© ColorsNW Magazine
Lt. Ehren Watada
By A.V. Crofts
Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada is not one to crave the spotlight. However, since his June decision to refuse deployment to Iraq, he has gone public to share his message and his motivation.
Watada is 28 years old. Quiet by nature, he speaks in measured tones and careful sentences that lull the listener with their steady softness. His compact and powerful build stands in contrast to his voice; his body is all muscle and reminiscent of a gymnast in peak form.
Typically his face maintains a stubborn curtain against emotion – a perfect poker face. On the rare occasion that a smile cracks across his face, it’s momentarily jarring for its unexpectedness. He has the chiseled appearance of a superhero; one is almost certain he has his cape stashed in his back pocket. And hero he certainly is to some, though others consider him a traitor.
Watada is not a conscientious objector. He refused to serve in Iraq because he believes the war is an unlawful act of aggression, a contention that was summarily rejected by his Fort Lewis commanding officers.
On July 5, the Army charged Watada with three articles of violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The charges included two counts of contempt towards officials (Article 88), three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman (Article 133), and one count of missing movement (Article 87). If Watada is convicted of all six charges by a general court-martial, he could be sentenced to nearly eight years in a military prison. He is the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq and will therefore be the first one to be put on trial for that refusal.
Watada’s stand against the war has galvanized the peace movement. National Day of Action events were organized across the United States on June 27 to express support for his decision. “The Bush administration continues to put our nation’s service members in harm’s way for no good reason. It has become clear to Lt. Watada that his duty cannot be served by leading his troops into an illegal war based on deceit and half-truths,” said Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans For Peace that was one of the organizations that participated in the National Day of Action.
Not surprisingly, Watada’s actions have drawn fire from other camps. “Lt. Watada is not standing on principle, nor is his stand valiant. He is a coward and a traitor. His actions will only serve to get his fellow soldiers killed so that he can save himself and become famous,” said the Military Families Voice of Victory in a recent news release. It continued, “The refusal by Lt. Watada to obey lawful orders to serve in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom will surely encourage Al Qaeda in Iraq to continue terrorizing the Iraqi people and attacking U.S. and coalition forces, and encourage Al Qaeda and allied terrorist forces around the globe to wage war against America and Western civilization.”
Watada’s case has garnered increasing domestic and international media attention, from The New York Times to Al-Jazeera. His trial and subsequent verdict has the potential to be a flash point in the general public’s reaction to the Iraq War.
Watada’s decision to enlist in the Army in May 2003 was motivated by a commitment to service (Watada is an Eagle Scout and his father, Robert, is a lifelong public servant), the promise of a career path, and a perceived urgency after the Sept. 11 attacks. “I wanted to defend my country, which I felt was in a time of need after 9/11,” Watada explains. “At that time I didn’t have any reason to think that our leaders would betray our trust.”
Watada’s choice of military over other avenues of public service also illustrates a streak of single-mindedness in the face of parental opposition. With a father who had opted to join the Peace Corps as an alternative to military service in the Vietnam War, and with his mother, a high-school counselor who fiercely opposed his decision to enlist, Watada at first glance seems an unlikely candidate for joining the military. He was forced to clearly articulate his reasons for enlisting and to seek their support. “I did tell my mother my intent,” he acknowledges. “She was adamantly against it, what with the war going on. I knew it was more likely I would be deployed to a combat zone, and she did too. She’s like all mothers, they are protective. They don’t want to lose their children.”
Carolyn Ho remembers the difficult dialogue she had with her son at the time. “I know after we had that conversation he left thinking I was really angry with him, and I was,” she admits. “I realized I may feel this way about the military, but I don’t have the right to impose this belief on others. So I called him back, and I said, ‘I step back from this and I’m not judging you. If this is what you want then you should do it.’ I think from the time that he was little there was a bit of him that was really tenacious and stubborn.” Little did Ho know then that it would not be the last time she would find herself on the opposite side of her son on a life decision.
