Tuesday, September 3, 2013


A couple of books I've read recently:

1. Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía: An Iraq War Memoir 

Mejía was the first U.S. soldier to go AWOL from Iraq (while on a two-week leave to the U.S., he never returned, was convicted by a military tribunal of desertion, and served nine months in prison) and to publicly speak out against the war. 

Born in Nicaragua (1975), Mejía was living in Florida when, at the age of nineteen, he joined the Army for what he thought was a period of three years. He served three and a half, most of it in Fort Hood, Texas. But when he went to leave, in order to pursue his goal of getting a higher education, he got a rude awakening.

It was then that a recruiting agent "explained that anyone entering the service makes a commitment to the military for a minimum of eight years. Even someone who, like me, signs up for just three years has another five years of service to fulfill at the end of his contract, time that can be served either by extending one's stay in the regular army or by joining the Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) or the National Guard, which requires training one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer. Whatever the case, though, soldiers are always subject to being called back to active duty until the eight-year commitment is fulfilled. Recruiters skate over this unpleasant fact, suggesting to those who notice it that it is a minor detail and insisting that it would take a devastating attack on the United States for non-active-duty soldiers to be called back into service from their civilian lives...Her assessment of the likelihood of going to war with a guard unit was that it was almost impossible."

Mejía fulfilled his weekend and summer training commitment, enrolled in community college, fathered a daughter. His feelings toward the military began to change, especially with respect to the Iraq war. His eight-year commitment was due to end in May, 2003. But on January 14, 2003, his company commander informed the whole National Guard unit that they were to be activated in support of "Operation Iraqi Freedom."

"Those of us who were due to get out of the military soon had just been extended until 2031 as a result of Congress passing a "stop-loss order."

He describes the treatment of POWs in his platoon (sleep deprivation, hooding, emotional and physical terror) and insists that the conditions in Abu Ghraib, far from being aberrant, were standard operating procedure. He describes the killing of civilians which, given the conditions and circumstances of this was in particular, was almost inevitable.

One of the more pleasant details was guarding the local propane station, where the Iraqis regularly came to get fuel for their cooking stoves. One day, when Mejía was on detail there, an elderly Shiite Muslim and his son showed up to buy gas. Mejía could see that the elderly man is well-educated and well-respected. Mejía's friend Mohammed translated for the old man. 

"He wants to know why Americans treat Iraqis like dogs," asked Mohammed...

"We don't mean to treat Iraqis like gods," I responded. "But sometimes, when we're attacked, we have to respond, and that's when things happen"...

The conversation continued. "In spite of his anger about the occupation, the old Shiite did no descent to personal attacks on me, engaging instead in a dignified and elegant dialogue about Iraq's right to self-determination. Though he still seemed upset, he was very cordial to me as he left. Mohammed and I continued talking about Iraq and the U.S. occupation. At on point, pressed by Mohammed's searching questions and having run out of other answers, I suggested to Mohammed that we were in Iraq to bring freedom to the country and its people.

"Freedom?" Mohammed looked at me, incredulous.

"Yes," I insisted with a straight face, not even believing my own words.

"But you said you didn't want to be here," pressed Mohammed, also with a straight face.

"I don't," I continued. 

"And you said that your contract with the army was over," continued my friend, reminding me of something I had told him in the past. 

"Yes, I said that," I admitted.

"Then why are you here?"

"Because the army can keep you in after the end of your contract," I explained, sensing where he was going with his questions. "At least if there's a war they can."

"Against your will?" he asked with his eyebrows raised.

"Yes," I said quietly.

"So how can you bring freedom to us, when you don't have freedom for yourselves?"


Mejía is now an activist, speaking nationwide and beyond about his war experiences, and calling for peace. 

"I say without any pride that I did my job as a soldier. I commanded an infantry squad in combat and we never failed to accomplish our mission. But those who called me a coward, without knowing it, are also right. I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified, I did not want to stand up to the government and the army, I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at the moment I was a coward, and for that I apologize to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been."

From Publishers Weekly:

"[Author Cilla] McCain, a writer who grew up on army bases, takes aim at the military and the ways soldiers bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq home with them. In recounting the murder of 25-year-old Army Specialist Richard T. Davis by four fellow members of the army's Third Infantry (a case that inspired the movie In the Valley of Elah), McCain examines the tragic results of the increasing number of street gang members recruited into the army, post-traumatic stress, and noncombat deaths of soldiers resulting from accidents, illness, suicide, and murder. When Davis returned home to Fort Benning, Ga., in July 2003 after serving in Iraq, he was driven by four other soldiers to a wooded area, murdered, and his body set on fire. When Lanny Davis, a Vietnam veteran, attempted to find out what happened to his son, he confronted coverups, military red tape, and, finally, an incompetent investigation. McCain sifted through government paperwork, police statements, court transcripts, and firsthand interviews. The result is a raw and compelling overview of a shocking killing, its aftermath, and a military ignoring its soldiers' needs."

"It is a painful story, one that I am not sure we are willing to face. To me, the most difficult question was not who killed Richard Davis, but who was truly responsible. And the more I leaned, the clearer the answer became….We are."

--Paul Haggis, In the Valleyof Elah

1 comment:

  1. I've got two nephews in the Navy. One is still active and the other one is, I hope, is finished after 6 years of active duty.


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