Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hell (Part II): In Iraq

Speaking of hell, I have been promising to write about Aidan Delgado’s book, “The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq.” As the title suggests, it’s the personal—very personal—memoir of a young Buddhist man who had the extreme misfortune to be in the process of enlisting in the US Army on the very day those Muslim miscreants chose to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He had, in fact, signed his enlistment papers only minutes before hearing the news.

It was a rash act, for someone ready to declare himself a Buddhist, and plainly out of integrity with his still rather tenuously held beliefs. Delgado's father was a diplomat. As a boy growing up, he was exposed to a number of different cultures throughout the world and was easily bored by the academic tedium of a small Florida college. Judging himself out of place in that situation, somewhat supercilious in his attitude and dismissive of his class mates, he decided to enlist partly out of youthful rebellion and partly out of simple boredom and unease.

Would he have chosen differently the following day? Surely, in view of his experience in Iraq, he would later have chosen differently with the wisdom of hindsight. It is to Delgado’s credit that he does not gloss over the mistakes he makes, nor offer excuses for them. He writes this book, he says,

because I want to share a lesson I learned in the desert, in the hope that it will inform [the reader’s] view of the war in Iraq, of politics, of religion, of all the choices you make as a moral person… I want this book to serve as a hanging question about what it means to be an ethical soldier, to live an honest life…

He learned his lesson the hard way. Delgado’s descriptions of life on active duty, at times under mortar or heavy arms fire, at times in fear for his life and always, always, in extreme discomfort--from the sand that finds its way into everything to the cold at night and the raging heat by day--are eloquent, often truly appalling. Trained as a vehicle mechanic, he was not in the front lines of warfare, but he was witness to the boredom, the rage, the xenophobic distrust, the religious intolerance and the racial hatred among American troops that led to the outrage of Abu Ghraib, where he was stationed at the time of the atrocities. Without in any way condoning them, his book helps us to understand how it came about that otherwise decent but poorly educated young American men could become complicit in such dreadful acts of torture and humiliation.

Delgado also learned the hard way about the Buddhist path, which he acknowledged too late having abandoned. It took one of those epiphanic moments, in his case the sight of dead and dying insects on a window screen and “a strip of putrid flypaper coated in glue” to bring him to the realization of his fundamental error. “I can honestly say,” he wrote in that anguished moment, “that I am the worst Buddhist in the world...”

When I look at [the fly strip], I want to cry. A trapped and dying insect moves me almost to tears and here I am in this great and victorious war. I’m supposed to be a soldier, some kind of tough guy, and here I am writing about a poor moth. I hate it. I hate seeing any living thing suffer, I can’t stand it…

This is only the start of Delgado’s peculiar hell, the moment at which he understands that, to be back in integrity with himself and his beliefs, he must file for discharge from the Army as a conscientious objector. Word of his action soon gets out around his unit, and he falls victim not only to the pangs of his own conscience but to the fury and contempt of most of those he serves with. He survives a hostile assault by dint of resorting, himself, to violence—defending himself against an aggressor with a timely remembered martial arts move—and seems to gain, in this way, a certain grudging respect from his fellow soldiers. He recognizes the irony in having to earn it with his own act of violence.

Some of the toughest—and most poignant—moments in this book come at the time of a rebellion amongst the detainees at Abu Ghraib, in reaction to overcrowding, inedible food, and generally abominable living conditions. In watching his fellow countrymen respond with deadly force to defenseless, unarmed prisoners, Delgado is brought face to face with the glaring racial and religious hatred that contributes to their rage; and must confront the bitter reality of the intolerance that fuels it, despite his own growing awareness of the shared humanity of people on both sides.

In too many ways, this is a heart-rending book. The story is told without fuss or frills, without pretense or dissimulation. It acknowledges its author’s responsibility in the tragic passage of events in a war that, later, as a veteran, he will come to denounce for its needless inhumanity. At the same time, in its own terrible way, it does help to “make sense” of it all. It places us, as readers, slap in the middle of the action, gives us a feel for that “band of brothers” loyalty between those men who serve and who bond together in a powerful compact of love, and lets us know what it is to share the fear and rage.

I was writing just a couple of days ago about Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s uncompromising rejection of violence. Delgado is one “Buddhist” who came to an understanding of the precepts too late, and who seems, now, to want to devote his life to making up for that mistake. Non-violence is a difficult practice in a violent world, and Buddhism proves a salvation fraught with personal sacrifice and agony. Delgado has done an excellent job of showing us just how hard the path can be for one who takes it seriously. He has also done a service to the country by adding this personal experience to the ever-growing mass of evidence of the human fallout from the US invasion of Iraq.


carly said...

