Aidan Delgado is former Army reservist, honorably discharged as a conscientious objector, who is the son of a U.S. diplomat and has lived in Thailand, Senegal, and Egypt. -- Thanks to seven years spent in Cairo, he became fluent in Arabic and gained considerable familiarity with Arab culture. -- As an Army Reservist, Delgado served in the 320th Military Police Company; he spent twelve months in Iraq, six of them at Abu Ghraib prison. -- A number of pieces on Delgado follow: -- (1) A long interview conducted by Paul Rockwell and posted on the web site Black Commentator, in which Delgado describes widespread officially tolerated anti-Arab racism both in military training and in the conduct of operations in Iraq, and asks: "Have we overcome racism in the sense that blacks and whites are banded together in the hatred of Arabs?" -- (2) A piece from UCLA's Daily Bruin in January. -- (3) An interview conducted by Oakland attorney Scott Fleming, published in LiP magazine and widely reproduced elsewhere, in which Delgado says of his time in the military: "It made me really unpopular, the radical notion that you should treat Arabs or Iraqis as human being"; Delgado also explains how he overcame his initial reluctance to speak out about his experiences....
NEW REVELATIONS ABOUT RACISM IN THE MILITARY
By Paul Rockwell
April 7, 2005
Aidan Delgado, an Army Reservist in the 320th Military Police Company, served in Iraq from April 1st , 2003 through April 1st, 2004. After spending six months in Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq, he spent six months helping to run the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad.
The handsome 23-year-old mechanic was a witness to widespread, almost daily, U.S. war crimes in Iraq. His story contains new revelations about ongoing brutality at Abu Ghraib, information yet to be reported in national media.
I first met Delgado in a classroom at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, where he presented a slide show on the atrocities that he himself observed in Southern and Northern Iraq. Delgado acknowledged that the U.S. military did some good things in Iraq. We deposed Saddam, built some schools and hospitals, he said. But he focused his testimony on the breakdown of moral order within the U.S. military, a pattern of violence and terror that exceeds the bounds of what is legally and morally permissible in time of war.
Delgado says he observed mutilation of the dead, trophy photos of dead Iraqis, mass roundups of innocent noncombatants, positioning of prisoners in the line of fire -- all violations of the Geneva conventions. His own buddies -- decent, Christian men, as he describes them -- shot unarmed prisoners.
In one government class for seniors, Delgado presented graphic images, his own photos of a soldier playing with a skull, the charred remains of children, kids riddled with bullets, a soldier from his unit scooping out the brains of a prisoner. Some students were squeamish, like myself, and turned their heads. Others rubbed tears from their eyes. But at the end of the question period, many expressed appreciation for opening a subject that is almost taboo. If you are old enough to go to war, Delgado said, you are old enough to know what really goes on.
It is a rare moment when American students, who play video war games more than baseball, are exposed to the realities of occupation. Delgado does not name names. Nor does he want to denigrate soldiers or undermine morale. He seeks to be a conscience for the military, and he wants Americans to take ownership of the war in all its tragic totality.
Aiden Delgado did not grow up in the United States. His father was a U.S. diplomat. Aiden lived in Thailand and Senegal, West Africa. He spent seven years in Cairo, Egypt, where he became fluent in Arabic and developed a deep appreciation of Arab culture.
On September 11th, 2001, completely unaware of the days fateful events, Delgado enlisted in the Army, expecting to serve two days a month in the Reserves. When he turned on the television, he realized instantly that his whole world had changed.
After he joined the Army, Delgado began to read the Sutras. He became a Buddhist, a vegetarian, and eventually became a Conscientious Objector. Delgado was honorably discharged when he returned home. Delgado earned four service medals which, he says, are standard awards. He faced criticism from the Army when he began to speak out about military conduct in Iraq. Don Schwartz, spokesman for the Army in Washington, D.C., said that Delgado should have reported any wrongdoing to Army personnel. He should have reported first to his boss, his commander. That is the standard way the chain of command works.
When I interviewed Delgado recently, he expressed his deep love of his country, but he also insisted that racism -- a major impetus to violence in American history -- is driving the occupation, infecting the entire military operation in Iraq.
Delgados testimony tends to confirm the message of Chris Hedges, the New York Times war correspondent who wrote prior to the invasion of Iraq: War forms its own culture. It distorts memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it. . . . War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us. Even as war gives meaning to sterile lives, it also promotes killers and racists.
Here is Aidan Delgado story.
Q: When did you begin to turn against the military and the war?
DELGADO: From the very earliest time I was in Iraq, I began to see ugly strains of racism among our troops -- anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiments.
Q: What are some examples?
