Universal Soldier

Thursday, May 27th, 2004

As the U.S. military began throwing the book at a few grunt-level torturers in showy displays of “American justice” in Baghdad, it mocked any pretension at moral seriousness with another court-martial that just ended in Fort Stewart, Ga.

The first real hero to emerge from our Iraq misadventure was found guilty last week of having a conscience. The verdict took 20 minutes.

Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, who came home on furlough in October after 5-1/2 months in the combat zone, found himself too troubled by the horrors he had witnessed and the brutality that had been asked of him to return to duty. He became, like the unknown but perhaps shockingly large number of GIs who have been unable to tolerate life on the frontlines of this nightmare called occupied Iraq, a deserter.

In March, when he turned himself in to military authorities, he was the first of these to declare himself a conscientious objector. “There comes a point,” he said in an interview with London’s The Guardian, “when you have to realize there is a difference between being a soldier and being a human being.”

The cost of this realization, if you’re still in uniform, turned out to be, for Mejia, a year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge. The irony, of course, is that his punishment was for taking a stand against the very sorts of abuses — war crimes — that now have the entire U.S. occupation on trial before the court of world opinion.

Too bad. This is a military desperate for live bodies in the midst of a tsunami-sized morale problem.

It had a pressing need to “send a message,” not only to the 600 soldiers who, according to the Pentagon, have like Mejia failed to return from furlough, and not only to the nearly 4,000 acknowledged by the Army and Marines to have gone AWOL in 2003, but also to the 29,000 who have called the advice line operated by the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors asking how to get out of the military.

Listen up, grunts. In the words of Mejia’s commanding officer, commenting after the court-martial, “Deserters are punished, regardless what their arguments are or their excuses.”

Here’s what the officer didn’t say: Those who wait too long to reclaim their status as human beings are punished even more. Possibly for a lifetime.

Let us be clear about Mejia’s court-martial. He was convicted in a closed system, one with little built-in respect for civilian niceties such as human rights and pretty much sealed off from the consequences of anything it does, except, ultimately, win or lose. In that system, Mejia was guilty; as a CO, he was, indeed, the enemy.

But there is a larger verdict still pending.

If the invasion and occupation of Iraq are wrong, as a slim majority of Americans and an overwhelming majority of the rest of the planet’s inhabitants now believe, Mejia is not only innocent but heroic. He refused to be, in the words of Buffy St. Marie’s old song, “The Universal Soldier,” without whom “Caesar would have stood alone.”

The Caesar whom Mejia left in the lurch had, among other things, ordered him and others in his platoon to stage mock executions of hooded detainees by cocking 9mm pistols next to their heads.

Mejia just saw too much: “There was no electricity, no water, no jobs,” he told The Guardian. “There were roadblocks, and curfew, and people were dying, and the attitude changed. The people didn’t want us there anymore, and we didn’t want to be there.”

He saw an Iraqi man beheaded by machinegun fire; he saw a wounded boy die for lack of medical attention; he saw a country terrorized and humiliated, officers recklessly endangering their troops and scared soldiers turning into “killing machines.” And he said, no more.

His quick conviction was meant to chill other GIs on the verge of saying the same thing. But Mejia plans to appeal the verdict. One argument, according to Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, the group that organized his defense, will be that he was never given the chance to prove that, if he had gone back to Iraq, he would have been forced to commit war crimes.

Mejia still needs our support. Tax-deductible checks (payable to Citizen Soldier) should be sent to: Citizen Soldier, 267 Fifth Ave., Suite 901, New York, NY 10016.

We can all stand with the Universal Soldier who broke rank.