Lt. Watada-an American Hero

Lieutenant Ehren Watada is like many other Americans; as the intentions behind invading Iraq have become more obviously spurious, he has reshaped his perceptions of the war. He originally supported the war with so much vigor that he voluntarily enlisted in the Army, but he came to conclude that the Iraq War is both illegal and immoral. Unlike millions of his fellow Americans who have changed their minds he does not have the luxury of simply swapping out bumper stickers on his car. Instead, he faces potentially ruthless consequences.

After refusing to deploy to Iraq and publicly speaking out against the war, Lt. Watada faced up to seven years in a military prison. However, his recent court martial ended in a mistrial, and now it remains unclear whether he can even be tried again.

Looming Deployment

Assigned to Fort Lewis in Washington state, Lt. Watada faced a looming deployment to Iraq. As a leader, he began to educate himself before deploying. Ultimately, his conscience prevented him from partaking in the Iraq War because the hasty invasion four years ago ran counter to international law and was congressionally authorized solely because of misleading intelligence reports. Unqualified for conscientious objector status because he could not honestly claim opposition to all war, he asked for reassignment to a non-deploying unit and even requested to serve in Afghanistan. He then offered to resign his commission, but his inexorable chain of command was unwilling to act on any of his requests. So Lt. Watada took a drastic last step and held a press conference in June 2006, publicly announcing his refusal to fight in Iraq just weeks before his unit deployed.

He immediately became a symbol of courage within the antiwar movement. Drawing widespread support from many antiwar groups and public figures, he awaited the Army’s response. By August 2006, the Army recommended a court martial, based on charges of missing movement, conduct unbecoming of an officer, and contemptuous remarks about President George W. Bush. Shortly before the Army announced the charges, Lt. Watada appeared at the Veterans for Peace annual convention in Seattle. With dozens of members of Iraq Veterans Against the War standing with him in support, he suggested, “a radical idea . . . that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.” Once the Army learned of his statement, it tacked on an additional charge, bringing his maximum sentence to a possible seven years.

Storm of Controversy

His case has created a storm of controversy. As the trial approached, the Army planned to subpoena journalists, hoping to use them to verify Lt. Watada’s supposedly contemptuous statements, thus eliciting questions of freedom of the press and journalists’ roles in military investigations. The Army also moved to block the defense from discussing the war’s illegality, essentially preventing any defense. At the trial, the judge carefully steered the counsels and witnesses from making any mention of the war’s legal status, shielding the war from much needed legal scrutiny and refusing to consider Lt. Watada’s motivations.

Lt. Watada clearly disobeyed orders to deploy—he repetitively informed his chain of command and made a public announcement before carrying out his refusal to deploy. The importance of his bold action—both in terms of his courage and the legal mess in which he his is trapped—lays in why he refused to deploy. The war’s legal and moral implications served as the impetus for his refusal. Accordingly, the Army’s denial of any discussion of the war’s illegality was a denial of a fair defense.

A pretrial agreement solved some of the complications involved in the case. In exchange for dropping two charges, Lt. Watada admitted to making the statements he made in his June 6 press conference and at the Veterans for Peace convention. The Army also agreed to refrain from calling reporters to testify against him. However, leading up to Lt. Watada’s testimony during the trial, confusion surrounding the pretrial agreement resulted in a mistrial. The prosecution viewed the agreement as an admission of guilt, whereas the defense held it as a mere verification of the obvious: Lt. Watada refused to go to Iraq and made various public statements about his refusal.

March 19

A tentative new trial is set to begin on March 19, a symbolically important date as it will be four years from day the U.S. invaded Iraq. However, Lt. Watada’s lawyer is hoping to invoke the principle of double jeopardy to argue that a second trial cannot lawfully take place.

Just as many members of Iraq Veterans Against the War stood by Lt. Watada as he spoke before the Veterans for Peace convention, the organization stands by him now. Even though everyone in uniform is a volunteer, it is absurd to think that a contract can relinquish a human being of the responsibility to act in a just way. It is equally abominable to claim that service members should lack the right to free speech. Those who give up so much—time, energy, blood, sweat, and even their lives—to serve deserve the right to free speech more than anyone; service members have clearly given the most to earn free speech.

Service members of all ranks have the right to contribute to the public debate on any war and to provide a tempering voice when issues of war are discussed. They have perspectives that are vastly more valuable than armchair punditry. And when they are ordered to carry out unjust acts and fight in immoral wars, if they choose to resist, they at the very least have the right to a fair defense.

Yet, the Army is still attempting to prosecute Lt. Watada for speaking out about the Iraq War and for refusing orders. The silent majority of Americans opposed to the Iraq War must stand up and support Lt. Watada. Now is the time to praise the war’s objectors as equally as we have praised the heroes who have fought and died. If we all had Lt. Watada’s courage, we could finally facilitate an end to this war and steer our country toward a foreign policy based on cooperation, diplomacy, and a respect for international law.

Ryan Elsey is a recent veteran of the Army who is affiliated with Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organization composed of veterans from all branches of the military who have served since September 11th, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.