DELGADO: There was a Master Sergeant. A Master Sergeant is one of the highest enlisted ranks. He whipped this group of Iraqi children with a steel Humvee antenna. He just lashed them with it because they were crowding around, bothering him, and he was tired of talking. Another time, a Marine, a Lance Corporal -- a big guy about six-foot-two -- planted a boot on a kids chest, when a kid came up to him and asked him for a soda. The First Sergeant said, That wont be necessary Lance Corporal. And that was the end of that. It was a matter of routine for guys in my unit to drive by in a Humvee and shatter bottles over Iraqis heads as they went by. And these were guys I considered friends. And I told them: What the hell are you doing? What does that accomplish? One said back: I hate being here. I hate looking at them. I hate being surrounded by all these Hajjis.
Q: They refer to Iraqis as Hajjis?
DELGADO: Hajji is the new slur, the new ethnic slur for Arabs and Muslims. It is used extensively in the military. The Arabic word refers to one who has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. But it is used in the military with the same kind of connotation as gook, Charlie, or the n-word. Official Army documents now use it in reference to Iraqis or Arabs. Its real common. There was really a thick aura of racism.
Q: Were there any significant incidents besides racial slurs and casual violence against civilians?
DELGADO: The last mission I ran in the South before we were redeployed North was strange. I was told to drive way out into the desert, off the road. When we got there, we found Kuwaitis excavating a mass grave site (from the Saddam era). Kuwaiti engineers wanted to identify and repatriate the remains. It was a solemn affair. I was with the First Sergeant. He said: Give me that skull. I want to hold the skull in my hands. He picked up the skull, tossing it to himself. Then he turned to me and said: Take my picture. It was taken while he was standing by a mass grave. This was a very surreal, dark time for me in Iraq. It was tough for me to see brutality coming out of my own unit. I had lived in the Middle East. I had Egyptian friends. I spent nearly a decade in Cairo. I spoke Arabic, and I was versed in Arab culture and Islamic dress. Most of the guys in my unit were in complete culture shock most of the time. They saw the Iraqis as enemies. They lived in a state of fear. I found the Iraqis enormously friendly as a whole. One time I was walking through Nasiriyah with an armful of money, nadirs that were exchanged for dollars. I was able to walk 300 meters to my convoy -- a U.S. soldier walking alone with money. And I thought: I am safer here in Iraq than in the states. I never felt threatened from people in the South.
Q: What happened when you moved North, before you reached Abu Ghraib?
DELGADO: We were a company of 141 Military Police. We gave combat support, followed behind units to take and hold prisoners. I was a mechanic. I fixed Humvees. We followed behind the Third Infantry division. It was heavily mechanized with lots of tanks and scout vehicles. We could trace their path by all the burned-out vehicles and devastation they left behind. The Third pretty much annihilated the Iraqi forces. Iraqis did not have much of an organized military. They had civilian vehicles, and they resisted pretty valiantly, given how much we outclassed them. The Third Infantry slaughtered them wholesale. We took so many prisoners, we couldnt carry them all. Large numbers of civilians were caught in the crossfire.
Q: How were the civilians killed?
DELGADO: It was common practice to set up blockades. The Third Infantry would block off a road. In advance of the assault, civilians would flee the city in a panic. As they approached us, someone would yell: Stop, stop! In English. Of course they couldnt understand. Their cars were blown up with cannons, or crushed with tanks. Killing noncombatants at checkpoints happened routinely, not only with the Third Infantry, but the First Marines. And it is still going on today. If you check last weeks MSNBC, they dug out a father and mother and her six children. We were constantly getting reports of vehicles that were destroyed (with people in them) at checkpoints.
Q: Your unit, the 320th Military Police, was stationed at Abu Ghraib for six months. Who were the prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Where did they come from? Do you have any new information not yet reported in the media?
DELGADO: There were 4,000 to 6,000 prisoners at Abu Ghraib. I got to work with a lot of officers, so I got to see the paperwork. I found out that a lot of prisoners were imprisoned for no crime at all. They were not insurgents. Some were inside for petty theft or drunkenness. But the majority -- over sixty percent were not imprisoned for crimes committed against the coalition.
Q: How did so many noncombatants get imprisoned?
DELGADO: Every time our base came under attack, we sent out teams to sweep up all men between the ages of 17 and 50. There were random sweeps. The paperwork to get them out of prison took six months or a year. It was hellish inside. A lot of completely innocent civilians were in prison camp for no offense. It sounds completely outrageous. But look at the 2005 Department of Defense Report, where it talks about prisoners.
Q: When you arrived at Abu Ghraib, what did you see, beyond what we all learned from the scandal in the news? And how were you affected?
