One Soldier Against the Empire

by Elizabeth de la Vega
Move over, G.I. Joe and Han Solo -- Sgt. Ricky Clousing gives a whole new meaning to 'profile in courage.'
I look forward to the day when Mattel makes a Sgt.
Ricky Clousing action figure.

As the mother of sons born eight years apart, I spent
nearly half my adult life surrounded by -- and stepping
on -- action figures. They were everywhere: a phalanx
of tiny knights in shining armor on the windowsill;
Batman and Robin frozen in an ice tray; and GI Joe guys
in camouflage among the hosta. One Christmas, Luke
Skywalker and Han Solo even ended up in the manger
scene along with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, two cows,
three sheep, and several Ewoks. My kids spent hours and
hours in a fantasy world populated by villains and
heroes of every description except one; there were no
peace heroes.

I met a peace hero at Camp Democracy in Washington,
D.C. not too long ago: Sgt. Ricky Clousing. He will not
remember me, but I will not forget him. On a brilliant,
blessedly unhumid day, Ricky sat on a makeshift
platform within shouting distance of the Lincoln
Memorial and told a story that was simultaneously
agonizing and inspiring to hear.

On September 11, 2001, Ricky was working in an
orphanage and "building some roads and stuff" in
Thailand. When his stint as a volunteer ended, he made
his way to Germany where he met American soldiers
returning from Afghanistan. Caught up in the wave of
post-9/11 patriotism, he decided he would join the Army
rather than return to college in his native Seattle.
That way he could serve his country and have money for
his education when he got out. Two years later, having
completed basic training and intensive language
instruction at the Monterey Defense Language Institute,
Sgt. Ricky Clousing found himself in Baghdad, an
interrogator with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Ft.
Bragg, North Carolina.

As a tactical interrogator assigned to question
detainees at the scene of infantry raids, Ricky did not
witness the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What he
did witness, however, was hardly less horrifying:
American soldiers indoctrinated to view Iraqis as less
than human, as "ragheads" or worse; American soldiers
out on the streets of the Iraqi capital ramming the
cars of Iraqi civilians for sport; American soldiers
laughing as they slaughtered the livestock of local
farmers; and American soldiers shooting an Iraqi
teenager who had simply made a wrong turn.

Ricky was on patrol when he saw a boy, "probably 18
years old, a small maybe high-school age kid" turn down
a road his unit was attempting to secure. The teenager,
Ricky said, was quite visibly terrified at the sight of
"a whole bunch of Americans with big weapons" staring
him in the face. He started turning the car around, but
didn't get very far. This is how Ricky described what
happened next:

"One of the soldiers in the turret of the humvee behind
me just opened up fire on the machine gun on the
vehicle. As the vehicle was turning away, all I heard
above my head was "pop, pop, pop, pop." This was my
first deployment, my first combat experience was that
moment right then, and just the sound of machine guns
going off over my head. He popped about five or six
rounds in the side of the vehicle. Myself and two of
the other guys ran over to the vehicle, smashed the
window, and pulled the guy out to provide first aid on
him... I was looking down at this kid who had just been
shot in the stomach for no reason really -- he was
trying to leave...I was still just standing there in
shock, looking down at this kid, and he looked right up
at me. And his mouth was foaming. His stomach was
falling out in his hands... I was looking down at this
kid, this young boy who was just trying to drive around
town and took a wrong turn and tried to go the other
direction, was shot at and killed, and I'm looking down
at him now. And we made eye contact for about five
seconds, and he just looked at me with the most empty,
terrified look in his face that will never leave me in
my whole life I'm sure."

That Iraqi boy died on the way to the hospital. I think
the boy in Ricky Clousing died that day as well, but
what an extraordinary man he has since become. Deciding
he would be haunted forever if he kept silent about
such an egregious violation of the rules of engagement,
Sgt. Clousing notified the unit's Platoon Sergeant, who
did not "take kindly" to his advice.

Clousing continued to object to American war crimes for
the rest of his time in Iraq, though no one ever took
kindly to his objections. When he returned to the U.S.,
he talked to his commanding officers, to the chaplain,
to mental health workers and anyone else who would
listen to his problems with the invasion and occupation
of Iraq. He was told he could get out of the Army -- if
he said he was gay. But he couldn't say that because
he's not gay. He was told to claim he had post-
traumatic stress disorder, but he couldn't do that
because he didn't think he had PTSD. He was told to
file as a conscientious objector; but he couldn't do
that because he wasn't against all war. He was told he
could avoid going back to Iraq by taking an assignment
in the United States. He couldn't do that either
because -- and this is exactly what Ricky Clousing told
us on that sunny afternoon in Washington:

"I felt that my involvement in the army, whether it be
directly or indirectly, whether in Iraq or training
guys to go to Iraq, I was still that piece of machine
in the system that was still allowing this war to take
place and still supporting that. My actions, whether or
not they were on the front line or back safely at home,
were still part of the body of the machine that's
occupying [Iraq]. So I ultimately felt that the only
thing I could do was to leave, so I packed my stuff
last June and I went AWOL."

On August 11, 2006, the day he turned himself in, Sgt.
Clousing made a simple statement:

"We have found ourselves in a pivotal era where we have
traded humanity for patriotism. Where we have traded
our civil liberties for a sense of security. I stand
here before you sharing the same idea as Henry David
Thoreau: as a soldier, as an American, and as a human
being, we mustn't lend ourselves to that same evil
which we condemn."

Ricky Clousing -- now serving a three-month sentence in
a military brig at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina -- is
not the only peace hero. Others are making themselves
known in growing numbers and you can read about them at
the Courage to Resist website. Although we have no way
of assessing the numbers from here, I have no doubt
that there are also soldiers trying to do the right
thing in Iraq.

But when I read about a President who doesn't know the
meaning of "outrages upon human dignity" because he so
clearly does not consider the very people he claims to
have liberated human; when I read about a vice
president who does not even have the courage to admit
to the meaning of the words he uses ("dunk in the
water," "last throes"); when I read about a defense
secretary who tells reporters to back off if the
questions get too tough, then I think about Ricky

Twenty-four years old, Clousing told the world in
simple declarative sentences why he had to give up his
college money, receive a dishonorable discharge, and go
to jail to take a stand against the invasion and
occupation of Iraq. He'd make a very cool action
figure. Come to think of it, Sgt. Ricky Clousing --
tattooed arms, Laguna Beach t-shirt, and all -- would
make an awesome shepherd in that manger scene. Han Solo
and Luke Skywalker are just going to have to move over.

Elizabeth de la Vega is a former federal prosecutor.
Her pieces have appeared in The Nation, the L.A. Times,
Salon, and Mother Jones.