On Camilo Mejía, Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía
Road from Ar Ramadi is the story of man who goes from being a privileged son of the Nicaraguan revolution to living in the U.S.A. without much promise to becoming a Florida National Guard infantry squad leader to acting as strong critic of the military and an unjust war. Mejía knew the war was wrong, and he eventually refused to go back. He refused to continue being part of the lie. He refused to go back if only for “his buddies.” He refused because of an individual, ultimate necessity: To act according to his own conscience, not social loyalty or conventional patriotism. He thus spent a year in prison. He dedicates his book: “To the war resisters, to those facing the imperial powers of the earth.” His is a story of waking up, claiming his own voice, and walking the walk.
Throughout the book Mejía struggles; none of this was easy for him. He acknowledges his own cowardice and weakness in refusing to speak up while in Iraq. I can see the traces in him of loyalty to the military, even as he denounces the “imperial powers on earth,” which rely on soldiers willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the disparity for the benefit of the empire. Here are some representative passages of Mejía’s inner and outer battles:
“My heart was racing as I witnessed all this; I found it wrong and shocking. But I didn’t want to appear upset in front of the other soldiers, who seemed okay with everything that was going on. I kept reassuring myself with the fact that the detainees were not being hit, although, by the way they were shaking, you could tell their distress and exhaustion were messing them up physically as much as psychologically.” 50
“I was in shock and awe myself, not so much because of the ruthless bombardment, but because of how the U.S. government had ignored international law and forced this war not only on Iraq but on the entire world.” 54
“The work at al Assad was one of the hardest missions I undertook while I was in Iraq, if not during my entire time in the military. On one hand I was completely against the way the prisoners in the camp were being treated. On the other, I was afraid of speaking up for them and appearing soft and weak as a squad leader, perhaps even of being charged with insubordination and court-martialed…. To this day I cannot find a single good answer as to why I stood by idly during the abuse of those prisoners except, of course, by my own cowardice.” 56
“This disheartening situation of being attacked by a resistance that we could never pin down would soon become the norm. The enemy we faced had no face, they had no units, no uniforms—we couldn’t see them but we knew they were everywhere, in the homes, behind the date palm trees; they watched us through the fog and through the sand, and from dark windows. They were in the alleys and streets, and in the marketplace as well as in the mosques. They were the sons and daughters of Iraq, and they were fighting for their land.” 81
“I regretted the face that being a U.S. soldier prevented me from experiencing the [Iraqi] culture in any significant way. 84 “If only we could bring peace to these people, not as foreign soldiers, but as fellow human beings, as citizens without borders.” 86 “I wanted to be their brother, but I couldn’t. I was an occupier.” 86
“The truth as I see it now is that in a war, the bad is often measured against what’s even worse, and that, in turn, makes a lot of deplorable things seem permissible. When that happens, the imaginary line between right and wrong starts to vanish in a heavy fog, until it disappears completely and decisions are weighed on a scale of values that is profoundly corrupt. That day I was wrong not to listen to what my better judgment was yelling at me. By ignoring it, I failed not only my own principles but also the one person who was taking a stand for what was right and decent.” 126
“I hadn’t just lost the freedom to think for myself as an individual with moral and spiritual values, independent from the military; I had also lost the freedom to accept the fact that I wasn’t free.” 134
“I wanted to be neither a hero nor a citizen, I just wanted to get out of a war I considered illegal. 189
“The truth was that I had abused prisoners despite knowing that it was wrong, because I was too afraid to take a stand against orders that undermined my morality. How could I ever teach my daughter right from wrong when I had done so much wrong myself? What moral authority did I have left to be a good father? As our time in Iraq continued and I became more and more preoccupied with the single task of surviving, these issues concerned me less and less. But now, at the door to Samantha’s home, they all came flooding back to me.” 207
“Trying to convince myself that going back to Iraq was the right thing to do had proved completely unsuccessful. The reasons I had used in the past to justify my involvement in the war no longer carried any weight. It still hurt me deeply to think that the soldiers in my squad might be injured or killed without my being there; we had become very close to one another during the war, and it wasn’t without much soul-searching that I quit my job as their combat leader. But I had come to realize that individuals have to make their own decisions based on their conscience.” 222
“This would be, first and foremost, a war waged within myself, one where my fears and doubts would come face to face with my conscience, a war to reclaim my humanity and my spiritual freedom. It would also be a war against the system I had come from, a battle against the military machine, the imperial dragon that devours its own soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike for the sake of profits. I had to turn my words into weapons, that speaking out was now my own way to fight.” 223
“In Iraq, I had seen and participated in the brutal and abusive treatment of prisoners and civilians but had lacked the courage to disobey orders. Now, faced with a moral duty to publicly refuse and resist the war, I was paralyzed once again, too weak to break the chains of my own fear. But looking at the faces of those children, from times and land unknown to me, I felt a new resolve and realized that I did have the strength to give myself up and to speak out when doing so. What’s more, I knew the Abbey was the place where I wanted it all to happen. I would go public with my denouncement of the war and my refusal to return to it in this place that had been dedicated to peace from its very beginning.” 238
Mejía spent many months in prison. Not a single person of the Bush Administration upper echelon who instigated the illegal aggression in Iraq has served an hour in prison.