Watada passed uneventfully through basic training and within a year rose to an authority position while stationed overseas in Korea, supervising soldiers and preparing for eventual deployment to Iraq. “I just graduated from college and a year later I’m in a leadership position,” he recalls, “I’m in charge of 130 guys at one point. People look up to you to make the right decision, so you have to know everything there is to know about your job in a short amount of time.”
While being trained by senior officers, Watada recalls the deep sense of responsibility that was expected of commissioned officers for their reports. “I remember our commanding officers telling us, ‘You are the first line leaders of these men. You owe so much to them. If you don’t find out everything about your job or what you are about to undertake, you have failed as a leader and you have failed your soldiers.’ I took that to heart,” Watada says. “I believe that I followed those teachings and I’m following that mentorship now.”
Watada quickly consumed all available material on the Iraq War, devouring books, magazines, newspapers and all online media available to him. Certainties he had held before enlisting – “I believed the Administration, like many Americans out there, when they guaranteed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, ties to Al Qaeda, and Saddam had ties to 9/11” – began to weaken under Watada’s scrutiny and in the face of news coming from Iraq each passing day.
“As the war progressed and started to go from bad to worse: failure of the reconstruction project, the abuse and mistreatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib, the accounts of Iraqi civilians, the accounts of independent journalists, and the accounts of American soldiers coming back home, I began to look deeper into the legality of the war itself.”
This continued line of inquiry led Watada to question the very premise of the Iraq War and he grew convinced through his research that U.S. action in Iraq was illegal under both U.S. and international law. “Under the (United Nations) mandate and the Nuremburg Principles, any war that you are forced to participate in that is not a war of necessity is a war of aggression and is the worst crime against humanity and the worst crime against the peace,” Watada says, “Everyone from a private up to a general has an individual responsibility to do the right thing in their actions, morally and legally.”
Watada believed that by participating in the war, he would be party to war crimes. “As I looked into (the war) and searched my soul, I felt that the real reason I had joined the military was to uphold the Constitution, to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, and to uphold our values of democracy, to protect our laws, and to protect all the people of this country, including the soldiers under my command,” Watada says. “The best way to do that was to set the example for my soldiers, that they need to evaluate every order that they’re given, including the order to go to war – given the timing and opportunity of course – and really look at the legality and truthfulness and make the right decision regardless of the consequences.”
In the case of Watada – who was supposed to deploy to Iraq with 3rd (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – the consequences are severe. “After I made a public statement I could feel a lot of hostility, not at me directly, but those I worked with, as they tried to shield me from it,” he says. “I received a lot of hate mail from people from the Army, saying that I’m a disgrace and a coward and a traitor, and that I should be taken out on the street and shot.” However, there were unexpected pockets of support within the military as well. “Surprisingly enough, there are many soldiers out there that have told me that they agree with what I’m doing they agree with what I’m saying,” Watada says.
There have also been some unexpected voices of disapproval, in particular from the Japanese-American community. “Since I’ve been at the public eye, there have been a lot of Japanese Americans that have condemned me,” Watada says. “They argue that I’m being disloyal, that I’m a disgrace to them and to the uniform.”
One such detractor is Robert Arakaki, president of the 100th Battalion Veterans, 442nd Regiment of Japanese American soldiers in World War II. The 442nd was the most-decorated regiment during the war, even as the Japanese-American community was interned by the United States. In a story in the Honolulu Advertiser, Arakaki questioned Watada’s decision saying, “Who determines what is legal or illegal? Him or our government? Not him.”
Watada, who is Japanese and Chinese American, grew up in the multiethnic state of Hawaii, known for its strong Asian American population. “In Hawaii the ethnic minorities are the majority. Because Hawaii has all these ethnic backgrounds in one small place, there is a lot of acceptance and tolerance for people that are different. Growing up, I identified myself as an American, definitely with an Asian ethnic background, but always American.” Unlike their counterparts on the mainland, the U.S. government did not intern Hawaiian Japanese Americans who were 35 percent of the Hawaiian population.
