Aiden Delgado, an Army Reservist in the 320th Military
Police Company, served in Iraq from April 1st , 2003 through April
1st, 2004. After spending six months in Nasiriyah in Southern Iraq,
he spent six months helping to run the now-infamous Abu Ghraib
prison outside of Baghdad.
The handsome 23-year-old mechanic was a witness to widespread,
almost daily, U.S. war crimes in Iraq. His story contains new revelations
about ongoing brutality at Abu Ghraib, information yet to be reported
in national media.
I first met Delgado in a classroom at Acalanes
High School in Lafayette, California, where he presented a slide
show on the atrocities
that he himself observed in Southern and Northern Iraq. Delgado
acknowledged that the U.S. military did some good things in Iraq. “We
deposed Saddam, built some schools and hospitals,” he said.
But he focused his testimony on the breakdown of moral order within
the U.S. military, a pattern of violence and terror that exceeds
the bounds of what is legally and morally permissible in time of
Delgado says he observed mutilation of the
dead, trophy photos of dead Iraqis, mass roundups of innocent
of prisoners in the line of fire – all violations of the
Geneva conventions. His own buddies – decent, Christian men,
as he describes them – shot unarmed prisoners.
In one government class for seniors, Delgado
presented graphic images, his own photos of a soldier playing
with a skull, the charred
remains of children, kids riddled with bullets, a soldier from
his unit scooping out the brains of a prisoner. Some students were
squeamish, like myself, and turned their heads. Others rubbed tears
from their eyes. But at the end of the question period, many expressed
appreciation for opening a subject that is almost taboo. “If
you are old enough to go to war,” Delgado said, “you
are old enough to know what really goes on.”
It is a rare moment when American students, who play video war
games more than baseball, are exposed to the realities of occupation.
Delgado does not name names. Nor does he want to denigrate soldiers
or undermine morale. He seeks to be a conscience for the military,
and he wants Americans to take ownership of the war in all its
Aiden Delgado did not grow up in the United States. His father
was a U.S. diplomat. Aiden lived in Thailand and Senegal, West
Africa. He spent seven years in Cairo, Egypt, where he became fluent
in Arabic and developed a deep appreciation of Arab culture.
On September 11th, 2001, completely unaware
of the day’s
fateful events, Delgado enlisted in the Army, expecting to serve
two days a month in the Reserves. When he turned on the television,
he realized instantly that his whole world had changed.
After he joined the Army, Delgado began to
read the Sutras. He became a Buddhist, a vegetarian, and eventually
became a Conscientious
Objector. Delgado was honorably discharged when he returned home.
Delgado earned four service medals which, he says, are standard
awards. He faced criticism from the Army when he began to speak
out about military conduct in Iraq. Don Schwartz, spokesman for
the Army in Washington, D.C., said that Delgado should have reported
any wrongdoing to Army personnel. “He should have reported
first to his boss, his commander. That is the standard way the
chain of command works.”
When I interviewed Delgado recently, he expressed
his deep love of his country, but he also insisted that racism – a major
impetus to violence in American history – is driving the
occupation, infecting the entire military operation in Iraq.
Delgado’s testimony tends to confirm the message of Chris
Hedges, the New York Times war correspondent who wrote prior to
the invasion of Iraq: “War forms its own culture. It distorts
memory, corrupts language, and infects everything around it....
War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the
surface within all of us. Even as war gives meaning to sterile
lives, it also promotes killers and racists.”
Here is Aiden Delgado story.
Q: When did you begin to turn against the military and the war?
DELGADO: From the very earliest time I was
in Iraq, I began to see ugly strains of racism among our troops—anti-Arab,
Q: What are some examples?
DELGADO: There was a Master Sergeant. A Master
Sergeant is one of the highest enlisted ranks. He whipped this
group of Iraqi children
with a steel Humvee antenna. He just lashed them with it because
they were crowding around, bothering him, and he was tired of talking.
Another time, a Marine, a Lance Corporal – a big guy about
six-foot-two – planted a boot on a kid’s chest, when
a kid came up to him and asked him for a soda. The First Sergeant
said, “That won’t be necessary Lance Corporal.” And
that was the end of that. It was a matter of routine for guys in
my unit to drive by in a Humvee and shatter bottles over Iraqis
heads as they went by. And these were guys I considered friends.
And I told them:“ What the hell are you doing? What does
that accomplish?” One said back:“ I hate being here.
