Everyone has their 9/11 story — “What were you doing when the planes hit?” — but Aidan Delgado’s surely deserves the prize for Most Ironic. He was at an Army recruiting office, signing on the dotted line for an eight-year enlistment with the Army Reserve, seeking to escape the “elitism” and “petty sophistication” of his college life. Just then, Delgado writes in his memoir, out this month from Beacon, his recruiter said, “‘Hey, you should come see what’s on TV. Something just hit the World Trade Center.” The events set in motion that morning led directly to Delgado’s deployment in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib, and his resulting decision to become a conscientious objector.

“I’m going to shoot one of you f—ers!”

Delgado describes how his Iraq war began in April 2003, as he landed in Kuwait City. He stepped out of the plane, and the hot, dry air hit him “full in the face.” A moment of encountering the strange and unfamiliar? Not at all. Delgado, raised overseas in Thailand, Senegal and Egypt, found the desert smell “somehow comforting, familiar,” reminding him of a junior-high trip to Kuwait to compete in a regional trivia competition. His ease in foreign cultures made Buddhism, when he discovered it in college, a natural fit.

After a few days in Kuwait, Delgado headed north with his unit to the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah. Although trained as a mechanic and therefore largely confined to the American military base, he often accompanied the military police on missions because of his rudimentary knowledge of Egyptian Arabic. On one hot, tense mission, Delgado saw a friend of his, an MP, point his gun at the head of an Iraqi, shouting, “I swear to God, one of these days I’m going to shoot one of you f—ers.”

For Delgado this incident was revelatory: “I see it in stark relief now, an undercurrent of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment.” Delgado, however, feels himself to be a category apart: “Because of my background overseas, anti-Arab sentiment doesn’t happen to be one of my problems.”

One night, awake by himself after finishing Stephen King’s Misery, Delgado contemplates his own death and is paralyzed by a terror and dread of Buddhist hell. “I feel an enormous pressure on my chest, as if someone were squeezing my heart.” He thinks of the suffering unleashed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: “I have helped bring a little piece of hell to earth.” With this realization, he writes, “Something in my chest cracks open and I feel an explosion of mercy and sorrow and empathy.” All these feelings lead him to a simple conclusion: “The plain truth is that I have no desire to fight anyone, even those I am supposed to call my enemy.” He began the process of filing for conscientious objector status.

Because he was already pursuing CO status by time his unit was transfered to Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in fall 2003, Delgado’s first-hand contact with prisoners was limited, but he was sufficiently horrified by what he saw and heard secondhand from fellow soldiers. Most graphic was a photo he saw of an MP pretending to eat the brains of a dead Iraqi who was shot during a protest over living conditions at the prison. Writes Delgado: “All the violence and hate that’s been building will be unleashed, now that the [American] guards have the Iraqi [prisoners] under their thumbs.”

Delgado’s claim to CO status, rooted in his assertion that he cannot be a good Buddhist and perpetuate a war, even as a mechanic, is granted, albeit only after he’s completed his tour in Iraq. He returns to Florida, is discharged from the Army, completes college and begins his work as an activist opposing the war.

Sympathy, up to a point

Reading Delgado’s memoir is a bit like reading a book about a bad divorce. Of course you sympathize with the spouse who lies awake at night, feeling they will die inside if they remain in the marriage one day longer. But then, well, didn’t you sign up for this? And what about the children — in this case, Delgado’s fellow soldiers, who also suffer through their deployment, but rely on one another to make it through? If Delgado was so deeply opposed to violence — he recalls bursting into tears as child when asked to kill a fish — what was he thinking when he signed on the dotted line?

When the men around him ostracized, ridiculed and even physically attacked him, however, Delgado wrote that he was secure in his decision. “Honestly, there’s no name that anyone could call me that I haven’t already called myself, in the darkest recesses of my heart: coward, traitor, weakling, dreamer, fanatic.”

But it seems some words are missing from that list, and from Delgado’s assessment of himself: Is CO status a refuge available only for those articulate and educated enough to take it? While Delgado relies on Buddhism to make his application, it is clear that his experience as a “third-culture kid” growing up overseas is much of what made the war so difficult for him — and also part of what motivated him to sign up for the quintessentially American experience of being a soldier. Like many third-culture kids, he both hungers for a sense of national belonging (relishing the moments of sitting around with fellow soldiers “debating Ford versus Chevy”) and is horrified by the crude nativism and cultural insularity he sees in born-and-bred Americans around him.

All that being said, Delgado is of course quite brave. He puts up with the extreme stress of not only surviving in Iraq (now stripped of his gun and body armor) but also withstanding the hostility of his fellow soldiers. Yes, his motivations may be as much sociological as religious, but absolute purity of intention is not for the military, or any human being, to judge: Indeed, the U.S. Army agreed that he had a right to leave the military on good terms.

His story is a reminder of what Kevin “Seamus” Hasson, founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argued last year at a Pew Forum event: that the very existence of the conscientious objection allowance, first granted to Quakers by Lincoln, is a public good:

The lesson the Quakers taught us over 200 years ago [is] that conscience is special. Conscience is something good in our society. It’s a human good, and it deserves special attention. … It may be inconvenient with military operations if somebody’s not willing to fight, and it may be inconvenient if somebody’s not willing to take an oath or get vaccinated. But overall, conscience and moral principles are good things for society, and we as a society should recognize that.

Coming Wednesday: ReligionWriter interviews Aidan Delgado

» » » » » »


1 Comment so far

  1. "Whether You Pull the Trigger or Not..." Q+A with Aidan Delgado : Religion Writer.com on August 8, 2007 7:39 am

    […] this week, ReligionWriter reviewed Delgado’s book, The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq. Today she interviews him […]

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind

FireStats icon Powered by FireStats
E-mail It