DELGADO: I was becoming disillusioned. I expected brutality from the enemy. That was a given. But to see brutality from our own side, that was really tough for me. It was hard to see the army fall so much in my esteem. The prisoners were housed outside in tents, 60 to 80 prisoners per tent. It rained a lot. The detainees lived in the mud. It was freezing cold outside, and the prisoners had no cold-weather clothing. Our soldiers lived inside in cells, with four walls that protected us from the bombardment. The Military Police used the cold weather to control the prisoners. If there was an infraction, detainees would be removed from their tents. Next, their blankets were confiscated. Then even their clothing was taken away. Almost naked, in underwear, the POWs would huddle together on a platform outside to keep warm. There was overcrowding, and almost everyone got TB. Eighteen members of our unit who worked closely with the prisoners got TB too. The food was rotten and prisoners got dysentery. The unsanitary conditions, the debris and muck everywhere, the overcrowding in cold weather, led to disease, an epidemic, pandemic conditions. The attitude of the guards was brutal. To them Iraqis were the scum of the earth. Detainees were beaten within inches of their life.
Q: Were any detainees killed?
DELGADO: More than 50 prisoners were killed.
Q: What happened?
DELGADO: The enemy around Baghdad randomly shelled our base. Under the Geneva Conventions, an occupying power cannot place protected persons in areas exposed to the hazards of war. More than 50 detainees were killed because they were housed outside in tents, directly in the line of fire, with no protection, nowhere to run. They were hemmed in by barbed wire. They were trapped, and they had to sit and wait and hope they would survive. I know what it was like because a single mortar round would flatten a whole line of tires on the Humvees, a whole line of windshields. Thats how I thought about the damage because I was the mechanic who had to replace the windshields. So the mortar bombardments killed and wounded many prisoners.
Q: So your commanders knowingly kept your prisoners in the line of fire? How many U.S. soldiers were killed during the shellings?
DELGADO: There were two U.S. soldiers killed during my stay.
Q: Were there any other incidents?
DELGADO: The worst incident that I was privy to was in late November. The prisoners were protesting nightly because of their living conditions. They protested the cold, the lack of clothing, the rotting food that was causing dysentery. And they wanted cigarettes. They tore up pieces of clothing, made banners and signs. One demonstration became intense and got unruly. The prisoners picked up stones, pieces of wood, and threw them at the guards. One of my buddies got hit in the face. He got a bloody nose. But he wasnt hurt. The guards asked permission to use lethal force. They got it. They opened fire on the prisoners with the machine guns. They shot twelve and killed three. I know because I talked to the guy who did the killing. He showed me these grisly photographs, and he bragged about the results. Oh, he said, I shot this guy in the face. See, his head is split open. He talked like the Terminator. I shot this guy in the groin, he took three days to bleed to death. I was shocked. This was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. He was a family man, a really courteous guy, a devout Christian. I was stunned and said to him: You shot an unarmed man behind barbed wire for throwing a stone. He said, Well, I knelt down. I said a prayer, stood up and gunned them all down. There was a complete disconnect between what he had done and his own morality.
Q: Commanders permitted use of lethal force against unarmed detainees. What was their response to the carnage?
DELGADO: Our Command took the grisly photos and posted them up in the headquarters. It was a big, macho thing for our company to shoot more prisoners than any other unit.
Q: When did all this happen?
DELGADO: November 24th. The event was actually mentioned in the Taguba Report, under Protocol Golden Spike. [See Karen J. Greenberg & Joshua L. Dratel, eds., The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 427. --H.B.] And theres more. Before our company transported the bodies, the soldiers stopped and posed with the bodies and mutilated them further. I got photos from the guy who was there, my friend. I have a photo of a member of my unit, scooping out the prisoners brains with an MRE [meals-ready-to-eat] spoon. Four people are looking on, two are taking photographs. If you remember the Abu Ghraib stuff that came out on CNN, this kind of stuff was common. You see guys posing with bodies, or toying with corpses. It was a real common thing in the military, all because the guys thought Arabs are terrorists, the scum of the earth. Anything we do to them is all right.
Q: So far as I know, no commanders have been held accountable for events at Abu Ghraib. Your story implicates commanders in ongoing brutality. In one of your presentations, you said: Our command definitely knew about the prisoners being shot. They posted the photos in their headquarters. They knew all about prisoners being beaten. Did your commanders try to prevent information from reaching the public?
DELGADO: After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke on CNN and TV, commanders came out to us and said: We are all family here. We dont wash our dirty linen in public. This story doesnt need to go on CNN. Nobody needs to find out about this. There was a sort of informal gag order.
Q: You enlisted in the Army Reserve in good faith. Now you are a conscientious objector. Once in the Army Reserve, how did you become a C.O.?
