When Pablo Paredes enlisted in the Navy at age 18, he couldn't find Iraq on a map. Five years later he was brought before a court martial for refusing to board a ship headed to the Persian Gulf. Paredes and his cause faired well at the trial. The antiwar serviceman avoided jail time and a dishonorable discharge. And the presiding judge all but admitted that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are illegal.
Paredes is among a growing number of U.S. military personnel who have refused to serve in, or remain quiet about, a war they see as illegal, immoral and unjust. Now a civilian, Paredes is traveling around the country speaking about his case and what he calls the "fraudulent" practices of military recruiters. This week, he comes to Vermont for an antiwar demonstration outside the Statehouse in Montpelier. He spoke with Seven Days via email from Caracas, Venezuela, where he was a delegate at the World Social Forum.
Paredes, 24, is the son of a Puerto Rican mother and an Ecuadoran father. He grew up in the housing projects of the South Bronx. In high school he did well, enrolling in advanced-placement classes and scoring well on the SATs. He could have gone on to college. Though his family didn't have much money, his parents and brother offered to pitch in to help him continue his education. But, like many 18-year-olds, Paredes was more interested in gaining his independence, and a Navy recruiter seemed to have the answers he needed.
"I had a new best friend in a working-white Navy uniform," Paredes recalls. "My own misplaced machismo and South Bronx tough-kid mentality made me easy pickings." Trusting his recruiter's sales pitch that a strong high school record would let him, as Paredes puts it, "write my own check" for whatever duty assignment he wanted, he enlisted for six years instead of the usual four.
But he soon discovered that the Navy wasn't all he'd bargained for. Paredes wasn't doing the kind of work he'd been promised, and the assurance that he'd get an education and learn advanced electronics turned out to be "a farce," he says. Around this time, Paredes began exploring his Latino identity and becoming politically aware. His taste for salsa music led him to an interest in the United States' Cuba policy and its long history of military involvement in Latin America.
"It wasn't until my time in the military, notably in Japan, that I began an accelerated education in global politics," Paredes recalls. "In Japan, I socialized with people from many different countries and had access to information not controlled by the giant media moguls of the U.S."
By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, Paredes says, it was clear to him that this was an illegal war motivated by American designs on Middle Eastern oil. So on December 6, 2004, the 23-year-old petty officer third class refused to board the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault vessel that was sailing for Iraq. Even before Paredes' application for conscientious objector status was considered, the Navy charged him with "unauthorized absence," and for missing his ship's movement.
The decision to refuse deployment was not made lightly, Paredes says, and was the topic of fiery debate among his family, friends and fellow seamen. Paredes says his adamant opposition to the war lost him some friends who were politically conservative. But he also made many new friends and won support from some unlikely places, including from within the ranks of the Navy itself.
"It's long been a myth that the military is somehow homogenous in its political opinions. The fact is, it's as diverse as society," Paredes says. "To be quite honest, in most cases I received positive reactions to what I did. Rank-and-file soldiers and sailors are not ignorant. They know that the poor fight wars in this and every country, and they know all the rationale for this war has been debunked."
More importantly, says Paredes, his family was "incredibly supportive" of his decision. His brother campaigned on his behalf and spoke at peace rallies, and his father gave interviews in the Spanish-language media. Occasionally, when Paredes ranted about the untrustworthiness of the mainstream media's reporting on the war and military spying on peace activists, "Some of my friends and family felt I was a little out of touch with reality," he says.
But their skepticism changed during Paredes' court martial. During the prosecution's cross-examination of Marjorie Cohn, an international law expert, presiding judge Lieutenant Commander Bob Klant said, "I think the government has successfully proved that any seaman recruit has reasonable cause to believe that the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal." Paredes says most mainstream press covering the trial refused to print the remark.
Later, the story broke about a document that showed the Defense Department has been spying on antiwar demonstrations, including a May 5, 2005, rally in San Diego held in Paredes' behalf; it was the same document that revealed the Pentagon was spying on Quaker peace activists in Vermont.
The Pentagon doesn't release statistics showing how many U.S. military personnel have applied for conscientious objector status or refused deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Paredes, who is in regular contact with other veterans in the resister movement, says that "several hundred" are living in Canada, though only a few have gone public in this country. Their treatment in military tribunals has varied widely.
Camilio Mejia is a former Army infantryman who served six months in Iraq in 2003 but refused to return to duty after a two-week leave. During his trial, Mejia detailed many of the horrors he had witnessed in Iraq, including physical and psychological torture of Iraqi detainees, children killed in gunfights, innocent civilians beheaded by weapons fire, and inept commanders who seemed more concerned about earning medals than protecting their troops. Mejia was found guilty of desertion and spent nine months in the brig. Following his release, he attended Paredes' trial.
Others who have refused military service have received more lenient treatment. Virginia National Guard Specialist Dan Jensen failed to show up for his 18-month deployment, claiming family hardship -- he said his wife was pregnant and his real estate business would suffer. When his claim was denied, Jensen submitted, and then quickly withdrew, an application as a conscientious objector. Later, he said he shouldn't be allowed to serve because he was gay. When he failed to appear for active duty, he was declared absent without leave and arrested several months later as a deserter. But unlike Mejia, who opposed his deployment on legal and ethical grounds, Jensen was granted an administrative discharge.
Paredes fared better than others. Although he could have received a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a bad-conduct discharge and the loss of two-thirds of his pay, his "unauthorized absence" charge was eventually dropped and he was sentenced to two months' "restriction" and three months of hard labor without confinement, and was demoted to seamen recruit, the Navy's lowest rank. After the trial, Paredes' defense attorney, Jeremy Warren, called the sentence "a stunning blow to the prosecution."
"If there's anything that I'm guilty of, it is my beliefs," Paredes told the court during his sentencing. "I am guilty of believing this war is illegal. I'm guilty of believing war in all forms is immoral and useless, and I am guilty of believing that as a service member I have a duty to refuse to participate in this war because it is illegal."
Paredes was granted a general discharge under honorable conditions, which gives him continued access to most veterans' benefits. He believes he was treated better than most war resisters in part because the Navy isn't plagued by the same recruitment difficulties as are the Army, Marines and National Guard. He also thinks heavy media attention surrounding his trial made a big difference. "I think it would have been very difficult for a military judge to put me in jail for a year for a charge most people don't even see a court martial for," he says.
Today, Paredes is involved in counter-recruitment efforts, and tries to educate young people to not make the same mistakes he did. He describes recruiters as "especially dishonest and cruel," because they're taking advantage of the poor and "talking young, impressionable students into literally doing the dirty work for them."
Paredes has now gone on the offensive against the Navy and is challenging the refusal of his conscientious objector application. His appeal is before a federal court in San Diego. Comparing his struggle to Mohammad Ali's Vietnam War resistance, Paredes says, "I will continue to seek justice in my personal affairs and to oppose actions as criminal as this war in whatever capacity I can."