(By Suzanne Goldenberg, originally published in The Guardian)
Camilo Mejia is the first US soldier serving in Iraq to proclaim himself a conscientious objector. But as disillusion with the war grows among the US army and public, he is unlikely to be the last, says Suzanne Goldenberg.
For six months last year, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia led his squad on countless missions through one of the most treacherous parts of Iraq in which to be a US soldier: the town of Ramadi in the Sunni triangle. He survived roadside bombs and mortars, ambushes, firefights and raids.
He cannot say for certain that no Iraqis died from were killed by his bullets. After leaving Iraq on a two-week furlough last October, the soldier from the Florida National Guard decided not to return to the war and went into hiding. When he surrendered to the military authorities in March, he became the first veteran from Iraq to challenge the morality of the war and proclaim himself a conscientious objector.
It was a dangerous choice. With resources stretched thin in Iraq, the US military is less inclined to grant discharges to conscientious objectors. To the army's way of thinking, Mejia is a deserter, even after giving himself up, and he will be tried as such. He is to face a special court martial later this month, and is meanwhile confined to the army base at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
"There comes a point when you have to realise there is a difference between being a soldier and being a human being," Mejia told the Guardian. He says he has no regrets over his decision, that he regards the war in Iraq as immoral and illegal. He also accuses military commanders of sacrificing the lives of US troops for vanity, provoking clashes with Iraqis in the hopes of running up their medal tally.
Mejia, 28, has put a public face on what soldiers' advocates say is widespread disillusion among the front-line forces in Iraq and among their military leadership. Since the start of the war, 29,000 troops have called an advice line run by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. A sizeable portion, like Mejia, had gone awol; a smaller number asked about conscientious-objector status. Almost all wanted out of the military.
"There are probably hundreds of service members who contact us every month who share the same beliefs as Camilo, who are opposed to war in general and this war in particular," says the committee's Teresa Panepinto.
Like Mejia, many soldiers took a chance and ran. According to the Pentagon, 600 troops have failed to return from furloughs in the US. While desertion during wartime can be punished with death, no soldier has been executed for the crime since the second world war. He has been told that he faces a maximum sentence of one year in a military prison.
It took a long time for Mejia to arrive at his decision. He has been a soldier since 1995, enlisting, he says, to put down roots in America. Though a longtime resident of the US, he is not a citizen. After a childhood spent shuttling between his native Nicaragua, his mother's Costa Rica and his grandmother's home in Miami, he moved to America to go to college. It was a curious choice for an upper-middle-class teenager from Central America. His mother is an anti-war activist, and in the 70s his father wrote songs for the Sandinistas. But he did his three years, and when his initial stint was up, Mejia enlisted in the Florida National Guard and enrolled at university. He was in the final term of his degree in psychology and Spanish when the invasion of Iraq got under way. He is embarrassed to admit that, until the invasion, he did not believe there would be a war.
In late April last year Mejia was called up with the National Guard. He was by all accounts a promising soldier, promoted to squad leader in charge of eight other infantrymen. His early days in Ramadi went well. "At first, I loved it. Kids would come out of their homes waving and saying, 'Hello, mister, we love you, mister, hello, hello, how are you?' It was beautiful - until we started getting shot at.
"Then we started getting into firefights, and killing civilians, and people were not so friendly any more. After a while we were still there, there was no electricity, no water, no jobs. There were roadblocks, and curfew, and people were dying, and the attitude changed. The people didn't want us there any more, and we didn't want to be there."
He can't say conclusively that he killed any Iraqis himself, but it is a distinct possibility. "Most of the time when I shot at people, a lot of people were shooting in the same direction, so it's hard to say if I killed someone. Maybe I shot him in the knee, maybe in the chest, maybe in the head, maybe I missed."
The routine of combat kept Mejia from questioning his mission too closely. But last October, he flew home to Florida on the army's furlough programme. That gave him time to think, and when his leave was up, he did not get on the plane. Instead he disappeared, ditching his cellphone in case he could be traced, and made his way to New York City, where he connected with soldier advocacy groups. By the time he surfaced last month, he had constructed a complex case against the war.
First, he argues, the war was predicated on a lie, and the Bush administration's claims about saving the world from Saddam's deadly arsenal, and saving Iraqis from a brutal dictator, were a distraction from its real aim: controlling the country's oil, and gaining a foothold in a strategic location. He also argues that US army officers toyed with the lives of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, all so that they could bring home medals. In addition, the troops of his own National Guard regiment were short-changed on protective gear and other equipment.
"A lot of things happened there that should not have happened," he says. He accuses his commanders in the National Guard of instigating firefights, and of putting soldiers' lives in jeopardy. "You had a bunch of officers who had been in the military for 20 or 25 years and who had no combat experience. They were looking for fights so they could have it on their résumé," he says. "No commander ever said, 'I am doing this to get medals,' but it was pretty obvious."
Mejia's commanding officer disagrees vehemently with the charges, and has labelled him a coward, telling CBS television that the sergeant lost his nerve. He accused Mejia of abandoning his fellow guardsmen in the war zone. It was a predictable onslaught. The army brass does not look kindly on conscientious objectors, and it is even stricter with deserters.
However, there is compelling evidence that the ranks of both groups are growing. The Pentagon is loath to publicise desertion figures, but the Marine Corps alone registered 1,113 cases of desertion in 2003, and 384 instances so far this year, according to statistics obtained by the Guardian. The army recorded 2,731 desertions last year, which, it claims, is a substantial drop on 2002. By the Pentagon's own admission, meanwhile, morale among forces serving in Iraq is perilously low, with three-quarters of troops believing that their superior officers have little concern for their well-being. Meanwhile, US soldiers - like their fellow Americans - are increasingly admitting to grave doubts about the morality of the war.
At the same time, the Pentagon appears increasingly disinclined to recognise questions of conscience among its troops. According to the US army, 71 soldiers sought conscientious-objector status last year. Only half of those cases won approval. In 2002 there were 46 applications for conscientious-objector status, and 34 (73%) were approved. At least 11 additional claims have been filed since the start of this year, according to the US army, and are pending.
"Certainly, soldiers can have a transformation after joining the army, but doing so right before deployment overseas places a serious burden on the soldier's unit. The soldier's decision could even put other soldiers in danger," army spokeswoman, Patricia McAllister, wrote in an email to the Guardian. "Consider this a case in point. The M1A1/M1A2 Abrams main battle tank has a four-man crew. A soldier who, right before his unit's deployment to southwest Asia, decides that he cannot bear arms would have a serious effect on that crew."
Such considerations present a serious challenge to Mejia's attorney, Louis Font, a West Point cadet who became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. He argues that the process of deciding conscientious- objector claims is weighted towards the military. "From the military's point of view it is never the right time," he says. "They often deny claims based on the timing." Nor does it help the chances of Mejia - or other conscientious objectors - that their claims are settled by military personnel rather than civilians.
Mejia's case is further complicated by his disappearance last October. Font fears that the desertion charges may crowd out the sergeant's arguments that his conscience compels him not to fight. Mejia says he knows what's coming - that he will be called a coward and accused of betraying his men - but he says he is ready. "They make it seem as if you don't support what the government is doing then you are unpatriotic and if you don't support the war, you don't support the troops," he says. "I felt that somebody had to come forward and say: I support the troops, but I don't support the war."