DELGADO: After advanced training, I became serious about Buddhism. I read translations of the Sutras. I became a vegetarian. Later, when I met Iraqi prisoners firsthand, I saw the people who were supposed to be our enemies. I did not feel any hatred for them. They were young, poor guys without an education, like us. They had to fight us. And our guys were the same; they had to fight them. And I said: What am I doing here, fighting poor people? I went to my commander, turned in my rifle, and said, Look, I will stay in Iraq. I will finish my tour as a mechanic. I will do my job, but I am not going to kill anyone.
Q: You still served the whole tour in Iraq. How did your command respond to your request to become a C.O.?
DELGADO: As soon as I told them, they became hostile. They first took away my hard, ballistic plates that go into my vest. They said: You are not going to fight, so you wont need body armor.
Q: The plates protect you from bullets and mortars. They are needed for safety, right? Were you still vulnerable?
DELGADO: Yes I was. They also took away my home leave, saying: You wont come back. I was supposed to be promoted, but they said we cant promote you. The command tried a lot of things to get me to recant. I was ostracized. But the more they did to me, the more obstinate I became. I made trouble for my command. I didnt shave. I threatened to get my Congressman involved. I called Buddhist organizations and the ACLU. They finally relented.
Q: I would like to review your observations. Your account does not focus on one or two bad individuals. Essentially, you are describing the brutality of a group, a collective loss of restraint, a complete breakdown of moral order within the military. I am sure that your Christian buddy, a typical American youth, would never shoot an unarmed person in private life. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr tells us that, with the sanction of the state, driven by nationalism, moral, decent individuals become killers and torturers in groups. You attribute the breakdown of restraint to racism. When did the process of dehumanization of Arabs begin? Did basic training influence the consciousness of our soldiers?
DELGADO: I went to Fort Knox for basic training. It was known to be harsher than other bases. The training was mentally taxing, and there was already some anti-Arab sentiment.
Q: Like what?
DELGADO: In the early stages I remember Army chants. We sang in cadences. And the chants had anti-Arab themes. Like burning turbans, killing ragheads, killing the Taliban.
Q: What did the chants say?
DELGADO: It was three years ago. I cant tell the exact words, but the sentiment was to burn turbans and kill ragheads. That was the phraseology. Our drill sergeants would give us motivational talks to pump up our fighting spirit. The theme was the need to get revenge, to go to the Middle East to fight Arabs.
Q: All this was before you even went to Iraq?
DELGADO: Yes. My own commander was infamous for anti-Arab speeches. Before we were deployed to the Middle East, he said, Now dont go tell the media that youre going over there to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans. Everybody laughed, and he laughed with them. I remember standing there in formation, having grown up in Egypt. And I was thinking: Oh, my God, this is going to be a disaster. Our commander has this anti-Arab attitude even before we go over. The commander would give lectures about Islam. He said that Muslims advocate a holy war against us, that Islam promotes perpetual war. Ive been surrounded by Muslims for a decade, exposed to their culture. He is wrong.
Q: In the 1980s the U.S. military made a lot of reforms. It is widely believed that racism in the military is now a thing of the past.
DELGADO: I have two answers. First, have we overcome racism in the sense that blacks and whites are banded together in the hatred of Arabs? Thats not progress. Second, we had an incident in our unit with a black specialist. He was a nice guy, really popular in the unit. There was no physical fight, but there was a dispute over him dating this white girl, having a relationship with a white girl. Two white guys took a piece of rope, tied a noose, and put a hangmans noose on his bed. He found out who it was and went to his black sergeant. They went to the equal opportunity representative. The issue was effectively stifled.
Q: After your long ordeal, how do you feel about your country, and what do you want from the American people?
DELGADO: I still love my country. I love the idea of America. But I became disillusioned. Now I want to let the American people know what theyre signing on for when they say they support the war in Iraq. And I want Americans to recognize the racial undertones of the occupation and to understand the human costs of war.
A PACIFIC CRUSADER
By Robert Faturechi
** Former soldier explains how war in Iraq inspired his objector status **
Daily Bruin (Los Angeles, CA)
January 27, 2005
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Aidan Delgado, unaware of the day's events, enlisted in the Army Reserve.
He had hoped for a change of scenery and expected nothing more than a two-day-a-month commitment.
"They said, 'You should come see what happened on the television,'" Delgado said.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 changed Delgado's life, as he had to withdraw from college to receive basic training. After advanced training the following summer, Delgado was on his way to Iraq.
"There was a nervous anxiety of not knowing what war would be like. It's very surreal to say in eight days, you're leaving for the Middle East," Delgado said. "It wasn't really real for any of us until we set foot in Iraq."
Delgado is currently speaking at various venues around Los Angeles about his experiences in the war zone.
