Editor’s Note: The following interview with Spc. Aidan Delgado, a conscientious objector who spent six months of a one-year tour of Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison, appears in the Spring 2005 issue of LiP Magazine. Delgado will be presenting a slideshow and talk about his experiences on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2005 (Iraqi election day), in San Francisco at the Beta Lounge, 1072 Illinois at 22nd Street, at 7:30. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
A idan Delgado, 23, was a Florida college student looking for a change when he decided to join the army reserve. It was his misfortune to sign an enlistment contract on the morning of September 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 yearlong tour in Iraq, he was openly questioning whether he could participate in the war there 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 in the middle of 2003, 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 out of the army, Delgado says the prison abuse that has been covered by the likes of 60 Minutes and the New Yorker 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-September 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 September 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 September 11, I felt morally superior-I joined before it was popular to do so. Afterwards, when I saw the September 11 feelings being redirected-Afghanistan was one thing, but then they started turning it toward Iraq-my feelings of patriotism waned.
It wasn’t long after 9/11, maybe six months, that the Bush administration started publicly building the 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 US.
How hard was it to get conscientious objector
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 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. 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 to speak to local people, usually to buy things or trade or exchange money. 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 conscientious objector 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 batted 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. 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.
Tell me more about 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 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 other 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?
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. 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 recently 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 military personnel 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 US, 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. In Iraq, 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 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.
How did the post-9/11 increase in racism affect the army?
This is really key to understanding the Iraq conflict. There is so much anti-Arab sentiment in America after September 11, and we don’t want to talk about it or think about it. I don’t think the soldiers knew any words for the Iraqis besides “haji,” which is a term like “Charlie” or “gook” for the 21st Century. There is such disdain for them as individuals and as prisoners.
I think racism is a key motivating factor in the war. We witnessed a Marine kick a 6-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 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.
Did you find the dehumanization and the racism to be different between the white soldiers and the soldiers of color?
No. I think it’s interesting that groups that might have racial tension in America can successfully coexist in the army. There are much higher percentages of different minorities, but racial tensions among Americans simply dissolved in favor of a united front against Iraqis. Their unified hatred of Iraqis was a sick form of harmony.
When I was in Iraq, it was pretty early in the occupation, and things hadn’t gotten quite as ugly as they did later. A lot of the soldiers I talked to really wanted to believe that they were there to give the Iraqis democracy. How do those two things go together? How can you, on the one hand, be there to give these people their god-given rights as human beings, and on the other hand be breaking bottles over their heads because they’re different from you?
I think that one played off the other. At first there was a sense of liberation, getting rid of a dictator, freeing people. As the insurgency got stronger, there was a monstrous feeling of ingratitude. Americans felt like, “We’re here helping these people and look how they treat us.” What I think fed a lot of this animosity toward Iraqis was the sense that they were rejecting our help and our support.
When I was there, I used to ask soldiers routinely why we were in Iraq, and most people told me-pretty uniformly-that we were here because of September 11. I remember asking at the time, “Don’t you understand that these are not the people who attacked us and they had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, and that in fact this regime was the enemy of Al Qaeda”? That never really sunk in. They really wanted to believe that this was somehow a response to 9/11. I think the democracy element was something that the politicians played up, and some of the higher-ups in the army tried to play up, but on the ground, I think the real driving force was a sense of retribution about September 11.
How did people react when you told them that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11?
It was just disbelief. In the best-case scenario, they’d say, “Well, that’s your opinion and we’ll agree to disagree.” In the worst case scenario, it would be, “Well, you’re just a sympathizer,” or, “You’re against George Bush.” In my mind, it wasn’t political to say that they weren’t connected; it was just a statement of fact. Even the president has now admitted that. Al Qaeda had been opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime for a long time. Hussein’s regime was very secular and had been an enemy of Al Qaeda. I knew this as a layman before going into the Iraq war, and I thought it was just unbelievable that soldiers were not more informed about why they were fighting.
What was the feeling among the troops when it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction?
There was almost a black humor about it, kind of an irony, like, “We’ll find them someday.” As the days drew on and it became more and more clear that we weren’t going to find them, the media did a little switch-very successfully-where the focus went from finding WMDs to liberating the Iraqis. The soldiers also transitioned. They thought, “Well, we didn’t find WMDs, but we’re still bringing democracy.” No one really was taken aback by it unless they were already critical of the war. They didn’t really skip a beat when we didn’t find any WMDs.
I was waving the newspaper in people’s faces, saying, “You see, even the White House admitted there were no WMDs.” It really didn’t register with people.
Where do soldiers get their news and information?
The most common source is Stars and Stripes, which is an armed forces newspaper. My opinion is that Stars and Stripes was definitely biased towards the military. It’s directly overseen by the military; its purpose is to boost the morale among soldiers. Obviously, it’s one-sided. They did a series of on-the-ground interviews with soldiers about conditions in Iraq. I remember reading the results of the survey and laughing when they said, “Oh, the soldiers are happy with the conditions and morale is high, and everyone still believes in their mission.” Our response was, “Who the hell did Stars and Stripes talk to?” It was the only newspaper that was widely available so we had to rely on it for what it was worth, but I think even already-conservative people took it with a grain of salt. It was not an objective news source at all.
We did not have much TV. In Abu Ghraib, we had CNN and some American newspapers.
Was there internet access?
At Abu Ghraib there was. There was limited internet access in Nasiriyah, but it was so bad and so infrequent it almost wasn’t worth using. At Abu Ghraib there was pretty solid internet access. I think that’s why a lot of stuff at Abu Ghraib got out, because there was good communication with home.
How would you describe yourself politically?
Liberal Democratic, but I’m really not rabid. I’m not one of these demagogues who is just crazy about Bush and the war. I am very critical of the war but I’m critical for what I think are objective reasons that demonstrated that there was no need for the war, such as the absence of WMDs. These were the things that made me critical of the war.
Why do you think the US invaded Iraq?
It’s complicated, but I think that one thing we can all agree on is that they did not invade for the reasons that they said. I think that oil was definitely a factor, but I wouldn’t say it was the primary factor. Strategic value was a huge factor: We’re now building the largest CIA center in the world and establishing permanent bases in Iraq.
I also think there’s a huge element of pure racism, equating Arabs with September 11 and Al Qaeda, in the sense of, “We can’t get Osama bin Laden and we can’t get Al Qaeda, but we’ve got this other Arab group and that’s just as good.” I think that’s a huge motivation-that’s the only way you could sell it to the people, that feeling of outrage. There’s a whole slew of reasons why they went in. It was anything and everything except WMDs, liberation and democracy.
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 Soldiers 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 slide show, 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 lawyer and writer from Oakland, California. In 2003, he reported from Iraq as a special correspondent for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He can be reached at email@example.com.