My mouth got me on the wrong side of people regularly, but not always as a result of complaints about procedures, or lack of them, regarding the safety and well-being of soldiers in my unit. On occasion I also spoke out on the morality of what we were doing, and in particular on the way we were regularly mistreating Iraqis. This was a much more difficult issue to raise. I generally felt embarrassed to openly take the side of the Iraqis. Most of the soldiers were highly suspicious of them, and not just of some Iraqis, but of all of them. I could tell that my speaking out on their behalf was perceived as being soft and naïve, a status almost as undesirable as the status of coward. I tried to get around this by appealing to the strategy of “winning the hearts and minds” of the local population as an integral part of the mission. It worked only on rare occasions.
I recall using this argument in an attempt to change the way we were responding to the illegal sale of fuel in the town. Since the lines at the two local gas stations were enormous, and the amount of fuel sold to each individual was severely rationed, there was a thriving black market for people buying and selling gasoline. Many of those involved were children, and they used metal barrels or plastic five-gallon containers to store and then sell the gas.
The sale of fuel from such jerry cans was explicitly forbidden, but it proved difficult to stop this activity simply by issuing orders and making the odd arrest. More drastic measures were then employed, and soon enough we were opening ﬁre on the barrels and cans, even if they were in the middle of busy traffic areas or neighborhoods. Unlike the way things happen in the movies, shooting at these containers did not cause them to blow up in the air. Our bullets simply made holes through which the fuel spurted out. So then we would throw an incendiary grenade at the pools of fuel that formed, setting them on ﬁre. This was regarded as good sport by most of the soldiers.
It seemed to me that it must have been humiliating, infuriating even, for the Iraqis—to have a foreign army setting ﬁre to their jerry cans wherever they were to be found, which was just about everywhere in ar Ramadi. But on the few occasions that I objected, the objection drowned in the prevailing sea of anger.
“Those fucking hajjis need to learn who’s boss” was a typical response. “It’s fun to shoot shit up” was another.
“Who cares about these motherfuckers; we should just bomb the entire country.”
I wasn’t the only person in first squad who tried to stem this tide of racist hostility. Sergeant Rosado was constantly protective of the local people, especially children. On one mission, at what must have been four in the morning, Rosado hung back at a house we had just raided. At first I was annoyed because he was holding up the rest of us, but I didn’t say anything as I watched him approach a group of women and children we had herded into the corner of one room while we searched the rest of the house.
Rosado had spotted what looked like a serious burn on the arm of one of the babies. Even though the infant, who could not have been older than eighteen months, slept peacefully in her mother’s cradled arms, the wound on her skin was so brutal that it pained the eye just to see it. The women evidently had had no ointment or dressing with which to treat the live flesh. Unfortunately we didn’t have any medications with us either, but Rosado, who had the extraordinary ability to communicate with people regardless of language, made a point of going out of his way to look at the child and inquire about her health. I could see he made a highly favorable impression on the scared and sleepy family.
On another occasion, when our squad was pulling security at the gates of ar Ramadi’s biggest hospital, we came across a young man with what looked like a machete wound that extended from between the thumb and index finger of his right hand all the way up to his elbow. The wound had been closed with big, rough stitches that seemed to be coming apart, and the poor soul had no dressing or ointment to cover it. Rosado looked into our camouflage combat lifesaver bag and was able to dig out some antibiotic cream packets and some gauze, which he gave the young man.
These basic acts of compassion and humanity were few and far between, and we always tried to dress them up as part of a strategy of winning hearts and minds. Sometimes we tried to keep them secret. Once, after we had pretty well destroyed a home during a raid that turned up nothing, I waited for everyone to move out of the immediate area before giving one of the ladies of the house a twenty-dollar bill. But this discretion did not keep us from being dubbed the “humanitarian” squad by the rest of the platoon. The title, far from being an honorable one, was a constant source of mockery and ridicule. Being humanitarian, in the universe of our infantry unit in war-torn ar Ramadi, was not seen in a favorable light.
For the most part, Rosado and I carried out our small acts of compassion separately, aware of what the other was doing, but too embarrassed to help or even publicly acknowledge them. I wasn’t proud of this because I knew how hard it was to act alone.
One of the occasions on which I failed to support Rosado, knowing he was right and yet unable to overcome my own fear of ridicule, involved his protecting a young Iraqi child who had been throwing rocks at our squad while we conducted a patrol. The day was intensely hot as we rode in the back of the deuce-and-a-half truck, which traveled on the wrong side of the road in an attempt to avert possible road bomb attacks. The area to which we were being driven was not regarded as particularly hostile, but we were all aware that insurgency attacks often happened at the least expected places and times. One cannot speak of a front line in Iraq, as a roadside bomb can wait for its target on any corner of any street, in a bag, box, trash can, or in the belly of a dead animal. Everything is fair game in the land of the occupied.
