THE UNMAKING OF A WARRIOR
Navy sailor Pablo Paredes didn’t just walk away from the war.
He publicly denounced it, and now finds himself in another kind of battle
~ By DAVID ROLLAND ~
Seated in a taqueria in San Diego’s Logan Heights neighborhood, clad in jeans, a T-shirt, and a denim jacket, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Pablo Paredes doesn’t seem like he’s sitting in the center of a national firestorm over military service in Iraq. The 23-year-old sailor fidgets as he talks, frequently cocking the brim of his baseball cap from side to side, but he’s otherwise unguarded, well-spoken, exuding an air of competence. Even though he’s facing a possible court-martial and is technically restricted by a kind of military detention – what the Navy calls “disciplinary legal hold” – he manages to crack a smile when he talks about being savaged by some of his more famous critics, including none other than super-patriot and convicted felon Oliver North.
In a Washington Times commentary, North contrasted Paredes’s story with the tale of 25-year-old Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who, on November 15, threw his mortally wounded body onto a live grenade in a house in Fallujah, Iraq, reportedly saving the lives of several fellow Marines. North wrote: “Sgt. Rafael Peralta was the polar opposite of Pablo Paredes, the petty officer who turned his back on his shipmates and mocked his commander in chief.”
Paredes laughs. “Yeah, Oliver North – I love that. The Iran-Contra-scandal jerk himself is talking about humanity and righteousness and honor. Oliver North – beautiful!”
But North isn’t the only one who fails to see the humor in Paredes’s story. On the morning of December 6, 2004, Paredes turned up on the docks at the 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego for the planned deployment of his ship, the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, which was carrying 2,000-plus Marines to the Persian Gulf. As the others queued up were getting last tearful hugs and kissing their children, however, Paredes came with TV news cameras in tow. Wearing a T-shirt that read, “Like a cabinet member, I resign,” he stood with his ship in the background and declared his objections to the U.S. military action in Iraq, saying he was refusing to board.
Resistance to the war by active military personnel is certainly nothing new, and in fact has been on the rise as the conflict in Iraq drags on. According to CBS News, the Pentagon has reported over 5,500 deserters since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq, many of whom reject the war on the grounds that there’s no connection between the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. The military, nonetheless, is aggressively prosecuting: On April 8, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a soldier’s challenge to the military’s “stop-loss” policy, saying that Oregon National Guardsman Sgt. Emiliano Santiago was required to go to Afghanistan despite the fact that he has completed his eight-year enlistment. On March 28, a U.S. military court in Germany convicted Army mechanic Blake Lemoine of “willfully disobeying orders” by refusing to carry out duties because of religious beliefs after a year in Iraq. The number of such cases continues to mount.
But the way that Paredes did it – turning his objections into a full-blown media event – set many in the community, and in the military, spoiling for a fight. By making a show of it, he’d made himself a hero and target.
“Our group came together as an extension of peace movement work,” says Larry Christian with the San Diego Military Counseling Project, a group unaffiliated with the military that helped Paredes find legal counsel and file for conscientious objector status. “So what helps the peace movement helps us. So when someone does speak out in such a public way, we believe it helps all of us.”
The Green Party wrote an open letter in support of Parades, and organized an April 4 appearance in San Diego with Ralph Nader. On April 8, Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin made an appearance with Paredes in San Diego to help raise funds for his defense.
Critics, however, immediately attacked him, saying he surely hadn’t thought out the consequences of his action either for himself or for his shipmates. An open letter to Paredes from Citizen SMASH of the blog The Indepundit cried he’d made no impact on stopping the war, but added, “You did, however, manage to fuck up your own future.”
But Paredes had thought it out. What he did on December 6 was the culmination of a couple years’ worth of personal transformation and intellectual development and a couple weeks’ worth of agony over a decision that would change his life forever.
“Pablo’s a really bright, thoughtful guy. He knew going in that he was inviting a lot of attention, that he would be in the spotlight,” says Christian. “And he knew there would be some consequences.”
He wasn’t arrested that day – Paredes suspects the TV cameras had something to do with that – but soon thereafter, the Navy quietly declared him a fugitive. He subsequently turned himself in, and so he currently spends from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day (with time off for lunch) in a kind of loose house arrest, just like dozens of other wayward sailors, killing time, reading books, and awaiting his fate.
On March 25, the Navy would officially charge Paredes with being absent without leave and missing movement, charges for which he may face court-martial May 11. The potential consequences are unclear. In a best-case scenario, the judge could accept his filing for an “other than honorable” discharge in lieu of court-martial, and the whole thing would be over. In the worst, he could get a reduction in rank, loss of pay, one year in the brig, and an “other than honorable” or “bad conduct” discharge. That would give him a misdemeanor on his criminal record, which would dog him for the rest of his life.
