As Americans are inundated with revelations about the lies, torture and other crimes that accompanied the US-led war in Iraq, many who resisted continue to be punished for refusing to participate in those crimes. First Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned military officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, won a significant legal victory last week when the US Department of Justice dropped efforts to retry him after a bungled court-martial. But his legal problems continue.
As America struggles with how to hold its homegrown war criminals accountable, those who resisted provide lessons for how to prevent war crimes in the future. Releasing Watada from the Army, and providing amnesty for all those who have been punished for resisting the Iraq War, must be a central part of America’s coming to terms with Bush administration policies. Indeed, their arguments and actions should be studied by every civics class and everyone who aspires to high public office.
In 2006, Watada, an infantry officer based at Fort Lewis, Washington, refused to be deployed to Iraq on grounds that the war was illegal and immoral and that to participate in it would make him complicit in war crimes. The Army court-martialed him, but at the last minute Military Judge John Head declared a mistrial. The Army attempted to retry him, but civilian US District Court Judge Benjamin Settle barred the retrial as a violation of the Constitution’s ban on double jeopardy. The Army then appealed the decision, but last week Solicitor General Elena Kagan ordered the appeal withdrawn. Yet the Army is still considering further action against Watada. Now that most Americans, including President Obama, understand the truth of Lt. Watada’s assertion that the Iraq War was based on a lie, it is time to let Ehren Watada go.
Watada’s stand was not the conventional conscientious objection to all wars; it was based on his belief that this particular war was illegal. He maintained that it violated the Constitution and the War Powers Act, which “limits the President in his role as commander in chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit.” It was illegal under the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention and the Nuremberg principles, which “all bar wars of aggression.” He claimed the conduct of the occupation violated the Army Field Manual; “The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people” is “a contradiction to the Army’s own law of land warfare.”