(By Alex Fryer, originally published in the Seattle Times, June 26 2006)
Fort Lewis officer | Publicity over his refusal to deploy puts a new face on the anti-war cause, but one expert says it's not likely to affect military morale.
Lt. Ehren Watada couldn't be called a media figure, but the Hawaii-born officer who refused to deploy with his Fort Lewis unit on Thursday has done his bit to court the press.
Part of the public exposure is designed to protect Watada from potentially harsh military justice. But Watada also has become the latest public face for a peace movement that has produced few leaders able to marshal public opinion, even though polls show the majority of Americans believe the Iraq war was a costly mistake.
Just as Cindy Sheehan, whose soldier son was killed in 2004, captured public attention last year with her vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch, calls and e-mails have spiked in recent weeks to groups such as Veterans for Peace in St. Louis.
"When you have a person like Lt. Watada or Cindy Sheehan, I think that's more real," said executive director Michael McPhearson, whose son serves in Iraq. "And Americans react to sincere people expressing themselves."
In recent weeks, Watada held two news conferences, and supporters are organizing a national vigil for him on Tuesday.
This comes about a month after the same group orchestrating media coverage of Watada put together a similar event for two other soldiers facing discipline for refusing to fight.
Recently founded in Oakland, Calif., Courage to Resist is one of several organizations around the country trying to stop the Iraq war by focusing on those ordered to wage it.
Army resisters make a difference, the group claimed in a news release, because "the Bush administration can't fight war or maintain an occupation without obedient troops."
But some military experts say the anti-war movement has taken a wrong approach and that Watada and other resisters have little impact on morale.
An Army spokesman at Fort Lewis said Watada's refusal to leave for Iraq on Thursday was a non-event on the base, as soldiers and families prepared for the deployment of 4,000 troops to Iraq.
On Tuesday, Watada's actions will be heralded by small groups across the country.
Atlanta peace activists plan a vigil for him at the Georgia state Capitol. In Charlotte, N.C., an anti-war group will show a film and hold a lecture at the public library. In Cleveland, Ohio, there will be a rally at the federal building. And in New York, protesters will converge at an Army recruiting station, an event billed to "support Lt. Ehren Watada and other resisters of the war in Iraq."
Last month, a similar national day of action focused on two men denied conscientious-objector status: Navy Petty Officer Pablo Paredes and U.S. Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who is currently in jail at Fort Lewis.
In a Courage to Resist news release, Paredes vowed "to put the war on trial. After all, it's the real crime here."
The release also mentioned the Nuremberg trials in Germany after World War II, which declared that soldiers were culpable of war crimes if they failed to stop illegal activities.
Some of the same themes echo in the Watada case.
Earlier this month, Watada revealed that he intended to refuse orders to head out to Iraq in what he believes is an illegal war of occupation.
Watada said he, too, would try to mount a case about the legality of the war under international law and American law.
And during a news conference for Watada last Monday, retired Army Col. Ann Wright said officers have the right to disobey illegal orders under principles established during the Nuremberg trials.
Besides organizing news conferences, Courage to Resist set up a Web site for Watada where people can donate to his legal defense, which is also paid by the group.
"We're trying to build a movement of grass-roots people to oppose the war," said Jeff Paterson, a spokesman for Courage to Resist. "We have a particular niche. When someone [in the military] steps forward and speaks out, we come to the aid of those people."
The publicity surrounding Watada and others trying to get out of the military inoculates them from stiff punishment, said Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz.
After failing to resolve his client's case against the Army quietly, Seitz opted to go to the media.
"It's much more difficult for the military to hammer him," said Seitz, a civilian attorney who has handled thousands of courts-martial and considers himself an anti-war activist.
"If they do, they will feed into public sentiment about the war. If they want to make a martyr of him, that will happen."
The day after Watada held a news conference at University Lutheran Church in Seattle last week, some of the same anti-war activists gathered there to publicize the cause of another Fort Lewis soldier, Suzanne Swift, who was arrested earlier this month in Eugene, Ore., for deserting her post.
Swift served in Iraq for a year but said she won't go back because she feels the war lacks purpose and because she alleges her superiors sexually harassed her.
Her attorney, Larry Hildes, said Courage to Resist has been supportive, but Swift's case is more focused on sexual assault in the ranks than her opposition to the war.
Unmoved by dissent
According to the Pentagon, the number of soldiers absent without leave is less than 1 percent of the total force. In 2005, 2,011 soldiers were reported AWOL, down from 4,483 in 2002.
But Hildes, who has handled military-justice cases for about four years, said those numbers are far too low.
The National Lawyers Guild, a New York-based human-rights group, hosts a hotline for military personnel who are absent without leave and want legal advice.
The call center receives about 3,000 inquiries monthly, Hildes said.
Punishment for desertion can range from a reprimand to a court-martial and five-year prison sentence.
While peace groups want to spread dissent in the ranks, most soldiers are unmoved by deserters and objectors, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
"Most would agree that military ethics don't give a choice about the mission," he said. "There are those who have mixed views about the mission, but there aren't a lot of people who feel soldiers have the right to refuse service."
O'Hanlon said the Army could create a morale problem if Watada were allowed to resign without facing discipline. But if Watada serves even a brief time in confinement, most will forget about him, O'Hanlon said.
And if they want to affect military personnel, peace activists would be better off not focusing on the alleged immorality and illegality of war, he said.
"People in the U.S. military may not all believe the war was smart or necessary, but they don't believe it was immoral."
The Army's response
Joe Piek, spokesman for Fort Lewis, said the Army was not planning to organize a media campaign to counter the publicity generated by the Watada case.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, about 50,000 active-duty, reserve and National Guard troops have passed through the gates of Fort Lewis, the vast majority without a hitch.
"That's the best campaign that the Army can do our soldiers honoring their responsibility to deploy and defend the nation," Piek said. "The larger issue of people across America who are opposed to the war in Iraq, that is an issue for our politicians to work with. Our Army is focused on our men and women."
In the coming weeks, as Watada heads for a court-martial, Courage to Resist will step up its campaign to generate public support for him and its call for other soldiers to disobey orders.
Meanwhile, Watada and his allies wait for the Army to review the facts and decide how this case will proceed.
"I don't expect them to drop charges against Lt. Watada," said Seitz, his attorney. "They will be very aggressive in pursuing it."