I spent some time recently with Aidan Delgado, a 23-year-old religion
major at New College of Florida, a small, highly selective school in
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, before hearing anything about the
terror attacks that would change the direction of American history, Mr.
Delgado enlisted as a private in the Army Reserve. Suddenly, in ways he
had never anticipated, the military took over his life. He was trained
as a mechanic and assigned to the 320th Military Police Company in St.
Petersburg. By the spring of 2003, he was in Iraq. Eventually he would
be stationed at the prison compound in Abu Ghraib.
Mr. Delgado's background is unusual. He is an American citizen, but
because his father was in the diplomatic corps, he grew up overseas. He
spent eight years in Egypt, speaks Arabic and knows a great deal about
the various cultures of the Middle East. He wasn't happy when, even
before his unit left the states, a top officer made wisecracks about
the soldiers heading off to Iraq to kill some ragheads and burn some
"He laughed," Mr. Delgado said, "and everybody in the unit laughed with him."
The officer's comment was a harbinger of the gratuitous violence that,
according to Mr. Delgado, is routinely inflicted by American soldiers
on ordinary Iraqis. He said: "Guys in my unit, particularly the younger
guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads
of Iraqi civilians passing by. They'd keep a bunch of empty Coke
bottles in the Humvee to break over people's heads."
He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this
practice. "I said to them: 'What the hell are you doing? Like, what
does this accomplish?' And they responded just completely openly. They
said: 'Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate
being surrounded by hajis.' "
"Haji" is the troops' term of choice for an Iraqi. It's used the way "gook" or "Charlie" was used in Vietnam.
Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant
lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine
corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years
old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would
yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing
He said he believes that the absence of any real understanding of Arab
or Muslim culture by most G.I.'s, combined with a lack of proper
training and the unrelieved tension of life in a war zone, contributes
to levels of fear and rage that lead to frequent instances of
Mr. Delgado, an extremely thoughtful and serious young man, balked at
the entire scene. "It drove me into a moral quagmire," he said. "I
walked up to my commander and gave him my weapon. I said: 'I'm not
going to fight. I'm not going to kill anyone. This war is wrong. I'll
stay. I'll finish my job as a mechanic. But I'm not going to hurt
anyone. And I want to be processed as a conscientious objector.' "
He stayed with his unit and endured a fair amount of ostracism. "People
would say I was a traitor or a coward," he said. "The stuff you would
In November 2003, after several months in Nasiriya in southern Iraq,
the 320th was redeployed to Abu Ghraib. The violence there was
sickening, Mr. Delgado said. Some inmates were beaten nearly to death.
The G.I.'s at Abu Ghraib lived in cells while most of the detainees
were housed in large overcrowded tents set up in outdoor compounds that
were vulnerable to mortars fired by insurgents. The Army acknowledges
that at least 32 Abu Ghraib detainees were killed by mortar fire.
Mr. Delgado, who eventually got conscientious objector status and was
honorably discharged last January, recalled a disturbance that occurred
while he was working in the Abu Ghraib motor pool. Detainees who had
been demonstrating over a variety of grievances began throwing rocks at
the guards. As the disturbance grew, the Army authorized lethal force.
Four detainees were shot to death.
Mr. Delgado confronted a sergeant who, he said, had fired on the
detainees. "I asked him," said Mr. Delgado, "if he was proud that he
had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn't
get mad at all. He was, like, 'Well, I saw them bloody my buddy's nose,
so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.' "