Notes from Prison

by Camilo Mejia
December 1st, 2004

When I first heard about the possibility of war, I said to myself that many unlikely things would have to take place. I felt that without clear evidence of nuclear or chemical weapons, without a clear link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, that without clear evidence of Iraq posing a threat to us, we would not really invade. I did not feel we had made a case for going to war. But I am a soldier, I am still a soldier, and as good soldiers we are told not to question the reasons for war. We are not supposed to concern ourselves with politics or foreign policies. We fight wars without questioning them.

And, so I began training and preparing for war. But we had still not made a case for war, and I trusted that our leaders would do the right thing and use military force as a last resource. When we deployed to the Middle East in early March 2003, Saddam Hussein was destroying his missiles, the UN weapons inspectors were asking for more time, and many of our allies were opposing the war. I figured we would do a show of force - and for a while I didn't know if there really would be a war. Given the uncertainty, I had hope in my heart that peace could prevail.

But then there was war and I opposed the war, but I was afraid of saying anything. I didn't want to sound like a coward or a traitor. And I knew that soldiers are not supposed to question their governments. I knew of the possibility of severe punishment for refusing not to participate in the war - scorn and rejection by my peers, incarceration, even the death penalty. I was terrified of it all.

I was an infantry squad leader in combat - and when your life is in the hands of the man right next to you and his life is in your hands, you suddenly become more than brothers. I didn't want my brothers to think I was a coward or a traitor, and I didn't want to go to prison. I was afraid to stand up and say: “I am against this criminal war.” I was so afraid to stand up for my beliefs and principles that I chose to take my chances in combat.

The combat situation was very dangerous and we knew that every minute that went by could be the last we ever lived. I started praying to God to let me see my daughter one last time, even if I died right after seeing her. I started praying that my family would not suffer on my account. I started praying for the families of the other soldiers, as they too were suffering.

I felt that we were trapped in a big lie where war itself was the only real enemy, and I started praying for the Iraqi families—asking God to ease their suffering. I asked God to end the war in Iraq, and then I asked God to end every war. And then I realized that my personal prayer had become a prayer for humankind. I realized that in war, through God, I was connected to the rest of humanity.

It was the unfounded reasons for war given by our government that made me oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but it was my own experience in combat that made me oppose every war.

I want to believe that the Iraqi insurgents did not mean to kill their own people. I want to believe that we did not mean to kill the Iraqi people. But the reality was that the innocent were the ones paying the price of this war. I realized that even if the reasons for going to war were politically sound, the loss of human life, the loss of innocent blood, renders every war immoral and unjustifiable.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to concern oneself with deep questions about the morality of a war, to place oneself in the position to judge the righteousness of an invasion when you are in the middle of a war. Nobody wants to die or see their friends die in a foreign land, far from everything we love, far even from ourselves, from our own humanity. I didn't have the courage to put my weapon down when my life and the lives of my friends were in danger.

Upon my return home for a two-week leave, I had the opportunity to put my thoughts in order. Far from the sounds of machine guns and mortar, it became hard not to listen to what my heart was telling me. I came face to face with my feelings about the war. I came face to face with the memory of each and every one of my actions. I tried to justify my behavior, my being in Iraq in the first place. I realized that I was holding myself accountable for my own behavior.

When the sounds of battle are gone, the sounds of one's conscience take over. And my conscience is the place where I meet with God. I don't need an angel to descend from heaven to tell me what God wants me to do, all I have to do is listen to my conscience and do what I know in my heart is the right thing.

After being convicted of desertion, during the sentencing phase of my trial they gave me the opportunity to ask for clemency. I know that I did and said things that put me where I am at this very moment, in prison. But in everything I did, I was following my conscience. To express regret for my actions in exchange for a lighter sentence would like denying God, and God is my only salvation.

If I were to ask for clemency, it would not be from a military panel, but from God. I would also ask God to have mercy on the souls of those who wrongly convicted me. And, if I am ever to seek forgiveness on this earth, I shall seek forgiveness from the Iraqi people.

According to the second Vatican council, conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of man. There, he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths. Thank you for allowing me to share the voice that still echoes in the depths of my conscience. It is in those depths that I remain a free man.