When a US soldier in Iraq won’t soldier
By Mary Wiltenburg | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the August 13, 2007 edition
What does the Army do with a private who can’t be persuaded to load his gun?
WÜRZBURG, GERMANY – No one looked comfortable at the sentencing hearing. Not family and friends who packed the US military courtroom’s straight-backed benches. Not the rookie Army prosecutor in stiff dress greens who flushed with every “Your Honor.” Not Judge R. Peter Masterton, whose usually animated face was now grave.
And not the convicted deserter – Army medic Agustín Aguayo – on the stand in a US military court in central Germany last March, pleading for understanding.
“I’m sorry for the trouble my conscience has caused my unit,” Private 1st Class Aguayo said, his voice thick with emotion. “I tried to obey the rules, but in the end [the problem] was at the very core of my being.”
Colonel Masterton, a veteran military judge, stared down at his bench. The defense wanted him to free this man of conscience. The prosecution asked that he put the coward away for two years to show other soldiers that “they are not fools for fulfilling their obligation.”
Aguayo craned to face the judge. “When I hear my sergeants talking about slashing people’s throats,” he said, crying openly, “if I’m not a conscientious objector, what am I when I’m feeling all this pain when people talk about violence?”
Next door in the press room, where reporters crowded to watch the proceedings on bleached, closed-circuit TVs, a soldier guarding the door wiped tears from his face.
Every war has its deserters, troops who abandon their posts. And every war has its converts to pacifism. The Defense Department reports that 5,361 active-duty service members deserted the US Armed Forces last year; nearly 37,000 since October 2001. In today’s all-volunteer force, that means a desertion rate of less than half a percent – much lower than the Vietnam War draft era, when it reached a 1971 high of 7.4 percent. In the past six years, 325 Army soldiers have applied to be recognized as conscientious objectors (COs), soldiers who no longer believe in war; 58 percent were accepted.
Still, Aguayo’s story is revealing of the mental battles of these thousands who change their minds during a bloody war – and, arguably, of many who don’t.
Struggling to support a young family in the patriotic months after 9/11, Aguayo chose to serve a nation heading into a long fight. War made a man of the naive private – but not in the way his officers intended.
While his struggle to believe in his mission probably resembled that of many young recruits, no one imagined how it would end.