The War of Lieutenant Watada

On June 22, 2006, Lieutenant Ehren Watada became the first U.S. Army officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. Then he faced a court-martial and up to eight years in prison.

By Kathryn Robinson May 7, 2009

THE SUN HAD NOT YET RISEN over the dense woods and brick barracks of Fort Lewis when the soldiers of the Third Stryker Brigade of the U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division assembled for roll call. It was June 22, 2006. They were heading for Iraq. One by one the sergeant called their names off the troop manifest. One by one the responses came, 
from young soldiers whose duffel bags and Army-issue weapons signaled the stark conditions of the desert world they were about to occupy.

“Lieutenant Ehren Watada!” barked the sergeant. No answer. At 6:45am 210 soldiers boarded buses for the first leg of their journey to Iraq. The 211th stayed behind.

No one was surprised. Not Watada’s parents, who had already walked a long road with their determined son, staying up with him the night before he would refuse deployment. Not his military superiors who had spent many hours—up until moments before the plane took off—trying to convince Watada to change his mind, alternately flattering him as a model officer and spinning scenarios of the dishonorable discharge and seven-year incarceration that likely awaited him. Not his comrades-in-arms, who had in the weeks since he publicly announced his plan to refuse orders pelted him with e-mails ranging from covert support to ferocious derision.

Least of all Watada himself, the quiet officer in the eye of this storm, who had cultivated a profound and impassioned opposition to the Iraq war. His was no pacifist conscientious objection: Watada had voluntarily enlisted for a career in the military and sought other military assignments to fulfill his enlistment obligation, including taking up arms in Afghanistan, once he determined that he could not fight in Iraq. Twice he attempted to resign his commission; twice he was rejected.

“Simply put,” read Watada’s resignation letter to his battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Stephen J. Townsend in January 2006, “I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership.”

Six months later, two weeks before his unit would deploy, Watada secured his destiny. “Although I have tried to resign out of protest, I am forced to participate in a war that is manifestly illegal,” he said in a statement to the press. “As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order.”

And so he did, from battalion headquarters with his attorney by his side, as the sun came up over Fort Lewis. Since then, with the rest of his Stryker Brigade fighting and dying in Iraq, Watada has remained on duty at Fort Lewis. He will almost certainly face court-martial for six charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice: one for missing movement, two for contempt toward officials, three for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

For many in the military and beyond, the court-martial can’t come too soon. “Were all soldiers like you,” read one atypically civil flame he received, “the United States would not have a functional military.”

“All soldiers serve at the will of the American people,” explains Paul Rieckhoff, a veteran of the Iraq war and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in New York. “And the American people decide when and where they’re going to fight. You may not agree. But there are plenty of things in the military you personally won’t agree with. For the benefit of a viable and efficient fighting force, [the Army] can’t have this and it won’t. He’ll pay for it.”

That’s a likelihood of which Watada is keenly aware, and one inviting a larger question. Ehren Watada is the first commissioned officer in the nation to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq; one of the first in history to take on the legality of a war in a military court. But if he is convicted in a court-martial, will history remember him as a traitor? Or a martyr?

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Judging entirely by the comportment he was born with, central casting would be most likely to cast him as a hero. For starters, there’s his face. Whether sitting stoic and straight-backed in a contentious military court or walking a gauntlet of wildly cheering antiwar activists, Ehren Watada cuts a dignified profile, his handsome visage a mask of impassivity—until a smile cracks his calm, transforming him at once into the earnest, vulnerable 28-year-old that he is.

Lifelong friends speak of his dry sense of humor; more than one likes to rib him about an anal-retentive streak regarding cleanliness and discipline. “He’s the kind of guy who actually goes for a dental checkup every six months,” says his brother Lorin, a 35-year-old corporate chef in Las Vegas who cheerfully recalls growing up the black sheep to Ehren’s golden boy.

