As he writes in his memoir, former soldier and Buddhist Aidan Delgado has been called everything from a “man of principle” to a communist “barking moon-bat” for his decision to become a conscientious objector while serving in Iraq and his activism since then to protest the war and call attention to atrocities committed by American soldiers.

Earlier this week, ReligionWriter reviewed Delgado’s book, The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq. Today she interviews him about his “homecoming” to Buddhism, his decision to join the military and whether he could have done more to protest abuses while still in the Army.

ReligionWriter: You were raised by American parents in Egypt, Thailand and Senegal, but what was your religious background?

Aidan Delgado: Both of my parents were strongly suspicious of all religions, and they encouraged me from an early age to be a critical thinker. While my family lived in Thailand, my father was nominally a Buddhist, wearing a Buddhist medallion, meditating from time to time, and generally being sympathetic to Buddhist philosophy, but he’s not very observant now. The short answer is no, I wasn’t raised with any religion.

RW: What drew you to Buddhism?

Delgado: I was taking class on Buddhism at college before my enlistment. I hadn’t been paying attention or doing the reading, but after I enlisted on Sept. 11, I withdrew from college and had nothing to do for about a month before I started Basic Training. I had always had an intellectual interest in Buddhism, which started when I was very young. When I finally had this chance to read about it thoroughly and deeply, I had this sense of homecoming. Buddhism seemed very natural and realistic and it validated my own experience of the impermanence of life. It was not so much that I converted, but that I recognized I was already a Buddhist.

RW: Does Buddhism have a formal conversion process and did you take that step?

Delgado: There are many conversion rituals, but the most common is “taking refuge.” But I didn’t do any of those things; I didn’t talk about it with anyone. I was so unsure of who I was then. I wasn’t very serious about Buddhism until well into my deployment in Iraq. The only external show of conversion I made at that time was when I enrolled in Basic Training, I put down “Buddhist” as my religious preference.

RW: You write in your memoir about bursting into tears as an 11-year-old when your father asked you to kill a fish. Given that revulsion toward violence, what were you thinking when you joined the military?

Delgado: I’m still unsure. I wanted a break from college; I wasn’t doing very well there. At that time, the violence seemed abstract. I guess I was thinking I’d blunder my way through and make things work out as they went along. I didn’t have a realistic perception of the requirements of being in the military. A lot of the sensitivity I had as a child had been subsumed into the macho attitude of a 19-year-old.

RW: Do you feel you made a mistake in joining the Army?

Delgado: It was a mistake in one regard: I am not morally on board with the military and what they are doing. But in a larger sense, I think it was a benefit. You need to have questioning, critical people on the scene when things like Abu Ghraib are happening. I tried to influence my peers, to bear witness to what was happening, so in that sense it wasn’t a mistake.

RW: What did you have to prove in order to win your conscientious objector status?

Delgado: I had to prove a firm, fixed, sincere objection to war, all wars. You can object for philosophical, religious or moral reasons, but you can’t be selective and say another type of war might be justified. You can’t have a practical or utilitarian objection, like saying, “This war is not an effective foreign policy.”

You have to prove your objection through your conduct. Membership in a religious sect is taken as evidence of sincerely held belief, but it’s not enough. You can’t just say, “I’m a Buddhist, therefore I’m an objector.” I had to show, through my written statement and my interview with the officer appointed to my case, that I had conspicuously demonstrated my beliefs.

RW: And how did you demonstrate your beliefs?

Delgado: I had become a vegetarian, so all my MREs were vegetarian. My sergeant testified that I had not only declined to use my weapon in Iraq, but I had declined to step on ants or kill flies. That made quite an impression, given how many flies there were in


RW: You had the luxury of being able to interpret Buddhism to those deciding your case. Would it have been more difficult to be awarded CO status if you were, say, a Protestant or Catholic?

Delgado: The first sergeant who was assigned to my case ran into a Buddhist chaplain [working with a South Korean military unit] and asked for his advice. The chaplain said something like, “That’s not right, you can be a Buddhist in the military.” There are many interpretations, and he had his own. Historically, for example, there have been a great number of Catholic conscientious objectors and yet many Catholics do serve in the military. Belief is not monolithic.

RW: According to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, there are now about 2,500 identified Buddhists in the U.S. Armed Forces. How do you answer that chaplain’s argument, that reconciling Buddhism and militarism is in fact possible?

Delgado: My captain did take me aside and say, “You know, you’re not the only Buddhist in the Army.” I was ready to answer that question to the officer who interviewed me for my application, but he never asked. I would have said that although the view that practicing Buddhism means pacifism is not universal, it is well-supported by scripture and an overwhelming number of scholars.

RW: In your view, does Buddhism allow for self defense?

Delgado: Yes, but, self defense must always be limited by a mindset of loving kindness. In my mind, being in that compassionate state of mind makes it almost impossible to kill someone. There is a story about a pirate who was taking over a ship and planning to harm everyone on it. The Buddha killed him to prevent him from incurring vast negative karma. Some say this story allows Buddhists to kill others if there is a karmic benefit. But I think the point of the story is only the Buddha could make a decision like that. It takes more than human wisdom. Otherwise, it just becomes a utilitarian argument: “We’re killing Iraqis, yes, but we’re saving more lives in the long run.”

RW: Growing up overseas, or being a “third-culture kid,” seemed to influence you a great deal. Was it part of the reason you decided to object?

Delgado: It was a pivotal element in my decision. If you have no idea who you are fighting, then you don’t care about those people. I had a very clear sense of who those other people – the Iraqis – were, especially because I had lived in Cairo. Growing up overseas was not the reason I objected, but it gave me a window into the enemy’s world.

RW: You imply toward the end of your book that people who live in other cultures are more moral than those who live in one place.

Delgado: Growing up overseas doesn’t give you golden halo on your head, no. But at least if you decide something, for example that you don’t approve of Muslims and Arabs, you can decide that on the basis of life experience. In the Army, I found a big difference among soldiers who had deployed in the first Gulf War, for example. They had a much clearer idea of what Islam is and why the Iraqis were fighting that soldiers on their first deployment in Iraq. 

RW: Looking back, do you wish you had done more to stop the abuses you saw at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq? 

Delgado: I think I did as much as I could do. I did go up to soldiers and say, “Don’t put your gun in that guy’s face, don’t treat the Iraqis that way.” But as a single, isolated private, there was a limit to what I could do. If I were in a command position, of course, it would have been much different.

RW: What advice would you have for those enlisting now in the military?

Delgado: I enlisted very naively. My advice would be: Do some serious moral thinking about participation in the military. Signing up, I think most people would say, “No, I don’t want to kill anyone.” If you’re just a cog in a big machine, it’s easy to rationalize your involvement and still think you’re a good person. You should realize that whether you pull the trigger or not, you have some culpability.

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1 Comment so far

  1. Scott Kohlhaas on August 11, 2007 3:40 am

    Thanks for everything you are doing!

    Would you be willing to spread the word about It’s a site dedicated to shattering the myths surrounding the selective slavery system and building mass civil disobedience to stop the draft before it starts.

    Our banner on a website, printing and posting the anti-draft flyer or just telling friends would help.


    Scott Kohlhaas

    PS. When it comes to the draft, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

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