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.