Memoir of a soldier of conscience

January 23, 2009

Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia

By Camilo Mejia

The New Press, 2007

312 pages, $45 (hb)

In early 2003, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia had just a couple of months to go of his contracted eight years as an active-duty soldier and member of the Florida National Guard when his unit was activated for the invasion of Iraq.

Mejia's five months as a soldier in Iraq created agonies of moral doubt, and a conflict with the US military machine loomed ever larger. Mejia's memoir, Road from ar Ramadi, is a captivating account of the barbarities, and rejection, of war.

Born in Nicaragua in 1975, the son of leading revolutionaries, Mejia wound up in Miami, Florida, after the US-primed fall of the progressive Sandinista government in 1990. Struggling for an education on the margins of low-wage jobs, Mejia, like many other poor immigrants, joined the US Army, enticed by the stable income and college tuition that the military offered.

After the three years he thought he had signed up for, Mejia discovered the fine print of his "treacherous" contract that obligated him for five more years, which he chose to serve in the part-time National Guard with its role in responding to natural disasters and its college tuition assistance.

National Guard service, however, also meant remaining on-call for active military service. A few weeks shy of his discharge in May 2003, Mejia found himself bound for Iraq and a war he did not believe in. "I felt certain that the motives behind the war had more to do with oil and geopolitical power than with defense of the United States", he writes.

Mejia sided with the civilians protesting the war but, as a soldier, he was scared of being seen as treasonous, unpatriotic and a coward, facing punishment if he openly opposed the war.

Mejia's secret opposition to the war was harshly reinforced each day in Iraq. Assigned guard duty over Iraqi detainees, he was repelled by the savage verbal and physical abuse of prisoners, who were stripped and hooded, and subjected to the psychological tortures of sleep deprivation and mock executions.

Afraid of being seen as a "soft" squad leader, Mejia acquiesced in allowing his men to take part in the abuse while he looked the other way.

Deployed to ar Ramadi, in the heart of the "Sunni triangle" west of Baghdad, Mejia saw an Iraqi teenager slammed against a wall for looking at a soldier the wrong way. He observed the "tide of racist hostility" which dehumanised Iraqi victims, only rarely relieved by "basic acts of compassion and humanity" (Mejia's squad was ridiculed as the "humanitarian" squad for its compassion).

To avoid improvised explosive devices, US soldiers would drive on the wrong side of the road. To avoid traffic jams, which made them a target for a grenade, they'd drive onto footpaths, hitting whatever was in their way. An unofficial "shoot first, ask questions later" policy was employed on missions.

Iraqis were deemed guilty by "the simple fact that they were being shot at".

Mejia arrested people "who had in all likelihood done nothing wrong". Families distressed by their men being taken away "knew my own army much better than I did", reflected Mejia later, because they sceptically, and correctly as it turned out, dismissed Mejia's assurances that the detainees would be well-treated and returned if innocent.

Not only Iraqi civilians were at risk from the US military. US casualty figures were increased by ambitious top commanders, obsessed with glory, deliberately "using soldiers as bait to draw insurgents out" and instigate unnecessary firefights so that battle honours could be won and their military careers furthered.

Given two weeks rest and recreation leave, and "deeply conflicted" by what he had experienced in Iraq, Mejia left for the US with the "secret certainty that I would not return" to an "illegal war and an imperial occupation" that he hated.

It was, for Mejia, now time to stop the killing, time to stop the "many deaths of the soul every time you kill a human being ... whether we squeeze the trigger, give the order, or simply stand idle in the face of senseless missions that result in the spilling of innocent blood".

Mejia went underground in New York for five months, speaking out (whilst concealing his identity) against a "military machine, the imperial dragon that devours its own soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike for the sake of profits".

Mejia was the first serving soldier from Iraq to go public as a war resister. Religious and pacifist anti-war organisations, in particular, helped to firm up Mejia's moral and intellectual clarity of mind in his new role.

Mejia's campaign climaxed with his public surrender in March 2004 to the military, which charged him with desertion. With a good legal claim to be exempted from returning to Iraq (an official army regulation prevented the involuntary extension of non-citizen soldiers like Mejia beyond eight years), and backed by a Congressional inquiry that had determined he had to be immediately discharged, Mejia hoped that justice would prevail.

Mejia's lawyer also reminded the press that "during the Vietnam war, when President Bush himself was absent from his National Guard unit for many more months than my client has been, the military dealt with him administratively", quietly letting Bush's "desertion" lapse and not putting him in the dock.

These hopes for justice and equal treatment were squashed, however, as was Mejia's hope to put the morality of the war on trial as well.

Mejia's court-martial in 2004 was a travesty of a fair trial. The prosecution got a shameless judge to grant them every procedural advantage they desired, farcically ruling out Mejia's application for conscientious objector status and any examination of the US government's lies or war crimes as grounds for Mejia's decision to quit the war.

Mejia's case resolved to whether he got on a plane on a certain date to go back to Iraq — a built-in guilty verdict. Mejia was disappointed but not surprised because he realised that "everyone in the court worked for the same boss [the military]" — including his defense attorney, the judge, the jury, most of the witnesses, the accuser and the prosecution.

Mejia received 12 months jail. Released after nine months, he has since thrown himself into the struggle against war, speaking out, with the authority of experience, against the hard men and women, the brutal technology, and the dehumanising of soldiers and the "enemy".

His powerful, raw and honest memoir is testament to a courage and a humanity to be found only in the heart of a global citizen of peace and not in the battle fatigues of a global predator army.

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