For Japanese Americans, the decision of whether to join the Army during World War II and fight for the country that imprisoned them or refuse to enlist agonized the community. The “no-no boys,” or men who refused to enlist, were seen either as reinforcing the commonly held idea that Japanese Americans were foreigners or alternately, as justifiably resisting a government that was unconstitutionally imprisoning an entire ethnic group.
Watada sees parallels with the unconstitutional nature of the Japanese internment during WW II and his belief in the unconstitutional nature of the U.S. war in Iraq. “Japanese Americans were stripped of their rights, they were stripped of their property, their businesses, and their farmland was all taken away,” he says.
“It was accepted then because we were at war. Later on, it was proven that it was a violation of their most basic rights.” Watada believes strongly that it is now his duty – as an officer and a U.S. citizen – to hold the current administration accountable. “I must speak out against those leaders for waging this deceit against the American people and leading us into a war, committing heinous crimes, and breaking laws of the Constitution. My oath was to the Constitution, which is the people, because the Constitution protects the people. And so, I feel like I made the right decision and I’m fulfilling my obligation.”
While Watada’s choice to join the military was a personal one arrived at after thoughtful consideration, his decision to not deploy, though still deeply personal, was one that required months of agonizing internal debate. “For a long time I knew what I knew, but I had no power to change it. I felt I was in a prison of my own creation,” he remembers, “When I made this decision, I finally felt free. I felt I could really see everything again for what it was – like a veil taken off my eyes.” As with the decision to enlist, at first his decision to refuse deployment was questioned by his mother.
“He said that he would not be able to live with himself if he went through with it and that it was a matter of conscience,” Ho says. “I think I made the crossover to be able to accept that. I’m very proud of him and I think it takes a lot of courage.”
The irony that while immersed in an institution such as the military that relies on a strict hierarchical order of obedience, Watada found clarity that lead him to act independently, and potentially at great personal cost, is not lost on him or his family.
“The epiphany of knowing that individuals have the power to change and to make changes in the world – so many people do not have the sense of empowerment, and I think he didn’t either,” Ho admits. “I don’t know what kind of catalyst causes that alchemy but I think I have to thank the military for making him begin to think critically. Although they tell you not to think, he did the opposite.”
While detractors are quick to point out the paradox of acting to protect his troops by remaining behind, Watada believes strongly that his sacrifice is a critical part of a larger movement to end the U.S. operations in Iraq. “I’m opposed to this war and I am prepared to sacrifice my freedom to ensure that what is wrong is made right. I will be saving my life, but I will serving in prison,” he explains. “What I’m sacrificing for, is the hope that what I’m doing will end this war a lot sooner, and save more American soldiers and more Iraqi soldier and civilian lives. I want to challenge everybody out there, what are they willing to sacrifice?”
Even with his eye on the larger goals of his decision, Watada is quick to remember the individuals in his Stryker brigade. “No one really will ever know what it’s like to really work with these young men, train some of the best people you’ll ever come in contact with, and then go into combat with them,” he says, “My decision to leave my fellow soldiers behind was especially difficult because of that.”
Watada is also aware of relative position of privilege he holds compared to many under his command. “It’s the 18, 19, 20-year-olds that really don’t know their rights, don’t know what they are getting into, so are at a really at a huge disadvantage. If they realize that they are opposed to the war, they have no way out. There is that socio-economic disadvantage – it is a type of draft. In other times, the military would be a good step up in terms of making an honest living, but in terms of using these people for an unjust and illegal war, it is tragic.”
Watada feels strongly that his actions can act as an inspiration for other soldiers to think for themselves. “I’m setting an example, and that’s what leadership is about: to lead by example and say I have that responsibility to act within the law.”
Even in the face of a looming court date and near-certain jail time, Watada is resolute about his decision to act. “It all goes back to what we believe in as democracy. People have the power to end this war. People have the power to stop fighting this war.”
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