Prosecutor says officer caused shame; At court-martial, he says Ehren Watada let down the soldiers who trained under him and expected his leadership in Iraq.
(By Lynn Marshall and Sam Howe Verhovek, Originally published in the Los Angeles Times, February 7 2007)
First Lt. Ehren Watada "brought shame upon himself, his unit and the U.S. Army," a military prosecutor said Tuesday at a court-martial for the Honolulu soldier, whose refusal to ship out to Iraq has made him a hero to some and a coward to others.
Watada, 28, refused to be deployed to Iraq with his unit last year, declaring in a public statement that "the wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible and moral injustice, but it's a contradiction to the Army's own law of land warfare."
Participating "would make me a party to war crimes," Watada contended in a videotaped statement that he made in June and that was presented by prosecutors before a seven-member officers' panel that will decide his fate.
Rather than participating in an act of courage, the prosecutor, Capt. Scott Van Sweringen, argued, Watada had violated a sworn duty to lead his fellow soldiers in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.
Watada instead allowed those soldiers to go to Iraq "absent a leader they had trained with, absent a leader they had trusted," Van Sweringen said.
The lieutenant faces charges of missing a military movement and of conduct unbecoming an officer. If convicted in the court-martial, he could receive four years in an Army prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Watada sat at attention and appeared to follow proceedings intently, though he spoke only briefly because most of the day was given over to the Army's case against him. He is expected to testify today as part of his defense.
As Watada's lawyer, Eric Seitz, conceded, "There are no real facts in dispute here.... There is no dispute about what he's said and done. The question, the only question in this case, is what were his intentions."
Seitz said that Watada "took his oath very seriously -- to defend the constitution."
Watada has not sought conscientious objector status, contending that he does not oppose bearing arms and that he was willing to fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the Iraq war, he says, is wrong.
Prosecutors presented witnesses Tuesday who testified that however sincere Watada's beliefs might be, there was no way to justify an outright defiance of the chain of command.
Watada's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia, told the panel that he was "dismayed, probably a little bit betrayed" when he learned that Watada refused to ship out with his unit.
"I believe what he said was that the commander in chief made decisions based on lies, that he specifically deceived the American people," Antonia said. "That is nowhere in the realm of a lieutenant in the United States Army."
Defense attorney Seitz said of his client in opening arguments: "At most, he engaged in an act or form of civil disobedience.... No way does that add up to conduct unbecoming an officer."
Watada's case has attracted huge attention among antiwar protesters, who have held rallies outside Ft. Lewis that included an appearance Monday by actor Sean Penn.
But Watada also has drawn many sharp critics, with websites from fellow soldiers openly deriding him and protesters holding their own rallies outside the base, just south of Tacoma. One protester held a sign calling Watada a "weasel."
A prosecution witness, Lt. Col. William James, Watada's former brigade commander, said he had advised Watada not to refuse the deployment order. He said he had cautioned him against making "a young man's mistake, not making a decision based solely on emotion."
In another video, Watada tells a cheering crowd at an antiwar rally last summer: " 'I was only following orders' is never an excuse.... For the soldiers to stop fighting, they must see the support of the people."
Antonia said that Watada had no business offering to go to Afghanistan but not to Iraq.
"As soldiers," Antonia said, "we don't get to pick and choose which war we go to."