Objector to War

Random Lengths News | April 1, 2005
“I’m presenting my own experience…I can only speak for one person,” said Aidan Delgado, then he adds, “It’s not just a random individual.”

Indeed not. Let’s start with the date he enlisted in the Army Reserves: September 11, 2001.

Delgado was still in the recruiting office when the planes struck the World Trade Center. At first, he says, he felt “vindicated,” as if the attacks underscored the rightness of his choice to join the Army Reserves. “My father nearly disowned me,” Delgado recalls, so the feeling of vindication was particularly vivid.

Three and a half years later, both his parents are “really proud of me,” Delgado says. Not so much because he went to war—serving a year in Iraq—but because he fought for and won status as a conscientious objector (CO), and is now speaking out against the war, the way his grandfather had spoken out against the wars in Korea and Vietnam, when his father had not.

He encountered a good deal of hostility in response to his evolving anti-war views, which derived largely from the growing earnestness of his practicing Buddhism. But none of it came from people who really knew him. A sergeant he served under even testified in support of his CO request, and Delgado received an honorable discharge, along with four medals—routine recognition of his service, but medals nonetheless.

Delgado was in San Pedro to speak to local activists on March 18, on the eve of worldwide demonstrations on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

Delgado was raised abroad. His father worked for USAID. The longest stints were seven years in Thailand and eight years in Cairo, where he learned to speak Arabic and had an Arabic girlfriend. He served six months in Nasariyah in the Shiite south, and six months at Abu Ghraib prison, where he was often the only American around who spoke the language.

His views began to change even before he went to Iraq. He dropped out of school, but read his religion books anyway—purely for what he could learn from them, without thinking about writing papers or getting grades. His commitment to Buddhism deepened, and he talked about his growing conviction he did not belong in the military. But he went to Iraq anyway, entering in the second wave, about three weeks after the fighting began. Still the issue of becoming a conscientious objector would not go away.

“When I was in Iraq in the beginning, I still didn’t have the courage to actually go through with it, [becoming a conscientious objector] because I didn’t want the ostracism, I didn’t want to be hated in my company. I knew I would have to go through this long process, and I might not even win, so I didn’t want to go through it.”

What finally pushed him to action was “my suffering,” he explained. “My psychological suffering became so great that I was like, I can’t even live with myself, I need to make a stand on my conscience. And what really catalyzed that was the prisoners [at Abu Ghraib].”

A couple of midnight-to-eight shifts were decisive. “I just had to sit and monitor the radio, and so I had nothing to do but just sit there, absorbed in my own thoughts and that’s when I began to really think ‘oh my God, I’m here participating in this invasion, and I think it’s wrong. These are the people who are actually suffering as a result of my actions.’”

There was also a shift in the views of native Iraqis. At the beginning, Shiites in Nasariyah were very happy. “There was a very joyous atmosphere. They were extremely pleased we were there. They would say god bless you, god bless George Bush, thank you for liberating us.”

But it didn’t last. Six months later, when Delgado left Nasariyah, there was “a marked shift in how they would relate to us. They would still say, ‘We love you, we love America, but when are you going home?’”

“By the end at Abu Ghraib, I would talk to the electricians, people who were working on the base, they would say, ‘When are you going home? We want you to go home.’ So their attitude really declined.”

At Abu Ghraib, he “got to work with the high-ranking officers who were mentioned in the Taguba report,” and saw the prisoners’ paperwork. “I was really shocked to find out that the majority was not in there for violent crimes or crimes against the coalition. They did petty crimes, like public drunkenness or theft.” After that, he said, “All my hatred for the prisoners went right out, because I realized that they weren’t the ones killing Americans for the most part, they weren’t even the ones doing anything wrong.”

In many cases, they weren’t even petty criminals, Delgado explained. Just people picked up for questioning in mass sweeps.

“It sounds outrageous,” he said, but “the US would sweep up prisoners and take them to Abu Ghraib for questioning and it would take six months to a year to release them.”

In contrast, “Most of the guards, they thought [the prisoners] were the scum of the earth, and anything they could do to them was acceptable, you couldn’t do enough to them, because they were scum-bags.”

Later in November 2003, ongoing inmate protests came to a head.

“They had been protesting the lack of cold-weather clothing, the quality of their food, it was often rotting, it would cause outbreaks of dysentery, and actually, not being allowed to smoke was one of their big grievances.”