Worse, however, might be the eternal scorn of his countrymen. The letter on The Indepundit drew tons of responses, most of them heaping coals on Paredes’s head. And the writers pulled no punches, reminding that sometimes the penalty for desertion is death.
“I guess he just wanted his 15 minutes of fame, but it will leave him with a life full of shame,” wrote one correspondent. “Hopefully nobody will have to pay the ultimate price for this fool’s cowardice and selfishness.”
“This guy is the biggest coward I’ve ever heard of,” wrote another. “He might want to think he’s a hero, but in reality, he’s just another piece of garbage who won’t honor a contract that he signed.”
A third made it more plain: “Pablo should be shot – and I’m up for the job.”
A Bronx boy’s taleFive years ago, Paredes had never heard of Ollie North. He didn’t know the U.S. military had recently been involved in conflicts in Somalia and Kosovo. Hell, he said, “at that point, I couldn’t place none of those places on the map. I couldn’t tell you anything about foreign policy. I mean, I was completely indifferent to politics … . I could tell you my president and vice president, and was impressed that I could do that.”
He smiles and chuckles a lot as he details his journey from the Bronx, New York neighborhood where he grew up, through an eye-opening, two-and-a-half-year Navy stint in Japan, and smack into the transformation that turned him into a peace activist who’d rather go to jail than support the war in Iraq.
Son to Ecuadorian father Victor Paredes Sr., a cab driver, and Puerto Rican mother Milagros Paredes, a government secretary, and younger brother to Victor Paredes Jr., who works in Latino-oriented advertising, Pablo Paredes was a typical lower-middle-class Bronx kid. “You know,” he says, “I was into hip-hop, dancin’, basketball.”
He performed in community musical theater as a hobby, acting and singing in productions such as Oklahoma, The Pajama Game, and Godspell. He had aspirations of college. ‹
His dad took a job driving a truck to make more money than he’d been pulling in driving a cab to help send his youngest son to a university, but a forklift accident left him without the use of his legs, and the family was suddenly in dire financial straits. It “put us into an even worse economic situation because there was no income coming from his side,” Paredes says. “There was a lawsuit, but it took about six years before that actually panned out, and then all he really got was his medical expenses paid back. You know, sometimes it works out that way – McDonald’s hot coffee will get you a million dollars, but negligence on the forklift operator that ruins your life will get you medical expenses.”
Paredes landed at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, a liberal-arts school in Riverdale, New York, working two part-time jobs when not attending classes. But money became tight, and he found himself reassessing his options. “I either had to get a third job or let the college thing go,” he says.
Like most economically disadvantaged teens across the country, Paredes had been approached by military recruiters “three or four times,” and some high school classmates had joined the Navy, “so that sounded like the way to go.” The plan was to learn computer technology and grab some college money, but “four and a half years later, I don’t know anything about computers,” he says.
Culture shockThough Paredes claims he hasn’t picked up much in the way of marketable skills during his time in the Navy, it hasn’t exactly been a waste of time, either. Far from it.
The first turning point in Paredes’s adult life came in Japan, where, accompanied by his young wife Vania, he was stationed for more than two years until last March. The way he tells the story, Paredes underwent a metamorphosis in the Far East which sowed the seeds of his discontent with the U.S. military.
His first shock was cultural. In Japan, he was immediately confronted by a different way to live and comport oneself than he was accustomed to in the Bronx. His perception of Japan was a whole society of people who were courteous, honest, and determined to succeed. “Everyone expects everyone to do great, and doing substandard work at any level is taboo,” he says. “I mean, you go to a coffee shop, and your service is going to be amazing.
“Finding yourself in that environment is just 180, all the way,” he continues, “because I grew up in the Bronx, where it’s like, look over your shoulder; if you don’t cheat on your taxes, you’re an idiot, because everyone on your block is doing it – it’s that kind of world, it’s dog-eat-dog, it’s do what you gotta do to survive.”
To illustrate his point, Paredes cites the mundane activity of paying train fare. When he first arrived in Japan, “I was definitely cheating on the train fare, and I was definitely doing everything I had to do in a New York way and [thinking], These guys are retarded, you know – I’m great; I’m not gonna have to spend a dime in my whole two and a half years here
“But then, after a while, it’s just, like, Man, how can I be the only one that does this? What a horrible person I am.”
