Since the US invasion in 2003, a handful of active-duty troops have openly refused deployment to Iraq. But the lightning rod case of resistance has been that of 28-year-old Lieut. Ehren Watada of the US Army.
The highest-ranking commissioned officer to resist deployment, Watada faces a court-martial showdown as early as February, a trial that could land him an eight-year jail sentence. He has been charged with missing a troop movement, conduct unbecoming an officer and contempt toward officials. What particularly irked the Army was Watada’s August appearance before a Veterans for Peace convention in Seattle, where the young officer called for more resistance to the war in Iraq. “The idea is this,” Watada said, “that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.”
Watada’s father, Robert Watada, was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and did alternative service in the Peace Corps. But the younger Watada was no pacifist. “It was all about September 11,” Watada says in an interview from his home off base near Fort Lewis, Washington. “Any way to serve and defend our country. I was no different. And I had other reasons as well: wanting to be part of something bigger and more noble.”
After finishing college and considering a career as a police officer, Watada entered the Army and went into Officer Candidate School just as the United States was invading Iraq. Neither a fervent supporter of the war nor an opponent, Watada describes himself as then being “a little bit too naïve in trusting the government.” Later, while assigned to training with a Stryker Brigade, Watada became consumed with doubt. “When I saw there were no WMD, when I saw what was happening, all of a sudden I felt that reality wasn’t in sync with what we were being told,” he says. Following a stint in Korea, his unit got the word that it would soon be mobilized to Iraq. After months of unsuccessful closed-door negotiation with the Fort Lewis command, and after Watada made an offer to serve in combat in Afghanistan instead of Iraq, the situation came to a head. On June 22, Watada formally refused deployment.
Watada argues that he’s not afraid of combat and doesn’t feel any disloyalty to the military. He swore an oath, he says, not of personal loyalty to the President but rather to defend and uphold the Constitution. When a war is “illegal and unconstitutional,” as he labels the Iraq War, a soldier’s obligation is to oppose it.
Watada has picked up the support of a long list of traditional peace groups as well as a number of prominent retired military officers, the National Japanese American United Methodist Caucus, and the Honolulu and Berkeley chapters of the Japanese American Citizens League. Oregon State Representative Peter Buckley has also given Watada full public support. In late January, a “Citizens’ Hearing on the Legality of U.S. Actions in Iraq,” featuring Daniel Ellsberg and Princeton professor emeritus Richard Falk will be convened in Tacoma, Washington, in support of Watada (see www.thankyoult.org).
Watada’s attorney, veteran civil rights lawyer Eric Seitz, says the case coalesces antiwar sentiment. “When Ehren emerged in June it was like a bold strike that enlightened a lot of people,” says Seitz. “He’s had a tremendous effect on so many.”
Watada’s soft-spoken, diminutive father, a retired Hawaii state official, says, “The mistake the military made with Ehren is that as a lieutenant he had to study. And the more he read, the more he came upon the lies of Bush and Cheney.” He continues, “We talked a lot about the consequences of his decision. I told him he would be called a traitor, and a coward. I told him that the best thing he could do was to hide in the Green Zone for a year and then come home. But he told me no, that he had already made his decision and that he would stick to it.”
Watada says the greatest effect has been on his own consciousness. “At first I felt really ashamed to be part of this war, by not knowing about it in the first place, by condoning it, by enabling it,” he says. “But fortunately I live in a country where I can’t be tortured or executed for what I say. I feel so fortunate to have been given this opportunity to make real change. That’s why I joined the military in the first place.”