Camilo Mejia, Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia (New York: The New Press, 2007).
In this lively narrative Mejia rails against war in general and American foreign policy in particular, what he calls the “imperial dragon that devours its own soldiers and Iraqi civilians for the sake of profits” (223). Mejia is no lone ranger; he is part of a rapidly expanding movement of GI resistance. In 2006, a Zogby poll revealed that 72% of soldiers who served in Iraq favored withdrawal within one year. The Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), founded in 2004 by a handful of veterans, now boasts over 1,200 members. While there is no shortage of polemics in Mejia’s writing, he is also thoughtful and reflective. Mejia’s first-hand experience with the war enhances our understanding of the treatment of enemy combatants, the imperial nature of the war, and what he considers a popular uprising in Iraq. Scholars and journalists concerned with prisoner abuse or the pitfalls of the invasion should indeed consult the analysis of witnesses on the ground.
Mejia is no ordinary witness. The opening chapter devotes significant space to Mejia’s early childhood in revolutionary Nicaragua, where he was “a privileged child of the revolution.” In 1979, the socialist Sandinistas overthrew the US-supported Somoza dictatorship. Camilo’s father, Carlos Mejia Godoy, was both a deputy in the Sandinista National Assembly and the official poet of the revolution. One becomes intensely curious how a youngster raised in the throes of what Mejia calls “one of the highest profile social justice movements in the world” arrived at joining the US Army. Mejia, contemplating his Iraq service, wonders along with the reader: “How did I end up in this place?” With his parents long separated, Mejia along with his mother and brother eventually settled in Miami when he was eighteen. Mejia worked cleaning bathrooms and flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant, while attending night school. He was far removed from the socialist revolution and felt isolated and alone and in desperate need for college tuition. The Army’s promise of a solid paycheck and college money enticed him to enlist in 1995, despite his parents’ objections. Mejia served honorably on active duty for three years and then entered the National Guard. Mejia observes that many of his comrades enlisted because of similar financial concerns.
In subsequent chapters, we learn that his eight-year obligation was due to expire in May 2003. But in January that year his Florida National Guard unit was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mejia was told that the “stop-loss” program now extended his service beyond what he thought was an eight year contract, which was likely impermissible given his status as a non-citizen. Nevertheless, the Army sent Mejia into the depths of Iraq, a volatile combat zone that brought out the anti-war activist in him.
Before the Abu Ghraib scandal made headlines, Mejia was in al Assad, overseeing “enemy combatants.” They were hooded and sleep-deprived. One spook (an untraceable intelligence operative) put an unloaded gun to a prisoner’s head and pulled the trigger as the man wept in fear during this mock execution. “The truth was that I had abused prisoners,” Mejia confesses, “because I was too afraid to take a stand” (207). Mejia eventually did take a stand, having refused further duty in Iraq, and the Army sent him to prison for a year. On the one hand, he simply could not participate in the violence. On the other, he felt the war only satisfied the imperial ambitions of Washington. “I hated the fact that I had been deployed to support an illegal war and imperial occupation” (206). Mejia did not see the invasion helping the Iraqi people; it seemed rather to benefit certain corporate interests or at least those planning long-term economic projects in the region. The purveyors of neoliberalism wish to preserve a global capitalist order, and Iraq was at least one significant obstacle on the road to economic privatization couched as “nation building.” From Mejia’s vantage point on the ground in Iraq, the futility of the war led to his grappling with US imperialism.
It will not surprise many readers that the son of Nicaraguan revolutionaries would critique imperialism. His father wrote the Sandinista anthem and part of the lyrics say: “the struggle against the Yankee, an enemy of humanity.” He remembers as a child in Nicaragua that the US, who funded Contras in his country to crush the revolution, was seen as the “big monster.” Nevertheless, it is significant that Mejia’s military experience triggered his feelings on imperialism. Not too long ago, the very mention of the US as an empire was taboo in intellectual journals. It is now a part of mainstream discourse and used by many soldiers as their frame of reference for making sense out of the conflict in Iraq.
