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Refusing to commit war crimes—and testifying

Published Feb 23, 2008 11:11 PM

The Deserter’s Tale: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier Who Walked Away from the War in Iraqby Joshua Key

Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía by Camilo Mejía

Other books of interest: Letters from Fort Lewis Brig:A Matter of Conscience by Sgt. Kevin Benderman; Mission Rejected:U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraqby Peter Laufer; Dissent:Voices of Conscience—Government Insiders Speak Out Against the War in Iraqby Col. (Ret.) Ann Wright and Susan Dixon; Anti-War Soldier: How to Dissent Within the Ranks of the Military by Jonathan W. Hutto

“Trained to kill! Kill we will!” That’s what U.S. Army recruits must shout while marching to the mess hall for a meal. That’s all it took for Pvt. Jeremy Hintzman to know he had to get out. He was the first U.S. war resister from the Iraq war to seek refugee status in Canada.

It took a little longer for Pvt. Joshua Key, but he still was not rabid enough for them. If you fail to show sufficient enthusiasm, you’re “smoked.”

“They made me do push-ups, duck walks, crawl around on my hands and knees, and stand at attention while every man in my platoon hollered that I was a ‘useless asshole’ and a ‘stupid shit,’” says Pvt. Key in “The Deserter’s Tale.”

“One day, all 300 of us lined up on the bayonet range, each facing a life-size dummy that we were told to imagine was a Muslim man. As we stabbed the dummies with our bayonets, one of our commanders stood at a podium and shouted into the microphone: ‘Kill! Kill! Kill the sand n——-rs!’ We were made to shout out [the same thing]. While we shouted and stabbed, drill sergeants walked among us to make sure we were all shouting.”

That was basic training. Key remembers advanced training with the 43rd Combat Engineer Company. His officers repeated warnings, “If you feel threatened, kill first and ask questions later.”

“I had army chants buzzing through my head, like ‘Take a playground, fill it full of kids. Drop on some napalm, and barbecue some ribs.’”

The real thing was yet to come. In Iraq, Key’s first duty assignment was to set off explosives to blast open doors of Iraqi people’s homes, join a six-person assault team storming in to terrorize everyone inside, and take prisoner any male over 5 feet tall. “We put our knees on their backs, pulled their hands behind them, and faster than you can bat an eye we zipcuffed them. Zipcuffs are plastic cuffs that lock on tight. They must have bit something fierce into those men’s skin. ... The Iraqi brothers were taken away to an American detention facility for interrogation. ... I never saw one of them return to the neighborhoods we patrolled regularly.”

Later Key had to pull guard duty in front of a hospital in Ramadi, for weeks on end. A little girl who lived near the hospital would run up to the fence he was guarding and call out “the only English words she knew: ‘Mister, food!’”

Key said, “She was about seven years old. She had dark eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and—even for a young child—seemed impossibly skinny. She usually wore her school uniform—a white shirt with a blue skirt and a pair of sandals.’”

Several weeks into his guard duty at the hospital in Ramadi, Key said, “I was back at my post in front of the hospital. I saw the girl run out of her house, across the street, and toward the fence that stood between us. I reached for an MRE [meals ready to eat-ed.], looked up to see her about 10 feet away, heard the sound of semiautomatic gunfire, and saw her head blow up like a mushroom. ...

“My own people were the only ones with guns in the area, and it was the sound of my own people’s guns that I had heard blazing before the little sister was stopped in her tracks.”

The bulk of Pvt. Key’s duty in Iraq was “busting into and ransacking homes. ... Before my time was up in Iraq, I took part in 200 raids. ... We never found weapons or indications of terrorism. I never found a thing that seemed to justify the terror we inflicted every time we blasted through the front door.”

U.S. terrorists

“It struck me,” Key said, “that we, the American soldiers, were the terrorists.”

Joshua Key was a dirt-poor 19-year-old from Guthrie, Okla., married with two infant children, who was lured from his job delivering pizza by an Army recruiter. His experiences in Iraq “got me thinking,” he said. “How would I react if foreigners invaded the United States and did just a tenth of the things that we had done to the Iraqi people? I would be right up there with the rebels and insurgents, using every bit of my cleverness to blow up the occupiers.”

Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejía’s experiences were essentially identical to those of Pvt. Joshua Key, except he was a squad leader. When he and his squad were ordered to blast into an Iraqi home, he was responsible to make sure it was done properly. And to deal with his men afterward—including when the orders they carried out subjected them to unnecessary danger. Mejía said he and his men were ordered to “draw the enemy out” in “fierce firefights and roadside bomb attacks, most of which could easily have been avoided.” Tensions and resentment mounted, and “I heard rumors that soldiers in our unit were plotting [the commander’s] assassination.”

Both Mejía and Key had sufficient direct experience of being ordered to commit war crimes in Iraq that they had enough. As soon as they were allowed out of Iraq on leave, they decided not to come back. Mejía chose to refuse publicly and apply for conscientious objector status. He was rejected, and was sentenced to a year in military prison and a bad conduct discharge.

Key just left. He rejoined his wife and their then three small children, and went underground for over a year. Finally, after “googling” the Internet with “deserter needs help,” he got in touch with the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto.

“Sucking up the courage to drive to the border of my own country was the hardest thing I had ever done,” he said.

Camilo Mejía found support for his refusal here in the U.S.—first with the Citizen Soldier support organization and its legal director Todd Ensign, and later with the pacifist Peace Abbey, which gave him sanctuary until he turned himself in to fight for his right to be recognized as a conscientious objector.

Despite losing his case before the military kangaroo court, and serving nine months in military prison, Camilo Mejía came out of prison fighting, and has traveled around the country speaking and organizing. He is now the chairperson of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and deeply involved in building for the Winter Soldier Hearings to be held in mid-March in Washington, D.C.

A growing number of others have followed Mejía’s example. In December 2004, Navy Petty Officer Pablo Paredes from the Bronx refused to board ship in San Diego and sail to the Persian Gulf. He didn’t want to be “part of a ship that’s taking 3,000 Marines over there, knowing a hundred or more of them won’t come back.” He said he “never imagined, in a million years, we would go to war with somebody who had done nothing to us.”

After his May 2005 court-martial, Pablo Paredes was sentenced to three months hard labor while confined to base and then discharged. He then became a counselor for the GI Rights Hotline. That year the Hotline reported an estimated 32,000 individual callers, about 30 percent of whom were asking for help with being AWOL. Tens of thousands of GIs have gone AWOL since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. About 11,000 have deserted, according to Pentagon figures.

African-American GIs are not a visible part of the resistance community, which does not, of course mean Black GIs are not resisting. The Pentagon figures make it obvious that the vast majority of resisters are living underground in the U.S. And Canada is far less often perceived as an option for a young Black man, despite the fact that racism is less intense and strident in Canada than it is in the U.S.

Lt. Ehren Watada, who in January 2006 became the first officer to refuse to serve in Iraq, told the Veterans for Peace Convention in August of that year, “I speak with you about a radical idea. It is one born from the very concept of the American soldier (or service member). It became instrumental in ending the Vietnam War. ... The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.”

In November 2005, Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and veteran of 37 years in the Marine Corps, switched from supporting to opposing the U.S. war in Iraq. Why? “The future of our military is at risk,” he told Congress. “Many say the Army is broken. ... Choices will have to be made.”

The GIs who have refused made their choices. And they have begun to change history.

IVAW has found enormous interest and support among both veterans and active-duty GIs to testify at the Winter Soldier Hearings, set for March 13-16, about their experiences in Iraq. And the organization has become a potent force in organizing GIs both here in the U.S. and in Iraq, to oppose the illegal and racist orders they receive as standard operating procedure.

Most recently, IVAW has built vibrant chapters among active-duty soldiers at Fort Lewis, Wash., and Fort Drum, N.Y.—the major deployment points for combat duty in Iraq. It has chapters at other bases, including Fort Bragg, N.C., the “home of the Airborne”; Camp Pendleton Marine Base near San Diego, and Fort Hood in Texas.

IVAW has the strong support of Veterans for Peace, the Vietnam-generation group that has thousands of members nationally. The two generations of veterans have forged a strong bond, based on their common experience of having been ordered to commit war crimes in senseless wars of aggression. They also share the experience of finding strong support in the general population when they tell the truth they were forced to live: that the government had sent them to war with lies and terror. The truth they tell is hard to refute.