Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 July 2006

Lieutenant Ehren Watada


If you haven’t seen or heard this name, you will.   Sometimes conscience forces a man to bear the scars of his times.   Lt. Watada is such a man.  

Born and educated in Hawaii, he enlisted in the U. S. Army just after it invaded Iraq.   He served with distinction in Korea for two years, earning such accolades as “exemplary,” “unlimited potential,” and “promote ahead of his peers.”  Transferred Stateside, he began to read about the War in Iraq, its premises and legal justification.   After searching his soul, he concluded that the war is immoral and illegal, and that fighting it would involve him in war crimes.  

As the time for his deployment to Iraq approached, he asked to be sent to Afghanistan instead.   That request was denied.   The Army offered him a noncombatant post in Iraq, but he refused.   For him, combat was not the issue; the war’s legality was.   When his unit left for Iraq, he stayed home.   He is now facing a court martial for disobeying orders to deploy and to stifle his dissent.

In order to know a man, you must know from where he comes.   Hawaii is a unique place, and not just for climate.  

During the World War II, Hawaii’s Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly taken to the Mainland and interned behind barbed wire in the West.   They lost their standing in their communities, their livelihoods, and their property.   At the same time, their sons sought to prove loyalty to the United States by enlisting in the Army.   Many of them ended up in a special unit fighting in Europe, the 442d Regimental Combat Team.  

Today few Americans know of the 442d’s unique heroism.   It suffered over 800 casualties rescuing a Texas unit (the “lost brigade”) pinned down by the Germans.   Had Gen. Patton not held back the 442d because it was non-white, it would have liberated Rome.   By the end of the war, it was (and still is) the most decorated single unit in American military history.   The 442d’s heroes also had another unique experience: they liberated the Nazi death camp at Dachau.  

The men of the 442d saw the worst that lawlessness can do: the Nazi death camps.   Then they came home to find their fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts caged behind barbed wire.   It took over forty years before the lawlessness of the Japanese “internment” was officially recognized and partially compensated.   Records revealed nothing but bald racism to justify it, and a court acknowledged that very point.  

Thus the people of Hawaii, from which Lt. Watada comes, know well what happens when leaders ignore the law.   The Nuremburg Trials, set up after World War II to try Nazi leaders, taught the whole world that same lesson.   They established a vital principle of modern civilization: that “just obeying orders” is no excuse for crimes, even in wartime.   Our own Uniform Code of Military Justice incorporates the same principle.  

So Lt. Watada stands accused of disobeying an order to deploy to Iraq.   His defense is that the order is illegal because the War in Iraq is illegal.   Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, agrees with him.   So do many legal scholars.  

Lt. Watada put his sterling reputation, his career, and his freedom on the line to test the legality of a “pre-emptive” war against a nation that never attacked us and, as it turns out, had no means to do so.   If he loses, he could get seven years in military prison.   He’ll have his day in court, but it remains to be seen whether his defense will get a fair hearing.  

The Army will argue that no soldier can ever decide for himself what war to fight.   But therein lies the paradox: if soldiers can’t decide, who will correct an illegal action by commanders, let alone the Commander in Chief?  The rules of Nuremburg and our military codes demand that, at some level, soliders must decide.   At some point conscience trumps orders.   Where that level lies, and whether the War in Iraq reaches that point, are questions for the court martial and for the ages.  

The questions that Lt. Watada raises are serious and important.   They are neither mere technicalities nor pretexts for cowardice, as his willingness to fight in Afghanistan attests.   Indeed, the questions have historic significance: some day a pre-emptive strike could trigger a nuclear holocaust by accident or miscalculation.  

In a radio talk show discussing his decision, several military callers questioned Lt. Watada’s courage and patriotism.   Courage and patriotism do matter.   Every soldier in Iraq deserves respect for risking life and limb for our nation.   If the war is misguided, immoral or illegal, their top leaders should bear most of the blame.  

But there is also another kind of courage: moral courage.   Very, very few have the strength of character to stand up to the President of the United States and the world’s most awesome military machine and say, “This is wrong.   This is illegal.” Lt. Watada is one of those few.  

At the moment, it does not matter whether he is right or wrong.   What matters is that the question be important and hotly disputed (and not just by him), and that his conscience be his sincere guide.   These facts are self-evident in his case.  

Only history will give us a final answer, and we may not know the answer for decades.   Fred Korematsu, the only one to challenge the illegal Japanese internment in court, lost his first case during the war.   He won vindication more than forty years later.   Sometimes we see right and wrong clearly only long after the danger has past and passions have cooled.  

But whether he is ultimately proved right or wrong, Lt. Watada has done the nation and the world a great service.   He has put himself on the line to challenge what many believe are misguided, dangerous and illegal acts by our own government.   He stood up for the ultimate rule of civilization and democracy: that no person, no nation, no president is above the law.  

In this respect he follows a great tradition.   From the Barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Cara in 1215, to the early Abolitionists who first fought slavery, our history has turned on the rare moral courage of a very few.   Without those few, we would have no democracy, no freedom, and no rule of law.   We would have little worth fighting for.  

It takes nothing from Lt. Watada’s courage or patriotism to say that the men and women who went to Iraq and fought are also heroes.   But it takes nothing from their courage or patriotism to say that he is a hero, too.  

