[dsl:video streamname=”watada” issue=”20060703″]

In a remarkable protest from inside the ranks of the military,
First Lieut. Ehren Watada has become the Army’s first
commissioned officer to publicly
refuse
orders to fight in Iraq on grounds that the war is illegal.
The 28-year-old announced his decision not to obey orders to deploy
to Iraq in a
video press conference
June 7, saying, “My participation would make
me party to war crimes.”

An artillery officer stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, Watada
wore a business suit rather than his military uniform when making his
statement. “It is my conclusion as an officer of the armed forces that
the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of
American law,” he said. “Although I have tried to resign out of
protest, I am forced to participate in a war that is manifestly
illegal. As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately
unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse
that order.”

A native of Hawaii who enlisted in the Army after graduating from
college in 2003, Watada differs from other military personnel who have
sought conscientious-objector status to avoid deployment to Iraq.

Watada told
Truthout’s Sarah Olson that at first he gave the Bush Administration
the benefit of the doubt as it built the case for war. But when he
discovered he was being sent to Iraq, he began reading everything he
could, such as James Bamford’s Pretext for War. He concluded
that the war was based on false pretenses, ranging from the nonexistent
weapons of mass destruction to the claim that Saddam had ties to
Al Qaeda and 9/11 to the idea that the United States is in Iraq to promote
democracy.

His investigation led him to question the very legality of the war.
In an interview with Democracy Now!, he explained that as he read
articles by experts on international and constitutional law, reports
from governmental and nongovernmental agencies, revelations from
independent journalists, writings by the Iraqi people and
the words of soldiers coming home, “I came to the conclusion that the
war and what we’re doing over there is illegal.”

First, he concluded that the war violates the Constitution and War
Powers Act, which, he said, “limits the President in his role as commander in
chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit.” Watada also
concluded that “my moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution
and not to those who would issue unlawful orders.”

Second, he claims the war is illegal under international law. He
discovered that “the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention and the
Nuremberg principles all bar wars of aggression.” The Constitution
makes such treaties part of American law as well.

These are not wild legal claims. Watada’s conclusions are supported by
mountains of evidence and experts, including the judgment of UN
Secretary General Kofi Annan, who in 2004 declared
that the US invasion was “not in conformity with the UN Charter, and
from our point of view…was illegal.”

Watada said he came to recognize that the military conduct of the
occupation is also illegal: “If you look at the Army Field Manual,
27-10, which governs the laws of land warfare, it states certain
responsibilities for the occupying power. As the occupying power, we
have failed to follow a lot of those regulations.” He told ABC
News that the “wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi
people” is “a contradiction to the Army’s own law of land warfare.”

While ongoing media coverage of the protest debates whether
Watada’s action is one of cowardice or conscience, so far the
seriousness of his legal claims have been largely ignored. Watada’s
position is different from that of conscientious objectors, who oppose all wars.
“I’m not just against bearing arms or fighting people. I am against an
unjustified war,” he said.

Can such a claim be heard in a military court? In 2004, Petty Officer Pablo Paredes
refused to board his Iraq-bound ship in San Diego Harbor, claiming to
be a conscientious objector. At his court-martial, Paredes testified
that he was convinced that the Iraq War was illegal. National Lawyers
Guild president-elect Marjorie Cohn presented evidence to support his
claim. The military judge, Lieut. Cmdr. Robert Klant, accepted Paredes’s
war-crimes defense and refused to send him to jail. The government
prosecutor’s case was so weak that Cohn, in a report
published on Truthout.org, noted that Klant declared
ironically, “I believe the government has just successfully proved that
any seaman recruit has reasonable cause to believe that the wars in
Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq were illegal.”

.

One of Germany’s highest courts heard a case last year regarding a
German soldier who refused to participate in military activities as
part of the US-led coalition in Iraq. The Federal Administrative Court
issued a long and detailed decision in
his favor, saying, “There were and still are serious legal objections to
the war against Iraq…relating to the UN Charter’s prohibition of the
use of violence and other provisions of international law.”

Watada’s case comes amid a growing questioning of the Iraq War in
all levels of the military. A February Zogby poll
found that 72 percent of American troops serving in Iraq think the United States
should leave the country within the next year, and more than one in
four say the United States should leave immediately. While the “generals’
revolt
” against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t challenge
the legality of the war per se, many retired military leaders have
strongly condemned the use of torture and other violations of
international and military law.

According to USA Today, at least 8,000 service members have deserted
since the Iraq War began. The Guardian reports that there are an estimated 400 Iraq War deserters in Canada, of
whom at least twenty have applied for asylum. An Army spokesman says that
ten other servicemen besides Watada have refused to go to Iraq.

Resistance in the military played a critical role in ending the
French war in Algeria, the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and the
American war in Vietnam. Such resistance not only undermines the
capacity of a government to conduct wars; it also challenges the moral
claims that are used to justify them and inspires others to examine
their own responsibilities.

Watada’s action comes as the issue of US war crimes in Iraq is
inexorably creeping into the public spotlight. Senator John Warner has
promised to hold hearings on the alleged Haditha massacre. The UN
Committee Against Torture has declared that the United States is engaging in
illegal torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere. An investigation
by the European Union has found overwhelming evidence of the rendition
of prisoners to other countries for torture.

Watada’s highly publicized stand will no doubt lead others to ask
what they are doing to halt such crimes. Unless the Army assigns him
somewhere besides Iraq or permits him to resign his commission, he will
now face court-martial for refusing to serve as ordered and possibly
years in prison.

According to an ominous statement released by the Army commanders
at Fort Lewis in response to Watada’s press conference: “For a
commissioned officer to publicly declare an apparent intent to violate
military law by refusing to obey orders is a serious matter and could
subject him to adverse action.”

Watada’s decision to hold a press conference and post his
statements online puts him at serious risk. In theory, if the Army
construes his public statements as an attempt to encourage other
soldiers to resist, he could be charged with mutiny under Article 94 of
the
Uniform Code of Military Justice
, which considers those who act
“with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses,
in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his
duty or creates any violence or disturbance is guilty of mutiny.” The
conservative group Military
Families Voice of Victory
is already “demanding the Army prosecute
Lt. Watada to the fullest extent under the Uniform Code of Military
Justice.”

Watada told Truthout’s Olson that when he started to
question the war, he he felt, like so many in and out of the military,
that “there was nothing to be done, and this administration was just
continually violating the law to serve their purpose, and there was
nothing to stop them.” But he realized that there was something he
personally could do: “It is my duty not to follow unlawful orders and
not to participate in things I find morally reprehensible.”

“The one God-given freedom and right that we really have is freedom
of choice,” Watada says, echoing the profound message of Mohandas
Gandhi. “I just want to tell everybody, especially people who doubt the
war, that you do have that one freedom. And that’s something that they
can never take away. Yes, they will imprison you. They’ll throw the
book at you. They’ll try to make an example out of you, but you do
have that choice.”

Even facing prison time, Watada is firm. “When you are looking
your children in the eye in the future, or when you are at the end of
your life, you want to look back on your life and know that at a very
important moment, when I had the opportunity to make the right
decisions, I did so, even knowing there were negative consequences.”

Watada’s recognition of his duty provides a challenge not only to
those in the military but to all Americans: “We all have a duty as
American citizens for civil disobedience, and to do anything we can
within the law to stop an illegal war.”