I write in praise of Ehren Watada, a brave young man who has placed truth, honor and the law above blind obedience to authority. Watada, a 1st lieutenant in the US Army, has refused orders for deployment to Iraq on the grounds that he is bound to uphold the Constitution of the United States and not follow illegal orders. By taking this stand, he is putting the war, its initiators and those in charge of conducting it on trial while putting himself at risk of incarceration.
Watada has taken the position that the war in Iraq is an illegal war of aggression, and that the conduct of the war and occupation has also followed a pattern of illegality directed from above. In a recent speech to the Veterans for Peace National Convention in Seattle, Lt. Watada said, “Today, I speak with you about a radical idea. It is one born from the very concept of the American soldier. The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.”
Lt. Watada’s idea is one that has echoes from Nuremberg. It was at Nuremberg that the victorious allied powers, including the Untied States, held Nazi leaders to account for crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among the principles that derived from the Nuremberg Trials was one that said it is not an adequate defense to such crimes to argue that one was only following orders.
Watada is taking a courageous and principled stand by refusing to follow orders to participate in an illegal war. He is exercising his rights as an American citizen, an officer in the United States Army and a human being with the capacity for thought and reflection. He is making it clear that he did not check his conscience at the door when he joined the military three years ago, and is unwilling to be placed in a situation where he will have no choice but to commit war crimes.
Referring to the crimes of the Iraq War, Lt. Watada stated, “Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity.”
By his courage, Watada challenges our complacency. Certainly it is easier for most Americans to go along with an unjust and illegal war than to challenge it. That is what happened for years during the Vietnam War. That is what is happening now during the Iraq War, almost as if we had learned no meaningful lessons from the Vietnam War. Watada is challenging the code of silence in the military and in our society. He rightly points out that the crimes being committed in Iraq are funded with our tax dollars. “Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice,” he argues, “it makes them as culpable as the soldier in these crimes.”
Lt. Watada is holding up a mirror to American society, one into which we need to take a hard look. Are we a people willing to go docilely along with yet another illegal war? Are we a people who condone torture and the denial of basic human rights and justice in the name of the false idol of fighting terrorism? Are we a people unwilling to recognize our own misdeeds that have led to the deaths and injuries of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis and American soldiers?
Lt. Watada is threatened with a Court Martial for refusing to deploy to Iraq and also for making statements deemed to be contemptuous of the President and other top government officials. One such statement was: “I was shocked and at the same time ashamed that Bush had planned to invade Iraq before the 9/11 attacks. How could I wear this [honorable] uniform now knowing we invaded a country for a lie?”
Ehren Watada makes me proud to be an American, something the political leadership of this country has not done for a very long time. He is a young man with the courage to say that he will not fight in an illegal war. He is willing to risk his freedom in order to awaken others to the immensity of the tragedy we are inflicting on the people of Iraq and upon our own soldiers.
Watada has said, “I am not a hero.” I disagree. He is a hero in a time that cries out for authentic heroes, those who act with integrity, conscience and courage.
It is not Ehren Watada who should be on trial, but the leaders who planned and prosecuted this illegal war. Lt. Watada is giving us a wake-up call, and an opportunity to realign our values with those of our Constitution, the Principles of Nuremberg and the Geneva Conventions. Now is the time to break our silence, and bring to account the leaders who have violated our trust, broken our laws and demeaned America in the eyes of the world.