What Delgado witnessed in Iraq, along with his growing interest in Buddhism, eventually caused the 23-year-old to apply for conscientious objector status, citing his pacifist beliefs. It would be several months of experiences that further soured Delgado's attitude toward the war, however, before he returned home.
"They used to drive by in the humvees and break bottles on Iraqi civilians' heads," Delgado said. "This was a matter of routine in the South (of Iraq)."
As a diplomat's son, Delgado moved from country to country, spending his junior high school and high school years in Cairo, where he picked up the Arabic language. With this skill, Delgado often served as a translator in the Army, which provided him with several chances to talk with Iraqi civilians.
"They were no longer saying, 'Thank you, God bless George Bush.' They were saying 'When are you going home?'" Delgado said. "I responded, 'Soon, I hope.'"
Delgado's desire to become a conscientious objector became known within his unit, which he said led to regular ostracism.
Though Delgado was provided with a Kevlar vest, which protects against shrapnel, he said he was not issued the ceramic plates that protect against bullets.
Before returning home, Delgado, along with the rest of his battalion, was required to serve at Abu Ghraib, long before the reports of abuse made the prison a household name.
After one month at the prison, word of leaked photos and a potential scandal broke among Delgado's battalion. Head officers implemented an informal gag order, Delgado said.
"Officers came to us and said, 'If you have any incriminating photos, destroy them,'" Delgado said. "They said, 'We're a family, we don't air our dirty laundry in public.'"
Though Delgado was not witness to any of the well-publicized abuse at Abu Ghraib, he said he was there for several other instances of what he regards as blatant misconduct.
This misconduct was highlighted after a prisoner protest that led to three prisoners being killed and 12 being wounded.
"Guys in my unit had been shooting guys and they came back with photos they posted and it was like a trophy," Delgado said. "They were bragging about how many they shot. These were unguarded men behind barbed wire."
Though Delgado and other soldiers have levied these kinds of allegations, a spokesman for the Army told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that the Army has "aggressively investigated" all such allegations and is actively persecuting soldiers who have committed such violations.
Though Delgado was deeply troubled by the misconduct he witnessed, he regarded the idea of filing a grievance as futile.
"In order to complain about your chain of command, you have to use your chain of command," Delgado said. "It's almost like you're asking someone to investigate themselves."
After returning home, Delgado has decided to travel through the country to share his experiences, an idea that occurred to him after many of his friends expressed interest.
Currently Delgado, with the help of Westwood resident and former UCLA employee Ed Fisher, is speaking at various venues in the L.A. area.
"I heard (Delgado's) interview on 'Democracy Now!' on the radio on the way home. Usually when I stop in the garage, I turn off the radio, but with him I couldn't stop listening," said Fisher, a management consultant who has been inspired by Delgado to consider retiring and become a full-time activist.
After several interviews and speeches across the country, Delgado said the worst attacks on him have been from members of his unit, who attended one of his speeches in Florida. Delgado said the men accused him of misinterpreting situations, but did not refute that any of the incidents that actually occurred.
So many things going on right now in Iraq are "horrible," Delgado said.
"If Americans knew what the occupation is all about, they would not support it."
Delgado will be speaking at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard on Friday at 7 a.m. He will also be speaking at USC on Friday at 11 a.m. at the Von KleinSmid Center for International and Public Affairs in room 300.
SOLDIER WHO SERVED AT ABU GHRAIB SPEAKS OUT ABOUT ATROCITIES WITNESSED
By Scott Fleming
** A soldier who served with the 320th Military Police Company at Abu Ghraib speaks out about the atrocities he witnessed. **
Aidan Delgado was a Florida college student looking for a change when he decided to join the Army Reserve. He signed his enlistment contract on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. After finishing the paperwork, he saw a television broadcast of the burning World Trade Center and realized he might be in for more than one weekend a month of low-key service.
In the ensuing months, Delgado became dedicated to Buddhism and its principles of pacifism. By April 2003, when he began his year-long tour in Iraq, he was openly questioning whether he could participate in the war in good conscience. Having grown up in Cairo, Delgado spoke Arabic and had not been steeped in the racism that drove many of his fellow soldiers. When he surrendered his rifle and declared himself a conscientious objector, he was punished by his officers and ostracized by his peers.
His unit, the 320th Military Police Company, spent six months in the southern city of Nasiriyah, and another six months helping to run the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. Now 23, having served his tour and been honorably discharged, Delgado is speaking out about what he witnessed. He says the prison abuse broadcast on "60 Minutes" last spring was the tip of the iceberg; brutality, often racially motivated, infected the entire prison and the entire military operation in Iraq.
Why did you decide to join the Army?
