It was my duty to refuse to go to Iraq, says officer facing court martial
(By Alex Massi, Originally published in The Daily Telegraph, November 22 2006)
THE FIRST American army officer to face court-martial for refusing to serve in Iraq said yesterday that it was his duty to recognise and refuse "illegal'' orders.
Lt Ehren Watada, 28, faces four charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for his refusal to join his unit in Iraq in the summer. Speaking ahead of a pre-trial hearing, the conscientious objector pledged that he would "fight with everything I have for my freedom and that of all Americans. I will face imprisonment to stand up for my beliefs.''
If he had gone to Iraq, his service would have been due to end next month. Instead, if convicted, he could face six years in prison.
He claimed that his refusal to follow orders had been justified by "a surge in popular resistance to the war as evidenced by the recent elections'' and complained that "the army seems intent on making an example of me''.
"No one else is speaking up for the troops dying every day,'' he said.
Lt Watada's court-martial comes at a time when the American public is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the war in Iraq. Recent opinion polls find that a majority of Americans now consider the war a mistake.
His campaign has been supported by leading anti-war activists such as Cindy Sheehan and Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked Pentagon papers to the New York Times during the Vietnam War.
Lt Watada argues that the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary demonstrates that the tide of public and political opinion is turning in his direction. A Japanese-American who was raised in Honolulu, he joined the army in March 2003 after graduating from Hawaii Pacific University. He said the September 11 terrorist attacks had inspired him to "serve my country in a time of need in what many of us felt was a war on terrorism''.
He maintains that sacrifice has been betrayed by the Bush administration.
After passing through officer training, Lt Watada was deployed to South Korea. He subsequently began to doubt the morality of the Iraq war last summer as his unit returned to Fort Lewis, Washington. He then refused to follow orders when his Stryker armoured vehicle unit, part of the 2nd Infantry Division, was deployed to Iraq earlier this year.
His offer to serve in Afghanistan or resign his commission was rejected by the army, who say it is unacceptable for officers to pick and choose their assignments.
Justifying his objection to the Iraq war as a matter of conscience, Lt Watada said: "No crime is greater than to lie over something as grave as war. I felt that was a wrong I could not condone.''
Pre-trial hearings have been set for early January and the court-martial is scheduled to begin in February.
Lt Watada's defence team intends to subpoena witnesses - including "decision-makers'' - whose testimony will, they claim, demonstrate the war's illegality.
Lt Watada's lawyers argue that the war was illegitimate because it was not explicitly endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and because Congressional authorisation was based upon the faulty premise that Saddam Hussein's regime had weapons of mass destruction and was connected to al-Qa'eda. His defence team also plans to cite the Nuremberg tribunals' ruling that following orders from a superior officer does not exculpate soldiers from the consequences of their actions. He said the best way for the war to end would be if soldiers refused to serve.
Yesterday Lt Watada said every officer had a duty to consider whether they could serve in a campaign that made troops a party to war crimes. It was "the responsibility and obligation of members of the military'' not to follow "unlawful and immoral orders''.
Doing so would "not only be a betrayal of themselves but a betrayal of their country''.
However, Lt Watada's lawyer, Eric Seitz, said that "under no circumstances are we criticizing the moral decisions [other servicemen] have made.''
Lt Watada says his former colleagues, now serving in Iraq, respect his decision to follow his conscience rather than his orders.