“If we were invaded tomorrow,” says Watada, “I’d pick up a rifle and I would protect Americans!”

The brothers grew up in Hawaii with their parents Carolyn Ho, a thoughtful, soft-spoken -Chinese-American high-school guidance counselor; and Robert Watada, a wiry and energetic Japanese-American public servant. They vacationed at Civil War battlegrounds instead of Disneyland, viewing hours of PBS footage at the -local library in preparation. “He was only in about fourth grade,” remembers Carolyn. “But he would ask questions afterward that showed he was just deeply affected by what we’d seen.”

Watada distinguished himself early on as a leader, winning competitive placements as a grade-schooler at a national space camp—for 
a time he wanted to be an astronaut—and a world-peace camp in Fukuoka, Japan. Later he was an Eagle Scout. Watada himself characterizes his youth as uneventfully carefree, filled with surfing and sports and hanging out with friends. By contrast, his family saw an independent intensity of purpose.

“He’s very stubborn,” his mother says, recalling the preschool placement test he flunked when he decided midway he was finished. Around the same time, Watada went to a local fair with his mom and a friend. In line for an aerial ride over the fairgrounds, Carolyn and the friend got separated, and Ehren clambered onto the ride by himself. “Next day there was this picture of him in the local paper, big smile, all by himself on this ride,” recalled Lorin. “He was never scared of anything.”

He was in high school when his dad was appointed executive director of the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission, which had suffered for years under corrupt leadership. In policing the campaign contributions of political candidates, Robert Watada quickly gained a reputation as dogged in his pursuit of illegal activity and fearless in its prosecution. Under his watch nearly 100 companies were fined and political insiders of both parties went to jail. Last November, for his campaign watchdogging, Watada was awarded an Unsung Hero award from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a conservative think tank.

And Ehren watched it all, cultivating an independence striking in an adolescent. When he discovered a fellow high school student perpetrating an ongoing scam for stealing the lunch money he was charged with collecting, Watada first confronted the kid, and when the theft continued, alerted the principal. The boy was ultimately disciplined, with Watada testifying against him. Says lifelong friend Kenji Matsuda, “He never ran with the group mentality that’s very prevalent in Hawaii.”

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“There are times in life where you see something that’s wrong, and the thought crosses your mind, ‘Should I get involved or not?’ ” Watada now says. “You weigh the variables: what’s to be lost, what’s to be gained. For me, if I see something wrong, I have to get involved. Or I feel extremely guilty about it.”

When Watada was 17 his parents divorced. What followed were awkward transition years, in which he attended five colleges in five states, including a period at Whitworth College in Spokane. In 2003 he graduated magna cum laude in finance from Hawaii Pacific University, a prelude to what many assumed would be a career in business. Instead he shocked his friends and dismayed his parents by signing enlistment papers for the Army in March 2003, the month the United States invaded Iraq.

“This was a couple years after 9/11,” Watada told a reporter for the liberal online magazine Truthout. “Like everybody in America and around the world, I heard what they were saying on television about the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11. I had the idea that my country needed me.” He also knew that the U.S. government’s rationales for invasion were not universally accepted. “But I also believed we should give the president the benefit of the doubt. At that time, I never believed—I could never conceive of—our leader betraying the trust we had in him.”

At the news of his enlistment his mother became so upset, she later felt compelled to call her son back to apologize. His father—himself a Vietnam War resister who had joined the Peace Corps, then hastily enrolled in college to avoid the draft—had had family experience enough with war, having lost Japanese relatives in World War II, and later a brother in Korea. “I just don’t want to lose you,” he told his younger son.

Watada’s first Army posting was Korea, in 2004. There, he developed his closest friendships in the Army and began to distinguish himself as a military leader. “Exemplary,” read one of his evaluations. “Unlimited potential,” read another. In June 2005 his battalion commander wrote of Watada: “Best lieutenant in his battery and one of my top four lieutenants. His current pace of development and quality of performance are remarkable. Likes challenges and moves toward the fight.”