Sometimes on these missions the platoon leader and platoon sergeant decided to tag along. This was supposed to facilitate the training of the squad leaders, but in fact it meant they made pretty much all the major decisions and undermined our authority. It also meant the squad had to do things strictly by the book. That ruled out dropping into the local stores where we could buy hookahs, cases of soda, and blocks of ice at lower prices than were available at the store inside the base, which had been set up by a dodgy interpreter Captain Warfel had hired. He sold everything from orange juice to Russian bayonets and Arab porn flicks, but we preferred to shop outside the base where we could get better prices and find a nice variety of Middle Eastern liquors. All that was out of the question on this occasion because Williams had decided to join the patrol.
Without the prospect of any entertaining stops, we dedicated ourselves to carefully observing every corner of the middle-class neighborhood whose streets and sidewalks we were traveling on. The homes were all behind tall, sand-colored walls that made it impossible for us to see what was happening inside. It was this type of structure that worried me during our senseless night patrols in downtown ar Ramadi, since anyone could just drop a grenade, or throw it from behind one of the walls, and then ﬁre at us from the rooftops. There was nowhere to run, no cover, no ditch, no trench, just long roads with high walls that despised us.
The unbearable heat was putting everyone on edge. The soldiers in the rear of the squad’s formation were particularly bothered by a group of small children following behind us, something quite common during patrols. Williams claimed that he had been hit by a rock thrown by one of the children. Kids throwing things at us was commonplace. I remembered that during my very first patrol in the city a child threw a rotten tomato at me which exploded all over my fragmentary grenade and compass pouch.
Every time we stopped and confronted the children, they would run like hell, leaving behind only the echo of their mischievous laughter. They were playing a dangerous game. After the protest that had turned violent at the Mayor’s Cell, when our instructions were to ﬁre at anyone who was throwing anything in our direction, including children, we’d heard that soldiers from other units had more than once opened ﬁre on children for throwing rocks.
I liked to think we hadn’t descended to that level, according higher value to human life, especially that of a child. But the heat was really getting to us. We were sweating so profusely that we had to keep patting off our shoulders and backs, and especially our bare necks, where the salt deposits from evaporated sweat really burned the skin.
We decided to take a short break by a half-built house, stretching out along the cool shade of its incomplete skeleton. Specialist Funez had a watch that showed the temperature, and according to him it was reading 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and 139 out in the sun. The water in our canteens was so hot it was undrinkable. We were exhausted, but we kept our gear on, everyone except for Williams, that is. He began stripping down, dropping his armor and ammo onto the ground
“I’m gonna teach these kids a lesson,” he said, taking off his flak vest. “That little one with the red shirt,” he said pointing at the crowd of children, most of whom were barefoot. “That’s the one that got me with the rock.”
Williams was by now stripped down to his bare uniform, losing about fifty pounds. He was a pretty athletic guy, as he demonstrated when he suddenly took off, running after the crowd of kids who quickly dispersed into the side streets.
“Man, I can’t believe he’s doing that shit,” said Rosado.
In a few moments, Williams had caught the kid with the red shirt, who he dragged for fifty meters back to where we were resting. The child looked to be about eight years old and was crying pitifully as he tried to get loose from Williams’s powerful grip.
“Aha!” said Gallegos, pointing at the kid with a grin on his face. “So you like to throw rocks, do you?”
Between sobs, the kid spoke what little English he knew.
“No, mister,” he cried. “Me no Ali Baba.”
That was the phrase used by pretty much everyone in ar Ramadi who wanted to deny wrongdoing in the face of arrest, and on rare occasions it worked. But Williams wasn’t having any of it that day.
“What are you going to do with him, Sergeant Williams?” asked Sergeant Rosado, looking concerned about the child.
“I’m gonna take this little motherfucker to the base and I’m gonna arrest him,” answered Williams as he started to put his gear back on. “That’s the only way these kids are ever going to learn not to throw rocks at us.”
There was some logic to Williams’s idea of making an example out of the kid; the main reaction of most in the squad was one of amusement. Of those of us who weren’t laughing, Rosado was the only one saying anything.
“But he has no shoes, sergeant.” Rosado’s observation was greeted with laughter.
“I don’t care,” continued Williams. “I’m taking this one with us.”
The children had regrouped at a distance and were now peering in our direction, clearly wondering what was about to happen to their friend. One thing I had noticed about Iraqis was the way they stuck together. People we detained during traffic control point missions, who clearly didn’t know one another, were very soon deep in conversation as though they were family or friends from childhood. These kids were no different. Their little group continued to grow as it was joined by some angry adolescents, and even adults.
