Lt. Watada's Courageous Dissent
When the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division left for Mosul in northern Iraq on June 22, 28-year-old Lt. Ehren Watada was not with them.
Out of a deeply held belief that the war in Iraq is both illegal and immoral, Lt. Watada refused to deploy. His decision has since mobilized dozens of anti-war activist groups who have eagerly adopted his cause to put a face to their movement. It has also alienated him from his superiors in the military.
Today in Fort Lewis, Wash., because of his unwillingness to serve in Iraq, he faces an Article 32 pretrial hearing, which is roughly equivalent to a preliminary investigation in a civilian criminal court.
By the end of the next two days, he will know whether he faces a court-martial this fall. He is the first officer to face this prospect so far during the Iraq war. Lt. Watada faces a maximum of seven and a half years in prison, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay and allowances.
"Today, I speak with you about a radical idea," Lt. Watada said in a speech Saturday night to an audience at the Veterans for Peace Conference in Seattle, Wash. "The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it. They must remember duty to the Constitution and the people supersede the ideologies of their leadership. The soldier must be willing to face ostracism by their peers, worry over the survival of their families, and of course the loss of personal freedom. They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the battlefield."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Lt. Watada was moved by a profound sense of duty and patriotism and enlisted in the Army right out of college in 2003. He received no monetary assistance from the military to pay for his education. His first two years in the Army were spent in a tour of duty in South Korea.
But since June 2005, when he began officer training at Fort Lewis, Wash., Lt. Watada spent a lot of time doing research about wars and atrocities. After much deliberation about the nature of the Iraq war -- the realization of the Bush administration's deceitful rationale behind the invasion and the war crimes committed during the occupation, such as the killing of unarmed civilians at Haditha -- he concluded that the war was illegal and immoral.
"[The war in Iraq] usurps international treaties and conventions that by virtue of the Constitution become American law. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people with only limited accountability is not only a terrible moral injustice, but a contradiction to the Army's own Law of Land Warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes," Lt. Watada said at a press conference held in Tacoma, Wash., on June 7.
He was surrounded by veterans, members of the anti-war communities, military family members and religious leaders at the press conference.
Jeff Paterson, a Gulf War resister and anti-war activist with Not in Our Name, created the Thankyoult.org website for friends and family of Lt. Watada. The website sells posters and T-shirts to help fund Lt. Watada's legal defense and advertises a petition to sign. Paterson said they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. The website has received 15,000 messages and helped raise $40,000 from individuals.
But Paterson admits that the website has attracted its fair share of critics, too. "There are some people who are very threatened by Lt. Watada's stand," he said. Some members of the military have written to the site, "I can't even address you as a lieutenant anymore." Wives of soldiers in Iraq have called him a disgrace. Others have called him a coward and a traitor, questioned his "manhood" and "sexuality," and said "freedom is not free," Paterson said.
"It is a preconception that we have when we join the military that people just blindly follow orders," Lt. Watada said in a phone interview. "But if you can't distinguish between lawful and unlawful orders, the Abu Ghraibs will continue to exist."
When he didn't board the plane to Iraq on June 22, Lt. Watada was put into seclusion for one week and charged with one count of missing movement. He now works in an administrative position at Fort Lewis.
Lt. Watada was first charged with insubordination on June 8, the day after his press conference, which he organized after his first resignation application was denied, with three counts of conduct unbecoming of an officer, and two counts of contempt toward officials. Both charges reprimand Lt. Watada's statement at the June 7 press conference that the president "betrayed our trust."
He says they have been scrutinizing his statements in public and to the media ever since to try to rack up further charges against him.
Conduct unbecoming of an officer, Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), is often invoked and can encompass anything from shoplifting to committing adultery, Paterson says.
Article 88 of the UCMJ forbids contemptuous speech against a president, and according to Sarah Olson of Truthout.org, is a "broad and little used provision." Most prosecutions under it took place during the Civil War and World War I.
Aaron Kaplan of the ACLU in Seattle, Wash., will be submitting an amicus brief at the pretrial hearing on behalf of Watada's First Amendment rights as a military officer.
In January, Lt. Watada sent an informal letter of resignation to his brigade commander, Col. Stephen J. Townsend. "I was horrified that the deaths of thousands of American soldiers were needlessly sacrificed," he wrote. "Our brave and honorable brothers have been betrayed into believing we die for freedom when it is simply power and control that our civilian leaders seek."
"He didn't want to talk to me at all," Lt. Watada said about Col. Townsend, who never discussed with Watada his misgivings about the war. "From January, my case was handled at a very low level. Only when they caught wind I was going public did they sit down and talk to me."
They finally talked the day before his June 7 press conference, and Col. Townsend issued a series of instructions about what he could and could not say.
Since January, Lt. Watada has twice submitted a formal resignation application. But because his unit was in the stop-loss category, a program that halts separations during times of war, the Army maintained he had not fulfilled his obligation to the military. He offered to serve in Afghanistan, a war he considers unambiguously tied to Al Qaida, but was turned down. He also said he was willing to face a nonjudicial hearing, resign his commission, and accept a less-than-honorable discharge. But this, too, was denied.
