One-on-One with 1st Lt. Ehren Watada

It's been just a little over a month now since 1st Lt. Ehren Watada followed through with his decision to refuse deployment orders to Iraq after offering to serve in other areas of the world and rendering his resignation. Now the U.S. Army has officially charged him for his actions, and he faced a pre-trial hearing on Aug. 17.

From Fort Lewis, Washington, where he is currently stationed and working in an administrative position, Watada spoke with us. Although he now faces three charges -- missing troop movement, conduct unbecoming an officer, and contempt towards officials -- he has no regrets.

Reflecting on the impact his decision has had both personally and for the larger Japanese American community, we get a rare glimpse into the reasons behind Watada's controversial decision.

Pacific Citizen: How has the response from the Japanese American community and the larger Asian Pacific American community been since you announced your decision in June?

Ehren Watada: Just by reading a few of the comments, the response has been fairly polarized. I didn't expect a large proportion of Asian Americans or Japanese Americans to rally to my side. To be honest, I didn't know what to expect. I feel relieved that all Americans, regardless of race or creed, including AAs have lent their support. This really shouldn't be an issue about race. Yet, it is curious to note that the majority of soldiers who have voiced their support in person, have been minorities. Whether they see me as giving a voice to minorities in the Army or simply fighting for minority rights I don't know.

PC: How have you been doing since the charges were announced? Any regrets?

EW: No regrets. How could I regret making the moral choice? How could I regret refusing to participate in something I believe is illegal? How could I continue to be silent -- condoning the continual violation of laws by our nation's leaders?

To understand my position, you first have to ask yourself what you believe is the role of an American soldier. Is he or she a mercenary -- obliged by a signed contract to follow all orders without question? Or can he or she be a freethinking, educated, and rational person, given the opportunity to discern between lawful and unlawful orders?

Not surprisingly, the prevailing attitude whether assumed or reinforced is "yes" to the first question. The Army has always strongly relied on the authoritarian command structure where orders are followed without question and the assumption is that those issuing the orders are trusted and honorable. Yet, my experience tells me that those who issue the orders are not infallible, including our civilian leadership. Reliance on an unquestioning, blindly obedient Army is a slippery slope which can only lead to the likes of Abu Graib and many other atrocities that will never be known by mainstream America.

So then we go back to the role of the American soldier. The ability and responsibility to question is not a foreign thought even in the Army. Just a month before my former unit deployed, a battalion commander (lieutenant colonel) was relieved of his command. This came about because his subordinate commanders formed a consensus that he nurtured a negative command climate and voiced their dissent to the battalion commander's boss.

According to my detractors, this would constitute mutiny! Surely, these captains should have waited for this lieutenant colonel's command time to end (after Iraq) -- after all, he had trained with these men for over a year. But these men committed no such crime, because fortunately for them and their men, there exists a system of accountability. I would hope that your readers can take this example and apply it to my situation.

PC: As you know, the JA community has long revered its war vets, especially its WWII vets. Do you think your decision has had a negative impact on their accomplishments?

EW: The 442nd Infantry and 100th Battalion are one of the most decorated units in American Army history. Many Americans who have served or are serving in the military will never know this fact. The JAs who served during WWII fought a two-front battle. They fought against the Germans, Italians, and Japanese. They also fought for their civil rights and that of their families. Some even saw it as fighting for their honor and loyalty as Americans.

Participating in the war in Iraq shows neither honor nor loyalty. If my family was behind barbed wire today, I would not fight in Iraq. This is a war based upon deception of the American people and conducted in full violation of the Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law, and the laws of land warfare. This is not a WWII fight against German or Japanese aggression. In this war, we the Americans, are the aggressors.

Do my actions reflect negatively on their accomplishments? I would say, no. They fought for honor and loyalty. I am fighting for the honor of our country, through which we do not condone the torture of prisoners of war and we don't condone a war fought for reasons akin to the Nazis and Imperial Japan.

Despite conflicting loyalties, I am fighting for the allegiance to which I swore an oath to uphold and defend -- the Constitutional laws and principles of democracy. My decision brings honor to veteran JAs. Instead of perpetuating war crimes and a war of aggression, I am actively trying to put a stop to it. Instead of being the "quiet, obedient Japanese," I am fulfilling my oath to protect my soldiers and this country from our government. This is all at great expense -- when the easier, safer path would have been to do my tour in Iraq.

PC: Some of the JA vets organizations have said that you knew what you were getting into when you signed up for the U.S. Army. Is there anything you would like to personally say to the JA WWII veterans?

EW: It is important to remember that there are JA vets who individually support me. These JA vet organizations, I assume are referring to blind obedience and loyalty to the civilian leadership. My oath of office specifically dictates neither of those assumptions. They must remember that they volunteered to fight against injustice, tyranny, and aggression. Their decision to join the Army was not out of compulsion. I would hope that these vets see parallels in my actions.

