Book Review: The Sutras of Abu Ghraib

The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes from a Conscientious Objector in Iraq

Special Note:  Aidan Delgado will be online here at Docudharma to talk about the book and his experiences in Iraq. Please join in the conversation –

Sunday, October 28th at 9 PM Eastern / 6 PM Pacific 

A few weeks ago Aidan Delgado sent us an email asking if we would help promote his new book about the Iraq War and how he came to be a Conscientious Objector.  We were more than happy to do so.  A few days later I received a copy of the book from the publisher, Beacon Press.  The story is well written and captivating –  highly recommended.  Here are a few more thoughts I will share with you… 

It takes courage to become a soldier and go to war.  It takes more courage to stand up for your principles and do the right thing.  This book is more than just a war story. As Delgado puts it: 

This book is not about who I am and what happened to me, even though you will read about who I am and what happened to me.  It is a story about a struggle that we all face, a story about deciding what you believe is right and upholding that belief to the bitter end, come what may.

Artist: Dadara

The son of a diplomat, Aidan Delgado spent his childhood and teen years overseas.  He lived in Thailand, Senegal, and Egypt before moving to the US for college.  This worldly experience gave him a perspective that most young people can’t appreciate.  His first year at college, he had trouble adjusting to the school and decided that he would take a break and join the Army reserve for a different kind of challenge.  By freakish coincidence, 9/11/01 was the day he went in to sign the contract. The ink was barely dry on the paper when news of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks came on the TV. Despite his  academic background he chose to enlist as a mechanic.  Having never worked on a car before, he relished the chance to work with his hands instead of his mind.  Once he signed up, he had to wait six weeks before going to basic training.  He had already taken leave from college but was still living in the dorms.  With nothing else to do, he went to the library and checked out a bunch of books on Buddhism.  After reading just one book, he realized that he had been Buddhist all his life, he just didn’t know it.  He grasped the truth of it and continued studying and practicing Buddhism during the lead up to his deployment.  He already recognized that this path was  incongruous with being a soldier but he thought that he could deal with it.

March 2003 – Delgado’s unit, the 320th Military Police Company, shipped out to Iraq.  After a brief stay at a base in Kuwait he crossed the Iraq border and was stationed at Tallil Airbase in southern Iraq.  The feeling at the time was that Sadaam would be defeated and the war would be over in less than 6 months. Ha!  Anyway, from the very early days, boredom was the prevailing spirit.  It was a dusty, dreary, mind-numbing existence.  The food, water and harsh climate added to the misery.  For ‘fun’ some of the MPs would chase down and shoot the starving wild dogs from their trucks.  This bothered Delgado and some of his friends, but military bravado dictated that no one say anything lest they appear soft and wimpy.  This gratuitous violence escalated into throwing bottles at civilians they passed on the roads, to striking children, and pointing weapons at unarmed men for the slightest provocation.

In addition to repairing humvees, Delgado was chosen to be the radio operator at the POW camp on base.  The prisoners, mostly young men his age, were corralled in pens surrounded by earthen walls and razor wire.  Delgado wrote to his girlfriend:

…I’m sitting here bored and suddenly very lonely.  Maybe it’s the sight of all these prisoners:  ragged, dirty, half-starved, with looks of utter bewilderment and confusion on their faces.  I watch them being herded into barbed-wire cages and I can’t help but feel terribly sorry for them, no matter who they are or were, no matter how black their hearts have been….I just feel this deep, abiding sorrow for them. They seem so utterly wasted and defeated. 


prisoners being transported from Tallil

As a high school student in Cairo, Delgado learned to speak some Arabic.  Not fluently, but more than anyone else in his platoon knew, by far. The base at Tallil was not far from Nasiryah and Delgado was frequently taken on missions to that town as a translator in order to purchase food, ice and other ‘luxury’ items, like air conditioners. At that time in southern Iraq, the civilians were friendly to the Army and the fact that Delgado could speak even halting Arabic was very much appreciated by the people there.  They would surround him and smile and give him hugs.  However, his ability to communicate with the Iraqis in this friendly manner eventually became a cause for his fellow soldiers to mistrust him and regard him as a “terrorist sympathizer”. 

Self portrait taken outside one of Sadaam’s palaces

Becoming increasingly depressed and disgusted with the extreme prejudice of many of the soldiers toward the ‘ragheads’, Delgado made a difficult decision to file for Conscientious Objector status.  He turned in his weapon because he couldn’t stand feeling like a hypocrite and “the worst Buddhist in the world”. His Sergeant and the Chaplain counseled him that this would be an extremely hard process and that he would likely be shunned by everyone else in the unit. The chain of command would do everything they could to make his life difficult in order to get him to retract his CO application.  And that is exactly what happened. Except for his closest friends in the motor pool, everyone else considered him a coward and/or a traitor. His commander refused to give him a two-week leave to go home because he was considered a “flight risk”.  They also had the audacity to take away his body armor, telling him that since he wouldn’t be in battle, what good would it be.  In reality, at Abu Ghraib they were under constant mortar fire from insurgents outside the camp and he really needed that protection.  (Like anyone in Iraq wouldn’t!)