Lt. Watada did not apply for conscientious-objector status because he does not oppose all wars, just the war in Iraq.
"I think the people at the top could have pushed the resignation if they wanted to," he said. "They have kind of expressed surprise that the military did not want to get rid of me quietly."
"Unfortunately, [the military] seems intent on making an example out of Ehren," Paterson said.
"He is the visible tip of a very large iceberg of military soldiers who are deeply unhappy," said David Solnit, an advisor to Lt. Watada and the co-founder of Courage to Resist, a San Francisco-based anti-war group that supports GI resistance and promotes counter-recruitment strategies.
A February 2006 Le Moyne College/Zogby Poll found that 72 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq want to be pulled out by the end of 2006.
Lt. Watada's obligation to the military was technically up at the beginning of 2007. "But that doesn't technically mean he will get out in six months," Paterson said. "Once you go to Iraq, there is no guarantee."
Ann Wright, who served for 29 years in the Army, resigned from the U.S. Foreign Service after 16 years in March 2003 to protest the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq without authorization from the U.N. Security Council. Wright will be testifying for the defense at the pretrial hearing.
"Refusing to participate in military operations that violate international law -- the war of aggression, the use of torture, the use of illegal weapons and purposeful targeting of innocent civilians will save the lieutenant his sanity and his soul," Wright recently said in a press release. She is currently on a hunger strike against the war.
Marjorie Cohn, a professor of law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Calif., outlined the illegality of the Iraq war at the June 7 press conference.
"The United States is committing a crime against the peace in Iraq," she wrote one day later for Truthout.org. "The war in Iraq violates the charter of the United Nations, which prohibits the use of force. There are only two exceptions of that prohibition: self-defense and approval by the Security Council. A preemptive or preventive war is not allowed under the charter."
Proponents of the war's legality often cite the Congressional Joint Resolution 114 of 2002 authorizing the use of military force in Iraq. But, Cohn argues, Congress' delegating the authorization of war to the president is unconstitutional. And, even if it was not, she says, "it cannot authorize the president to execute an aggressive war."
The United Nations' former undersecretary general and humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Dennis Halliday, will testify at the pretrial hearing about the obligations member states have to the United Nations before they invade sovereign countries, Eric Seitz, Watada's attorney, said.
Cohn also cited Article 3 Common from the Geneva Conventions, a set of international treaties codifying international law and conduct during wartime, and the Nuremberg Principles as evidence that certain military conduct within Iraq is illegal.
Article 3 Common "prohibits violence to life and person, murder, mutilation, cruel treatment, torture, and outrages from personal dignity, particularly humiliating and degrading treatment." The Washington Post reported on August 9 that the Bush administration has drafted amendments to the 1996 War Crimes Act, which criminalized violations of Article 3 Common by civilians, as well as CIA and military officers, to reduce the risk of prosecution for war crimes during the Iraq war.
"The Nuremberg Principles, which are part of U.S. law, provide that all military personnel have the obligation not to obey illegal orders," Cohn wrote. The Nuremberg trials in Germany established the international law that soldiers are culpable of war crimes if they fail to stop illegal activities.
The Bush administration is in violation of the Nuremberg Charter and Principles, argues Francis A. Boyle, professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who will be testifying at the pretrial hearing. These violations include orchestrating a war of aggression, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, Boyle says.
"As a consequence, American citizens and soldiers such as Lt. Watada possess the basic right under international law and the United States' domestic law, including the U.S. Constitution, to engage in acts of civil resistance in order to prevent, impede, thwart or terminate ongoing criminal activities," Boyle said in a public statement.
Yesterday, August 16, an international "Day of Education" -- a series of house parties, fundraisers and teach-ins -- was organized by Courage to Resist to raise awareness. Jeremy Brecher, a historian who created some of yesterday's educational materials, has repeatedly raised the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld Supreme Court decision to strengthen Lt. Watada's case.
Brecher says that Lt. Watada's claim that the Bush administration's Iraq policy is unconstitutional and in violation of the War Powers Act is in total accord with the Hamdandecision, which rebukes their view of executive power. Watada says that under the Constitution and the War Powers Act, the president is limited in his role "from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit." Brecher argues that Justice Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion for Hamdan, validates Watada's claim. The president can't act contrary to "limitations that Congress has, in proper exercise of its own war powers, placed on his powers," Stevens wrote.
The Hamdan ruling also supports Watada's contention that the administration is in breach of international law because it violated international treaties, such as Common Article 3, Brecher wrote in a recent article in The Nation.
"American servicemen potentially could be accused of war crimes," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in response to the Hamdan ruling in a recent USA Today article.
Wright, Halliday and Boyle will participate in a rally for Lt. Watada following the hearing.
Lt. Watada's refusal to deploy to Iraq has reawakened the anti-war activist community, and revived serious critiques of the Bush administration's invasion and occupation. He also believes that his stance can repair the military's flagging image. If the lowest ranking soldiers are charged with war crimes, he said, people will stop enlisting, and servicemen will leave.
"How do you support the troops but not the war?" Lt. Watada asked rhetorically during his Veterans for Peace speech. "By supporting those who can truly stop it; let them know that resistance to participate in an illegal war is not futile and not without a future.