FIGHTING WORDS: If Watada had deployed to Iraq “under the circumstances of this war,” argued lead witness and international-law expert Francis Boyle, “he would have been facilitating a Nuremberg crime against peace.”
Lieutenant Ehren Watada seems to know his chances are slim. He is trying to convince the US Army that the war in Iraq is illegal, a task that would be challenging for anyone, and is even more so for Watada, a 28-year-old officer who has refused to deploy to Iraq. “He is willing to accept some form of punishment,” Watada’s lawyer, Eric A. Seitz, told military officials at a packed hearing at Fort Lewis army base, near Tacoma, Washington, on August 17, tacitly acknowledging his client’s difficult position.
After deliberately missing the deployment of his Iraq-bound Stryker brigade on June 22, Watada was charged with multiple violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice — one count of missing movement, two counts of contempt toward officials, and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. It was a contentious ending to a military career that began with the stuff of Army recruiters’ dreams: a patriotic young man who simply wanted to defend his country against terrorists.
By his own account, Watada, a native of Hawaii, joined the military in 2003 at the age of 25 because he felt the United States was in danger. This was two years after the Twin Towers had been leveled by terrorists flying hijacked airliners, a year after the terrorist bombings in Bali, and during the run of constant terror alerts and heated rhetoric that marked the build-up to the Iraq war.
“I had the idea that my country needed me,” Watada recently told an interviewer for the liberal Web site TruthOut.org.
His first rotation took him to South Korea, where he received stellar reviews from his superiors, but while he was racking up accolades he was also developing a different view of the Iraq war, reading books and articles that led him to conclude that the US attack on Iraq was “manifestly illegal.” That transformation led to his refusal to deploy, and to his current confrontation with the military justice system.
The August 17 hearing at Fort Lewis was intended simply to allow the Army’s investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Keith, an opportunity to hear arguments from both sides before deciding whether to recommend a court-martial for Watada. In the language of civilian courts, it was a hearing about whether to have a trial. But what transpired suggested that if Watada is ultimately court-martialed, as seems likely, the military will be dealing with more than just a few violations of its code. In prosecuting Watada, it will also have to defend the legality of a war that is increasingly seen as a mistake (if not worse), and as a result is steadily losing its public support.
As his lawyer noted, Watada repeatedly looked for ways out of this confrontation with the military. When he realized he could not allow himself to deploy to Iraq, Watada asked to be sent to Afghanistan, a war he supports because it has a clear connection to an enemy that attacked the US. The request was denied. Watada then asked to resign. That request, too, was denied. After refusing to deploy and having the book thrown at him by Army prosecutors, Watada suggested a compromise: a less-than-honorable discharge and some non-prison form of punishment. The military wasn’t interested. All of this suggests to Seitz that the military wants this confrontation with his client — wants to make an example of Watada.
“That’s fine with us,” Seitz said before heading into the hearing, which he promptly used as an opportunity to put the Iraq war on trial. Afterward, explaining his strategy, he said: “We really want the military to know what’s coming.”
“Like millions of Americans,” Watada says in a recent Web video, “I believed the administration when they guaranteed that Saddam [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction and had the willingness to use them against his neighbors and also the US. And I believed the administration when they said that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11.” He is wearing a plain gray sweatshirt as he says this, staring into the camera with serious, unblinking eyes.
“Since then,” he continues, “I have found those premises to be false.”
It is Watada’s genuine and compelling dismay that makes him such a good spokesman for the anti-war movement. His resistance to the typical attacks from war supporters helps, too. Watada’s patriotic motivations, and the good reviews he received from his commanders until this year, make it impossible to suggest he is a coward in military clothing — to “Swift Boat” him, as was done with Vietnam veteran John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election — and his succinct eloquence makes it hard to call him crazy or unhinged, as was done with Cindy Sheehan. His desire to defend the US against foreign threats also makes it impossible to tarnish him as a “cut and run” coward — or, worse still, a wimpy liberal.