After six months at Tallil, the company is given orders to move out.  They are going to the prison camp at Abu Ghraib. 

The Ganci compounds at Abu Ghraib

November 2003 – Once at Abu Ghraib his superiors continue to make his life as miserable as possible and assign him double duty  – at the motor pool and also as the radio operator at prison headquarters.  In that role he was able to get the inside scoop on how the prison operated. As everyone now knows, it was a wretched hell-hole.  They were understaffed with just a few companies of soldiers to handle 4000-6000 prisoners.  It turns out most of them are not even enemy POWs.  They are charged with crimes like petty theft, drunkenness, and “suspicious activity”. The prisoners lived outdoors in deplorable conditions.  The food was rotten, everyone was sick, and most of the prisoners got lost in the bureaucracy.  The problem of “phantom prisoners” – no one knew for sure who was at Abu Ghraib because the inmates were constantly being shuffled around to other facilities.  It’s just a few months later that the scandal with the photos broke out. An MP sent copies of the prisoner abuse photos to CNN.  Right away the commanders tell them all to stop talking about it and that things “will be handled internally”.

Anyone who rocks the boat is quickly punished and isolated; the chain of command seems designed to make sure that any problems never reach a level where someone can do something about them.  The sad truth is that often the only way to make changes is go outside the Army system and take grievances to the media, to Congress, or to the American public.

March 2004 – After one year (and still not knowing the status of his CO application) Delgado goes home.  Like many soldiers, he has trouble readjusting to life in the US.  His relationship with his girlfriend is strained.  Somewhat anticlimactically, he receives approval for his conscientious objector status and is honorably discharged from the Army.  He goes back to school and eventually begins speaking out against the war.  This book is his legacy.  He speaks his truth about the war and doesn’t shy away from this responsibility or his Buddhist tenets. 

Cease to do negative actions,
learn to do positive actions,
control your mind,
and benefit others,
that is the teaching of the Buddha.

Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (Thailand)
flickr Creative Commons

Visit Aidan’s website for more pictures and information. 


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  1. Book chat with Aidan Delgado: Sunday night –  9 PM Eastern / 6 Pacific.

    Special bonus: Aidan stars in this Robert Cray video “Twenty”

  2. He has been on an amazing journey and whew!  It’s almost as if he was picked to see and know the things he got to see and know.  My husband was flying around with his head blissfully in the clouds during Delgados on the ground Iraq stay, many soldiers who have been to Iraq have been allowed a sort of bubble existence and then some of them have given their full measure and seen the full measure of what we are giving.  I think Delgado is an amazing human being and he has served under excrutiating ostrasizing and pressure and been true to himself and the universe… small feat in a war zone.

    • pfiore8 on October 27, 2007 at 18:25

    and seems such a perfect fit with all that is wrong…

    but more, and better, than that… he shows the way to make it right

    the book chat with the author is fabulous idea OTB

    great, moving, and lots to think on

    these actions and ideas are the things that become part of me… people like this are those i seek out to speak to our potential

    thanks OTB…

    • Slugbug on October 27, 2007 at 18:26

    I had found the website for this book a few weeks ago and saved it in my “Bookmarks.”

    Every Monday I write a piece for Democracy Cell Project blog (http://www.democracy…) and I just this morning (Sat. Oct. 27) prepared a piece about Aidan Delgado and his book.

    Then I came to this site, opened it and saw this!

  3. Journey here meaning a set of circumstances that are too bizarre and ‘coincidental’ to be fully coincidence.

    Just the part about signing up on 9/11 and ending up in the worst place on earth, Abu Ghraib, is extraordinarily….well, what are the odds?

    And to discover your faith right as you are transported into this freakishly surreal world of the military..and the worst parts of it, to boot.

    But the weirdest part is ….they actually APPROVED his CO status! I wonder how many people have been approved during this time….especially when they are so desperate for soldiers.

    As I always try to say to myself after some sort of traumatic journey….What an amazing learning experience!

    I can’t wait to hear Aiden talk about it tomorrow.


  4. … anxiously awaiting this review, OTB — and all it does is make me even more curious and excited for tomorrow!

    What an amazing story … thanks so much for this great preview!

    • Slugbug on October 27, 2007 at 18:41

    to let him know about the upcoming story at Democracy Cell Project on Monday and what can we do locally to help?

    Looking forward to the on-line event Sunday night!

    • Twank on October 27, 2007 at 19:44

    Haven’t read the book but I will come armed with my big mouth and a bottle of wine.  Always a hell of a combination.

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