A Soldier Hoped to Do Good, But Was Changed by War
(By Laurie Goodstein, originally published in the New York Times, October 13 2006)
Sgt. Ricky Clousing went to war in Iraq because, he said, he believed he would simultaneously be serving his nation and serving God.
But after more than four months on the streets of Baghdad and Mosul interrogating Iraqis rounded up by American troops, Sergeant Clousing said, he began to believe that he was serving neither.
He said he saw American soldiers shoot and kill an unarmed Iraqi teenager, and rode in an Army Humvee that sideswiped Iraqi cars and shot an old man's sheep for fun -- both incidents Sergeant Clousing reported to superiors. He said his work as an interrogator led him to conclude that the occupation was creating a cycle of anti-American resentment and violence. After months of soul-searching on his return to Fort Bragg, Sergeant Clousing, 24, failed to report for duty one day.
In a court-martial here on Thursday, an Army judge sentenced Sergeant Clousing to 11 months in confinement for going AWOL, absent without leave. He will serve three months because of a pretrial agreement in which he pleaded guilty.
''My experiences in Iraq forced me to re-evaluate my beliefs and my ethics,'' Sergeant Clousing said, sitting stiff-backed in the witness chair. ''I ultimately felt I could not serve.''
The case against Sergeant Clousing, a born-again Christian from Washington State, is a small one in a war that has produced sensational courts-martial. The same stark courtroom where Sergeant Clousing testified on Thursday was the site of the courts-martial of Pfc. Lynndie England, who mistreated and posed with naked Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and Sgt. Hasan K. Akbar, who rolled grenades into tents of American troops.
Yet the military prosecutors made it clear on Thursday that the stakes were high. Although they did not challenge his motives, they said if one young soldier disillusioned by the reality of war could give up the uniform without punishment, what of others?
''A message must be sent,'' Capt. Jessica Alexander, the Army's trial lawyer, said in her closing argument. ''There are thousands of soldiers who may disagree with this particular war, but who stay and fight.''
Sergeant Clousing's allegations resulted in criminal and administrative investigations. The soldiers in the Humvee were disciplined, said Maj. Richard Wagen, the investigating officer, who testified at the trial. Major Wagen said that the Iraqi teenager who was shot was close enough to the soldiers to be considered a threat.
Sergeant Clousing's defense lawyer argued that the sergeant had experienced a ''crisis of conscience,'' tried to resolve it through official military channels and should not be treated like a criminal.
''Some might say a person of such convictions should never have enlisted,'' said the lawyer, David W. Miner, who is based in Seattle, ''but the Army needs soldiers with the strength of their convictions and personal courage to speak up when they see abuses.''
The number of soldiers who go AWOL declined from 4,597 in 2001 to 2,479 in 2004, said Maj. Tom Earnhardt, a public affairs officer at Fort Bragg. ''The vast majority of our soldiers are serving our country admirably,'' Major Earnhardt said.
Sergeant Clousing said in an interview that he had been a partyer and snowboarder until a sudden born-again experience in high school. He grew up in Sumner, Wash., south of Seattle. His father was an Army officer in Europe, and he lived with his mother, who was not religious.
''It sounds really cheesy,'' he said, ''but all of a sudden I knew that God had a different plan for me.''
He attended a Presbyterian church, studied the Bible and spent four consecutive summers on mission trips to Mexico. He joined Youth With a Mission, an evangelical group that sent him to Thailand, where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.
Out of patriotism, idealism and curiosity, he said, he joined the military. He signed up to be a ''human intelligence collector,'' and trained in Arizona and at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.
Arriving in Iraq in November 2004, he said he was stunned at the number of Iraqis he was assigned to interrogate who were either innocent or disgruntled citizens resentful about the American occupation. He said he told his commander: ''Your soldiers and the way they're behaving are creating the insurgency you're trying to fight. It's a cycle. You don't see it, but I'm talking to the people you're bringing to me.''
Sergeant Clousing said he looked into the eyes of the Iraqi teenager as he died and saw the unjustifiable loss of a life that unhinged him. He wrote in his journal, ''I want to be a boy again, free of this.''
Back in Fort Bragg after five months in Iraq, Sergeant Clousing took his misgivings to his superiors. They sent him to a chaplain, who showed him in the Bible where God sent his people to war, the sergeant said. Then they sent him to a psychologist who said he could get out of the military by claiming he was crazy or gay. Sergeant Clousing said he had not been looking for a way out and found the suggestion offensive.
He called a hotline for members of the military run by a coalition of antiwar groups. The man who took the call was Chuck Fager, who runs Quaker House, a longtime pacifist stronghold in Fayetteville.
''This call was unusual,'' Mr. Fager said in an interview. He said hotline receptionists took more than 7,000 calls from or about military members last year.
''I don't have these kinds of probing discussions about moral and religious issues very often,'' he said. ''I said to him, you're not crazy or a heretic for having difficulty reconciling Jesus' teachings with what's going on in Iraq.''
Sergeant Clousing said he could not file for conscientious objector status because he could not honestly say he was opposed to all war. After several months of soul-searching, he went AWOL.
He tried to talk with his church friends in Washington. Some understood him, but others said he had to support the government because of a biblical injunction to ''render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.''
''They felt that God established government and we're supposed to be submitting to authorities, and by me leaving it's rebelling again the authority that God established,'' Sergeant Clousing said. ''Their politics has infiltrated their religion so much, they can't see past their politics.''
After 14 months, he turned himself in at Fort Lewis in Washington. He was returned to Fort Bragg, where he was assigned to a brigade made up of other soldiers who had gone AWOL. Five sat in the courtroom on Thursday, in uniform, waiting to hear clues about their future in the judge's sentence.