A Military Resister and Conscientious Objector

— ATC Interviews Camilo Mejia

Sgt. Camilo Mejia, the first active-duty U.S. military resister to be imprisoned for refusing re-deployment to Iraq, spoke at a Detroit antiwar rally Friday, March 18, the day before attending the founding convention of Iraq Veterans Against the War in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Sgt. Mejia, who spent more than seven years in the U.S. military and eight months fighting in Iraq, wrote a statement of conscientious objection, "Regaining My Humanity" (full text at www.codepink4peace.org/ National_Actions_Camilo.shtml).  Of his experience in Iraq and decision not to return after a two-week leave, he said in part:

"We weren't preventing terrorism or making Americans safer.  I couldn't find a single good reason for having been there, for having shot a people and been shot at.

"Coming home gave me the clarity to see the line between military duty and moral obligation.  By putting my weapon down, I chose to reassert myself as a human being.  I have not deserted the military or been disloyal to the men and women of the military.  I have not been disloyal to a country.  I have only been loyal to my principles.

"When I turned myself in, with all my fears and doubts, I did it not only for myself.  I did it for the people of Iraq, even for those who fired upon me—they were just on the other side of a battleground where war itself was the only enemy."

Camilo Mejia was interviewed by David Finkel from the ATC editorial board, shortly after receiving an award from Detroit City Council for his courageous stand.

Against the Current: Tell us when you were deployed in Iraq, and where; and although you've been out for some time now, what are your perceptions of the situation in Iraq as compared with what the media are portraying?

Camilo Mejia: I was in Iraq between April and October, 2003.  After a short time in Baghdad, our longest stay was in the Ramadi area.

I know it's unpopular to say this, but I don't really buy the election in Iraq.  It's a measure of improvement and progress as far as the U.S. and coalition's alleged purpose; but with an insurgency going on and 150,000 foreign troops occupying a country, you can't say you held a "free election."

To the issue of democracy, I find it impossible to establish a true democracy when a nation is occupied and the "democracy" is imposed.  It can only come from within.  We are imposing a way of life that we wish we had here—for example, asking the Iraqi Congress to have one-third women, when we don't have anything like that here—and this after a totalitarian regime under Saddam Hussein.

To me it's fictitious, part of a bigger scheme to justify our presence—by "our" I mean of course the United States government—and to exploit and privatize their natural resources, which I think is the bottom line.

ATC: Presumably you didn't feel this way when you first went over to Iraq.  What caused your perspective to change?

CM: I wouldn't necessarily say it changed.  Yes, it evolved, but not to the opposite direction.  When I first went to the Middle East where we ran a secret mission for two months before the war started, already I disagreed with the reasons the government was giving for war. I didn't think they had made the case for claiming Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—in fact, as soon as we arrived in Iraq we put away our chemical protection gear—and we were going to war without a UN Mandate.

Hans Blix [chief UN weapons inspector—ed.] was saying we didn't know that there were WMDs in Iraq.  Actually I don't think he ever believed there were any. On top of that, you had huge antiwar demonstrations around the United States and the whole world.

In some way I was part of this huge opposition.  But these are all political reasons.  I deployed anyway, partly because I was naive enough to believe there might not be a war, just a show of force, that maybe it would all end without major human loss.

After seven years of being in the military, and being an infantryman pretty much my entire career and being a squad leader, I was afraid to say I disagreed with the war on moral grounds.  First of all, my squad members might see me as a coward.  Also, I was afraid that making my position against the war known to my commanders would result in a court martial and going to prison, as I did later anyway.  I tell you this, because it's all separate from what turned me into a Conscientious Objector.  At the time I had no problem with being an infantryman and shooting my weapon.  I was a vegetarian and a nonviolent person, but not against war entirely.

But when I went to Iraq and especially Ramadi, I came face to face with the reality of war. So what if there were or weren't WMDs?  You could care less when you're actually over there.  But in combat, I began to develop a rejection of all war because you see how innocent people die, regardless of whether you mean for them to die.

When I criticize the attitudes of soldiers, I don't really mean those in my unit, but the leaders.  You see the personal agendas at play in war of commanders who go to any length at the expense of human lives—soldiers and civilians.

It has nothing to do with rebuilding a country—after we'd destroyed it in the first place—or self-government, or providing clean running water.  It was all about personal ambitions.  Even if all the commanders had behaved in an altruistic way, the inescapable reality is the loss of civilian life.  You see the insurgents and soldiers get away, then all the bodies in the streets.  I am now a Conscientious Objector.  I reject all forms of war.

ATC: Obviously you haven't done a scientific survey, but can you offer your impressions of the feelings within the military?

CM: I haven't done a survey and of course I've been incarcerated [for nine months of a one-year sentence—ed.].  When you have opposition to the war or dissatisfaction within the ranks, it's not usual for soldiers to actually express that—because they are afraid, just as I had been.

But when they've been through the court martial and branded as criminals or deserters or whatever, they've gone through those emotions and are in a position of freedom to express themselves.  When I went to prison, I was with 120 other military inmates.  Not one person in my prison criticized my stand, said "you should have gone back," or supported the war—not one of those 120 inmates.

I think that's a pretty significant measure.  Also, at the time I surfaced and presented myself, the Pentagon admitted to 500 cases of AWOL.  Now there are 5500—that's what they admit to, according to information from my attorney and that's the number that's been going around.

I'm part of an organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War, and one of the guys who founded it told me how 15% of his unit went AWOL before being deployed.  One of the guys who rejoined the unit was quietly discharged.  We see a pattern of military authority trying to disguise the extent of the dissent.  I think there's great dissatisfaction and growing opposition to the war within the ranks.  One of the main goals of IVAW will be to help soldiers in opposition to the war in any way we can. And we want to help returning soldiers, who are suffering all kinds of psychological and emotional problems, to find proper care and to hold the military responsible.

ATC 116, May-June 2005