It was not for high-minded reasons. I was in school, but I wasn't doing all that well. I was stagnating. I wanted to get a change of scenery, do something different. I signed up for the reserves, because in the pre-Sept. 11 world, the reserves meant you work just two days a month; you get to be in the army, but you don't have to do anything. I signed my contract the morning of Sept. 11 and then all of a sudden my reserve commitment meant a whole lot more.
How did you feel about your decision to join the army in light of what happened that day?
At the time, the whole country was riding high on this surge of patriotism, so I felt vindicated, that I had made the right decision. Because I joined before Sept. 11, I felt morally superior -- I joined before it was popular to do so. Afterwards, when I saw the Sept. 11 feelings being redirected -- Afghanistan was one thing, but then they started turning it towards Iraq -- my feelings of patriotism waned.
It wasn't long after 9/11, maybe six months, before the Bush administration started publicly building their case for invading Iraq.
Yeah, that's what I thought was very striking. I felt like they had made a very strong case for attacking the Taliban and the whole Afghanistan campaign. But when they started talking about Iraq, I said, "Wait, there isn't any proven connection, and there are several facts that seem to indicate they were not connected."
How did Buddhism influence your feelings about the army and the war in Iraq?
My Buddhism developed parallel to being in the army. I wasn't a Buddhist before I joined the military, but after I signed on I had a couple of months before I went to basic training. That's when I started studying Buddhism intensely, doing research to cope with the stress of being in the army. I went into advanced training the next summer, and that's when I became really serious about Buddhism. I became a vegetarian. I started talking to my sergeants, saying, "I'm not sure the army's right for me; I'm a Buddhist now."
Within a few months of arriving in Iraq, I told them that I wanted to be a conscientious objector and I wanted to leave the military because of my religious beliefs. It ended up taking over a year to get my status, so I served in the whole conflict as a conscientious objector. I finally got conscientious objector status after my unit returned to the U.S.
How hard was it to get conscientious objector status?
Extremely difficult -- there's a huge burden of proof. You have to do an interview with an investigating officer who grills you on your beliefs to find out if you're just making it up or if you've really thought it out. You have to have some kind of documentation. I think one of my strongest points was that I had a lot of military paperwork showing that I had gradually identified myself as a Buddhist. I also had a lot of conversations with my superiors where I talked about being an objector and being a Buddhist, and they went on the record and said, "Yes, he's talked about it progressively throughout the deployment." That really did a lot to establish my sincerity.
The command was extremely hostile to me, and there were all kinds of punitive measures. They wouldn't let me go on leave. They took my ballistic armor away -- they told me that I didn't need the hard plate that goes inside your flak jacket, the part that actually protects you against bullets. They said that because I was an objector and I wasn't going to fight, I wouldn't need it. This proved not to be the case; when we got to Abu Ghraib, there was continuous mortar shelling. I did the whole year's deployment without that plate. I really feel that was more maliciously motivated than anything else.
Also, I was socially ostracized. A lot of my fellow soldiers didn't want to eat with me or hang out with me or go on missions with me. They felt I was untrustworthy because I was critical of the war and I was a Buddhist. My command "lost" my CO [Conscientious Objector] paperwork or misdirected it. They'd say, "We lost your copy, you'll have to do it again."
I eventually got my home leave back because I threatened my commander that I was going to have them prosecuted for discriminating against me on religious grounds. My company commander, my company first sergeant, and my battalion commander had all decided they were not going to let me leave -- they said I couldn't go home on a two-week leave because I wouldn't come back. My stance was that they were just doing this because I'm a Buddhist and they didn't agree with my beliefs, and I was going to get the ACLU and the World Congress of Buddhists involved. Ultimately, they decided it wasn't worth the headache.
You were a mechanic, right? Were you going out on patrols?
Yes, I was a mechanic and I primarily worked on vehicles. But because I spoke Arabic -- I was the only one in my company who spoke any Arabic -- I ended up, especially in the south, doing a lot of mission support with military police (MPs) to speak to local people, usually to buy things or trade or exchange money. I would also help MPs get around in the city. I got to meet a lot of local Iraqis and see a different side of things. After Nasiriyah, I didn't do any more translating because by that point I had made my CO status request. I had been very critical of the war and the command knew I was not going to play ball, so they kept me far away from Iraqis and prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
Let's talk about Abu Ghraib. When you first arrived there in November 2003, wasn't that right around the time all the abuse that eventually made the papers was taking place?
We heard about that in late December or early January. We heard that someone had sent a tape to CNN and they had been abusing the prisoners in some way. We didn't know how, so the nature of the abuse was a shock. But that they were abusing [prisoners] was not news to us -- we had known about that for a long time.
What kind of abuse did you witness?