“You’re not serious about arresting this kid, are you, Sergeant Williams?” asked Rosado, not minding the laughter.
“Hell yeah, I’m serious,” replied our acting PL, grabbing the kid. “Let’s go.”
An older man then started yelling at us from the gate to one of the houses, but Williams took no notice of him.
“Man, that’s fucked up,” said Rosado as we started to separate the squad into two staggered lines in order to move out tactically. “It’s a long way for this kid to go without shoes.”
Williams kept moving with the kid walking right in front of him, crying uncontrollably. Who knows what was going on in his young mind, but he was evidently drowning in a sea of panic. The other children were warily following the squad, and the older man finally dashed from the steps of his house to join them.
“Mister, mister, please,” said the man as he got to about ten meters from us. “Child, mister, child.” He gestured at the little boy’s feet.
“There you go, Sergeant Williams,” said Rosado. “That’s the boy’s father. I’m sure he learned his lesson.”
“No, fuck that,” said Williams, who I’d noticed was using profane language with increasing regularity. He turned to the old man. “Are you his father?”
“No, no,” answered the man, trying to say more, but unable to find the words in English. He pointed at the house he came from, then at the group of children. It seemed he just knew the kids from the neighborhood and did not want any of them taken away.
“Thiiss kid,” said Williams, pointing at the child, “threeww, rock, at me.” Each word spoken came with its own visual translation. “I, am, going, to arrest, himmm.” Williams’s hands pointed at the child’s hands, which he had restrained with plastic ties.
“No, no, mister,” begged the man, understanding what Williams was saying. “Me, me,” he said.
“You? You what?” asked Williams. “What are you gonna do?”
The older man’s hands were raised to the level of his eyes, fingers spread apart and pointing upward, his mouth open but unable to speak. We couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. The crowd was getting larger.
“No, fuck this!” said the exasperated PL. “We’re leaving.”
But before we could move off, the old man had walked up to the kid and delivered a powerful slap across his tear-streaked face. The child let out a short scream but did not say anything more.
“There you go, sergeant,” said Rosado looking at Williams. “Let the old-timer take care of him; let the child go.”
Williams thought about it for a moment. No one was laughing anymore. I thought, Let him go, Williams, let the kid go. I was all the way with Rosado but kept my mouth shut. The older man stared at Williams with a desperate expression on his face. The child was now crying quietly, not looking at either the older man or at Williams.
“No,” was the final verdict.
“Man, that’s really fucked up,” Rosado muttered. No one else said a word.
The older man landed another hard slap on the child’s head, and then a third, this time with his fist. But still Williams appeared unmoved.
“Man, Sergeant Williams, let him go man, let the kid go.” Rosado seemed to speak the words more for himself than for the kid.
“No way,” said the unwavering PL.
The old man now launched a flurry of kicks and slaps on the child, each one harder than the next. Even though the child screamed violently, he never looked up at his assailant, who seemed to be in more pain than the kid himself as he delivered the beating. The entire neighborhood had gathered by then, and stood in silence as they witnessed the pounding of the child. Even those in our squad who had laughed at Rosado were now quiet.
The kid was no longer crying, but the man was in tears when he tried to plead with our leader.
“Mister, please,” he implored.
Williams thought for a moment.
“OK, cool,” he finally replied. He took out a pocket knife and cut the kid’s restraints.
“You can have him.”
We left the area and set up and ran a traffic control point for a while before returning to base. The incident was never spoken about again, but when I came to look back on it I remembered how my heart had cried out for me to take a stand alongside Rosado. Yet I had chosen to remain silent, to swallow my moral outrage and go with the crowd, leaving him to fight a battle he should never have had to fight alone. I comforted myself by recalling that, when we returned to patrol the same neighborhood a week later, not only did the children no longer throw rocks at us, they didn’t even follow us. What Williams had done might well have saved some of those children from being killed for something as minor as throwing a rock at an infantry patrol.
The truth as I see it now is that in a war, the bad is often measured against what’s even worse, and that, in turn, makes a lot of deplorable things seem permissible. When that happens, the imaginary line between right and wrong starts to vanish in a heavy fog, until it disappears completely and decisions are weighed on a scale of values that is profoundly corrupt. That day I was wrong not to listen to what my better judgment was yelling at me. By ignoring it, I failed not only my own principles but also the one person who was taking a stand for what was right and decent.
Camilo Mejía served almost nine months in a military prison for refusing to return to the Iraq war. He lives now in Miami, Florida.
© 2007 by Camilo Mejía. This piece originally appears in Camilo Mejía’s The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (The New Press, June 4, 2007). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.