In 2001, Aidan Delgado was twenty-years old and in need of a life anchor. Delgado had primarily grown up abroad in far away places such as Cairo, Egypt, Thailand and Senegal due to his father’s career as a diplomat. While attending college in Florida, Delgado felt culturally out of place and adrift. Having led an “ivory tower” existence of academia and privilege, Delgado opted to join the United States Army Reserves for a different perspective.
By sheer coincidence he signed his enlistment contract on September 11th. Those closest to him questioned the wisdom of Delgado's choice. The terrorist attacks convinced Delgado he made the correct decision as the country underwent a surge of patriotic feeling and rallying to the flag. At the time he was proud of having decided to join the United States Reserves before September 11th. Delgado didn’t know it yet but the next three years of his life would transform his entire being.
To calm his nerves prior to reporting for basic training at the end of October 2001, Delgado read about Buddhism. He concluded that Buddhism was like “coming home” and suited his outlook on life even as he prepared for war. Initially, Delgado embraced the Samurai ethos that blended Buddhism with the warrior spirit to justify his participation.
He was trained as a mechanic and assigned to the 320th Military Police Company in 2003. Initially, Delgado served in Nasiriya, the Southern Part of Iraq for several months before being redeployed with his unit to Abu Ghraib. Since Delgado knew Arabic from his adolescent years in Cairo, he was frequently utilized as a translator on missions. On these missions he witnessed horrific abuse committed by Americans against Iraq’s civilian population. He told Bob Herbert of the New York Times in 2005 that,
“Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They'd keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people's heads."That sort of gratuitous violence was a harbinger of things to come. During this period in 2003, Delgado experienced an internal crisis. The warrior ethos was not compatible with his sensibilities as a Buddhist and he opted to apply for an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector.
The army tried to persuade Delgado to apply for non-combatant status instead and still complete his duties as a mechanic. It would’ve been the path of least resistance and Delgado rejected it. As far as Delgado was concerned, applying, as a non-combatant was a half-measure and he wanted to make a moral statement.
The path Delgado chose was a long tough road of bureaucratic struggle, taunts, bullying and peer abuse. The army hoped to provoke Delgado away from pacifism, make him feel ostracized and humiliated. Many considered Delgado a coward and a traitor as he continued to fulfill his duties while the application process went forward.
Delgado’s application for conscientious objector status had not been resolved when his unit was redeployed to Abu Ghraib in November 2003. Shortly after he arrived, a prison riot against the miserable conditions there resulted in a fatal shooting of four detainees who threw stones. Delgado told Bob Herbert how he confronted a sergeant who claimed to have fired on the detainees:
"I asked him if he was proud that he had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn't get mad at all. He was, like, 'Well, I saw them bloody my buddy's nose, so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.'"When Delgado initially arrived at Abu Ghraib he assumed most of the detainees were hardened insurgents and terrorists. He later learned while working as a radio operator for the Abu Ghraib headquarters brigade that most detainees were either petty civilian criminals or completely innocent. Ultimately, Delgado concluded that regardless of why they were there, American behavior could not be excused.
Delgado’s unit was dismissed after completed its duty in March 2004. He received an honorable discharge after returning to America in April 2004. Currently, he’s an antiwar activist as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Buddhist Peace Alliance. Delgado captured his spiritual journey and experience in Iraq with his recently published memoir, The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes From A Conscientious Objector In Iraq (Beacon Press)
It’s not fully possible to grasp what soldiers like Delgado went through and witnessed. What does it mean to read that serving in Abu Ghraib is hell or living through mortar attacks is scary? Is it really possible for mere words to convey how soldiers such as Delgado are torn between loyalty to the uniform they wear and their humanity? How can one truly understand without having lived in the shoes of someone like Delgado himself?
Those of us who haven't been in that position can't truly understand. Nevertheless, Delgado skillfully puts the reader in the front row of his year in Iraq, the friends and antagonists he interacted with, the near death experiences he endured and the torturous battle waged within his soul about right and wrong.
Delgado agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book, experiences inside Iraq and Abu Ghraib in particular. We also discussed how racism towards Arabs and the Muslim world helped facilitate the crimes committed against Iraqis and his spiritual journey as a Buddhist and anti-war pacifist. Our conversation is approximately fifty-six minutes and took place on Sunday, November 18th. Please refer to the media player below.
This interview can also be accessed for free by searching for "Intrepid Liberal Journal" at the Itunes Store.
Please note that Aidan Delgado only had access to a cell phone for this interview. The sound quality is quite good most of the time and the passion of his convictions comes through. Also, I made a couple errors during the podcast I would like to correct. In introducing Aidan I referred to his unit as the 320th Military Police “Academy” instead of “Company.” I also listed Kuwait among the countries Aidan lived in while growing up when in fact he only visited there.