I hate looking at them. I hate being surrounded by all these Hajjis.”
Q: They refer to Iraqis as “Hajjis”?
DELGADO: “Hajji” is the new slur, the new ethnic slur
for Arabs and Muslims. It is used extensively in the military.
The Arabic word refers to one who has gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
But it is used in the military with the same kind of connotation
as “gook,” “Charlie,” or the n-word. Official
Army documents now use it in reference to Iraqis or Arabs. It’s
real common. There was really a thick aura of racism.
Q: Were there any significant incidents besides racial slurs and
casual violence against civilians?
DELGADO: The last mission I ran in the South
before we were redeployed North was strange. I was told to drive
way out into the desert,
off the road. When we got there, we found Kuwaitis excavating a
mass grave site (from the Saddam era). Kuwaiti engineers wanted
to identify and repatriate the remains. It was a solemn affair.
I was with the First Sergeant. He said: “Give me that skull.
I want to hold the skull in my hands.” He picked up the skull,
tossing it to himself. Then he turned to me and said: “Take
my picture.” It was taken while he was standing by a mass
grave. This was a very surreal, dark time for me in Iraq. It was
tough for me to see brutality coming out of my own unit. I had
lived in the Middle East. I had Egyptian friends. I spent nearly
a decade in Cairo. I spoke Arabic, and I was versed in Arab culture
and Islamic dress. Most of the guys in my unit were in complete
culture shock most of the time. They saw the Iraqis as enemies.
They lived in a state of fear. I found the Iraqis enormously friendly
as a whole. One time I was walking through Nasiriyah with an armful
of money, nadirs that were exchanged for dollars. I was able to
walk 300 meters to my convoy – a U.S. soldier walking alone
with money. And I thought: I am safer here in Iraq than in the
states. I never felt threatened from people in the South.
Q: What happened when you moved North, before you reached Abu
DELGADO: We were a company of 141 Military
Police. We gave combat support, followed behind units to take
and hold prisoners. I was
a mechanic. I fixed Humvees. We followed behind the Third Infantry
division. It was heavily mechanized with lots of tanks and scout
vehicles. We could trace their path by all the burned-out vehicles
and devastation they left behind. The Third pretty much annihilated
the Iraqi forces. Iraqis did not have much of an organized military.
They had civilian vehicles, and they resisted pretty valiantly,
given how much we outclassed them. The Third Infantry slaughtered
them wholesale. We took so many prisoners, we couldn’t carry
them all. Large numbers of civilians were caught in the crossfire.
Q: How were the civilians killed?
DELGADO: It was common practice to set up blockades.
The Third Infantry would block off a road. In advance of the
would flee the city in a panic. As they approached us, someone
would yell: “Stop, stop!” In English. Of course they
couldn’t understand. Their cars were blown up with cannons,
or crushed with tanks. Killing noncombatants at checkpoints happened
routinely, not only with the Third Infantry, but the First Marines.
And it is still going on today. If you check last week’s
MSNBC, they dug out a father and mother and her six children. We
were constantly getting reports of vehicles that were destroyed
(with people in them) at checkpoints.
Q: Your unit, the 320th Military Police, was stationed at Abu
Ghraib for six months. Who were the prisoners at Abu Ghraib? Where
did they come from? Do you have any new information not yet reported
in the media?
DELGADO: There were 4,000 to 6,000 prisoners
at Abu Ghraib. I got to work with a lot of officers, so I got
to see the paperwork.
I found out that a lot of prisoners were imprisoned for no crime
at all. They were not insurgents. Some were inside for petty theft
or drunkenness. But the majority – over sixty percent – were
not imprisoned for crimes committed against the coalition.
Q: How did so many noncombatants get imprisoned?
DELGADO: Every time our base came under attack, we sent out teams
to sweep up all men between the ages of 17 and 50. There were random
sweeps. The paperwork to get them out of prison took six months
or a year. It was hellish inside. A lot of completely innocent
civilians were in prison camp for no offense. It sounds completely
outrageous. But look at the 2005 Department of Defense Report,
where it talks about prisoners.
Q: When you arrived at Abu Ghraib, what did you see, beyond what
we all learned from the scandal in the news? And how were you affected?
