Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Person of Conscience

Back in 2006 I had the opportunity of meeting Camilo Mejia, the US Army staff sergeant who famously refused to return to Iraq at the end of his leave on the grounds of conscience. He spoke to a small group of us at the Miami Friends Meeting, and once again I was greatly impressed by the quiet power of the truth when it is told.

As he talked, the story unfolded of how he was sent to Iraq after nearly completing an eight-year term of enlistment. So we noted that for eight years this dual citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica had voluntarily served his country of residence in a difficult and demanding role.

Suddenly, however, he and his unit were thrust into guard duty at a "detention camp" in Iraq. The first thing they were told was never to refer to their facility as a "prisoner of war camp." This, he later concluded, was because it didn't meet the international standards for such a camp. For example, there were no doctors at the facility, and few medical resources.

The second thing they learned was that the people in charge of the camp (whom they called "spooks") were not to be identified. These men were not in the military. They wore no insignias and had no names or titles. But they were in charge, and the army had to follow their orders. We can only speculate what shadowy agency of our government these people represented.

Mejia and the men under his command quickly discovered that their job in this facility amounted to torturing those interred -- at least those who had been identified as "armed combatants." (A classification, he explained, that might include a shepherd who kept a rifle to defend his flock.) Other inmates who were only "suspects" were merely kept captive, but those with the "armed combatant" designation were kept awake for days on end by being kept standing, by exposure to loud noises (imagine a heavy hammer hitting a concrete wall right next to your ear in a loud and echoing room), or by immersion in cold water.

Can you imagine being in cold water and not allowed to come out? Of course you can. Just think about lying in the bath until the hot water turns uncomfortably cold, how the skin shrivels up on the pads of your fingers. Or remember being in the swimming pool until it feels like time to get out and lie in the sun. Except you can't. How long could you stay there? How many hours? A day? Longer? What if you needed a bathroom during that time?

Our government is on record denying that it has used "torture" methods in its treatment of captives. I would suggest that anyone who believes that should try being subjected to the kind of conditions that prevailed in the camp where Mejia and his fellow soldiers were stationed. Then they should decide for themselves if those conditions amount to torture or not.

Of course, the prisoners were not the only victims of their treatment. Hundreds of young American soldiers were equally brutalized by being forced to commit actions that run counter to all standards of humane treatment and human decency. Mejia has said that he now feels that he let his men down by not working harder to oppose the situation they found themselves in.

Mejia did not immediately rebel against what he was ordered to do. While serving, he followed orders and did his best to insure that the men serving under him did likewise, while doing what he could to insure their well-being under exceedingly difficult circumstances.

His awakening of conscience was a gradual process that only began once he returned home on leave. He found himself failing to make travel arrangements to return to duty. A day went by ... another ... and then a day came when he realized he was not going back, that he had made a decision to object to what he was being asked to do.

Such an objection on moral grounds has long been recognized as a right of citizens in the United States, and is provided for by appealing for Conscientious Objector status, which is what Mejia did. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to a year in prison--which is, unfortunately, the lot of many others in our history who have claimed Conscientious Objector status only to be refused.

This moral judgment is no more or less than what the world thought the Nazis should have done instead of blindly obeying orders during World War II. And our professed ignorance of what is going on in Iraq (as in Guantanamo and elsewhere) is not unlike that of the German nationals who claimed "they did not know" what was being done to the Jews.

Well, after listening to Mejia's first-hand report, I have to admit that I do know. And now, having read this, so do you.

Want to know more? Look for his book, The Road from Ar Ramadi, or consult www.freecamilo.com.

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