There are two different kinds of courage, and both are essential for the kind of people we are.   Without fighters brave in battle our nation would not exist.   But without brave fighters for the right, our nation would be neither free nor democratic.   Both deserve respect and gratitude.



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21 July 2006

The Lone Star Nation


About two-thirds of Americans think our nation is on the wrong track.   There are many ideas for fixing it, but one hasn’t received much attention.   When a fruit is only partly rotten, you cut away the bad part.   Maybe we could do the same with our country.  

It wouldn’t be hard to figure out what part to cut away.   Just look at regional exports.  

Which state gave us the president who waged our only losing war (so far)?   Which state gave us the president that got us into our current bloody and interminable war, and did so on false pretenses?   Which state gave us a House leader now indicted for campaign finance violations and retired?   Texas’ exports of “human capital” haven’t done much for the rest of us.  

Before World War II, Texas was an asset of sorts.   It kept its cowboy philosophy within its borders and sent the rest of us lots of oil.   Now its oil has run out, and its exports have turned sour.   Today it exports cowboy diplomacy, Biblical literalism (with its cousins creationism and “intelligent design”), scandal and financial collapse (Enron), gerrymandering (DeLay), corruption (more DeLay) and mindless partisanship (still more DeLay, plus Bush and Rove).  

The CEO of a big Texas utility now intends to lead the world in building maximally polluting coal-fired power plants.   He wants to build eleven of them, and he wants to do it fast, before Congress can adopt new regulations to clean the air or reduce global warming.1  Think how much our international environmental reputation would improve if we could attribute this sort of enlightened business philosophy to a foreign country.  

As for the Republican party, it would gain much by expelling its Texas affiliate.   According to Kevin Phillips, the 2004 Republican party platform in Texas: (1) declared the United States “a Christian nation;” (2) bewailed “the myth of the separation of church and state;” and (3) called for abolishing the Department of Energy, the EPA, the IRS, the income, inheritance, gift, capital gains, payroll, and corporate income taxes, and state and local property taxes as well.2   (Apparently there wasn’t much discussion of how to balance the budget.)  Think how many moderates and independents might return to the GOP if it could dismiss Texas' Republicans as foreigners.  

Expelling Texas from the Union would not just reduce our negatives.   It would produce enormous positive effects as well.  

Committed oil men and women would migrate to Texas from all parts of our great nation and assume Texan citizenship.   After a decade or so, their hold on political power in our own country might decrease to the point where we could have a rational debate about national energy policy.   We could begin to think seriously about nuclear power, ethanol, solar and hydrogen before the century is half over.   Some furtive folk, in secret cabals, might even begin to discuss conservation, at least while out of the earshot of Texan spies.  

Then think of foreign policy.   Texas would be an independent, sovereign nation.   We could give it several nukes, one to ward off invasion from Mexico, and the rest for “wild cards.”   Then just let the crazies bluff and bluster.   “Want to wipe out Israel, Ahmadinejad?   You’ll have to deal with Texas.”

Let Kim Jong Il rattle his long-range missiles, trying to convince the rest of the world that he’s crazy enough to put nukes on them and launch them.   We’d just point to Texas and smile.   “We Americans are a peace-loving people, committed to diplomacy,” we’d say, “but we can’t predict what Texas will do."  

And if worse came to worst and someone let a missile fly?   Well, Texas is a big and sparsely populated place.   It’s much better able to withstand a nuclear strike than Israel, Iran, or North Korea, let alone Southern Lebanon or Gaza.  

With Texas as an ally, we would be immune from extortion.   No one would ever be able to intimidate us by sounding crazy.   Our chief task would be giving Texas enough trade incentives to discourage it from becoming a remote province of Saudi Arabia.  

An independent Texas would also help solve our immigration problem.   It would protect a huge part of our border.   It would have to deal with the Rio Grande.   Of course, Texas would handle illegal immigrants in its own inimitable way.   Posters would cry, “Wanted: Dead or Alive!”  The official policy would be “shoot first and ask questions later.”  We might have some difficulty getting Texans to give up their automatic weapons at our own border, but peace of mind about illegal immigration would be worth the trouble.  

The transition to separate, sovereign status for Texas might cause some temporary dislocation.   The state has lots of people of Hispanic descent.   Not all of them might want to stay.   We and Texas could establish a simple test.   Those who favor letting other Hispanics come in after them could come with us.   Those who want to pull up the ladder after them could stay in Texas, where they belong.  

Expelling Texas would improve lives on both sides of the new border.   Texans love extremism.   If confined to their side of the border, their extremism would be a big help in negotiating with crazies worldwide.   Travel agencies would have a field day arranging tours to Texas, and insurance companies in both countries could make millions writing hazard insurance for travelers to Texas.  

As for Texans’ own views on the matter, their self-love is legendary.   If their fundamentalism continues on its current course, they might consider separate sovereignty a Biblical calling, ordained by God.   Then no expulsion would be necessary.   We could divorce by mutual consent.   Viva the Lone Star Nation!


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1.  This bit is not humor.   See Rebecca Smith, "As Emission Restrictions Loom, Texas Utility Bets Big on Coal," Wall St. J. (July 21, 2006).


2.  Ditto.   See Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, 233, 249 (Viking 2006).