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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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

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