At the same time, the new people Paredes was spending time with – people he met while taking Japanese-language classes, for example – were opening his eyes in a different way, forcing him to educate himself in matters of politics and current events just so he could avoid being “the moron at the table,” as he puts it. “Like, every other night of the week, having coffee and sushi or something while talking with five people that all spoke a different language, and four translators involved … it got really interesting.”
Conversation would inevitably turn to American foreign policy, an embarrassing development for Paredes, who says he knew less about his home country’s history and policies than did his new group of foreigner friends. So, he’d head back to his ship, where he and his shipmates had plenty of time to kill, to educate himself, reading books as fast as he could and researching on the Internet references brought up earlier in conversation.
“Really quickly I had to fill that void,” he says, “and I just became book hungry and Internet crazy.”
Paredes’s intellectual exploration led him to lefty thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Michael Parenti – “I got kind of addicted to these guys” – with Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent becoming something of an automatic filter into which he’d feed information he’d come across about American politics and the mainstream media.
He says he tried hard not to preach his newfound opinions to his shipmates, but he often engaged in what he refers to as “debate.” Paredes calls what happened to him in Japan “an awakening,” and it’s here where he gets philosophical.
“It involves being incredibly conscious of everything you do as an individual,” he says, “and it’s kind of an agreement between a group of individuals that we’re all going to be very conscious of what we do as individuals. And there’s nothing better in the world than when that happens to a society – because what can go wrong when every single person is just worried about doing everything they have to do, right?
“Because I decided to live my life that way, it’s not going to change every person around me. But who knows – I may affect one person. And as cliché as it sounds – better to be part of the solution than part of the problem, right? So, I had this whole change in the way I think and the way I look at my own actions.”
Looking for a way outThe upshot of Paredes’s time in Japan was that he could no longer relate to the uniform he climbed into each day. As hard as it may be for people to hear in these times of war, and as obscene as his Internet detractors may find this notion, Paredes’s job had become a source of shame for him. As a principle, war was simply not acceptable.
“I understand now that I was complicit to war,” he says. “I couldn’t have peace of mind knowing that that’s what I did, knowing that that’s my job. Someday, I’m going to have to look back and accept that that’s how I got there” – wherever his life takes him.
Granted, he says, some people put the uniform on for “incredibly noble reasons,” but “the manner in which it protects the people is through violence, and I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I don’t want to solve problems that way, so it makes me very ashamed that I’m a part of a system that is designed to solve problems that way.”
Paredes has adopted the opinion of people like Cardiff scholar and foreign-policy critic Chalmers Johnson – that the United States is a modern-day empire. “Back in the days of Rome, you just had to go colonize – ‘This is mine, all mine,’” he says. “Now, it’s a different world. There’s no value in owning a country. There’s more value in influencing the economy and the politics of a country, or a territory or an area. Now, having an empire is just about setting up all of these spheres of influence all over the place.”
While Paredes was in Japan, the United States influenced Iraq in a big way, and when his time in the Far East was up, he was certain that his next gig would have something to do with Iraq – probably on a ship providing taxi service for Marines heading into battle. Given his principles, the prospect didn’t thrill him. He’s quick to point out that his objections have nothing to do with fear. “Unless you’re a pilot or special forces – and I’m neither – you’re not going to be in danger,” he says. “You’re going to hop on a ship, you’re going to do your specific job, you’re going to have air-conditioned spaces, cable, Internet, and you’re going to come back home after a while and everybody’s going to love you and tell you you’re a hero. It’s like a win-win situation – if you don’t become conscientious.”
No, his concern was aiding and abetting the execution of a war he doesn’t support. Trained as a fire controlman, his job was to fire defensive weapons systems on board his ship, which is equipped with a battery of Sea Sparrow and other missile systems. With eight months left in his Navy tenure, Paredes decided to enroll in Master-at-Arms school, a military police program, with a mind toward spending his remaining months checking identification at the front gate at some stateside Navy base. He says he was in the program, at a Navy school in San Antonio, Texas, for about five weeks before he realized that entering the program had added three years to his Navy stint.
As was his right, Paredes opted to drop out of the program rather than endure three more years. Had he remained in the program, he would have been stationed at a base in Port Hueneme in Ventura County. “You couldn’t ask for a better way to work your way out of the Navy,” he says, “but I wasn’t interested in a nice place for a longer amount of time still in the Navy.”
