Camilo Mejia: private rebellion, public resistance

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by Susan Van Haitsma
also posted at makingpeace

When Camilo Mejia walked into the auditorium of UT’s Garrison Hall where he was to speak last Thursday night, his first reaction was to shake his head at the large book-cover images of himself that were projected onto screens in front. He’s a humble guy, and self-promotion is not his leaning.

But, he’s on the Resisting Empire speaking tour with the new Haymarket Books publication of The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia: An Iraq War Memoir, so he was in Austin to promote both the book and the mission of his fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War: immediate and unconditional withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq, adequate care for all veterans and reparations for Iraq.

With his youthful good looks, casual attire and backpack slung over his shoulder, Mejia could have been one of the many students in his audience. But, when he began to speak, his seriousness revealed a deeper level of experience. He invited the five other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War who were present to join him in the front and take questions from the crowd, creating an instant IVAW panel that personified the variety of membership within the rapidly growing organization.

As chair of the board of IVAW, Mejia reported that from 7 original members who organized the group in July 2004, IVAW membership has expanded to about 1400, including the most quickly growing contingent: active duty soldiers. One of the newest chapters formed at Ft. Hood this year.

Mejia stressed the importance of the camaraderie that he and other vets experience through their involvement with IVAW. The sense of shared purpose and belonging mirrors an aspect of military life they value. He also said that in his role with IVAW, he has learned a new sense of what leadership entails: “respect, communication and shared ideals,” rather than leadership based on fear and punishment that he was trained to demonstrate as an army staff sergeant.

Mejia’s primary message is that conscience, not combat, is the source of our freedom. When a soldier is in the midst of combat, it is very difficult to think about moral implications. “You’re under so much pressure; there’s so much fear, so much fatigue.” Soldiers can’t be expected to weigh right and wrong in the middle of a firefight. Drilled in reflexive fire training and armed with powerful weapons, they don’t have to get an order to kill civilians; they’re just thrown into situations where they do it. Mejia said that in the five months he was in Iraq, his unit killed 33 civilians. Only 3 were armed.

Mejia talked about following orders to abuse Iraqi prisoners. He describes this also in the new film, Soldiers of Conscience, a documentary that happened to air in Austin the same night that Mejia spoke here. While in Iraq, Mejia felt conflicted about what he was doing, but it wasn’t until he was home on a two week leave that he had the time and distance to really think about it. “Some people say, ‘once a soldier, always a soldier,'” he says in the film. “Well, once a human being, always a human being.”

Through his interviews, his appearances in documentaries like Soldiers of Conscience and The Ground Truth, his speaking tours and in his own incisive writing, Mejia has modeled what IVAW has been aiming to do as a group through the “Winter Soldier” hearings and panels. As he said in the concluding remarks of the initial Winter Soldier hearings held in March ’08 — now transcribed in a new book (also published by Haymarket Books), Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations,

“Iraq Veterans Against the War has become a source of stress to the military brass and to the government … We have become a dangerous group of people not because of our military training, but because we have dared to challenge the official story. We are dangerous because we have dared to share our experiences, to think for ourselves, to analyze and be critical, to follow our conscience, and because we have dared to go beyond patriotism to embrace humanity.”

Winter Soldier testimony from the March hearings can be seen on the IVAW website, and the book can be ordered there, too.

As terrible as it is to hear the testimonies of these veterans, it is even more terrible to have lived the stories, either as a soldier or as an Iraqi or Afghan civilian. As US Marine veteran Anthony Swofford writes in his foreword to Winter Soldier, “Do not turn away from these stories. They are yours, too.”

As I walked home from Mejia’s presentation, I passed the UT tower on which is inscribed the new testament passage, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I passed the Cesar Chavez statue that includes several Chavez quotes, such as “You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore,” and “You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.”

We don’t turn away from civil rights stories, from freedom movement stories, because they are our stories. Veterans who are using their voices and actions to try to stop war are joining this proud legacy, exchanging weapons for the power of truth. The freedom they are gaining is ours, too.

photo courtesy of Camilo Mejia

Daniel Ellsberg advances another direction

by Susan Van Haitsma, also posted at makingpeace

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When I attended the presentation at UT on Tuesday evening by Daniel Ellsberg, the concept of freedom of conscience was already on my mind. 

A few days prior, I had gone to a special commemoration of Gandhi’s birthday, where conscience was posed as a religious freedom issue by one of the speakers, a local war tax resister.  Souvenir bookmarks containing Gandhi quotes were distributed around the tables, and the one I happened to pick up read, “In matters of conscience, the law of majority has no place.”

Then, over the weekend, an inaugural conference was held in Austin, organized chiefly by the pastor and congregation of the Austin Mennonite Church.  The National Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience featured guest speakers Walter Wink (noted theologian and nonviolence trainer), Gene Stoltzfus (former director of Christian Peacemaker Teams) and Ann Wright, whose book, Dissent:  Voices of Conscience was published this year and includes a foreword by Daniel Ellsberg.  Conference panelists included conscientious objectors and GI resisters whose stories parallel those in Wright’s book.

Ann Wright spoke also at a book signing event at BookWoman on Monday, where matters of conscience, government, law, risk, family and the military were discussed by those present, including, again, several conscientious objectors.  The week seemed to come full circle with Ellsberg’s Austin appearance the following evening.

