Criminalizing the war

By ELI SANDERS  |  August 30, 2006

As his lawyer noted, Watada repeatedly looked for ways out of this confrontation with the military. When he realized he could not allow himself to deploy to Iraq, Watada asked to be sent to Afghanistan, a war he supports because it has a clear connection to an enemy that attacked the US. The request was denied. Watada then asked to resign. That request, too, was denied. After refusing to deploy and having the book thrown at him by Army prosecutors, Watada suggested a compromise: a less-than-honorable discharge and some non-prison form of punishment. The military wasn’t interested. All of this suggests to Seitz that the military wants this confrontation with his client — wants to make an example of Watada.

“That’s fine with us,” Seitz said before heading into the hearing, which he promptly used as an opportunity to put the Iraq war on trial. Afterward, explaining his strategy, he said: “We really want the military to know what’s coming.”

“Like millions of Americans,” Watada says in a recent Web video, “I believed the administration when they guaranteed that Saddam [Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction and had the willingness to use them against his neighbors and also the US. And I believed the administration when they said that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda and 9/11.” He is wearing a plain gray sweatshirt as he says this, staring into the camera with serious, unblinking eyes.

“Since then,” he continues, “I have found those premises to be false.”

It is Watada’s genuine and compelling dismay that makes him such a good spokesman for the anti-war movement. His resistance to the typical attacks from war supporters helps, too. Watada’s patriotic motivations, and the good reviews he received from his commanders until this year, make it impossible to suggest he is a coward in military clothing — to “Swift Boat” him, as was done with Vietnam veteran John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election — and his succinct eloquence makes it hard to call him crazy or unhinged, as was done with Cindy Sheehan. His desire to defend the US against foreign threats also makes it impossible to tarnish him as a “cut and run” coward — or, worse still, a wimpy liberal.

Instead of talking about whether the Iraq war was wise, or whether it has been well executed, Watada talks about whether it was ever legal to begin with. He clearly wants to engage in a new critical discussion about the war, but also, he has to. He faces up to seven years in military prison unless he can convince the military justice system that his commanders were issuing an illegal order when they told him to deploy to Iraq — an order that, by virtue of its illegality, he had an obligation to refuse.

Lessons of Nuremberg
A military hearing is a strange thing. For starters, everyone involved wears the same fatigues and boots — the defendant, the prosecutors, and even the investigator, who plays a judge-like role. The on-base setting and the sameness of the attire all serve to create a sense of unreality, a sense that everyone is just acting and for the most part playing roles to which they are unaccustomed. In the case of the investigator, Keith, this was in large part true. As he told the hearing audience at the outset, he is not a lawyer and has never before served as a military investigator.

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