On the Indepundit blog was a post by someone who says he was the “chief in charge of getting FC3 orders” when Paredes dropped out of Master-at-Arms school. The post, signed “OSC,” said Paredes had the opportunity to claim conscientious-objector status, but he chose to state a different reason for wanting out. When “asked if he would have problems completing his mission as a Fire Controlman, possibly having to fire missiles from a ship,” OSC writes, Paredes “responded that he was fully capable of completing whatever job he was given on the ship. I have reread his statement as to why he wanted to drop from [Master-at-Arms school], and he lists his number one reason as, and I quote, ‘My marriage has suffered serious damage due to the separation that comes with the needs of the Navy.’ I even scheduled him an appointment with our legal officer to make sure that he did not fall into the conscientious objector category. His sole motivation during the entire process was to get back to his wife.”
OSC concludes by joining the anti-Pablo ‹ chorus: “I feel really sorry for those that actually have beliefs against the war, and have aligned themselves behind this liar.”
Paredes said the claim that he was presented with the option of conscientious-objector status is “absolutely bogus.” He says the bit about his marriage was only one of many issues he discussed with his chief in charge. His conversations with his superiors were centered on his philosophical objections to war, he adds.
Empire strikes backLate last fall, he was told to report to San Diego and was given a month to get settled. In November he was informed that in two weeks’ time, he’d be assigned as a fire controlman on the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard, heading to the Persian Gulf as part of Expeditionary Strike Group Five, a group of seven Navy and Coast Guard ships and a submarine.
The expeditionary strike group provides the military with a sort of floating base, handy when foreign governments don’t give the United States permission to base military operations on their soil. Although not an aircraft carrier per se – it can’t launch standard jets – the deck of the Bonhomme Richard looks like one. It’s made for launching and landing helicopters and vertical-lift Harrier jets. In the ship’s stern is an interior deck, which opens up when the need arises to let loose three Landing Craft Air Cushions, large boats that travel on rubber inflatable skirts, carrying Marines, Humvees, or tanks for beach assaults.
For Paredes, the assignment was precisely what he had been trying to avoid. A number of ideas began clanging around in his head. Get high, fail a drug test, and earn a dishonorable discharge? Suffer a sudden injury? Sometimes desperate circumstances lead to desperate measures. A Navy SEAL friend offered to break his leg at the shinbone, something Paredes considered seriously enough to discuss it with his wife and his brother, who begged him not to go through with it.
But it was a friend from Japan who nonchalantly offered the idea that would stick. He says his friend e-mailed him: “Why don’t you just refuse to go?”
“I was just, like, ‘Wow. How ’bout I do that? How ’bout I just tell ’em the truth, and keep this completely principled, completely honest?’” he recalls.
It was December 2, four days before he was scheduled to ship out, when Paredes decided to make his issue with his uniform a media event. He hadn’t, however, talked with legal counsel about his move. He simply got on the phone and cold-called TV-news desks. Local Fox 6 and the Spanish-language Univision did pre-event interviews, which set the dominoes in motion. More interviews followed – mostly Latino, independent, and local media.
Antiwar activists immediately embraced him. Representatives from groups such as San Diego Military Counseling Project, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Iraq Veterans Against the War offered to help him any way they could. Paredes has since embraced the activists right back, attending and speaking at their events. No matter the outcome of his case, they say his willingness to speak out has had a positive effect.
“If he gets the full punishment, it won’t have a significant impact on others,” says Larry Christian of the Military Counseling Project. “By now, you see there are some 6,000 people who have left the military. We get calls from people all the time who say, ‘My unit is going and I don’t want to go, what can I do?’ Sometimes there’s nothing they can do, and that’s why there’s the 6,000. By then, they’re in a desperate situation, and sometimes they do drastic things with consequences. Pablo did it publicly, but there are a lot more who are doing it on their own, who take off because they cannot contend with the prospect of having to go participate in a war that they think is so wrong. That’s going to continue happening no matter what happens to Pablo.”
In fact, he notes, as the number of soldiers gone AWOL and applying for Conscientious Objector status rises, more resources are becoming available. The Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild is now starting a project to give legal help to service members who want out, called the Bill Smith Military Resistance Project in honor of a leading legal advisor to draft evaders during the Vietnam War.
After a brief side trip to offer humanitarian assistance to tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, sailors friendly to Paredes sent him notice the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard was last in the Gulf of Bahrain, engaged in the Iraq War effort.A Navy spokesperson told CityBeat that an investigation of Paredes has been completed, but a decision about his fate hasn’t yet been reached. If a military judge will not accept his plea for an other-than-honorable discharge in lieu of court-martial, he goes on trial in May. On a separate track, the Navy is also processing Paredes’s request for conscientious-objector status, which won’t be decided upon until after his punishment has been meted out. If, by some twist, he should find himself still in the Navy, conscientious objector status might end up springing him – for his beliefs, which is what he wanted all along.
Pablo Paredes’s website is www.swiftsmartveterans.com.