There were prisoners who were beaten severely -- to within an inch of their lives -- for various infractions like disrespect or refusing to move. [They were] horribly brutal beatings.
There were a number of prisoners that I know of who were killed for throwing stones during a riot. I shouldn't say riot; it was more like a disturbance. I talked with a guy who shot several of the prisoners. The prisoners were protesting the conditions -- lack of food, lack of cigarettes -- and they were marching around the yard. Some of them started picking up stones and throwing stones at the guards. They deployed extra military police to quell the disturbance. At first, they had rubber bullets and tear gas, but they ran out of that, and it wasn't really effective. At some point -- I'm not sure who authorized it -- the guards requested the right to use lethal force and opened fire with a machine gun, and ultimately killed several prisoners for throwing stones. The guards testified that they felt they were in danger, so they opened fire. The military accepted that. There wasn't any inquiry, and no one glanced an eye at the dead prisoners. This was for throwing stones. The world community has roundly condemned Israel for shooting Palestinans for throwing stones. And that happened at Abu Ghraib.
Did you personally witness the incident in which the prisoners were shot?
Actually, I wasn't there. I was segregated in the motor pool when it happened, but I ended up getting photos from people who shot the prisoners -- [the photos] were treated as trophies and were circulated in our company. It was not a secret; everyone knew about it. All the members of the unit were passing [photos] around, and they posted them in the command center for everyone to see. This was something they were proud of. It was a very macho thing to shoot unarmed prisoners. One guy was a local hero for the week because he'd killed X number of prisoners -- one of the prisoners he had shot in the groin had taken three days to die. This was something people were laughing and joking about. This guy was strutting around after having killed these prisoners and I remember just being utterly sickened. We were soldiers, and to shoot an unarmed, caged prisoner was not something to be proud of. Abu Ghraib and all the prisoner abuse [came out of] this atmosphere of brutality.
Can you give more accounts of the day-to-day brutality at Abu Ghraib?
We talk about the Geneva Conventions a lot, but most people haven't read the Geneva Conventions and don't know what they say. [One thing] they say [is] that prisoners can't be held in an injurious climate. Abu Ghraib was extremely cold, and one of the ways guards used to control prisoners was to remove their clothing and tents, leaving them exposed to 30-degree weather. That's a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Another provision of the Conventions is that prisoners have to be protected. We were taking constant mortar and artillery bombardment [at Abu Ghraib] from the insurgents outside the prison. Of course, [the prisoners] weren't protected; they were in open tents, and over 50 of them were killed because they were out in the open, they couldn't flee, and they had no cover. I remember fearing for my life many times -- and I had a flak vest, a helmet, and shelter. I can't imagine being a prisoner, hemmed into a barbed-wire lot with no overhead protection, no protective clothing, and no air raid shelter. When there were bombs falling, they just had to sit and hope they didn't get killed.
I'm not really interested in naming names or getting culprits caught; I'm just interested in letting people know that what happened in Abu Ghraib was not an anomaly. It was virtually standard operating procedure.
Another incident I heard about was that a prisoner had shot a guard in the chest with a smuggled-in handgun. The guard didn't die, but [the guards] retaliated by shooting [the prisoner] in the leg and the side with a shotgun. His leg had been broken by the shotgun blast and was hanging off by an odd angle. They were taking this guy to a hospital to get medical treatment for his broken leg, and dragged him on his snapped leg and then threw him into the back of a truck. Granted, this was a man who had attempted to kill a guard. There was no question that he was a dangerous individual -- but he was not dangerous at that moment, handcuffed, with a bag over his head and a broken leg. To drag him on that broken leg and to toss him in the back of a truck was additional brutality that wasn't professional and wasn't humane.
What else did you witness at Abu Ghraib?
I worked in the radio headquarters of Abu Ghraib for a while. They were once again trying to punish me by putting me in an undesirable job. While I was there, I ended up reviewing the prisoner records and looking over the offenses of the people who were in Abu Ghraib prison. I found out that most of them were actually not there for anti-coalition offenses. They weren't insurgents. Most of them were there for petty theft, drunkenness, forged documents, really minor crimes.
Who would arrest them for these kinds of crimes?
We were the depository for the Iraqi justice system; they didn't have their own prisons. Iraqi judges would sentence criminals, and a lot of them would end up coming to Abu Ghraib prison. The military would also do random sweeps if they received fire or were attacked from a certain area; they would just arrest everyone of a certain age in that area and take them to Abu Ghraib for questioning. Most of them would be cleared, but the process took so long that you'd end up being in Abu Ghraib for six months to a year before being released. I felt very vindicated last week when a report came out from the Pentagon that talked about the reasons the Iraqis are so upset. One of the reasons [had to do with] these random sweeps and detentions. Family members or friends would get taken to a military prison for a year, for nothing. That was definitely highly immoral, if not illegal -- and counterproductive, because of the animosity it generated.
