"I was a coward, not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being, and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier. What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions? I am confined to a prison, but I feel, today more than ever, connected to all humanity. Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.
Camilo Mejia was born in 1975 in Managua, Nicaragua and eventually moved with his family to Costa Rica and then to the United States where he finished high school in New York City. Mejia never applied or received for US Citizenship. Nevertheless, he went to college at the University of Miami on a military funded scholarship where he intended to major in psychology and Spanish. But, in the spring of 2003, before he was done with college, the military sent Mejia to Iraq where he spent five months in active combat (some of that time was spent in the Al Asad detention center where detainees were routinely tortured) and then he was moved to Jordan where he spent two more months. In late 2003, he came home to US on furlough and realized he could not go back: “Going home gave me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order and to listen to what my conscience had to say…. I thought of the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army. And I realized that none of the reasons we were told about why we were in Iraq turned out to be true…. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. We weren't helping the Iraqi people and the Iraqi people didn't want us there. We weren't preventing terrorism or making Americans safer…. I realized that I was part of a war that I believed was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination. I realized that acting upon my principles became incompatible with my role in the military, and I decided that I could not return to Iraq.” He filed for conscientious objector status and told the military he refused to go back to war.
In May of 2004 Mejia was convicted of desertion by the US Military, a charge which can be punishable by death, and sentenced to a year in jail. He served his time at Fort Sill military prison in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and was recognized during his incarceration by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience and was awarded the Courageous Resister Award by Refuse and Resist. He was released in February of 2005 and since that time has devoted his time to speaking out against the war in Iraq and encouraging others to understand that being a part of an immoral war was more cowardly than breaking the law: “I was a coward not for leaving the war but for being a part of it in the first place, “ he said. He has written a book called The Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Seargeant Camilo Mejia published by The New Press in 2007 which details his experience. In August of 2007 Camilo Mejia became the chair of the board for the non-profit Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Mejia lives in Miami and spends a lot of time with his young daughter. He has completed his final semester at the University of Miami and received his Bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and Psychology. If given the opportunity he would like to become a US Citizen. In the meantime, he will continue to speak out against a war and a military policy that takes immigrants and poor people and obligates them to fight, even against their consciences, for the so-called American Dream. Mejia says that any of us can speak out, because being a hero does not take anything special, just the belief that one person, alone, can make a change: “Many have called me a coward, others have called me a hero. I believe I can be found somewhere in the middle. To those who have called me a hero, I say that I don't believe in heroes, but I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things”
Advocate for the Homeless, Activist against the death penalty, Peace Activist
The flagrant destruction of the earth and its precious resources and the destruction of human hope and human dignity are part of the same death-dealing spirit that says: Serve yourself. Take what's yours and then get yourself a gun and an insurance policy to protect it. Use up whatever you want right now and let someone else worry about tomorrow.
Murphy Davis is a child of the racially segregated, post World War II, American South. Born in 1948, she grew up in Louisiana and North Carolina. Her first year, 1954, in public school in New Orleans was the year that the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools were not legal. But it wasn’t until her last year in public school in Greenville, North Carolina, that she attended a public school that included a few black students.
The injustice of the Jim Crow apartheid system became a major agenda of Murphy’s life. When she spent a year in Northeastern Brazil after high school, the stark realities of poverty and hunger pressed into her heart in a way that she could not escape.
Mary Baldwin College in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was rewarding but difficult as she tried to carry the concerns of the poor in a context of wealth and privilege. She found a home in the Civil Rights Movement (joining the Staunton, Virginia NAACP) and in the growing movement opposing the war in Vietnam. Davis’s college professors helped provide a rigorous academic context for the justice and anti-war struggle which has been a major source in her development as a critical thinker and activist-scholar.
Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA was a similar journey. As a woman student in the early 1970’s, she joined a small but a growing number of women in theological education across the US who created new and exciting contexts for liberation pedagogy. Davis was awarded a fellowship to pursue a doctorate in Church History and Women’s Studies, but she left that program when the US Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s law of Capital Punishment in 1976 so that she could be a full time activist.
Since that time, Murphy Davis, in partnership with her husband, Dr. Eduard Loring (both of them Pastors in the Presbyterian Church, USA), has worked for the abolition of the death penalty, housing the homeless, the Movement for racial justice, justice for the poor, and the abolition of war. Davis and Loring are founding partners (in 1981) of the Open Door Community, a diverse residential Christian community in downtown Atlanta. For almost 30 years, the Loring-Davis family has lived in community with the homeless poor, former prisoners, and others who have come to join the struggle to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, and agitate for justice. The Open Door Community believes that tolerating poverty and exclusion in the midst of a culture of abundance is to participate in a death-dealing culture. Their mission is not simply to feed and shelter the homeless, but change the economic conditions that create homelessness.
In 1995, Murphy was struck with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a virulent and aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After extensive surgery, the medical team estimated that she had 6-18 months to live. But with chemotherapy in Atlanta’s Grady (Public) Hospital, the cancer went into remission for six years. Since that time the cancer has returned three more times, requiring rigorous chemotherapy and an attempted bone marrow transplant. Though she has come near to death many times since 1995, she struggles on—grateful for each day—under the watchful care of her doctors at Emory University. Murphy’s proximity to death has brought forth the prayers of friends on death row (who have owned her as one who understands their plight more fully) and homeless friends living in abandoned buildings. Her solidarity with the poor and the condemned has only deepened through her experience of cancer.
Murphy Davis’ observation in the midst of the cruel oppression and grim prospects for the world’s poor is this: “Our only hope in these days of institutional violence and a seemingly hopeless future for the poor and marginalized is in a relentless practice of sharing, solidarity, resistance, compassion: a revolution rooted in love.”
If we could be friends by just getting to know each other better, then what are our countries really arguing about? Nothing could be more important than not having a war if a war could kill everything.
Additional Quotes by Samantha Smith
God made the world for us to live together in peace and not fight.
Sometimes I still worry that the next day will be the last day of the Earth.
Well, I just hope we can have peace, and I hope it'll do some good.
From about 1950 to 1989 the United States went through a period in relation to the Soviet Union (Russia) that was called the Cold War. Neither side fired a shot (a hot war), but continued to build more and more nuclear weapons, each side escalating the number and size of the weapons in response to the perceived threat from the other. Hundreds of millions of people in both countries lived in fear that either by aggression or accident a war would start and everything would be annihilated. Perhaps, the whole world destroyed.
In 1982 Samantha Smith was a frightened 10 year old girl in the small community of Manchester, Maine. One day she asked her mother, Jane, if she would write Yuri Andropov, the Premier of the Soviet Union, and ask him whether the Soviet Union intended to start a war. Samantha's mother answered, “Why don't you.” Samantha did, and Premier Andropov wrote her back inviting her to come to the Soviet Union to meet Russian people and see that they were peace loving with no desire to start a war.
Samantha's trip to the Soviet Union was a great success. She made lasting friendships with Russian children. She was so inspired her that she became an international spokesperson for peace, traveling as far as Japan to talk with people about the necessity for stopping the Cold War and finding a way to live together. The stakes were too high not to find a way to peace.
Tragically, at the age of 13, Samantha was killed along with her father in a plane crash when returning to Maine from a peace mission. A life-sized bronze statue of her stands outside the State House in Augusta, Maine. The statue features Samantha's warm smile as she reaches out releasing a dove of peace. Samantha made a huge difference in the way Russians and Americans thought about the Cold War, the humanity of each other, and the possibility of peace. You can, too.
Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.
Additional Quotes by Chris Hedges
The failure to dissect the cause of war leaves us open for the next installment.
Point us away from the city of man toward the city of God.
Rape mutilation, abuse, and theft are the natural outcome of a world in which force rules, in which human beings are objects.
Very few veterans can return to the battlefield and summon the moral courage to confront what they did as armed combatants.
War is necrophilia. And this necrophilia is central to soldiering, just as it is central to the makeup of suicide bombers and terrorists. The necrophilia is hidden under platitudes about duty or comradeship.
Chris Hedges, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born on September 18, 1956 in St. Johnsbury Vt. He graduated from Colgate University with a BA in English Literature and went on to receive a Master of Divinity from Harvard. He has an honorary doctorate from Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.
Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America , the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He was an early and outspoken critic of the US plan to invade and occupy Iraq and called the press coverage at the time “shameful cheerleading.” In 2002, he was part of a team of reporters for The New York Times who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism and that same year he won an Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. In 2003, shortly after the war in Iraq began, Hedges was asked to give the commencement address at Rockford College in Rockford, Ill. He told the graduating class “…we are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power and security.” He went on to state that “This is a war of liberation in Iraq, but it is a war of liberation by Iraqis from American occupation.” As he spoke several hundred members of the audience began jeering and booing. His microphone was cut twice. Two young men rushed the stage to try to prevent him from speaking and Hedges had to cut short his address. He was escorted off campus by security officials before the awarding of diplomas. This event made national news and he became a lightning rod not only for right wing pundits and commentators, but also mainstream newspapers. The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial which denounced his anti-war stance and the New York Times issued a formal reprimand which required that Hedges cease speaking about the war. The reprimand condemned his remarks as undermining the paper’s impartiality. Hedges resigned not long afterwards and became a senior fellow at the Nation Institute.
Hedges’ is the author of the 2002 best seller War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, which is an examination of the poison of war and what it does to individuals and societies. He states that war is the pornography of violence, a powerful narcotic that “…has a dark beauty, filled with the monstrous and the grotesque.” He goes on to explain, “War gives us a distorted sense of self. It gives us meaning. It creates a feeling of comradeship that obliterates our alienation and makes us feel, for perhaps the first time in our lives, that we belong.” Of his own experience of war, living and working as a journalist in the war zones of Central America, the Balkans and the Middle East, he writes: “I have seen too much of violent death. I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories that lie buried and untouched most of the time. It is never easy when they surface.” It is, possibly, his sensitivity to his own experiences with war that led him to what some contend is his most courageous work to date: his 2008 book Collateral Damage for which he interviewed combat veterans from the Iraq war. This book represents the largest number of named eyewitnesses within the US Military who have testified on therecord about atrocities carried out by American soldiers and marines during the military occupation of Iraq. His book reveals in heartbreaking detail the devastating moral and physical consequences of the occupation.
Hedges has also published the following books: What Every Person Should Know About War (2003), Losing Moses on the Freeway: The Ten Commandments in America (2005), American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2008), I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008). and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and theTriumph of Spectacle ( 2009).
Maxine Hong Kingston began writing at the age of nine ("I was in the fourth grade and all of a sudden this poem started coming out of me"). She won her first writing award-a journalism contest at UC Berkeley-when she was sixteen. In 1976 THE NEW YORK TIMES praised her first book, THE WOMAN WARRIOR, comparing it to Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, saying, "It is an investigation of soul . . . Its sources are dream and memory, myth and desire. Its crises are crises of the heart in exile from roots that bind and terrorize it." At the age of thirty-six, she was a celebrity, winning the National Book Critic's Circle Award. Other books would follow, and the praise would continue to be unstinting. In 1980, she was named a Living Treasure of Hawai'i by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i.
In 1991, following a massive fire in the Oakland-Berkeley hills that consumed Maxine's house and the only copy of her manuscript-in process, THE FOURTH BOOK OF PEACE, and as the first President Bush was ordering the invasion of Iraq, she began offering writing and meditation workshops for veterans, to help them give voice to their experiences and work toward personal peace. As she'd hoped, the writing became a process of healing and renewal not just for the veterans but also for Maxine. She drew on the experience of these workshops in THE FIFTH BOOK OF PEACE.
In 1997, Maxine Hong Kingston was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton. In March 2003, she was arrested for crossing a police line at the White House as part of a CODEPINK action to protest the Iraq War. She retired last year from her career teaching literature and creative writing, mostly at UC Berkeley, where she was known for offering personalized instruction to each student, even in auditorium-sized classes, encouraging "real communication."
Maxine Hong Kingston performs a duet book reading with Gulf War I veteran Sean Mclain Brown
Introduction to Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace
Tell the Truth, and So Make Peace
All my life, I have wanted to keep soldiers safe from war. During World War II, my cousins in uniform stayed at our house on their way to and from military bases in California, the Pacific, and Europe. I heard veterans—including my mother, a refugee, a medic—talk story about the war that was killing and maiming right now as they spoke. Listening to people who had lived to tell the tale, I believed that it was the telling that kept them alive. They had survived hell and come back to warn us at home.
As Odysseus, the archetypical warrior, made his way home, he nar- rated his journey—setting off to war, waging the long war, coming home—to listener after listener. The story grew until, finally home, he could tell the whole tale and become whole. We tell stories and we listen to stories in order to live. To stay conscious. To connect one with another. To understand consequences. To keep history. To rebuild civilization.
About twenty years after our war in Vietnam—the Fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War, the American War—the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh gathered war veterans and their family members in retreats for making peace. In Noble Silence, they meditated: eating mindfully, walking mindfully, hugging mindfully, and hearing the Bell of Mind- fulness. Walking meditation is the specific antidote to the march that soldiers learn in basic training. On hugging, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When you hug one Vietnamese person, you hug all Vietnamese people.” I thought, When you hug one American, you hug all of us. In the circle of the community, someone would sing or speak or dance; the entire sangha bowed to him or her.
Singing, hugging, dancing, we were a community. But it is in words that each individual reveals a unique mind. The veterans needed to write. They would write the unspeakable. Writing, they keep track of their thinking; they leave a permanent record. Processing chaos through story and poem, the writer shapes and forms experience, and thereby, I believe, changes the past and remakes the existing world. The writer becomes a new person after every story, every poem; and if the art is very good, perhaps the reader is changed, too. Miraculous transforma- tions! So, I added writing meditation to Thich Nhat Hanh’s program for veterans.
We practiced writing in community. We would not have to write alone. We had one another to write with, and to write for. If you felt like quitting, you’d look across the table or garden or terrace or grove, and see the others bowed over their notebooks and laptops, and you kept going.
People who care what we have to say surround us. They draw the stories out of us by their wanting to know. Toward the end of the day, I evoke Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassionate listening: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world.” And each one reads aloud a new story, a new poem.
The veterans did their most dramatic writing when I presented the First Precept, which is a vow against killing: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” A moral ethic helps shape and form thoughts about the war chaos. The drama is not just in the battle scenes but in the moral conflict. Worried that the veterans would not take instruction from me, a non-veteran, I invited writers who had had war experience to help me teach. Larry Heinemann. George Evans. Wayne Karlin. Ho Anh Thai. Le Minh Khue. Fred Marchant. Grace Paley. Every one of these good- hearted artists affirmed that the written word gives life.
As the writers became skilled in knowing others’ points of view, they enlarged the definition of veteran. A veteran could be a woman; a veteran could be a deserter; a veteran could be a civilian who had served in war; a veteran could have been a member of a street gang; a veteran could be a survivor of domestic violence; a veteran could be a peace activist. All manner of persons identified themselves as veterans and came to join the regulars, who argued for a while, then let every one belong. Wars affect all of our lives.
Our workshop/community/sangha has been meeting for a dozen years. There have been about 500 participants, counting people who met in the retreats on the East Coast and in Southern California. Nowa- days, about thirty of us (never quite the same thirty) will gather in Sebastopol, California, once each season. A veteran from the other end of the country will set his clock to Pacific Time and meditate when we meditate, write when we write. This book is a harvest of conver- sations among multitudes. Most of these writers have met one another face-to-face. Nearby or at a distance, we inspire and influence one another, reading one another, editing, translating, giving feedback. We even appear in one another’s tales.
If there is one thing the writers in this book have in common, it is that they are rebels. They had been assigned to war; they had volun- teered and almost lost their lives. No more volunteering. No more fol- lowing assignments. Suspicious of institutions, they have no name for our group. So, in this book, various writers call us: The Veteran Writers Group, the Veteran Writers’ Workshop, the Veterans Writing Sangha. I have not edited for uniformity. Let stand Viet Nam or Vietnam or Viêt Nam, Tet or Têt, Danang or Da Nang, Ha Noi or Hanoi, Communist or communist, terrorist or Terrorist, Hell or hell, God or god.
This community of writers began its work during Gulf War I and has continued meeting and writing to the present day—as the war against Iraq continues. All these years, these faithful writers have paid attention to wars past and to wars ongoing. Their stories and poems are immense in scope, and in heart, and—amazingly—full of life and laughter. They carried out our motto: Tell the truth.
And so make peace.
Kingston, Maxine Hong (editor). Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (Koa Books, 2006).
This poignant collection, compiled from Kingston's healing workshops, contains the distilled wisdom of survivors of five wars, including combatants, war widows, spouses, children, conscientious objectors, and veterans of domestic abuse. Vetrans of War, Vetrans of Peace includes accounts from people that grew up in military families, served as medics in the thick of war, or came home to homelessness. All struggle with trauma — PTSD, substance abuse, and other consequences of war and violence. Through their extraordinary writings, readers witness worlds coming apart and being put back together again through liberating insight, community, and the deep transformation that is possible only by coming to grips with the past.