When I volunteered after 9/11 to serve my country I knew I would have to follow orders -- sometimes without rhyme or reason. I would have to be obedient and respectful to authority. Never did I believe I would have to follow orders that were contrary to my moral beliefs and illegal. Moreover, never could I have conceived that my trust in leadership would be shattered because of their deception used to wage this war.

We must remember our duty and obligation to do what's morally right. It's not that I disagree with this war; it's not a matter of choice. The government has broken the law and is forcing soldiers to do the same. My ultimate orders provided by the Constitution are simple: refuse to condone or participate in a crime, hold your superiors accountable, and if all possible protect life. For these JA vets to tell me to go to Iraq anyway is wrong and irresponsible.

PC: You could now possibly face prison time if you are convicted of the charges. How are you dealing with this possibility?

EW: I knew joining the Army, whether it was fighting in a foreign war or now fighting for the rights of soldiers, meant sacrifice. In combat, you may lose a limb, bodily functions, or your life. Speaking out against an authoritarian government and refusing to obey their unlawful orders may mean loss of liberty and other less than pleasant things. These are both sacrifices and commitments made to the American people as an American soldier. I gave my life to protect freedom and democracy -- a sacrifice I am willing to make by doing the right thing.

In a way I'm already free. Physically they can lock me up, throw away the key, leave me to rot and contemplate my "crimes." For a long time I was in turmoil. I felt compelled to fulfill the terms of my contract despite what I knew to be utterly wrong. Only when I realized that I served not men and institutions but the people of this country, did I believe there was another answer. That choice was to do what is right and just.

PC: The national JACL recently released a statement regarding your situation. Although they did not have a position on your refusal to deploy to Iraq they did express concern about two of the charges against you: contempt towards officials and conduct unbecoming an officer. Do you take any comfort in that a national JA organization has come out with such a statement of concern?

EW: From my understanding, the vote, even though it was favorable to me, was very close. It was heavily and very emotionally disputed. Despite the reservations of many members, I am eternally grateful for their public support. I would hope that in time, those who disagree with me, will see that my actions are representative of all the proud things JACL stands for.

PC: What are some of the lessons that the younger generations of JAs can take away from your situation?

EW: Be involved. Be an informed citizen who is willing to act and sacrifice for the freedom and democracy we all cherish. The voting age was changed to 18 because we realized that if America's young men and women were eligible to die for their country at that age, they should have a say.

I say be involved, because as a young man working my way through school, playing tennis, surfing, and partying on the weekends, I never was. Beyond skimming the front-page headlines, I never delved into the deeper issues behind politics and current events. Beyond one class in college, I never realized how certain past administrations have wrecked havoc upon third world countries in the name of power and greed.

Would I be where I am now if I had never joined the Army? Absolutely not. I would not be in a position to do what I am doing or even be aware of what's really going on in Iraq. But that's not an excuse for inaction or ignorance. I advocate mandatory service be it in the military or some other volunteer organization.

PC: How have your fellow soldiers been treating you since you announced your decision?

EW: Immediately after my public statement, you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. Some things were said around me, within hearing distance, but not to my face. The majority of negative comments were made to those who worked directly with me. I was probably the least popular person on Fort Lewis.

Most who had been friendly and cordial to me before, greeted me with silence. Some of the lieutenants I was close with told me in confidence that although they did not agree with my decision, they knew I was a good person, respected my decision, and sincerely wished me good luck.

Since my transfer out of my deploying unit, I work with a mixture of senior officers and civilians. All of them have been polite and professional. To my surprise, I have been approached by several soldiers of all ranks who have voiced their support. I have also had complete strangers approach me in the outlying communities to lend me words of encouragement.

I am not under any illusions, I know there are those who despise me and would like to see me harmed; I have received just as many of those types of messages. Fortunately, for now, I have been spared the worst.

PC: Your family has been very outspoken in support of your decision. How are they dealing with your situation? What has their support meant to you?

EW: The support of my family has been immeasurable and helped me to realize how important it is to love, understand and support one another. At times I know my parents fear for my safety and my future. It's actually ironic considering they would be facing the same fears had I deployed. I had to reassure them that no matter what the outcome, I am at peace because I did the right thing.

To go through what I am experiencing would definitely have been much more difficult without the support of my family. Even my parents at one point needed much convincing and explanation. But even if I did not have their support, it would not have stopped me from making my decision. In fact it was made before I told them.

For my parents to come out publicly and support me exemplifies their courage and integrity. They could just have easily supported me from the shadows. Instead, they have opened up and exposed themselves to the same hatred directed towards me. They face the same danger to their personal safety and future risks for standing up for me and our common cause.

PC: Many of the P.C. readers have come out in support of your plight. Is there anything that you would like to personally say to them?

EW: Thank you, thank you, and thank you again for taking an interest and supporting a cause which belongs to all conscientious Americans. But it is not enough. There are many more servicemen and women who believe as we do and feel trapped. Help them realize that they too have a choice -- they too can do the right thing. Be vocal, take an active interest, and force others to do the same. All of us must be willing to sacrifice if we want to see change.

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