How many prisoners are at Abu Ghraib?
I can't say exactly, because I might get in trouble with the army, but several thousand. It would fluctuate on a daily basis. There was a shuffling going on between Abu Ghraib, Basra, Umm Qasr, and lesser prison camps along the way. There was a continual shifting of prisoners. That would really upset the local Iraqis because sometimes relatives would be shuffled around between these prisons. Someone who was arrested in Baghdad might be sent out to Basra in the far south of the country and be out of contact with their relatives and in the process of being shuffled around. A lot of the paperwork got mishandled or mismanaged, so people wouldn't know where their relatives were. I encountered that routinely in the operations command. Relatives would come, trying to track down a prisoner, but we didn't know [where he was.]
How many of the guards or others working at Abu Ghraib are prison guards or police officers in the United States?
A relatively high percentage. Out of my unit of 140, I would say at least 30 were police officers or correctional officers.
Do you think a connection can be drawn between the criminal justice system and the prisons in the United States and the people who were working at Abu Ghraib?
I don't have much direct experience with corrections in the U.S., but what I hear from news reports is that the corrections system in America is rife with brutality and misconduct as well. So I'm not really surprised that they transplanted the misbehavior from American prisons overseas. At least in America there's some sense of responsibility; a prisoner has some recourse to seek redress. Over there, they are literally anonymous prisoners, and there is nothing they can do. The guards have absolute authority -- life and death authority.
One of the things that disturbed me about Abu Ghraib was that the soldiers [claimed] they didn't know it was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. They said they didn't know that it was wrong, they didn't have experience in handling prisoners. But if my company was indicative of the rest of the guards at Abu Ghraib, there was a high percentage of police officers and correctional officers; there was plenty of experience with felons. They knew what the standard was for humane treatment of prisoners. That sort of defense rings hollow.
Did you ever try to report these kinds of incidents?
No, I never did -- I didn't have good credibility in my unit, because I was known to be a liberal. I was a pacifist, I was against violence, and I was very critical of the war, so no one took me seriously. My command was very hostile to me because I was in the process of trying to get my conscientious objector status. I thought that what they did was immoral, but I thought that if the command was sympathetic they could easily find some legal basis for it. So I decided that nothing would happen [if I spoke out] because the command accepts what they did. There was no outrage about what they did, so there was not going to be any punishment. What I needed to do was to go home and try them in the court of public opinion.
You spent most of your formative years in Egypt. Here in America there has been a lot of racism against Arabs for a long time and it really increased after 9/11. How did that affect the army?
I think racism is a key motivating factor in the war. We witnessed a Marine kick a six-year-old child in the chest for bothering him about food and water. People in my unit used to break bottles over Iraqi civilians' heads as they drove by in their Humvees. A senior enlisted man in my unit lashed Iraqi children with a steel antenna because they were bothering him.
The only way people can do these sorts of things -- which would never be acceptable in America -- is [because of] the notion that Iraqis are somehow related to terrorists and 9/11. We completely dehumanize them. I used to come into conflict with other members of my unit who were doing these things, and [tell them] it was wrong. It made me really unpopular, the radical notion that you should treat Arabs or Iraqis as human beings.
Why did you decide to speak out about your experiences in Iraq?
At first, I just wanted to live quietly and leave the whole experience behind me. [But then] people started asking me about my war experiences. In a way, my first discussion was a response to all these people. I thought I would have a forum and talk to everybody at once and I would never have to tell anyone else ever again. As I went along, it snowballed and I gave a talk to [my] community -- and that's when 400 people showed up.
After I spoke, people were really moved by what I had said. I received several offers to speak on college campuses in Florida. I don't think the American people are bad or willfully making wrong decisions. I think they're making misinformed decisions. If they had some more information, they wouldn't support the war and their views would change. That's really my goal, to create a sense of critical thinking, of disbelief, a sense of responsibility for the negative consequences of the war.
Have you made any links with other veterans who feel the way you do?
Yes. St. Pete for Peace is a group I've worked for, also Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Common Sense. My concern is that some of these groups haven't been very effective in creating a cogent movement. I feel that if I can personally draw 400 people with a slideshow, there's no reason why a group like Iraq Veterans Against the War shouldn't be able to draw an audience of thousands. I look around America and am dismayed by how the war is on the back burner for people -- it's not in their consciences. I want to make it something that's on the forefront of peoples' minds every day, rather than something you see occasionally on the news when something particularly bad happens.
--Scott Fleming is a criminal defense attorney and occasional journalist from Oakland, Calif. This interview is excerpted from one that will appear in LiP Magazine in March.