cover_story (2007-12)

Photo by (Top) Redux/David Butow,

As of Tuesday, March 20, day 1,463 of the Iraq War...

As of Tuesday, March 20, day 1,463 of the Iraq War...

Of American war casualties...

In the past seven days...

Since the war began nearly four years ago...

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan...

And back at home...

-- Information compiled by Jon Lewis-Katz (with additional reporting by Leslie Wylie) from reports by the U.S. Department of Defense, Iraq Body Count,, The Brookings Institute and the National Priorities Project, unless otherwise noted.

U.S. Army Specialist Augustin Aguayo went to war in Iraq, but not the way most soldiers do. He trained as an Army medic, and while still going through basic training, he came to the realization that he was opposed to war and didn't want to support it, even as a medic. He applied for conscientious objector status, but was denied, and was sent to Iraq, where he served from 2004 to 2005. Unable to get official recognition for his evolving beliefs, he did what he thought was right: Assigned to guard duty, he refused to load his weapon. He served a year in a combat zone with no bullets in his gun.

He got lucky, served honorably, and got out. But when the Army called him up for another tour, he decided enough was enough. Two MPs were sent to pick him up at his barracks in Germany, but as they waited for him to pack, he fled out a window and escaped, eventually making his way back to Los Angeles to join his wife, Helga, and his two twin daughters. He later turned himself in at Fort Irwin.

On March 6, the gentle and soft-spoken Aguayo was convicted of desertion and missing movement at a court martial in Germany and sentenced to eight months in prison. He has joined a growing list of active-duty soldiers who have been prosecuted for resisting the war in Iraq for reasons including moral aversion to violence and claims that the war itself was based on official deception and is therefore illegal. A list of active war resister cases on includes 18 soldiers--a relatively small number, but activists say it represents a tiny fraction of those who have quietly fled the U.S. armed services. Still, the sentence was far short of the seven-year maximum sentence, and peace activists see this as a good sign.

"I think this sends a fairly good message," says Jim Feldman, an attorney with the offices of Peter Goldberg, who is representing Aguayo in his federal civil case over his conscientious objector status. "People who really are sincere, the Army judges are not going to come down hard on 'em. The judges seem to recognize that as a mitigating circumstance."

"At the same time, I think they are taking a tough stand, because eight months in prison is still a long time in prison, especially for refusing to serve in a war because your conscience says it's wrong to kill people, or because you feel that this particular war is illegal," says Kelly Dougherty, who attended the trial. A former Sgt. E-5 in the Colorado National Guard who served in Iraq, Dougherty is co-founder and executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

"They could certainly be prosecuting people more," she adds. "But the sentences that they are giving are being handed down as a message to others serving in the military not to apply for CO status and not to refuse to go to Iraq."

The U.S. Department of Defense says it does not keep central statistics on desertion, but told reporters recently that 8,000 soldiers have been AWOL at one time or another since the war began in March 2003. The Pentagon told the Gannett News Service in 2006 that a total of 40,000 soldiers have deserted from all branches of the U.S. military since 2000, but that the numbers have been decreasing since it began what it calls the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. Several hundred of those soldiers have fled to Canada, according to unconfirmed reports, but only a few have identified themselves and thus face prosecution.

Those prosecutions are risky for the military. While they make it clear that the U.S. armed forces cannot condone desertion, many of those who stand trial, like Aguayo, are otherwise model soldiers and become lightning rods for public outrage over a very unpopular war.

The case of Lieutenant Ehren Watada, for instance, who publicly announced in June 2006 that he considered the war illegal, is important not only because he is the first commissioned officer to refuse orders to go to Iraq, but also because he is being prosecuted for making unauthorized statements to the press.

Appearing in a business suit rather than his uniform, Watada declared to gathered press at Fort Lewis in Washington, D.C.: "Although I have tried to resign out of protest, I am forced to participate in a war that is manifestly illegal. As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order."

Originally, Watada was charged with "contempt for the president" for accusing George W. Bush of manufacturing an illegal war, but that charge has been dropped. His first court martial on charges of missing movement and "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman," resulted in a mistrial in February, but he will be retried in July.

Sarah Olson, a Bay Area-based independent journalist who wrote about the Watada case, was subpoenaed to the first trial, along with Gregg Kakesako of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, to verify statements made by Watada. Olson was unwilling to honor the subpoena and was released at the last minute when Watada signed statements attesting to his quotes.

"I think it's a journalist's job to report the news and not to participate in a prosecution of personal political speech," says Olson. "It was legal for the army to do so, although whether or not Lt. Watada had violated the Uniform Military Code of Justice is kind of the heart of the debate. I don't think it's a decided matter at all."

Dougherty believes that soldiers need to reach a place where they feel free to speak. "A lot of people don't understand war resisters, but the reality is that we're citizens first, and we're volunteering as citizens for our military, and if we see something that goes against our country and our constitution, then it's our right and responsibility to stand up as citizens to do something about it," she says.

Requests to U.S. Army public affairs officers in Germany and at Fort Lewis were not returned by press time.

Besides Iraq Veterans Against the War, many other activist groups have thrown their support behind active-duty troops who have chosen to defy orders, making them a cause celebre for the War Resisters League, Veterans for Peace, and others. Maybe for that reason, the military is still interested in taking a toll from those who opt out. Aguayo, for instance, has already served over six months in prison and will probably get out in a couple more. He also forfeits backpay, has had his rank reduced to private, and gets a dishonorable discharge.

Unless, of course, he manages to win his federal case and therefore receive conscientious objector status. Then this all goes away. Sorta.

"I tried to do everything right, obey all the rules," Aguayo said in a German courtroom, "but I couldn't continue. I couldn't bear weapons."

Reprinted with permission of the Los Angeles City Beat .