(By Sarah Olson, originally published in truthout, 18 September 2006)
US Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first officer to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq, faces one new charge, the Army announced Friday. The additional charge, of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen, centers on Lieutenant Watada's statement that "to stop an illegal and unjust war, soldiers can choose to stop fighting it." Lieutenant Watada made the comments during a public address to the annual Veterans for Peace convention held in Seattle, Washington, in mid-August.
In response to the additional charge, Lieutenant Watada stated: "As I've said in the past, my only intent is to impress upon all service members that their duty is to fully evaluate the truth and lawfulness behind every order - including the one to participate in a war. We each have a civic and moral responsibility to make the right choices regardless of the consequences."
Eric Seitz is Lieutenant Watada's civilian attorney. He called the additional charge an obvious attempt to silence his client. "His commander told him when they brought him in, if you continue to speak, we'll continue to add charges," said Seitz. "He's not doing anything other than saying things he believes to be true, and that we believe are true. This makes it that much clearer that this is just a political prosecution, and that's really all this case has been about from the beginning."
The Army did not immediately return requests for comment, but in a summation of the Article 32 hearing conducted in August, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Keith concluded that while he believed Lieutenant Watada was "sincere" in his beliefs, his "contempt for the President and suggestion that US soldiers can stop the war simply by refusing to fight borders on mutiny and sedition." While Lieutenant Colonel Keith agreed that officers must disobey illegal orders, he did not find it wise for officers to attempt to navigate the complexity of international law, and should rely upon "official interpretation" of such orders unless "definitively illegal."
A final decision on charging Lieutenant Watada is expected from Lieutenant General James Dubik within several weeks. If the Army proceeds with all charges now filed against the lieutenant, he faces up to eight and a half years in prison.
Iraq Veterans Against the War member Maricela Guzman was at the Veterans for Peace convention and heard Lieutenant Watada speak. She says she still finds it hard to describe the emotions she experienced. "Enlisted soldiers and officers, they are a different breed in the military," she says. "To have an officer come out and resist the war, and support other resisters, was a very emotional moment for me. I was very proud of what was going on that evening." Guzman says the Army is clearly trying to make an example out of Lieutenant Watada.
Kelly Dougherty is the chairperson of Iraq Veterans Against the War and agrees the Army is attempting to silence Lieutenant Watada with their aggressive prosecution. "The charge is unwarranted. They are trying to show others how hard they will be punished if they speak out. Right now the military sees more and more soldiers speaking publicly and it's threatening to them. They are creating an atmosphere of threats and of fear." Dougherty says Iraq Veterans Against the War will continue to give Lieutenant Watada and all war resisters their full support.
On June 7th, Lieutenant Watada became the first enlisted officer to announce publicly that he opposed the Iraq war on moral and legal grounds. At a press conference, he said: "It is my conclusion as an officer of the Armed Forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law." He continued: "The war in Iraq violates our democratic system of checks and balances. It 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." 15 days later, on June 22nd, Lieutenant Watada was given an order to deploy to Iraq, and he refused.
For refusing to deploy to Iraq, Lieutenant Watada was charged, on July 5th, with violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Article 87, missing movement by design. It's a charge that normally brings with it prison time of up to 2 years. For speaking publicly against the Iraq war, Lieutenant Watada has been confronted with a barrage of charges: initially three, now four violations of Article 133 - conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman - and two violations of Article 88 - speaking contemptuously against officials.
At the heart of Lieutenant Watada's pending court-martial is whether an officer in the United States Army has the right to speak against orders he believes to be illegal and a war he believes both immoral and illegal.
In a friend of the court brief filed in Lieutenant Watada's Article 32 hearing, the American Civil Liberties Union writes: "If the charges leveled in this case are allowed to proceed, it would mean that service members are completely barred from voicing their honest opinions on political subjects of significant public concern. Silencing speech like Lieutenant Watada's violates the Constitution while it also harms the military and the public at large."
The ACLU brief goes on to conclude that speech limitations applied to members of the military deserve - and historically have received - the narrowest possible interpretation. "Given how strongly the First Amendment protects statements like Lieutenant Watada's, the government must demonstrate extraordinary justification before it can eliminate that protection within the military justice system."
"In Lieutenant Watada's case," the ACLU argues, "the question is whether it is somehow reprehensible to express serious legal and moral opinions about matters of undeniable public importance. It is not. The Founders themselves knew that it was the highest calling of a gentleman to be fully engaged in the political life of one's country. Far from being a sign of moral unfitness, such statements indicate a highly developed moral sense. Lieutenant Watada's statements indicate that he was attempting to fulfill his legal and moral obligations as an officer, not that he was pursuing selfish pleasures for their own sake."
Lieutenant Watada was, from the outset, a patriotic and idealistic young man, deeply moved by the attacks of September 11th. Like many, he says, he felt compelled to give something back to this country. "I took an oath to the US Constitution, and to the values and the principles it represents. It makes us strongly unique. We don't allow tyranny; we believe in accountability and checks and balances, and a government that's by and for the people."
And when he was told he would be deploying to Iraq, Lieutenant Watada began to educate himself on the war, so he could most effectively train and command the soldiers reporting to him. He says as he began to read about the Iraq war - and the foreign and domestic policy that brought us to the war - he began to question and to doubt. " I started asking, why are we dying? Why are we losing limbs? For what?"
And the more he learned the more his doubts overwhelmed him. "The deciding moment for me was in January of 2006. I had watched clips of military funerals. I saw the photos of these families. The children. The mothers and the fathers as they sat by the grave, or as they came out of the funerals. One really hard picture for me was a little boy leaving his father's funeral. He couldn't face the camera so he is covering his eyes. I felt like I couldn't watch that anymore. I couldn't be silent any more and condone something that I felt was deeply wrong."
Lieutenant Watada had a sense that he was doing something that was bigger than just his own immediate actions: to him, this represented a deep moral obligation. "It's not about just trying to survive. It's not about just trying to make sure you're safe. When you are looking your children in the eye in the future, or when you are at the end of your life, you want to look back on your life and know that at a very important moment, when I had the opportunity to make the right decisions, I did so, even knowing there were negative consequences."
For now, Lieutenant Watada is in a holding pattern, waiting for the military to convene a court-martial. Friends and Family of Lieutenant Watada are planning a series of events and demonstrations leading up to the Lieutenant's prosecution. The court-martial may take place some time in December, and organizers are planning demonstrations at Ft. Lewis, and around the country.
Stay up to date about Lieutenant Watada's case at www.thankyoult.org.