In Korea, Watada rose to a position overseeing 130 soldiers in preparation for upcoming deployment to Iraq; a position his commanding officer defined in terms of the responsibility he and others of his rank now bore their subordinates. “He told Ehren that he had a responsibility to understand the war he’d be leading his men into—the reasons for going to war, the effects of war on his [soldiers], the population he’d be fighting against,” remembers Carolyn. “So when Ehren got back to the States, he got really focused on where he’d be going a year later. He started reading.”

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And the rest was about to become history. Watada’s research—“months and months of it,” his brother recalls—convinced him that the war in Iraq was illegal: entered in defiance of international law, approved by fraudulent means, and waged without heed to proper rules of engagement.

Watada researched the rules governing international warfare. He discovered that failing a military attack on the U.S. or its troops, any war we launch requires the approval of the United Nations Security Council. Approval was never granted—in 2004 Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded the Iraq war was “not in conformity with the UN Charter,” and therefore “illegal”—which, Watada learned, rendered the war out of line not only with the UN Charter, but with the Geneva Conventions and Nuremberg Principles.

Of course the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved the war in 2003. It did so after hearing U.S. intelligence officials testify that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to the terrorists who attacked U.S. targets on September 11, 2001. Watada researched these claims, and couldn’t believe what he was finding. “I read experts on both sides,” he says. “My conclusion was that there was substantially more evidence and more experts who pointed out, long before the invasion, that there were no WMDs.”

Fueled now by his trademark singleness of purpose Watada drilled through Department of Defense and White House documents, previous UN Security Council Resolutions, the Downing Street memo, Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command. His big “aha” came in October 2005, sitting in a field at the Army’s Yakima training facility reading James Bamford’s A Pretext for War. “The book laid out the intentional deception involved in the attempt to make the intelligence fit the policy—to invade Iraq to remove Saddam,” says Watada. “Despite no evidence of weapons of mass destruction, or ties to Al Qaeda, or to 9/11, [the administration] decided to use those reasons because they knew if they did, it would persuade the people to back this war.”

And if this were true, it meant the Congressional approval that was the war’s one claim to lawfulness had been obtained by fraudulent means. “I thought, Wow. There can be no greater betrayal of a country than to trick the people into backing your war,” he says quietly. “It was a slap in the face. It woke me up, made me question what I’d chosen to do with my life.”

The realization launched a bleak time for Watada; a dark and trackless coming-of-age where personal disillusionment and political conscience ripened in tandem. From various quarters he sought advice on how to proceed. His parents, no fans of the warrior’s road, were even warier of the resister’s. “We talked almost daily, about the war, about what a traitor is, about what a coward is,” Robert Watada recalls. “I told him, ‘Just go, just one year. Keep your head low, and then be done with it.’ ”

Never having worn a political label Watada was nevertheless discovering that he couldn’t find his own heart in the red-state rhetoric he says made up most of the political discussion at Fort Lewis. So Watada confided in his broad-minded captain, who assured him of the potential for U.S. forces to do good in Iraq. A sergeant who had been there before contributed his own estimation of things. “Yeah, we passed out some soccer balls,” Watada recalls him saying. “Mostly we laid waste to everything we saw.”

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Watada’s doubts about the war hardened against the backdrop of a nation’s mounting qualms. News reports were serving up daily doses of the abuse trials of Abu Ghraib guards, unlawful detention at Guantánamo, alleged massacre at Haditha. Watada learned that war crimes, perpetrated by an occupying power, defied our own regulations governing land warfare and occupation, as set forth in the Army Field Manual.

When Rosa Parks died in 2005, the eulogies galvanized him. “Here’s a woman who stood up and said enough is enough! I’m not going to take this anymore!” Watada recalls. “I thought, If I don’t say anything because this is my job, then I’m just as guilty. If I don’t stand up, the people perpetrating these crimes will continue to do so. And if Americans don’t stand up against our government—the people around the world will.”

