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Exclusive Interview: Aidan Delgado
by Dewey Hammond, www.deweyhammond.com, The Buddhist Channel, Aug 18, 2007
Aidan Delgado (www.aidandelgado.com) is a veteran of the United States Army, honorably discharged in April 2004 after serving in Iraq, including at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. Delgado joined the Army on September 11, 2001, literally moments before the planes hit the towers.
He is also a Buddhist, his religion the basis of his discharge and the inspiration for his book, "The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq," which last weekend I reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Below is an exclusive and unedited interview with Delgado, with whom I exchanged emails between July 10, 2007 and August 6, 2007.
Routine. Ordinary. Actually a bit of a relief because I thought it would get me out of there faster. After four or five hours in the Tampa recruitment station I was so mentally and physically exhausted I would have signed my life away to the circus.
The actual "signing of the line" took place after several weeks of trips to Tampa, medical exams, interviews, standing in line; all the typical Army bureaucracy. Then while I was signing, my recruiter walks in and says, "Hey get up and come see what's on television. Something just hit the World Trade Center." The date's mid-September. Suddenly, it's not routine or ordinary.
In the book you describe an onslaught of emotion in the immediate aftermath of the planes hitting the towers: "confusion, fear, excitement, adrenaline." How did you feel on September 12, after you began to digest your new reality?
The day after I enlisted I wasn't thinking too much about the Army. Like everyone else in America, I spent most of the week watching and reacting to the tragedy. I was officially inducted into the Army Reserve one week later on September 18.
Truthfully, the new reality of the post-September 11 world didn't dawn on me until sometime after the invasion of Afghanistan. That was when I realized something I had never considered before: when I joined the Army the chance of a war happening was as close as I could conceive of to 0; after September 11 it was almost certain.
At what point for you did it become clear that being a solider could not coexist with being a Buddhist?
After enlistment, during Basic and Advanced training, I began to study and became far more serious about Buddhism but I still felt that there was some way to allow the ideals of being a soldier and the ideals of being a Buddhist to coexist. When I deployed to Iraq and had all the abstractions peeled away, saw what it truly meant to be a soldier, was when I finally decided that Buddhism and militarism were incompatible.
That is not to imply that it was a sudden "revelation" on my part; to the contrary, it was the final stage of a long process of questioning and maturation on my part. I didn't suddenly decide that war was wrong when I deployed to Iraq, I knew it already intellectually, but it took the direct experience of war to make it real for me and give me the courage to oppose it.
Where initially did you think there might common ground between the ideals of being a solider and the ideals of being a Buddhist, and what happened to wash away that perception?
One of the examples of common ground that I believed in was the Zen/warrior ethic of the samurai class in feudal Japan. Perhaps because of my interest in Japan and my overly romantic image of that time period, I imagined that I could use my Zen Buddhism to overcome fear in much the same ways as samurai did.
I also had a preoccupation with the idea that being a good Buddhist meant being able to meditate in any circumstances and also to participate in any activity while maintaining mental purity. I guess something in my adolescent mind wanted me to "test" my Buddhism in the harshest conditions. Looking back on it now, it really was a kind of asceticism that I don't believe has any lasting merit. The first step in maintaining a healthy mind is avoiding traumatic, morally ambiguous situations when possible.
Explain what asceticism's role in Buddhism, and elaborate on the meaning of this statement: "Looking back on it now, it really was a kind of asceticism that I don't believe has any lasting merit."
In Buddhist tradition, one strives to seek the middle way between the extremes of pain (asceticism) and excessive pleasure (hedonism). Asceticism is as much an indulgence as luxury because one who practices it tends to develop a haughty attitude, e.g "I am better and wiser than everyone else because I can go without food for a month and sit on a bed of nails."
Furthermore, it is often considered a "failed solution" to the problem of human suffering because by weakening and hurting the body it increases the power of the mind to delude itself. In that way it may actually increase delusion and wrong understanding.
This principle is illustrated in the archetypal story about asceticism in Buddhist legend: After The Buddha left his life of luxury as a prince, he went into the forest and joined a company of Hindu ascetics. He became a master of their disciplines and practiced the harshest mortification of his body, hoping that as he reduced the influence of his body on his actions that he would come to a higher understanding. He found the inverse. As the body weakened, the obscuring power of the mind increased as a defense against the extreme physical suffering. It was after tasting these two extremes: luxury as a prince and suffering as a hermit, that The Buddha arrived at his famous doctrine of the middle way, neither too slack nor too taut.
I felt that my fixation on trying to be a "good Buddhist" while remaining a soldier was a kind of indulgence very much like asceticism. The idea that by remaining in the Army that I no longer agreed with I could train myself to be "better" and "more spiritual" in spite of my surroundings. It was a very immature approach to morality, trying to use an immoral situation to strengthen myself, but that was the way I justified it at the time. Later, when I was wiser, I came to believe that by remaining in an immoral situation I was giving my silent assent to what was going on, and not doing anything to alleviate the suffering and oppression that I saw.
It is a commonly held belief that it is unpatriotic for American civilians to speak out against the war in Iraq because doing so lowers troop morale, which in turn fuels terrorism. What are your thoughts on this?
The "support the troops" rhetoric is a total red herring. First and foremost, no one in the peace movement is against the troops themselves. By opposing the war, critics are doing what they think is best for our soldiers: bringing them home alive.
