The Quiet American

Former Army Medic - an Immigrant - Says No to Redeployment in Iraq

U.S. army deserter Augustin Aguayo in Vienna in December | Photo: Christine Eichinger

Disillusioned, Aguazo refused to re-up | Photo: Christine Eichinger

U.S. army deserter Augustin Aguayo in Vienna in December | Photo: Christine Eichinger

“Left, right, left, right – kill!”

It was the year 2003 and marching along in his early drills, the fresh army medic recruit Augustin Aguayo knew he was to going to struggle with US military life.

“Left, right, left, right –
you know I will!”

The blood-thirsty chants stick in Aguayo’s throat. He’s a thinker in a system that demands blind obedience. But something good would come of this experience, he told himself, something good must come from it.

But what did, in the end, come of his decision to sign up?
Well, war, imprisonment and character assassination were the most obvious consequences. Augustin Aguayo is a convicted deserter from the US military, reviled by many as a coward who had abandoned his comrades. Nearly five years on, the only way the soft-spoken immigrant from Mexico can now find to draw any positives from his time in the military is to talk about it, to occupy a media lime-light that you sense he would have instinctively avoided. Augustin Aguayo has become a figure-head of the anti-war movement and is now travelling the world relating his experiences as a critical insider from the Iraq war.

And that’s why he had come to Vienna.

In person, Aguayo, the man who challenged the US military authorities, doesn’t quite fit the dramatic bill that his decision to desert has guaranteed him. He’s small and 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’s been characterized as a heroic voice of protest by the anti-war movement, but his manner suggests that he is somehow embarrassed by all the attention forced upon him. Aguayo 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. In fact he’s the perfect picture of thoughtful sensitivity, which makes you wonder why he signed up to the military in the first place, especially with war clearly just around the corner.

“I wanted to give something back to the country that I felt I owed so much,” he answers simply, echoing the sentiments of so many immigrant recruits. Yet it was immediately clear that his gratitude had signed a cheque that his sensitive conscience wasn’t prepared to cash. The training camp he was sent to was designed to transform ordinary civilians into military machines capable of taking another man’s life.

“I struggled with that from the very beginning,” he now says.

The initial uneasiness Aguayo had felt with military life 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.

He’s convinced he was not the only one asking himself these questions, but he has been  one of the few to voice them. Internal criticism is not welcome in the military, and the concept of unity is almost an alternative religion. The soldier’s role is to obey order not analyse them.

“The trainers worked very hard to make sure we were all on the same page,” he said. This makes military sense to a certain degree, of course, since any doubts a soldier may have on the field of war can easily cost a comrade’s life. But Aguayo says that in the context of the confusing Iraq war, this unquestioning culture leads 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.”

Disillusioned, Aguazo refused to re-up | Photo: Christine Eichinger

Disgusted by the war, Aguayo applied for the status of conscientious objector before, during and after his first tour of duty. But it was all to no avail. Once you’ve made the decision to sign up to the US military, it seems, it’s too late to voice sensibilities. He’d survived his first tour of duty, but it was becoming increasingly clear that if he was going to avoid a return to the Gulf, it was going to have to be the hard way. He had never coveted the spot-light, but the intransigent military was forcing his hand.

Aguayo was based in Germany when his unit was ordered to return to the war.  He didn’t turn up to the formation. His conscience wouldn’t allow him to, he says.

“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. 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.”

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. Any doubts over his courage should be dispelled by the way he speaks of that dark period of time  in an army brig, most of the days spent in solitary confinement.

“There are worse things in life than that isolation,” he says. “For me it was a healing time.”

He tells of the endless hours he spent 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.” 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.

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. 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 others from making the same mistakes. He told me how army recruiters target inner-city schools in his native California and paint military service in glossy, adventurous colors. 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.”

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