First US officer since Vietnam goes on trial for speaking out: Eager recruit turned critic faces military prison after refusing to fight
(By Suzanne Goldenberg, Originally published in The Guardian,February 3 2007)
On the eve of America's invasion of Iraq, he was heartsick at the prospect that he might not be military material. He even shelled out $800 for medical tests to convince the recruiters that he was fit for duty despite childhood asthma that would ordinarily render him ineligible for service.
On Monday, that same eager recruit, now Lieutenant Ehren Watada, faces a court martial for refusing to deploy to Iraq and for making public statements against the war. He is the first officer to be prosecuted for publicly criticising the war - indeed the first since the Vietnam era when an army captain was court martialled for addressing an anti-war demonstration outside the US embassy in London. If he is convicted on all charges, Lt Watada could spend four years in a military prison.
In that trajectory from eager recruit through disillusion to dissent is a transformation that mirrors and resonates with an American public at a point when it too has turned against the country's involvement in Iraq, making Lt Watada a hero of the anti-war movement.
His prosecution was also seen as an issue of free speech after two journalists were subpoenaed to testify against Lt Watada on two additional charges. Those charges were dropped this week. Lt Watada, 28, argues that to serve in Iraq would betray his conscience and his duties as an officer. "It would be a violation of my oath because this war to me is illegal in the sense that it was waged in deception, and it was also in violation of international law," he told the Guardian. "Officers and leaders have that responsibility to speak out for the enlisted and certainly when we do so it comes with more consequences, which is what a leader should do. A leader can't just go with the crowd."
Lt Watada decided a year ago that he would not serve in Iraq. Since then he has spoken out at press conferences and to veterans' groups. These actions infuriated military officials, who have charged him with conduct unbecoming an officer for publicly saying that service in Iraq would make him party to a war crime, and for suggesting that soldiers could bring the war to an end by throwing down their weapons.
Lt Watada is not the first soldier to voice his objections to the war in Iraq. A number of enlisted men have publicly refused to serve there, citing conscientious objection. Thirteen have sought refugee status in Canada. Thousands more have gone awol. Last year, six senior generals, including some who had served in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, demanded that Donald Rumsfeld, then Pentagon chief, stand down.
But Lt Watada is in none of those camps and he does not claim to be a conscientious objector. He decided to go public with his opposition to the war, a choice his civilian lawyer, Eric Seitz, believes singled out Lt Watada for prosecution. "They decided at a lower level to make an example out of Lt Watada," he said. "It was this kind of questioning and resistance that ended up destroying the ability of military forces to fight in Vietnam and they are very concerned about a repetition of that."
Lt Watada's objections to the war are unlikely to be aired at his court martial. The judge has narrowed the scope of the trial and refused defence witnesses.
The Pentagon maintains that Lt Watada gave up his right to free speech when he put on the uniform. "As a soldier you are held to a different standard. You can't go and say things that are going to offend the order and discipline of the military," said Joseph Piek, a spokesman at Fort Lewis, Washington, where Lt Watada is to stand trial. "Soldiers understand that you can't divorce yourself from being a soldier."
That view is also shared by the retired generals who spoke out last year.
"He is wearing the uniform," said General John Batiste, who left the army in protest at Mr Rumsfeld's leadership. Lt Watada's criticism falls into a different category because he was still on active duty. "Discipline is fundamental in a military organisation and officers swear to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and obey the officers appointed over them."
Lt Watada would not have envisaged his collision with army doctrine when he joined the military in March 2003 after finishing college in his native Hawaii. A former boy scout, he had always wanted to join the army - an ambition that did not change with the prospect of war in Iraq. "Certainly I joined the military already knowing that we were about to enter a war in which there was some notable opposition," Lt Watada said. "But when the administration comes out and says the threat was imminent and that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction and that he has ties to al-Qaida and therefore he has the means to attack us at any point, I remember telling my father: 'You know, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.'"
He shipped out to South Korea in June of that year. By the time his unit returned to the US in June 2005, American public opinion had already begun to turn against the war. But Lt Watada's conversion did not start until several months later when he began reading up on Iraq in preparation for a tour of duty.
"It was so shocking to me. I guess I had heard about WMD and that we made a terrible, terrible mistake," he said. "Mistakes can happen but to think that it was deliberate and that a careful deception was done on the American people - you just had to question who you are as a serviceman, as an American."
Early last year, Lt Watada took his doubts to his commanding officer, hoping he would be allowed to retire quietly. He also offered to serve in Afghanistan. Both options were refused although the military did offer him a safe berth in Iraq - which he turned down.
Lt Watada accepts that refusing orders on the battlefield would lead to chaos. "In a pitched battle of course you can't have soldiers saying 'oh, no I don't feel like covering that sector right now.'" But he refuses to believe that the dissent of a junior officer would destroy army morale, or threaten control of America's military, and he was not willing to wait until he was out of uniform to speak out. Someone had to speak out, he argues.
"Everybody is scared there is going to be a coup if the military does not bow down to civilian control, but that does not mean to bow down blindly," he said.
"A general can still resign in protest publicly, and not be subverting civilian control. He can be sending a message, and I think it would be a huge message if it was someone on active duty. But these guys wait until they retire and their pension is secure."
He added: "I wish it didn't have to be me. I wish the generals hadn't put me in this position."