Protests had gone on for several nights before one became particularly unruly, with stones and pieces of wood thrown at the guards. One guard was hit in the face—nothing serious, but it gave him a bloody nose. In response, the troops asked for and received permission to use lethal force—machine guns against sticks and stones.

“The Taguba Report mentioned all this,” Delgado said, referring to the official army investigation into the pattern of torture at Abu Ghraib. “They talked about incidents contributing to the shooting…the guards were really under-staffed, so they were outnumbered. They were under tremendous strain. There was extremely poor morale at Abu Ghraib, there was no entertainment, there was no Postal Exchange... they were completely demoralized.”

Delgado took out a passage from the Taguba report and read from it. Significantly, “. . . there was no evidence that the command, although aware of these deficiencies had attempted to correct them in any systematic manner.”

The next month, in late December 2003, rumors started circulating about prisoner abuse. “It started out that we heard that the guards had been videotaping some abuse of the prisoners. We didn’t know exactly what the nature of the abuse was. We heard mostly about sexual abuse that was the predominant thing. We heard that one of the guards had become disgruntled and had sent the photos to CNN, but we didn’t really believe it.”

Then came the first

cover-up efforts

“To our surprise, the military officers came to us and said, if you’ve seen any of these things, don’t say anything about it back home. If you have any incriminating photos, destroy them.”

“That’s why when the military came out and said ‘we had no idea what was going on, it’s just a few bad apples,’ I mean, that was just ludicrous, it was laughable. They had no interest in suppressing the acts, what they wanted to do was stamp out the rumors and the talk, and the evidence.”

According to Delgado, what happened at Abu Ghraib was part of a much wider pattern. “Abuse of that kind was really systemic throughout the military in Iraq, in my opinion. Because I saw abuses in the south, in Nasariya, six months earlier, where guards or soldiers were driving by and breaking bottles over Iraqi’s heads or whipping children with a steel antenna, kicking children, basically, so there was always systemic violence, but it wasn’t organized, it wasn’t suppressed, they knew about it. It was widespread throughout the company.”

The one thing Delgado would add to the Taguba report was the role of racism, “the use of the term ‘haji’ [rag head], the use of ethnic slurs... military documents use the term [haji], there was this absolutely universal anti-Arab sentiment.”

When problems like this are systemic, the responsibility lies with those at the top. But in his unit there were no repercussions or reprimands. In fact, the top 13 officers were all recommended for Bronze Stars—the maximum number they could recommend for the unit.

Delgado didn’t set out to become an anti-war activist on his return. He gave one presentation at New College, in Sarasota, Florida, where he’s majoring in religion, and 400 people showed up. He did it because he was tired of repeating himself over and over again to different people’s questions. He thought he’d do it once and be done with it. But a couple of activists in the audience had different ideas, and soon he was on Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy, Now!” with Amy Goodman, being heard by activists and journalists all across the country.

Now he’s still repeating those stories, but he also gives the impression that he keeps reflecting on them—which is precisely what his religious tradition teaches him to do.

When asked about the lessons he’s learned, most important is, “A total disillusionment with the military as an institution, as it’s being practiced.” He retains a belief “in the idea of a theoretical military,” but, “the military as it exists has so much, so many endemic problems, and endemic flaws that I find it very difficult to believe that they would ever have a positive influence.”

Next he names “A total disillusionment with government,” which “was very hard for me,” because “particularly overseas, you love America even more, you cling to it because it’s your identity, which you are separated from.”

He’s very specific about the cause of his disillusionment. “I signed up as a young man, as a patriot. And I felt that the people who ordered me to battle were not patriots themselves, both in the sense that they wouldn’t go and also in the sense that they would send idealists to die for a useless purpose..…They were always preaching patriotism, and sacrifice for the country… I never saw any sacrifice from them.”

Finally, he says, “I think ordinary citizens have as much responsibility as soldiers. There’s a contract with the people who serve, and the contract is, okay, we’ll go forward, and we’ll fight in your place, but in return, you will never vote to send us somewhere where we’re not needed. You’ll never vote to use us recklessly, you’ll be careful, you’ll guard our lives... and that contract is broken, and the military feel betrayed. And I think that citizens have the obligation to vote against unjust policies.”

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