on the vulnerability of people, exploiting their lack of options to get them to sign up, and subsequently tied them into service with the promise of benefits that were just around the corner.”
It was then, just months before his contract expired, that the Florida National Guard was “activated in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Shockingly, as he explains, “Those of us who were due to get out of the military soon had just been extended until the year 2031,” following a “stop-loss order” passed by Congress.
In Kuwait, as he prepared to be deployed to Iraq, Mejía was forced to put aside his misgivings –- that the government had not “made a strong case for military action,” that there was no proven connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and that the war “had more to do with oil and geopolitical power than with defense of the United States” –- and to ignore his wish that he had had the courage to express his “doubts about participating in a war that I believed was unjustified.”
His company –- in which he was a platoon squad leader –- was flown to the ruins of Baghdad’s international airport, and after a brief deployment to al-Assad, an air base near the capital, they ended up in ar-Ramadi, a city in the heart of the Sunni triangle. Six of the book’s 13 chapters deal with what happened over the following months to turn a skeptical soldier into a full-blown opponent of the war.
As a portrait of the realities of combat –- punctuated by the development of Mejía’s inner journey –- this, the heart of the book, provides a grim and powerful indictment of the conflicts (which are supposed to be suppressed at all costs) between the bonding of soldiers at risk of death and their obligation to fulfil orders, and the often ludicrous demands placed upon them by their superiors.
As the narrative unfolds, Mejía vividly brings to life the often conflicting personalities of the soldiers, the futility of their mission –- largely composed of road blocks, security details and foot patrols –- and, in particular, the increasingly dangerous intransigence of their commanders, whose lack of vision –- and desire for glory –- led them to subject their men to avoidable danger, resulting in the deaths of several soldiers. As Mejía notes, “We continued to stay longer than we should in a single place and made it easy for the enemy to predict our movements by following the same routes over and over. It was as if our leadership was trying to get us attacked.”
US Marines on patrol in ar-Ramadi, 2006. Photo: Todd Pitman/AP file.
Largely absent –- to Mejía’s dismay –- are the Iraqis themselves, dismissed as “hajjis” by many of his overtly racist colleagues, and mostly encountered as ciphers at checkpoints and in house raids. Mejía was fascinated by Iraqi culture, but was aware, from his limited meaningful contact with Iraqi civilians, that the joys of liberation had rapidly turned to ashes. “Even those who had been initially happy to see the US military’s arrival and who despised Saddam were now saying it was time for Americans to leave Iraq,” he notes, as the insurgency rises.
What distressed him even more, however, was his complicity in the death and destruction of war. Numerous grim events are described, including the soldier mocking the corpse of a dead Iraqi, shot during one of the book’s many violent confrontations, as his relatives, hooded and bound, were unloaded off a truck, within earshot of this vile humiliation, and the “mistaken killing of civilians,” which, over time, “ceased to arouse much interest or even comment.”
Also included are chilling examples of Mejía’s own actions under pressure. On one occasion, at a road block, in a homicidal trance induced by fear, he was only prevented from shooting dead a wounded, unarmed civilian in a car because a colleague intervened. On another occasion, which comes to haunt him, he struggles to recall whether he shot another man in a car:
“I don’t remember his face. I fired at him but he was probably dead by then. It was an automatic decision –- I did not tell my body to point the rifle at him and squeeze the trigger; it just happened. He was meters away from me, and I shot him, knowing just that he was guilty. Of what? I don’t know, of being shot, perhaps. How come I don’t remember his face? He was so close. I just don’t remember it. No images, none at all? Yes, there is an image, the image of a very brief moment. Flesh. Yes, flesh and blood. It wasn’t a face; it was the flesh and blood of what once was his face. He was dead when I shot at him. He must have been dead, he had to be. He was dead.”
After this fraught journey to self-awareness, Mejía’s transformation into a resolute pacifist occurred when he was granted leave, ostensibly to sort out his status. As a US resident, rather than a citizen, he was supposed to be discharged from the military because his residency was about to come to an end, but the army was dismissive of the rules, and insisted –- while dangling the possibility of citizenship before him –- that he returned to Iraq after his leave was over.
Initially paralyzed by a kind of existential inertia, Mejía missed his flight back to Iraq, and then made his way to New York, where his new life –- as a prominent critic of the war, who would have to face a court-martial for his actions –- crystallized in the offices of Citizen Soldier, an anti-war organization run by Tod Ensign, a lawyer whose roots lay in the resistance to the Vietnam war. “As soon as I spoke with Tod,” Mejía writes, “the door to a new world opened up before my eyes. I went from feeling powerless and alone to realizing that there was a whole network of people and groups, from women’s rights organizations and antiwar veterans to military families and religious groups, who all felt as I did about the war.” Ensign, in turn, introduced Mejía to Louis Font, a West Point graduate who had refused to serve in Vietnam and had “accused US Army generals of war crimes against the people of Vietnam.”
