FIGHTING WORDS: If Watada had deployed to Iraq “under the circumstances of this war,” argued lead witness and international-law expert Francis Boyle, “he would have been facilitating a Nuremberg crime against peace.”
Lieutenant Ehren Watada seems to know his chances are slim. He is trying to convince the US Army that the war in Iraq is illegal, a task that would be challenging for anyone, and is even more so for Watada, a 28-year-old officer who has refused to deploy to Iraq. “He is willing to accept some form of punishment,” Watada’s lawyer, Eric A. Seitz, told military officials at a packed hearing at Fort Lewis army base, near Tacoma, Washington, on August 17, tacitly acknowledging his client’s difficult position.
After deliberately missing the deployment of his Iraq-bound Stryker brigade on June 22, Watada was charged with multiple violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice — one count of missing movement, two counts of contempt toward officials, and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. It was a contentious ending to a military career that began with the stuff of Army recruiters’ dreams: a patriotic young man who simply wanted to defend his country against terrorists.
By his own account, Watada, a native of Hawaii, joined the military in 2003 at the age of 25 because he felt the United States was in danger. This was two years after the Twin Towers had been leveled by terrorists flying hijacked airliners, a year after the terrorist bombings in Bali, and during the run of constant terror alerts and heated rhetoric that marked the build-up to the Iraq war.
“I had the idea that my country needed me,” Watada recently told an interviewer for the liberal Web site TruthOut.org.
His first rotation took him to South Korea, where he received stellar reviews from his superiors, but while he was racking up accolades he was also developing a different view of the Iraq war, reading books and articles that led him to conclude that the US attack on Iraq was “manifestly illegal.” That transformation led to his refusal to deploy, and to his current confrontation with the military justice system.
The August 17 hearing at Fort Lewis was intended simply to allow the Army’s investigating officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Keith, an opportunity to hear arguments from both sides before deciding whether to recommend a court-martial for Watada. In the language of civilian courts, it was a hearing about whether to have a trial. But what transpired suggested that if Watada is ultimately court-martialed, as seems likely, the military will be dealing with more than just a few violations of its code. In prosecuting Watada, it will also have to defend the legality of a war that is increasingly seen as a mistake (if not worse), and as a result is steadily losing its public support.