Along these lines, Mejia offers an interesting argument that he saw “the beginning of widespread popular rebellion” (159) in Iraq. Debates over the US withdrawal and the impending civil war seem to overlook Mejia’s sense that the Iraqis were rebelling against the occupation. Mejia cites Operation Shutdown to support his observation. Following a successful IED (improvised explosive device) attack, where a soldier lost his leg, the commander shut down the city of Ramadi. The theory was that the insurgents were coming from the outside, and blocking their entry to the city would reduce the violence. Needless to say, the attacks continued. Mejia explains:
The thinking here was that the attackers were from outside the city and were traveling in and out of the city to plant their bombs. But it was obvious to most of us that the insurgency did not need to import people from outside. The insurgents evidently knew the layout of the city and were able to escape into local people’s homes without the alarm being raised…. The frustration that resulted from our inability to get back at those who were attacking us led to tactics that seemed designed simply to punish the local population that was supporting them. (159f)
Much has changed since Mejia was on the ground in Iraq, and sectarian violence is on the rise. One wonders nonetheless if the Western prejudice against the so-called Muslim world, part of what Edward Said called Orientalism, informs the debate over Iraq’s civil strife. Overemphasizing Iraq’s sectarian conflict and the repeated fears of civil war, may indeed contribute to casting the Iraqi people as backward, the underdeveloped “other” who are mired in endless tribal fighting. It also deflects attention away from the hostility toward the occupiers.
Rather than dismissing Iraqi culture and sensibilities, Mejia wished to better understand it. Despite all the news reports of sectarian violence, he was struck by the Iraqis’ unity. While searching vehicles at check points, he repeatedly saw strangers greet one another and hug as they waited for their cars to be cleared. Mejia was exposed to roadside bombings and rifle attacks, and he still felt that, “amid all the violence… I [n]ever really felt hatred from the Iraqi people” (84). He is suggesting that the hatred is directed at the nature of the occupation, not at individual Americans. The Iraqis that he worked alongside shared their meals with the US soldiers; this general warmth was gradually eroding under the occupation. Many soldiers, however, refused to eat the “hajji” (slur for Muslim) food, yet Mejia cherished breaking bread with Iraqis. The casual, widespread use of the term “hajji” also speaks to cultural imperialism on the ground, part of the broader Western narrative of portraying Muslims as dangerous terrorists or “Islamofacists,” a designation now fashionable in right-wing periodicals.
Mejia’s book is important because it is part of a counter-narrative to this Orientalism. It is also a counter-narrative to continued war. I had the opportunity to interview Mejia before I read his war chronicle, and his description of engaging the enemy captures the underlying antiwar tone of his text:
The first time that I actually fired at a human being and he died was memorable for me. I don’t want to say killed. We were all firing on him because he had a grenade. It is one of those experiences that stuck with me. People say ‘you joined the military; you were an infantry man you knew what you were getting into.’ But nothing could be farther from the truth. It doesn’t matter what training you received; nothing prepares you for when you shoot at a person. I don’t know, it is hard to describe, nothing prepares you for it. You don’t know what it does to you when you fire a weapon at a human being.
What war did to Mejia was to turn an infantry soldier into someone who questioned the motives of US interventionism. This personal transformation is a potent reminder that the war will end when the soldiers refuse to fight, as was the case during the Vietnam debacle. This observation is not to glorify Mejia and other veterans, and we should not read his work uncritically. If we are to bring a speedy end to this war (as is now desired by a majority in the US), we will need to grapple with the Camilo Mejias in our midst. The time is long overdue to stop talking about “strategic failures” and the pitfalls of “humanitarian intervention” and face the demons of America’s imperialist drive to seize markets and natural resources. The Iraq war has failed the Iraqi people and it has failed the American people beset by predatory mortgages, skyrocketing gas prices and a crumbling infrastructure.
Reviewed by Carl Mirra