Camilo Mejia: private rebellion, public resistance

blog post photo

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