In conjunction with a UT conference planned for the coming weekend, Ellsberg was asked to compare what was happening in 1968 with what is happening now.  He packed a lot in – dates, names, places and people – while his primary message echoed what I had heard all week: truth can free us from war. 

Ellsberg did not talk much about the tragedies and tumult of 1968, but rather focused on what he saw and experienced as a government insider.   “1968 is a year I don’t like to relive,” he admitted.  He spent most of his time describing events leading up to that year, beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and the tangled web that was spun from it and later documented in the Pentagon Papers.  Ellsberg also recounted something about the less tangible factors that led to the escalation of the Indochina War – the human strengths and frailties of the political and military actors at that time, including him.

Ellsberg spoke with an intense clarity of memory, recounting the details of who said what when, what they probably meant and what they probably did or didn’t know at the time.  I sensed that in spite of the strange mix of pariah/hero status he attained following the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, he still is proud of the insider position he once held and perhaps even misses the feeling of closeness that resulted from being loyal to powerful people and knowing their secrets.  In fact, he said that being called a traitor is something he has never gotten used to.

In his talk, Ellsberg didn’t fully explain his inner change of heart, the private crisis of conscience that led him to shift from personal loyalty to the president and joint chiefs of staff to a more abstract loyalty to the Constitution and international law.  But, as he wrote in an article in Harpers in 2006 (quoted by UT’s Evan Carton during his introduction of Ellsberg),

“I had long prized my own identity as a keeper of the president’s secrets. In 1964 it never even occurred to me to break the many secrecy agreements I had signed, in the Marines, at the Rand Corporation, in the Pentagon. Although I already knew the Vietnam War was a mistake and based on lies, my loyalties then were to the secretary of defense and the president (and to my promises of secrecy, on which my own career as a president’s man depended). I’m not proud that it took me years of war to awaken to the higher loyalties owed by every government official to the rule of law, to our soldiers in harm’s way, to our fellow citizens, and, explicitly, to the Constitution, which every one of us had sworn an oath ‘to support and uphold.’  It took me that long to recognize that the secrecy agreements we had signed frequently conflicted with our oath to uphold the Constitution.”

More about the role of conscience in Ellsberg’s moral conflict can be found in a passage I read about ten years ago in Daniel Hallock’s collection of writings and interviews, Hell, Healing and Resistance: Veterans Speak. The book includes an interview with Ellsberg in which he recalls these pivotal personal events in 1968 and ’69:

“Now, two things affected my life at that point.  I’d been reading Gandhi since the spring of ’68, when I happened to meet people from the Quaker Action group at a conference in Princeton.  I had gone there to study counter-revolution, and they were there as nonviolent revolutionaries.  So I started reading MLK, Stride Toward Freedom, and Barbara Deming, who wrote an essay called Revolution and Equilibrium.  I read and reread many times a book by Joan Bondurant called The Conquest of Violence, on Gandhian thought, which converted me very strongly, very impressively.

Then, in late August 1969 I went to a conference of the War Resisters League – they were founded by World War I CO’s; Einstein was once their honorary president – and in the course of this conference I was induced to go to a vigil for somebody who was going to prison for draft resistance, which was a very unusual thing for me to be doing.  There I was, standing in the street outside the Philadelphia post office, passing out leaflets.  This was not the sort of thing the GSA Team did.  It seemed, you know, rather undignified – giving away your influence and your access in such a ridiculous way, just handing out leaflets like a bum.

Then, at the end of this conference, I met another young man, Randy Kehler, a Harvard college graduate who had gone on to Stanford but then stopped his studies to work for the War Resisters League.  He gave a talk and at the end he announced that he was also on his way to prison for refusal to cooperate with the draft.  And this came to me as a total shock.  It just hit me that it was a terrible thing for my country that the best he and so many others could do was go to prison.  I went to the men’s room and just sat on the floor and cried for about an hour and thought, ‘My country has come to this?  We’re eating our young.  We’re relying on them, to end the war and to fight the war?’  And I felt it was up to me.  I was older.  I was thirty-eight.  It was up to us older people to stop the war.”

Ellsberg realized his tool was information and his sacrifice was the loss of his insider position and a risk, like that of the draft resister, of imprisonment.  MLK’s April 4, 1967 admonition, “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” gained special meaning for him.

Ellsberg feels we are in a similarly critical time now.  It’s a time that calls for greater risk-taking.   He said that Obama, for example, could risk standing against an escalation of the Iraq war into Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan.  Links ought to be made between the economic crisis and the war. “Can we afford to murder people at this cost indefinitely?” is the question we must ask, he says.  He pointed out that in the five years after 1968 – when the Indochina war had lost almost all popular support, four times as many bombs were dropped in Southeast Asia as were dropped prior to 1968.  He fears the same kind of enlargement of war could easily happen again.  “Power doesn’t learn from history,” he said.  “Power follows its own dictates; power doesn’t give up its power.”

Ellsberg concluded, “This country needs to advance in another direction.”   Directed by conscience and moved by the acts of conscience of others, people can change course.  His life is a case in point.  Truth can stand up to power, and a bum with a leaflet can change the course of history.


photo from Wall Street action by arts group, “The Critical Voice,”  Oct. 7, 08.  Photo courtesy of CodePink