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Vienna | 19.3.2008 | 12:04 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

The Price of a Conscience
  On a ferociously sunny early morning 5 years ago today, I was headed to St. Anton for a spot of late season skiing when the news broke. My country was at war, propping up the United States in it's invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Broadcast journalists are supposed to respond in a stringently objective fashion to such news, but their stomachs are under no such constraint. Mine twisted. I felt suddenly sick. This would be a war fought by some of my old friends from school and university.

Some of them had been simply outdoorsy boys who joined the army because they couldn't stick the thought of life in an office. Others had had too much fun at school or university to pass their exams, and felt that the army was their best chance of making a decent career.
A different kind of war
  I knew, as did they of course, that my friends might be called off to a war-zone one day.

We left school in the late 1990's when Kosovo and Sierra Leone were in the news. The job of a soldier, keeping the peace and protecting civilians in dangerous places, seemed then to be not only vital but really quite noble.

I don't think that any of us back then envisaged a war like the one in Iraq. That's why, purely emotionally, I can't help seeing the war from their perspective of my old friends - the soldiers roped into fighting a war I know many, off-record, scorn.
Augustin Aguayo
  A few weeks ago I met a rather famous Iraq war veteran, Augustin Aguayo, in Vienna. Aguayo is actually not famous for his fighting, but for his refusal to fight.

He calls himself a conscientious objector. Officially he is a deserter who has spent time in a military jail for his 'crime'.

Unlike those friends of mine who joined the war pre-9/11, Aguayo knew he'd be going to war. He volunteered willingly as an army medic in 2003 with armed conflict clearly just around the corner. "I wanted to give something back to the country that I felt I owed so much," he explained, echoing the sentiments of so many immigrant recruits.

But in the end his gratitude to his new country had signed a cheque that his sensitive conscience just wasn't prepared to cash.

 Agustin Aguayo
Photo: Mathieu Grandjean
The Gentle Soldier
  Aguayo certainly doesn't look like military material.

Small, unathletic and softly spoken, he looks much younger than his 35 years.

His open features are softened further by a pair of thinly framed spectacles and a layer of almost adolescent puppy-fat. Behind his glasses his earnest dark eyes water slightly when he speaks about his experiences. He chooses his words exceedingly carefully, letting several seconds pass at a time, as if someone's life depended on him finding the exact right expression as he tells his story.

"Left, right, left, right - kill!" The blood-thirsty chants of the the early drills stuck in Aguayo's throat. But he kept telling himself that something good would come of this experience - something good had to come from it.

The training camp he was sent to was designed to transform ordinary civilian into military machines capable of taking another man's life. "I struggled with that from the very beginning," he now says. Being a thinker in a system that demands blind obedience can be a very lonely place indeed.

Aguayo's initial uneasiness quickly turned into frank disillusionment when he arrived in Iraq for his first tour of duty. There, he took part in brutal raids on Iraqi family homes that he considered counterproductive and watched the painful death of a bullet-ridden Iraqi civilian whose only crime was to step too close to a US patrol convoy.

"How can something positive come out of such negative things?" he asks.
An Unquestioning Culture
  Questions weren't welcome. The soldier's role is to obey orders not analyse them. "The trainers work very hard to make sure we are all on the same page."

This makes military sense to a certain degree, of course, since any doubts a soldier may have in the field of war can easily cost a comrade's life. The concept of unity is, by necessity, almost an alternative religion to soldiers.

But Aguayo says that, in the context of the confusing Iraq war, this unquestioning culture leads up to soldiers bottling up their frustration inside and then uncorking it on the local population: "I saw how Iraqis were being harassed at check-points for no reason. There's a horrible hate that develops from being there."

Objecting to War
  Disgusted by the war, Aguayo applied for the status of a conscientious objector. His application was turned down.

He was based in Germany when his unit was ordered to return to the war and, as he had announced to his military superiors, he didn't turn up to the formation. His conscience wouldn't allow him to, he told me in Vienna. "I don't think it is acceptable to God for humans to destroy each other in this senseless way."

But he didn't want to run, he says, he wanted to make a stand. The next day, he turned himself in to the military police headquarters and told the authorities that he was ready to be prosecuted, but instead they told him he'd be on the next plane to join his comrades and set about making the necessary arrangements. This time he did run: "I just wanted all that to be behind me."
Time in Jail
  His flight was short lived: Aguayo handed himself over a few days later. He was finally convicted of desertion by a military court in Würzburg and was sentenced to 8 months in prison.

"For me it was a healing time," he told me, recounting the endless hours he spend contemplating his decision, examining his motives. Again and again he accused himself of the charge laid against him by some of his former comrades and large parts of the US public opinion: was it cowardice that had led to his decision?

"I'm happy to say I always came to the same conclusion: that I had done the right thing."

When Aguayo zipped up his first body bag in Iraq, a young African-American soldier mortally wounded by a road-side bomb, the shocked army medic wrote back to his wife that he was "scarred for life." You can only begin to imagine the scars left behind by imprisonment.

Getting the full story
  He now hopes his story will change the official perception of the nature of conscientious objection so that others will be spared the dramatic road that he has been forced to travel.

Aguayo can't turn back the clocks and reclaim the years he feels he's lost away from his young family, but he can warn off others before they make the same mistakes.

He told me how army recruiters target inner-city schools in his native California and paint military service in glossy, adventurous colours.

In an effort to counter-balance this recruitment, Aguayo has also been touring the school circuit and relating his negative experiences. "At least then they know the full story," he says.

 Photo: Mathieu Grandjean
FM4 Interview Podcast
  The whole interview with Augustin Aguayo is available as Podcast:
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