Soldier's duty: Say no to illegal war
By MICHAEL HONEY
Lost in the media frenzy over the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, First Lt. Ehren Watada, of Fort Lewis, opened another front in the conflict over President Bush's war of choice in Iraq. At a news conference in Tacoma a few hours before al-Zarqawi's death, Watada announced his refusal of orders to deploy to Iraq on grounds that the war is illegal as well as immoral.
"An order to take part in an illegal war is illegal in itself," he said. "I felt it was my obligation as a leader to speak out against the willful misconduct at the highest level of the chain of command."
Watada is the first soldier to resist the war based on the Nuremburg Principles pioneered by U.S. prosecutors during Nazi war crimes trials after World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly (and the United States) in 1950.
Those principles hold soldiers, as well as heads of state, liable for "crimes against peace" (planning, preparing, initiating or waging a war of aggression or conspiring to do so), war crimes (violating "the laws or customs" of war) and crimes against humanity. A key phrase reads: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relive him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."
As a 28-year-old from Hawaii and a college graduate, Watada signed up to bear arms for his country in March 2003. He went to officer training school, spent a year in Korea and then came to Fort Lewis last summer. He is not a conscientious objector to war and says he would go to Afghanistan if deployed there to find Osama bin Laden and fight the Taliban. Despite his doubts about the invasion of Iraq, as many did, he gave Bush the benefit of the doubt when he argued that overriding dangers required intervention.
Watada says the Army trains officers to take responsibility for their actions and to understand their missions. When assigned to be a leader of the Stryker Brigade based at Ft. Lewis, he began to study the war and was shocked at what he found. Based on constitutional and international law as well as exposes of atrocities committed against Iraqi civilians, "I concluded that not only is the war in Iraq morally wrong, but it is in fact, illegal." He says Bush committed "a betrayal and deception of the American people," ignored his obligations under international law and has perpetrated disastrous effects on Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers.
"I refuse to be silent any longer," he told reporters in Tacoma. "I refuse to watch families torn apart, while the president tells us to 'stay the course.' I refuse to be party to an illegal and immoral war against people who did nothing to deserve our aggression. I wanted to be there for my fellow troops. But the best way was not to help drop artillery and cause more death and destruction. It is to help oppose this war and end it so that all soldiers can come home."
Not surprising, some condemn Watada as a coward or derelict in his duty as a soldier or even as guilty of sedition and treason and deserving of execution. Despite threats of court martial and prison, Bush's war of choice forced him, as he put it, to "choose the hard right over the easy wrong (and) to have the strength and the courage to do what is right for America."
At a community meeting in a Tacoma church recently, hundreds of people, including military veterans, gave Watada a standing ovation.
Soldiers do not give up their citizenship when they join the military, and their oath of allegiance to the U.S. Constitution binds them to a high standard of conduct. It is true for all of us, within and outside the military: it is time to stand up for the rule of law against a lawless commander in chief.
Michael Honey is a professor of labor and ethnic studies and American history at the University of Washington, Tacoma. For information on Watada's case, see www.thankyoult.org.
* As Stardust points out in the comment, he's one of the first military personnel to do so.