As for lowering morale, from my experience that would also be inaccurate. Go to Iraq, get any group of guys together and tell them that there is a group of citizens in America trying to bring them home tomorrow rather than 18 months from now. You tell me if their reaction to that news is "demoralization." I don't think so.
To the third point, that of fueling terrorism, let me say this: allowing the U.S. military to commit immoral acts fuels terrorism, not raising questions about those acts. If civilians don't speak out against the war and they let it run wild and unchecked, as it did at Abu Ghraib and Haditha, it creates the rhetoric and propaganda that terrorists need to rally against the U.S. Keeping a close, critical eye on our own actions is the best way to deny terrorists the ammunition they use against us. It's the patriotic thing to do.
Did your application for conscientious-objector status have any impact on troop morale?
My application did not affect the morale of my fellow soldiers but it certainly affected their attitudes toward me. Almost overnight I became a pariah to about half of my company and a person of suspicion for nearly everyone else. They didn't appreciate that I thought the war was wrong and therefore by extension that they were wrong.
As for the officers I'm certain that my application upset my Captain, he told me as much. He believed that having a CO in his command would be a black eye for him and an embarrassment to the unit, so he fought to prevent me from getting my status. The truth was that no one in the unit or the army would have known anything about my status if he hadn't told them, so in a way the command created the furor over my objection.
Describe some of the internal hostilities that you faced.
The most common hostility that I faced was the ostracism of many of my peers: the young soldiers of the same rank as I. Although it might sound trivial, in a war zone the close bonds with your comrades are absolutely vital to your sanity. Most were subtle about it: not sitting with me, refusing to talk to me or work with me, others were not so subtle.
The incident with Wilson [ed. note: Delgado was assaulted by another soldier and fought back] was the culmination of what I perceived as a long, slow escalation of hostility towards me. As I describe in the book, I had a previous shoving match and near confrontation with another soldier because of my statements and I perceived that some members of my unit saw me as an "easy target" and fair game for harassment.
Although I truly did not wish to fight, I felt that in that situation there was no alternative but to demonstrate strength in order to nip this new physical hostility in the bud. It hurt me tremendously to lose the respect of many soldiers that I had called my friends, and it still hurts today when I occasionally meet one of the guys from the unit and they treat me with contempt. I wish it could be otherwise, but it's a price I'm willing to pay for holding on to my principles.
The other side of the hostility was the response of my commander and senior NCO's. Taking away my ballistic plates [protective armor] was a childish and dangerous act on their part, although I am certain they did not intend to cause me direct harm, I felt they were sending a message that I should recant or be treated as less than my fellows.
Revoking my two-week home-leave was the most devastating blow. It shattered my morale. That was clearly act of coercion: take back your CO papers and maybe we'll let you go home. Ironically, it only hardened my resolve to see it through and as you read I eventually convinced them to let me go home anyway. In comparison to revoking my leave, restricting me to base and assigning me to every bad detail was minor.
During your two-week personal leave, you returned to Florida and were surprised by how uncomfortable it was to be home. You describe longing to return to Iraq, the place you wanted more than anything to leave. Describe that experience.
I had created an experience of "home leave" in my mind long before I ever returned. In a sense I had retreated from the stress and negative feelings of my Army life by living in a fantasy of what it would be like when I went home. As was the case with America itself when I was growing up, I displaced all good feelings onto my trip to Sarasota [Florida]: everything would be the same, everything would be perfect, my strength of will would be renewed.
What I learned is that nine months apart can't be healed in a day. Beyond that, nine months of war is such an alien experience that it can hardly be related to another soldier, much less friends and girlfriend.
That first night home, when the gap between what I had expected and the reality became sharply apparent, I had a sudden sensation that Iraq was now my home and this place was the illusion. The reversal at that moment, the moment you realize you're more comfortable in a war zone than in your own bed, is an excruciatingly painful one. That's when you first begin to think that perhaps "home" will never be the same again, and when you return for good from the war it won't be like stepping back into your old life. That moment convinced me that even when I came back, things could never be the same.
What has life been like since your honorable discharge?
Busy. Tough. Rewarding. When I came back from Iraq, the last thing I ever wanted to do was talk about it. Now I find myself talking about it nearly everyday, but strangely, that's been good. To talk about it, to go through it again and again has done wonders in helping me process and integrate that part of my life.
One painful aspect of my activism is confronting people who disagree with me so strongly that they actually hate me personally. Since I began speaking out I have tasted more scorn, denial and venom than I thought I would be able to bear. Yet I have, and the more I take the more I know I can handle it. It has been very hard for me to accept that people who don't know me, who've never met me or heard me speak could be so sure about who I am and what happened to me in Iraq.
I may never understand it, but gradually I have become professional enough to bear the slings and arrows that come with standing up for any controversial opinion. That's life. I continue to hope for reconciliation with those members of my unit who strongly disagree with me, and I hope that someday we can all sit and discuss our experiences as friends.
On the whole, my life has been good and continually getting better. I feel like I've finally found my voice: to speak, to take a stand, to be principled in public. I'm not afraid to do it anymore, because I've already come so far and through so much. It was tremendously fulfilling to write a book and to see it printed. I hope it touches a few people out there. I think if I can I'll write another one, maybe a fiction this time, and see where that takes me.
Someday, years from now, I intend to run for office and try to do something with the perspective I've gained. In the balance, the road ahead seems wide open and alive with possibilities. I'm alive, I'm whole, I'm sane, and I'm free. You couldn't really ask for more than that.