Watada’s captain assured him of the potential for U.S. forces to do good in Iraq.

If the war was illegal, Watada reasoned, then obeying orders to fight in it must constitute an illegal act. “When you’re in the military you don’t follow orders blindly,” Watada explains, invoking the principles arising from the Nuremberg trials and codified into the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which hold that soldiers are under obligation not to follow illegal orders. “You have to make a decision between which orders are lawful and which are unlawful. When you’re on duty, they tell you to mop the floor, you mop the floor. In battle you move where they tell you to move. But if they say, ‘Okay, now untie the prisoners, let them escape, then shoot them’—that’s where you have the responsibility to stop and think about what you’re doing.” If soldiers must disobey illegal orders, Watada reasoned, how much more obligation do they have to refuse illegal wars?

That was what Navy sailor Pablo Paredes argued in a military court last year, after refusing to board ship with his unit to Iraq in 2004. Though he was convicted, demoted, and sentenced to three months’ hard labor, Paredes’s supporters greeted the relatively light censure as victory. Endorsing his legal argument, the judge said, “I believe the government has successfully demonstrated a reasonable belief for every service member to decide that the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were illegal to fight in.”

Robert Watada recalls the day his son told him he had made his decision to refuse orders. “He told me there was this man on the radio who was crying because his son, who had been in Iraq a year, had to go back a second time. And in this interview the man was saying, ‘I wish somebody would do something.’ Ehren told me he felt as though that person were talking to him.”

When he speaks like this, Ehren Watada rings the refrain familiar from both war-is-hell veterans and make-love-not-war peaceniks. One might even be tempted to conclude that this son of the fervent Vietnam resister—a man who still works up a fresh lather over the bombing of Hanoi—may simply be unilaterally antiwar.

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Ask him if that’s true, and at once the youthful earnestness falls off his face. “Certainly not!” Watada says hotly. “If we were invaded tomorrow by…anyone, I’d pick up a rifle and I would protect Americans! Anyone would! I signed up to be a soldier of the people and that’s what I trained to do. But it’s a totally different story when the president claims things that turn out to be lies.”

Watada grows more articulate with anger, revealing the warrior the Army has groomed him to be. “Because if they’re going to lie about why we’re over there, we can only speculate about the real reasons. Regime change? Oil? Control and domination of the Middle East? We don’t know! All we know is that the reasons we were given were not the truth. And lives have been devastated because of it.”

In January, “with deep regret,” Lieutenant Watada submitted his resignation to his battalion commander. Immediately he felt a weight lift off his shoulders. But a resolution was slower in coming. He waited for a response, was offered reassignment to a job in Iraq where he wouldn’t have to carry a weapon—not the point, Watada insisted—and was denied leave by superiors ordering him to stay behind to rethink his decision. He was told that if he failed to show up for his deployment equipment issue, he’d be legally charged with missing troop movement. That’s when he began to look for a lawyer.

He contacted Jeff Paterson, cofounder of the national GI resistance group Courage to Resist. If one were to publicly speak out against the war based on conscience, Watada discreetly inquired, would you be supportive of such a person?

“We actually get a good number of e-mails like that, and usually never hear from them again, because our answer to them is pretty simple,” says Paterson, who at age 22 became the first soldier to publicly refuse deployment to the Gulf War. “We tell them there are many easier ways not to go to Iraq. If you’re simply trying to avoid going, you can go AWOL like the other 8,000 resisters in this war have. If you’re desperate you can go to Canada like dozens of other people have. But staying at your post and publicly speaking out and declaring your refusal? That’s a very hard thing to do.”

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In April, Paterson introduced Watada to Eric Seitz, a Hawaii civil rights attorney who had more than once stood across from Robert Watada in legal proceedings. Seitz had already made a name for himself as a civil rights crusader, but his specialty since the Vietnam War had been war resistance cases. During Vietnam, Seitz was already so well known for his work Jane Fonda cast him as himself in her antiwar documentary, FTA.

