Book Sixteen: Road From Ar Ramadi

Road From Ar Ramadi is a book by Camilo Mejia, who became a cause célèbre in 2004 when he chose not to return to Iraq after a brief period of leave. He went underground for five months, ultimately surrendering to the military and applying for conscientious objector status, on the grounds that after his time in Iraq, he could not support participation in any war in any way. (And yes, it is Ar Ramadi in the title, although the Arabic is usually transliterated as Al Ramadi; Mejia claims that he did it to emphasize the correct pronunciation. I think it’s a bit pretentious, personally.)

This book was interesting in a number of ways. The first section talks about his deployment to Iraq, as a member of the Florida National Guard, and the experiences he had there. One thing that he made clear is that abuse of Iraqi prisoners and civilians was widespread from the start of the war, and this was obviously deeply troubling to him. Mejia also revealed the fact that higher-ups in the military deliberately risked the lives of soldiers for promotion, medals, and awards, something which I personally found rather sickening.

People join the military for lots of reasons; Mejia, for example, joined because they said they would pay for college, and after his service in the Army, he transitioned to the National Guard to complete his obligation because he was assured that as a member of the National Guard, he would primarily help with domestic issues like disaster relief. I do think that the military has an obligation to the men and women who serve in it, and this obligation includes a mandate to keep people out of unnecessary danger. Obviously, war is dangerous, but there are ways to make war less dangerous, and Mejia documented situations where he and other soldiers were basically used as bait to initiate enemy contact.

I think we all know at this point that the military uses very coercive tactics to get people to enlist, including outright lies about terms of enlistment and benefits. It should probably come as no surprise to learn that the military lies to you after you enlist, too, but it was disappointing to have that fact spelled out and discussed with such frankness. The very structure of the military is designed to foster blind obedience, making it very difficult for people to explore their own consciences, let alone speak up for them.

He also talked about injured soldiers being forced to return to their units to keep numbers up, which is rather heinous. It sounds like a lot of superiors were more interested in personal advancement than in caring for their men, and that seems like a fundamental violation of basic military ethics. Having just finished Rule Number Two, it was also interesting to read his opinion of psych services in the military, which is basically that most psychological support in the military is crap, designed as a public relations exercise more than anything else.

Mejia’s discussion of his time in Iraq set the backdrop for his decision to remain in the United States when his leave ended, rather than returning to Iraq. He also discussed efforts undertaken in Iraq to end his military service, primarily centered around the fact that because he wasn’t a citizen, his extension under stop loss was actually illegal.

Mejia presents his position as one of conscience, arguing that he could not morally return to Iraq because he disagreed strongly with the war and the actions of the military there. It was certainly interesting to read about the evolution of his conscience, and his regrets at not speaking out sooner. As someone with a lot invested in self integrity and conscience, I can understand how Mejia’s decision (and ultimate jail time for deserting) was incredibly empowering. I think that he also encouraged a lot of soldiers to reconsider the war and their roles in it, and that is a very good thing.

This book was also simply well written. Mejia (or his editor) has a nice, strong writing voice. My major criticism of the book has to do with the descriptions of his time in Iraq, which sometimes felt very chaotic and disorganized, but as I read further, I began to realize that this section of the book feels chaotic and disorganized because this time in Mejia’s life was chaotic and disorganized. Iraq is a very stressful place to be, and Mejia captured the confusion, the conflicting orders, and the lack of support for the lower ranks in the military very well. There were parts of the book which seemed outright unbelievable, and it’s astounding to me that the military has inculcated blind obedience so well that commanders won’t question orders which are explicitly dangerous, dumb, and pointless.

Whether or not you agree with the war (or the concept of war in general), I think you might find this book both eye opening and enjoyable. There was definitely information in the book that was new to me, and I keep up on military issues. I also think that any book which stimulates people into behaving rightly and with conscience is a good thing. Road From Ar Ramadi is certainly one of the better books I’ve read coming out of the war in Iraq.

Demographics:

Road From Ar Ramadi, by Camilo Mejia. Published 2007, 312 pages. Memoir.