CAMILO MEJIA, the first soldier to refuse deployment to Iraq, has joined the ranks of military veterans who have written classics that inspired antiwar movements.
Mejía’s memoir, Road from Ar Ramadi, is the story of an individual who held on to his humanity in the depths of the abyss to become forever changed–from a foot solider of U.S. empire to a steadfast rebel for peace.
Mejía’s work–written from the vantage of a soldier who served and saw firsthand the consequences of U.S. imperialism–cuts through the deceptions and lies used to justify the war.
Mejía’s background profoundly shaped his decision to join the military. He was born in Nicaragua to parents who were deeply involved with the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). In fact, Mejía’s father was a famous performer whose radio show and satirical songs criticized the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship and took up the plight of the poor.
When the FSLN took power in 1979, the contradictions of their victory were soon apparent. The leaders of the revolution grew rich. Mejía’s father employed a chauffeur, maid and gardener, and Mejía attended an elite school for the exclusive attendance of government officials’ children.
Meanwhile, the U.S. backed a mercenary army, the contras, to topple the fledgling Sandinista government, which introduced mandatory military service and found itself forced to constrain social spending.
When his parents separated, Mejía and his mother left Nicaragua for Costa Rica, a country where Nicaraguans often fled in search of jobs and to escape the war, which claimed over 50,000 lives. Nicaraguans took the worst-paying jobs and faced discrimination, often singled out for their darker skin.
Mejía was ridiculed at school and called derogatory names. He described the sharp transition in his life: “In Nicaragua, I had been a privileged child of the revolution…All that came to an end during the two years we spent in Costa Rica, and I became introverted and lonely.”
By 1994, Mejía’s grandmother had become a naturalized American citizen and obtained permanent resident status for his mother and him. They joined the ranks of Miami’s working poor. While his mother worked as a grocery cashier, Mejía flipped burgers and then attended night school. During his studies at a community college, his federal student financial aid was cancelled because, it was claimed, he made too much money.
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IT WAS in the midst of such hardships–in need of financial stability and money for tuition, but also in search of his place in the world–that Mejía joined the Army. As he explained, “I just wanted to be with a group of people with whom I shared something, to acquire a sense of belonging.”
But Mejía was to find out that the military’s promises came with strings attached. He served his four years on active duty with distinction; however, every soldier actually signs an eight-year contract, a reality that was never fully disclosed to him until he was separating from the Army.
In order to get additional funding for school, he then entered the National Guard. However, he soon learned that the Guard did not pay tuition at the private school he was attending.
Mejía describes the lies that are the bedrock of military recruitment. “I was disappointed in the system,” he writes. “It preyed on the vulnerability of people, exploiting the lack of options to get them to sign up, and subsequently tied them into service with the constant promise of benefits that were just around the corner.”
A bigger shock was still to come. In January 2003–with only months until he both graduated from college and completed his military contract–Mejía’s unit was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and his service was extended under a “stop-loss order.”
Mejía didn’t know that according to the law, “stop-loss” didn’t officially apply to non-citizens like himself; the military concealed this fact from him. He left with his unit for Jordan and ultimately to Ar Ramadi, the heart of the Sunni Triangle and the emerging Iraqi resistance.
Mejía’s “sense of belonging” to a “military family” began to fracture. He awakened to the realities of the military bureaucracy, an institution that mirrored the class divisions rampant in the civilian world.
A culture of competition for higher rank and wartime medals, including backstabbing and jockeying for power, exposed Mejía to the fact that the true enemy resided within the military itself. His National Guard unit was riddled with officers and career soldiers hell-bent on seeing combat in order to win the coveted Combat Infantry Badge, a prerequisite for higher rank.
From the beginning, Mejía’s unit, Charlie Company, was ill-equipped, rushed and unprepared. “Rumors that someone at the battalion level forged documents to get our units into combat more quickly were reinforced when we landed in Baghdad and found there was no unit waiting for us, no orders, no place to sleep, not even food or water,” Mejía reported.
In Ar Ramadi, what seemed on the surface to be the incompetence of the officers turned out to be, in fact, part and parcel of a master scheme based upon the slaughter of the Iraqi people, and paid at the price of U.S. soldiers’ lives.
As Mejía explained, “Somewhere there had been a meeting, in some fancy office, where some grand plan had been discussed by detached people. The plan required the loss of many lives in order to reach the goals, but it was all acceptable. My life and the lives of those in my unit were all part of that acceptable loss.”
Reminiscent of the Vietnam War, the lower ranks of Charlie Company were sent out on suicide missions to draw enemy fire. The unit would stay out on patrols that were longer than necessary and repeatedly occupy the same area at similar times–thus giving up the element of surprise.
It became obvious to Mejía that they were merely acting as bait and putting the lives of the rank-and-file soldiers in grave danger while the career officers sat in the protection of their air-conditioned rooms. When the death toll rose sharply in Charlie Company and as the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Mirable, ordered the same dangerous missions, rumors circulated that members of the company were plotting his assassination.
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MEJIA ALSO describes the U.S. military’s blatant racism and disregard for Iraqi culture, which angered the civilian population and fueled the resistance.
At Al Assad, his unit assisted in running an illegal detainee camp, operating at roughly the same time as the infamous brutality at Abu Ghraib. Prisoners deemed as “enemy combatants” were hooded and kept awake through acts of cruelty and disorientation.
Beyond Mejía’s exposure of the lies of occupation, the strength of his book is the humility with which Mejía explains the change within himself that led to his decision to follow his conscience and oppose war. Torn between his feelings of duty to his fellow soldiers and his growing opposition to an illegal and immoral war, Mejía, home on a two-week leave, decided he could no longer be a pawn for U.S. empire.
He decided that the new war he was prepared to fight in would 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.”
He went underground for five months and then applied for conscientious objector status. He then turned himself in to the military and faced a high-profile court martial. “I made my decision based on my understanding that this is a criminal, illegitimate war for empire,” he told reporters. “Had I died in the war, in my heart, I would have died a mercenary.”
At a time when the war was still supported by large numbers of people, Mejía became the first soldier to be sentenced and serve nine months in prison for resisting.
Mejía’s public denunciation of the war was a thorn in the side of the military that claimed to be building democracy and spreading freedom. But most importantly, he helped spark a new movement of dissent within the military, including a growing number of deployment refusals and the newly formed Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Road from Ar Ramadi should be read and shared with all as a potent aid to opposing military recruitment and as a testament to the power of speaking truth to empire from a working-class soldier–and hero–for our side.
MARTIN SMITH is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He can be reached at: email@example.com