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.