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On June 7, 2006, a 28-year-old Army lieutenant named Ehren Watada released a video press statement announcing that he was refusing to deploy to Iraq because the Iraq War was illegal and his “participation would make me party to war crimes.” After three years of trying to convict him by court martial, the Army has finally given up and allowed Lt. Watada to resign. Despite his direct refusal of an order to deploy, Watada did not spend a single day in jail.
A former Eagle Scout with a degree in finance, Watada volunteered for military service after 9/11. His motives could hardly have been more patriotic. For himself and his fellow soldiers, he said, “the reason why we all joined the military” and “the commitment we made to this country” is “to sacrifice everything–sacrifice our lives, our freedom–to ensure that all Americans live in a country where we have true democracy.”
When he learned that he would be shipped to Iraq, Lt. Watada began to read everything he could find about the war, on all sides, so that he could better motivate the troops under his command. One of the books he read was James Bamford’s A Pretext for War. In a film made about his story, In the Name of Democracy, Watada described shock at what he learned: “Our country, and we as a military, had been deceived. There’s no other way of putting it. Whether they misrepresented the truth, or they told half-truths or misled–it’s a lie.” The Iraq War was “a war not out of self-defense but by choice.”
Watada is not a pacifist, and he based his stand not just on the falsehood of the justifications for the war but on the usurpation of legitimate constitutional authority by the officials in the George W. Bush administration.
“There came a time when I saw people with power, and they held that power absolute and they did not listen to the will of the people,” he says in In the Name of Democracy. “That was the leadership of our country. Those were the people who were in charge of our lives, and yet they did what they wanted to do with impunity, and nobody was willing to stand up and challenge them.”
Watada offered to resign or to be deployed to Afghanistan; the Army refused. He felt bound by his military oath to do what his conscience abhorred. Then he had an epiphany: his military oath actually required him to refuse orders he believed were illegal, and his loyalty was owed to the Constitution, not to the officials who were perverting it.
“I believe the only real God-given right we have is the freedom to choose,” Watada says. “And when we take that away from ourselves, then we put ourselves in an invisible prison that nobody else imposes on us except for ourselves. When you tell yourself again that you do have a choice–I could go to prison for it, I could be tortured, I could die for it, but I have that choice and I can make it–then that invisible prison kind of lifts off, and you feel free. I felt so free when I told myself that I have a choice.”