Immediately Seitz took up negotiations with Fort Lewis on behalf of his client. The Army had rejected Watada’s January resignation because of procedural mistakes. With Seitz’s help, Watada corrected the errors and reapplied. He was denied again in May—this time because of his unit’s stop-loss designation, the term the military assigns units whose members are required to stay the full duration of the unit’s deployment. That’s when Watada offered to serve out his time in Afghanistan, a war he did not believe was illegal. Denied.

His hands all played, Watada called a press conference on June 7, in a Methodist church near Fort Lewis that had declared itself a sanctuary for war resisters. “It was nerve-racking,” Watada admitted. His 28th birthday the next day, when he reported for business as usual at the base, was worse. A few snide remarks, a few reticent pats on the back, a lot of tension. E-mails poured in, ranging from “Did you forget September 11th?” and “I hope they lock your fucking ass up for a long time” to—from within the Army—“Many people share your position but few people have the moral courage to act on it,” and “Thank you for taking a stand for all of us, Sir.”

Some e-mails came directly from the place the soldiers call the Sandbox. Captain Scott Hulin, Watada’s former Korea colleague who disagrees with the position he’s taking, weighed in from northern Iraq. “As a fellow officer I understand that it is our duty to execute orders given to us from our superior officers,” Captain Hulin wrote in response to questions for this story. “However, our highest oath is to the Constitution of the United States, and this is where we must base the legality of any order given to us. I respect Ehren because he made his decision to stand out against the crowd and not be a silent protestor, solid in his viewpoint with facts to back up his feelings. He has stood up against his orders, alone. How much more courage could he exhibit?”

Plenty, declare Watada’s detractors: He could have obeyed his orders to climb on that bus with the rest of his unit. The bus ride from Fort Lewis on June 22 was the first leg of a journey that ultimately deposited Watada’s unit of the Second Infantry Division of the Third Stryker Brigade in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq known for hillier terrain and cooler temperatures than the rest of the country—a mere 105 to 110 degrees when Watada’s unit arrived. Just over two months into its deployment, the brigade has already sustained the deaths of three of its own: Army Sergeant Gabriel G. DeRoo, killed by small-arms fire in Mosul; and Specialist Kenneth Cross and Private First Class Daniel Dolan, whose armored Stryker vehicle was bombed and fired upon in Baghdad.

“When people say, ‘You are letting your buddies down,’ I want to say that I am still fighting for my men, and I am supporting them,” Watada told Truthout. He maintains that the hardest single thing he’s done so far was parting ways with his unit. “But the conscionable way to support them is not to drop artillery and cause more destruction. It is to oppose this war and help end it so all soldiers can come home.”

Five days after Watada’s unit left for Iraq, Courage to Resist, which is funding Watada’s legal representation, staged a rally on his behalf at the I-5 overpass outside Fort Lewis. A couple dozen of his adversaries stood opposite the peace activists, hurling epithets. “Wea-sel Wata-da! Wea-sel Wata-da!” floated over the roar of the freeway. Watada, restricted to base since his refusal, wasn’t there. About 100 of his supporters were.

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His detractors waved flags and carried signs like “Give War a Chance.” One said that the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda just hadn’t been discovered yet. Still another earnestly reported that she had it on good authority, from someone “very high up in military intelligence,” that Watada only enlisted in the Army to help his father win his election. (His father’s position was appointed.) “Not a lot of people know that, but they will,” she declared, then paused, shifted her weight. “My husband, you know, he was twice in Vietnam. He came back to all those signs: ‘No dogs or soldiers.’ I vowed that would never happen again.”

