The first soldier jailed for not returning to fight in Iraq discussed his struggle to participate in a war he did not believe in yesterday. Camilo Mejia spoke out against serving in a war he calls “a corporate war for oil.”
Mejia said it is extremely difficult for soldiers to say they disagree with war on moral grounds, as this is perceived as unpatriotic.
“No one wants to make the unpopular decision and say ‘This is not a good war’,” he said. “Out of fear of challenging U.S. leadership, people just go along.”
A soldier’s sense of right and wrong often conflicts with his military duty, Mejia said.
“[But] sometimes it is more important to be a good human being than it is to be a good soldier,” he added.
Returning for a brief furlough in the U.S. after six months in combat, Mejia was sentenced to one year in prison in March 2003 after refusing to go back to Iraq. Released this past February, he said no particular incident prompted his decision not to return to fight. Rather, it was based on a number of experiences he witnessed, including the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners, the abuse of power by U.S. military leaders and the disregard for soldier and civilian life.
“[Military leaders] put civilians and soldiers in harms way to advance their own causes,” he said. “The war became a personal war for [individual] glory more than a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission,” he said.
Mejia said the abuse of Iraqi prisoners was well-known by high military officials.
“It was systematic, allowed and encouraged,” he said.
Although not a pacifist when he first joined the military, Mejia said he is now a conscientious objector who opposes all wars.
“Before [Iraq] I was unattached to the reality of war,” he said. “You watch CNN and don’t see people dying, the suffering of the Iraqi people and the soldiers’ families … the media is not showing these things. You just see the numbers.”
Born in Nicaragua, Mejia was exposed to politics at a young age by his parents who were revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the Somoza dictatorial regime. During his childhood, Mejia moved around several times between Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the United States. As a result, he said he often lacked a sense of belonging. In a desire to connect with more people and “find a family,” he joined the military. Although Mejia said he knew the risks of military life, he had no idea of what the impact would be on other countries.
“When you’re 18 or 19 years old you have no idea what you will end up doing in the future,” he said.
Mejia served as an infantry man from 1995 to 1998 and later as a reservist in the Florida National Guard so that he continue with his education. His contract with the military was set to expire in May 2003. However, a semester shy of graduating from college in Miami, Congress passed laws which allowed the military to extend soldiers’ contracts and bound Mejia to continue his role in the infantry.
Isaac Bowers ’07 law, responded favorably to Mejia’s talk. “He really showed the moral struggle when your conscience dictates something and the military dictates another,” he said. “It is unfortunate that more people don’t make the same decision he did.”
Tom Scherer ’07, who also attended the lecture, thought Mejia did a “good job” of getting at the heart of issues about corporate greed associated with the war in Iraq. He hopes Mejia’s talk will influence others.
“There are three main things that will end the war,” he said. “Resistance by the occupied country, a national anti-war movement and people inside the military speaking out. With more men going around and talking like Camilo, hopefully something will change.”
Mejia’s talk was sponsored by the LALSA, APALSA, LGSA, CLSA, CESP and GPFSA and took place at Myron Taylor Hall’s Sapperston Student Lounge.
Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer