Conscientious objector: ‘On behalf of those who are still quiet’

On 21 May 2004, 28-year-old Sgt Camilo Mejia was sentenced to one year in prison for refusing to return to fight in Iraq. Camilo spent six months in combat in Iraq, then returned for a two-week furlough to the US. There he reflected on what he had seen, including the abuse of prisoners and the killing of civilians. He concluded that the war was illegal and immoral, and decided that he would not return. In March 2004 he turned himself in to the US military and filed an application for conscientious objector status. The following statement was issued by Camilo on discovering he had been prese

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After reading the official letter on the Courageous Resister Award along with the list of past recipients, my first reaction was that of embarrassment. I see that so many people have sacrificed so much in their very own ways of resistance – recipients have spent decades in prison, have devoted their whole lives to resistance, have been executed for resisting, for standing up to authority, for not conforming, for struggling for peace and justice.

There are so many extraordinary people whose tireless devotion to freedom, and whose sacrifices have helped me realise that far greater sorrows may have befallen me. I am only a regular person that got tired of being afraid to follow his own conscience. For far too long I allowed others to direct my actions even when I knew that they were wrong. I am but a humble member of a world community of ‘true’ freedom fighters.

I cannot accept this award on behalf of those who have truly refused and resisted; there are far too many of them who deserve the honour more than I. I will, however, accept the award on behalf of those who are still quiet, those who are still afraid to speak their minds. Not too long ago I was one of them. Not too long ago I was ordered to be part of a war that I knew in my heart was immoral and criminal, a war of aggression, a war of imperial domination.

Many have called me a coward; many 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. To those who have called me a coward I say that they are wrong, and that without knowing it, they are also right. They are wrong when they think that I left the war for fear of being killed. I admit that fear was there, but there was also the fear of killing innocent people, the fear of putting myself in a position where to survive means to kill, there was the fear of losing my soul in the process of saving my body, the fear of losing myself to my daughter, to the people who love me, to the man I used to be, the man I wanted to be. I was afraid of waking up one morning to realise my humanity had abandoned me. I say without any pride that I did my job as a soldier. I commanded an infantry squad in combat and we never failed to accomplish our mission.

But those who called me a coward, without knowing it, are also right. I was a coward not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place. Refusing and resisting this war was my moral duty, a moral duty that called me to take a principled action, a moral duty that was clear and the accomplishment of which was urgent. I failed to fulfil my moral duty as a human being and instead I chose to fulfil my duty as a soldier. All because I was afraid. I was terrified. I did not want to stand up to the government and the army; I was afraid of punishment and humiliation. I went to war because at that moment I was a coward, and for that I apologise to all of you. I apologise to my soldiers for not being the type of leader I should have been; I apologise to the Iraqi people. To them I say I am sorry for the curfews, for the raids, for the killings. May they find it in their hearts to forgive me.

One of the reasons I did not refuse the war from the beginning was that I was afraid of losing my freedom. Today, as I sit behind bars I realise that there are many types of freedom, and that in spite of my confinement I remain free in many important ways.

I have said that I want to receive this award on behalf of those who are still quiet. To them I say “come forward”; to them I say “free your minds”. What good is freedom if we are afraid to follow our conscience? 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.

While I was confined in total segregation, I came across a poem written by a man who refused and resisted the government of Nazi Germany. For doing so he was executed. His name is Albrecht Hanshofer. The poem is short, I won’t take a lot more of your time. I see much of my reality, much of the way I feel in this poem, and I would like to share it with you. Albrecht Hanshofer wrote this poem as he awaited execution.


The burden of my guilt before the law

weighs light upon my shoulders; to plot

and to conspire was my duty to the people;

I would have been a criminal had I not.

I am guilty, though not the way you think,

I should have done my duty sooner, I was wrong,

I should have called evil more clearly by its name

I hesitated to condemn it for far too long

I now accuse myself within my heart:

I have betrayed my conscience far too long

I have deceived myself and fellow man.

I knew the course of evil from the start

My warning was not loud nor clear enough!

Today I know what I was guilty of…

Once again, I accept this award on behalf of those who are still quiet, those who continue to betray their conscience, those who are not calling evil more clearly by its name, those of us who are still not doing enough to refuse and resist. I accept this award knowing in my heart that I don’t deserve it. I accept this award as a promise that I will live to earn it. I will live to fulfil my duty to the people. I will live to speak for those who know evil but are afraid to call it by its name. I accept this award with the promise that I will live my life striving to deserve it. I will live my life to refuse and resist. Thank you all.

In Solidarity and Resistance,

Camilo Mejia

US Army Conscientious Objector.