"Non-violence is a difficult practice in a violent world"

I suppose you mean something deeper than what these words say, but taken at face value, I don't see anything difficult about non-violence. There isn't even any need to practice. Simply reject it. Refute it. Don't support anything connected to it. Have nothing to do with anything containing it, Whether films, TV, football, or the Marine Corps.

However. If any man enters my home or my country to do violence, I will shoot him. A non-violent person is not necessarily a pacifist. It's just a universal truth that when things change, the demands change also.

Enlightenment is simplicity.

robin andrea said...

Your reading of Aidan's book is so touching and powerful, peter. You bring great compassion to your review, and your understanding of Buddhism allows you to get under his skin and inside his heart.

I was sent an email today by a friend, it said:

Two monks were washing their bowls in the river when they noticed a scorpion that was drowning. One monk immediately scooped it up and set it upon the bank. In the process he was stung. He went back to washing his bowl and again the scorpion fell in. The monk saved the scorpion and was stung again. The other monk asked him, "Why do you continue to save the scorpion when you know its nature is to sting?"

"Because," the monk replied, "to save it is my nature."

You reminded me of that when you recounted Aidan's story about the flypaper. Sometimes we find our true nature in the most interesting places.

mandt said...

Great report on Aiden. It is a pleasure to discover your site. We have taken the liberty of adding you to our reco. list. Also, if you haven't visited Fallenmonk's site, you may enjoy his postings, particularly the koans, mandt at

Gary said...

Thank you for this insightful review of Delgado's book, Peter. The application of the first precept of Buddhism to not harm any living being (Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, in Pali) is not always an easy thing to fulfill. Being a soldier in Iraq is one of the worst professions an American Buddhist could probably be right now. (Similarly, think about what it's like to be a Burmese Buddhist soldier these days, too...)

In the Yodhajiva Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya, 42.3) the Lord Buddha is clear that if a warrior or soldier kills on the battlefield, they are creating some 'heavy' karmic results in the future. Even killing an insect is against the first precept, let alone slaying another human being, whatever the motive.

This isn't the easy option, as Delgado has found out in the most extreme of circumstances! Hopefully, he will find the opportunity to establish a solid Buddhist practice in his life and develop the wisdom and compassion that are the trademarks of this peaceful way to awakening.

Your comments on Delgado's book, Peter, are well considered and show a depth of understanding regarding his character and motives that's admirable. You also display a keen insight into the motives and feelings of serving American troops in Iraq, who are, after all, human beings themselves.

Their fear and rage are natural responses to the situation that they face daily, with their lives under constant threat. That they strike out in ignorant and violent ways against their opponents is understandable. That's what makes Delgado's journey even more striking; in the midst of cruelty and intense suffering he has opened the eye of Dharma, and seen the implications of his actions. Such a dramatic moment of insight can (hopefully) change the lives of his readers, as well as transform his own understanding of the Four Noble Truths.

Be well,
Gary, at Forest Wisdom.

carly said...

To never harm any dangerous thing goes against universal laws and denies the existence of the natural world. Self-preservation is as much a part of the natural world as everything else. To sacrifice oneself for the idea that all other things must live, unconditionally, goes against the balance of nature. It is another example of how man invents ideas which are not in accord with the cosmos. Of course, if the cosmos is seen as nothingness, I suppose this is understandable.

Having said that, the wise man, the sage, first tries with all his wisdom to avoid being stung by the scorpion, and learns from the situation how not to be stung again. He does not kill the scorpion out of spite. He furthers nature by insuring the scorpion can live and not endanger the sage again. That is, he brings the scorpion to standstill by merely brushing him away. Therefore the monk in the parable is not a wise man.

Soldiers in war are put there in a way, by their superiors, so as to engender extreme prejudice and self-preserving instincts. This is the trickery of those who orchestrate war. The approach to the plight of the misguided warrior is not from the point of the battle scene. The correct way to eradicate the predicament of the soldier is do stop the orchestrators of war.

PeterAtLarge said...

I, too, have a problem with not exercising self-defense, Carly--though I don't have that gun to shoot the intruder with! I don't agree, though, that non-violence is hard to pratice: during World War II, for example, conscientious objectors needed a great deal of courage to survive amidst almost universal contempt and mockery. "Just do it" is too easy an answer for me. As to your least comment, "The correct way to eradicate the predicament of the soldier is do stop the orchestrators of war"--I say Amen. Gary and Robin, thanks for your thoughtful responses. Maybe your monk was not "wise," Robin, by Carly's standards; but he acted in absolute integrity with his beliefs.