On the day after the Fourth of July the Army handed down three charges against Ehren Watada. Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman (Article 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice)—a catchall category used to censure behavior the military deems immoral—was one of the charges, leveled in three counts of “disgraceful statements” bringing “dishonor to the Armed Forces.” The charge was based on statements taken from press interviews Watada gave around the time he went public—among them his condemnation of the “wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis,” “the level of deception the Bush administration used to initiate and process this war,” and his horror that “we invaded a country for a lie.”

“He has stood up against his orders, alone,” writes a fellow soldier, now in Iraq. “How much more courage could he exhibit?”

Two counts, taken from the same interviews, comprised the rare charge of contemptuous words against the president of the United States (Article 88 of the UCMJ). “If the president can betray my trust, it’s time for me to evaluate what he’s telling me to do,” Watada said, along with, “I was shocked and…ashamed that Bush had planned to invade Iraq before the 9/11 attacks.”

The Army included in its charges the words, attributed to Watada, “How could I wear this horrible uniform now knowing we invaded a country for a lie?”—a statement later retracted as a misquote by the paper that had run the interview. (Watada had actually said “honorable uniform.”) Still contemptuous speech, the Army held.

“Our argument is that Ehren’s words weren’t contemptuous, disloyal, or disrespectful,” Seitz says. “Saying the administration made fundamental misrepresentations?” Seitz cries. “I don’t think 90 percent of the people in America would disagree with that!”

At Watada’s preliminary hearing on August 17, Seitz, a round, booming man in a pink necktie, stood out in vivid relief against the camo-hued procedural decorum that reigned in the wood-paneled Fort Lewis courtroom. Called an Article 32 Hearing, it’s the procedure for determining if there is sufficient evidence for a court-martial. For Seitz, Watada, and his supporters the day signified considerably more than that: The foreshadowing of a court-martial that could make history.

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The third charge against Watada, the single damning count of missing troop movement, allowed the defense to do what it fervently hopes it will be able to repeat in fuller fashion at the inevitable court-martial: Put the war itself on trial. Nearly three hours of the four-hour hearing were devoted to defense witnesses, who painstakingly laid down the ways the war broke international law, and thus the reasons Watada’s defiance constituted appropriate disobedience. Seitz had lined up heavy hitters: Retired Army Colonel Ann Wright, a career diplomat who resigned in protest the day Bush declared war; former United Nations Undersecretary and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Denis Halliday; and University of Illinois international law professor and rules-of-engagement expert Francis Boyle.

Army prosecutor Captain Daniel Kuecker and investigating officer Lieutenant Colonel Mark Keith peppered the witnesses with queries, pressing hard on the one at the heart of the matter: “Has any bill appeared before Congress saying the war is illegal? Any success in the courts around this -issue?” Though Seitz revealed a German -precedent, the team could not produce the binding U.S. federal court decision it would take to pronounce the Iraq war indisputably illegal.

Without such precedent, Kuecker declared, Watada was simply a loose cannon. “His behavior is dangerous,” he said. “He betrayed his fellow soldiers and desecrated the time-honored traditions the U.S. military was founded on. His behavior is dishonorable.” A week after the hearing Lieutenant Colonel Keith recommended court-martial on all charges. If upheld by a higher military body, the trial could take place as soon as next month.

Watada is keenly aware that almost eight years in military prison could result. But whenever he speaks of the possibility, he doesn’t speak about fear of imprisonment or the pain of a chewed-up youth. It’s as if his own fate has become ancillary to the soldier’s higher purpose. “I’m just fighting for this war to stop,” he now says matter-of-factly from his Olympia apartment. “I would never have done what I did had those in positions above me—the president, Congress, the senior military officers—done the responsible thing, the lawful thing. What I think I’ve done is raise awareness about this war for a lot of people.”

He pauses, opens his wallet, takes out the card he’s carried there since his days in basic training. “This is my Values Card,” he explains. “Every soldier gets one.” On it are printed several words, and in a voice resonant and steady, Lieutenant Ehren Watada reads them off. “Loyalty. Duty. 
Respect. Selfless Service. Honor. Integrity. Personal Courage.”

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