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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Refusal to deploy leads to courtmartial

First Lt. Ehren K. Watada

Officer Faces Court-Martial for Refusing to Deploy to Iraq

Published: July 23, 2006

SEATTLE — When First Lt. Ehren K. Watada of the Army shipped out for a tour of duty in South Korea two years ago, he was a promising young officer rated among the best by his superiors. Like many young men after Sept. 11, he had volunteered “out of a desire to protect our country,” he said, even paying $800 for a medical test to prove he qualified despite childhood asthma.

Now Lieutenant Watada, 28, is working behind a desk at Fort Lewis just south of Seattle, one of only a handful of Army officers who have refused to serve in Iraq, an Army spokesman said, and apparently the first facing the prospect of a court-martial for doing so.

“I was still willing to go until I started reading,” Lieutenant Watada said in an interview one recent evening.

A long and deliberate buildup led to Lieutenant Watada’s decision to refuse deployment to Iraq. He reached out to antiwar groups, and they, in turn, embraced his cause, raising money for his legal defense, selling posters and T-shirts, and circulating a petition on his behalf.

Critics say the lieutenant’s move is an orchestrated act of defiance that will cause chaos in the military if repeated by others. But Lieutenant Watada said he arrived at his decision after much soul-searching and research.

On Jan. 25, “with deep regret,” he delivered a passionate two-page letter to his brigade commander, Col. Stephen J. Townsend, asking to resign his commission. “Simply put, I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership,” Lieutenant Watada wrote.

At 2:30 a.m. on June 22, when the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division set off for Iraq, Lieutenant Watada was not on the plane. He has since been charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with one count of missing movement, for not deploying, two counts of contempt toward officials and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Lieutenant Watada’s about-face came as a shock to his parents, his fellow soldiers and his superiors. In retrospect, though, there may have been one ominous note in the praise heaped on him in his various military fitness reports: he was cited as having an “insatiable appetite for knowledge.”

Lieutenant Watada said that when he reported to Fort Lewis in June 2005, in preparation for deployment to Iraq, he was beginning to have doubts. “I was still prepared to go, still willing to go to Iraq,” he said. “I thought it was my responsibility to learn about the present situation. At that time, I never conceived our government would deceive the Army or deceive the people.”

He was not asking for leave as a conscientious objector, Lieutenant Watada said, a status assigned to those who oppose all military service because of moral objections to war. It was only the Iraq war that he said he opposed.

Military historians say it is rare in the era of the all-voluntary Army for officers to do what Lieutenant Watada has done.

“Certainly it’s far from unusual in the annals of war for this to happen,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in military affairs at the Brookings Institution. “But it is pretty obscure since the draft ended.”

Mr. O’Hanlon said that if other officers followed suit, it would be nearly impossible to run the military. “The idea that any individual officer can decide which war to fight doesn’t really pass the common-sense test,” he said.

People were quick to defend him, but this has bothered me for one reason. An officer is responsible for the lives of other people. When he enlisted, when he took that oath, he knew that. Now, it's easy to say that he's resisting the evil Bush war machine, but what about that unit he was supposed to lead? What about those men who could have used his leadership.

It is clearly a moral thing to do. But Watada doesn't fall into any neat catagory. He didn't go AWOL, but he's never served in Iraq either. Most of the military opponents to the Iraq War actually served there, like Paul Hackett. Watada is not basing his opposition on personal experience.

I doubt the Army wants to jail him for seven years, because then he becomes a martyr. But I just wonder when the obligation to himself overrides the obligation to the men he was supposed to lead.

Now, to some people, that doesn't matter. But I think it should. He made a choice to place his concerns over that of his duty. Which may be the moral thing to do, but it is not a simple or easy decision.

posted by Steve @ 10:13:00 AM

10:13:00 AM

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