For five months, with the help of Ensign, Font, activists from Military Families Speak Out, and Lewis Randa, a conscientious objector from the Vietnam war who had founded an extraordinary retreat called the Peace Abbey in Massachusetts, Mejía lived an underground life, conducting media interviews anonymously. In these, as he gained ever greater exposure, he explained his decision to resist what he described as a “criminal, illegitimate war for empire.”
In March 2004, at a press conference at the Peace Abbey, Mejía gave a brief speech, declaring that he was a conscientious objector, and that the war in Iraq was “oil-motivated,” and, after explaining that “if you want to support the troops, you cannot support the war,” he handed himself in to the military at a nearby army base, where he was held for two months before his court-martial for desertion.
This, it transpired, was a farce, stacked in favour of the prosecution, in which Mejía was prevented from expounding fully on the reasons for his resistance to the war. Although he was convicted, however, the maximum sentence available to the court was one year in prison. “As I walked out of the courthouse,” he explains, “I was not sad or bitter, nor was I afraid. Instead, I experienced a deep sense of empowerment on that beautiful day.”
This measured account of one soldier’s journey to redemption is required reading not only for committed peace activists, but also for anyone prepared to acknowledge the sometimes considerable tension between a soldier’s requirement to obey orders, and his or her doubts about doing so. Camilo Mejía crossed a line –- a critically important line, I believe, which involved betraying the military to protest against an unjust and illegal war –- but in doing so he stood up unequivocally for justice.
Curiously, however, the elements of the book that have lived on with me the most do not concern the anti-combat narrative that drives it forward. The first –- unconnected with Iraq –- concerns Mejía’s own background, as the son of prominent Sandinista activists in Nicaragua, who resisted the US-backed Contras. This alone illuminated for me an essential conflict within the United States. On the one hand, I was impressed yet again by the country’s openness, accepting refugees from all backgrounds, but on the other hand I was also aware, as was Mejía, of how many are then funnelled into the military as cannon fodder.
The second concerns Mejía’s experiences at al-Assad, the air base he visited before his deployment to ar-Ramadi, where he witnessed the everyday abuse of Iraqi prisoners –- referred to, of course, as “enemy combatants” –- who had, for the most part, been picked up in random raids. In scenes that are shockingly familiar from the research I conducted for my book The Guantánamo Files, in which the Guantánamo detainees described their treatment in US-run prisons in Afghanistan, the Iraqis, hooded, bound, and initially held naked, were subjected to sleep deprivation as a matter of course, were yelled at incessantly (without even the assistance of a translator), and were subjected to mock executions, as guns were held to their heads.
A suspected “enemy combatant” in Iraq, hooded and bound.
Just as familiar, sadly, are the pathetic excuses for “intelligence” that were used to justify the men’s imprisonment. In a passage that could have come straight out of The Interrogator’s War, a book by Chris Mackey, a former US interrogator in Afghanistan, who was critical of the unaccountable actions of the CIA and Special Forces, an interrogator wondered why a particular group of prisoners was being held. “Were there any weapons in their belongings?” he asked. “I don’t know,” came the reply. “The guys who dropped them off didn’t give us anything, no belongings, no paperwork, not even an explanation; they just dumped them and left.”
Another man was detained because he was “caught with a sniper rifle.” “Of course, he claims to be a shepherd, and that he needed the rifle to protect his sheep from thieves,” a soldier told Mejía. “He says he loves America. But, you know, they all got a story, and they all fucking love America.” As Mejía notes, “Later in the deployment we learned that most Iraqis own rifles and pistols, often from the decade-long war with Iran,” adding, with considerable restraint, that it “took awhile before the US military stopped viewing every Iraqi who possessed a weapon as an armed insurgent.” The same process, I can confirm, also took place in Afghanistan, and, for many men, led inexorably to Guantánamo.
Dogs and forced nudity: “setting the conditions” for interrogation in Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison.
With up to 20,000 “enemy combatants” imprisoned in US prisons in Iraq –- and many tens of thousands more who have been subjected to similar treatment –- it’s hard to see an end to an insurgency that is so often blamed on anything other than American injustice and incompetence. As well as describing an important personal odyssey, Camilo Mejía’s account of his journey from war to peace also shines a light on the wider failures in the conduct of the “War on Terror.”
Road From Ar Ramadi, by Camilo Mejía, is published by The New Press.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
As published on Nth Position.
For other articles on Iraq, see Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports (February 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).
For articles on Abu Ghraib, see Remember Abu Ghraib? (a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Film Review: Standard Operating Procedure (a review of Errol Morris’ challenging documentary about the scandal) (July 2008), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009), The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See (May 2009).
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