DELGADO: I was becoming disillusioned. I expected brutality from
the enemy. That was a given. But to see brutality from our own
side, that was really tough for me. It was hard to see the army
fall so much in my esteem. The prisoners were housed outside in
tents, 60 to 80 prisoners per tent. It rained a lot. The detainees
lived in the mud. It was freezing cold outside, and the prisoners
had no cold-weather clothing. Our soldiers lived inside in cells,
with four walls that protected us from the bombardment. The Military
Police used the cold weather to control the prisoners. If there
was an infraction, detainees would be removed from their tents.
Next, their blankets were confiscated. Then even their clothing
was taken away. Almost naked, in underwear, the POWs would huddle
together on a platform outside to keep warm. There was overcrowding,
and almost everyone got TB. Eighteen members of our unit who worked
closely with the prisoners got TB too. The food was rotten and
prisoners got dysentery. The unsanitary conditions, the debris
and muck everywhere, the overcrowding in cold weather, led to disease,
an epidemic, pandemic conditions. The attitude of the guards was
them Iraqis were the scum of the earth. Detainees were beaten within inches
of their life.
Q: Were any detainees killed?
DELGADO: More than 50 prisoners were killed.
Q: What happened?
DELGADO: The enemy around Baghdad randomly
shelled our base. Under the Geneva Conventions, an occupying
power cannot place protected
persons in areas exposed to the hazards of war. More than 50 detainees
were killed because they were housed outside in tents, directly
in the line of fire, with no protection, nowhere to run. They were
hemmed in by barbed wire. They were trapped, and they had to sit
and wait and hope they would survive. I know what it was like because
a single mortar round would flatten a whole line of tires on the
Humvees, a whole line of windshields. That’s how I thought
about the damage because I was the mechanic who had to replace
the windshields. So the mortar bombardments killed and wounded
Q: So your commanders knowingly kept your prisoners in the line
of fire? How many U.S. soldiers were killed during the shellings?
DELGADO: There were two U.S. soldiers killed during my stay.
Q: Were there any other incidents?
DELGADO: The worst incident that I was privy
to was in late November. The prisoners were protesting nightly
because of their living conditions.
They protested the cold, the lack of clothing, the rotting food
that was causing dysentery. And they wanted cigarettes. They tore
up pieces of clothing, made banners and signs. One demonstration
became intense and got unruly. The prisoners picked up stones,
pieces of wood, and threw them at the guards. One of my buddies
got hit in the face. He got a bloody nose. But he wasn’t
hurt. The guards asked permission to use lethal force. They got
it. They opened fire on the prisoners with the machine guns. They
shot twelve and killed three. I know because I talked to the guy
who did the killing. He showed me these grisly photographs, and
he bragged about the results. “Oh,” he said, “I
shot this guy in the face. See, his head is split open.” He
talked like the Terminator. ‘I shot this guy in the groin,
he took three days to bleed to death.” I was shocked. This
was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. He was a family
man, a really courteous guy, a devout Christian. I was stunned
and said to him: “You shot an unarmed man behind barbed wire
for throwing a stone.” He said, “Well, I knelt down.
I said a prayer, stood up and gunned them all down.” There
was a complete disconnect between what he had done and his own
Q: Commanders permitted use of lethal force against unarmed detainees.
What was their response to the carnage?
DELGADO: Our Command took the grisly photos and posted them up
in the headquarters. It was a big, macho thing for our company
to shoot more prisoners than any other unit.
Q: When did all this happen?
DELGADO: November 24th. The event was actually mentioned in the Taguba
Report, under Protocol Golden Spike. And there’s more.
Before our company transported the bodies, the soldiers stopped
and posed with the bodies and mutilated them further. I got photos
from the guy who was there, my friend. I have a photo of a member
of my unit, scooping out the prisoner’s brains with an
MRE [meals-ready-to-eat] spoon. Four people are looking on, two
are taking photographs. If you remember the Abu Ghraib stuff
that came out on CNN, this kind of stuff was common. You see
guys posing with bodies, or toying with corpses. It was a real
common thing in the military, all because the guys thought Arabs
are terrorists, the scum of the earth. Anything we do to them
is all right.
Q: So far as I know, no commanders have been
held accountable for events at Abu Ghraib. Your story implicates
commanders in ongoing
brutality. In one of your presentations, you said: “Our command
definitely knew about the prisoners being shot. They posted the
photos in their headquarters. They knew all about prisoners being
beaten.” Did your commanders try to prevent information from
reaching the public?
DELGADO: After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke
on CNN and TV, commanders came out to us and said: “We are all family here. We don’t
wash our dirty linen in public. This story doesn’t need to
go on CNN. Nobody needs to find out about this.” There was
a sort of informal gag order.
Q: You enlisted in the Army Reserve in good faith. Now you are
a conscientious objector. Once in the Army Reserve, how did you
become a C.O.?
DELGADO: After advanced training, I became
serious about Buddhism. I read translations of the Sutras. I
became a vegetarian. Later,
when I met Iraqi prisoners firsthand, I saw the people who were
supposed to be our enemies. I did not feel any hatred for them.
They were young, poor guys without an education, like us. They
had to fight us. And our guys were the same; they had to fight
them. And I said: “What am I doing here, fighting poor people?” I
went to my commander, turned in my rifle, and said; “Look,
I will stay in Iraq. I will finish my tour as a mechanic. I will
do my job, but I am not going to kill anyone.”
Q: You still served the whole tour in Iraq. How did your command
respond to your request to become a C.O.?
DELGADO: As soon as I told them, they became
hostile. They first took away my hard, ballistic plates that
go into my vest. They
said: “You are not going to fight, so you won’t need
Q: The plates protect you from bullets and mortars. They are needed
for safety, right? Were you still vulnerable?
DELGADO: Yes I was. They also took away my
home leave, saying: “You
won’t come back.” I was supposed to be promoted, but
they said we can’t promote you. The command tried a lot of
things to get me to recant. I was ostracized. But the more they
did to me, the more obstinate I became. I made trouble for my command.
I didn’t shave. I threatened to get my Congressman involved.
I called Buddhist organizations and the ACLU. They finally relented.
Q: I would like to review your observations. Your account does
not focus on one or two bad individuals. Essentially, you are describing
the brutality of a group, a collective loss of restraint, a complete
breakdown of moral order within the military. I am sure that your
Christian buddy, a typical American youth, would never shoot an
unarmed person in private life. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr
tells us that, with the sanction of the state, driven by nationalism,
moral, decent individuals become killers and torturers in groups.
You attribute the breakdown of restraint to racism. When did the
process of dehumanization of Arabs begin? Did basic training influence
the consciousness of our soldiers?
DELGADO: I went to Fort Knox for basic training. It was known
to be harsher than other bases. The training was mentally taxing,
and there was already some anti-Arab sentiment.
Q: Like what?
DELGADO: In the early stages I remember Army chants. We sang in
cadences. And the chants had anti-Arab themes. Like burning turbans,
killing ragheads, killing the Taliban.
Q: What did the chants say?
DELGADO: It was three years ago. I can’t
tell the exact words, but the sentiment was to burn turbans and
That was the phraseology. Our drill sergeants would give us motivational
talks to pump up our fighting spirit. The theme was the need to
get revenge, to go to the Middle East to fight Arabs.
Q: All this was before you even went to Iraq?
DELGADO: Yes. My own commander was infamous
for anti-Arab speeches. Before we were deployed to the Middle
East, he said, “Now
don’t go tell the media that you’re going over there
to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans.” Everybody laughed,
and he laughed with them. I remember standing there in formation,
having grown up in Egypt. And I was thinking: “Oh, my God,
this is going to be a disaster. Our commander has this anti-Arab
attitude even before we go over.” The commander would give
lectures about Islam. He said that Muslims advocate a holy war
against us, that Islam promotes perpetual war. I’ve been
surrounded by Muslims for a decade, exposed to their culture. He
Q: In the 1980s the U.S. military made a lot of reforms. It is
widely believed that racism in the military is now a thing of the
DELGADO: I have two answers. First, have we
overcome racism in the sense that blacks and whites are banded
together in the hatred
of Arabs? That’s not progress. Second, we had an incident
in our unit with a black specialist. He was a nice guy, really
popular in the unit. There was no physical fight, but there was
a dispute over him dating this white girl, having a relationship
with a white girl. Two white guys took a piece of rope, tied a
noose, and put a hangman’s noose on his bed. He found out
who it was and went to his black sergeant. They went to the equal
opportunity representative. The issue was effectively stifled.
Q: After your long ordeal, how do you feel about your country,
and what do you want from the American people?
DELGADO: I still love my country. I love the
idea of America. But I became disillusioned. Now I want to let
the American people
know what they’re signing on for when they say they support
the war in Iraq. And I want Americans to recognize the racial undertones
of the occupation and to understand the human costs of war.
Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In
Motion Magazine. He can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected].