Long buildup precedes officer's refusal to serve in Iraq


SEATTLE -- When Army 1st Lt. Ehren K. Watada 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 Watada, 28, is working behind a desk at Fort Lewis just south of Seattle, one of 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," Watada said in an interview one recent evening.

A long buildup led to Watada's decision to refuse deployment to Iraq. He reached out to anti-war 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 move is an orchestrated act of defiance that will cause chaos in the military if repeated by others. But 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," Watada wrote.

At 2:30 a.m. June 22, when the 3rd Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division set off for Iraq, 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.

Watada's about-face shocked his parents, fellow soldiers and superiors. He 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, 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 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."

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.

Under the military system, the charges against Watada will be reviewed in an Article 32 hearing, the rough equivalent of a grand jury hearing. If there is a court-martial hearing, it would probably be in the fall; the maximum penalty would be a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and seven years in prison, according to a news release from Fort Lewis.

A spokesman for the Army, Paul Boyce, said that as far as he knew, Watada would be the first Army officer to be court-martialed for refusing to go to Iraq.

Watada conceded that the military could not function if its members decided which war was just. But, as he wrote to Townsend, he owed his allegiance to a "higher power" - the Constitution - based on the values the Army had taught him: "loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage."

"Please allow me to leave the Army with honor and dignity," he concluded.

Watada said he began his self-tutorial about the Iraq war with James Bamford's book A Pretext for War, which argues that the war in Iraq was driven by a small group of neoconservative civilians in the Pentagon and their allies in policy institutes. The book suggests that intelligence was twisted to justify the toppling of Saddam Hussein, with the goal of fundamentally changing the Middle East to the benefit of Israel.

Next was Chain of Command, by Seymour M. Hersh, about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. After that, Watada moved on to other publications on war-related themes, such as the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the so-called Downing Street memo, in which the British chief of intelligence told Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2002 that the Americans saw war in Iraq as "inevitable" and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Watada also talked to soldiers returning to Fort Lewis from Iraq, including a staff sergeant who, according to Watada, said that he and his men probably had committed war crimes.

"When I learned the awful truth that we had been deceived - I was shocked and disgusted," he wrote in the letter to his brigade commander.

There were efforts to work things out, Watada said. The Army offered him a staff job in Iraq that would have kept him out of combat; but combat was not the point, he said.

Watada said he had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, which he regarded as an unambiguous war linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. That request was denied.

In public statements, Army officials warned Watada that he was facing "adverse action" in the days leading up to his refusal to go to Iraq. Charges were filed only after he showed insubordination, they said; his insubordination included giving interviews.

"This was a call of his commander, after he decided that Lieutenant Watada's action required these charges," said Joe Hitt, a Fort Lewis spokesman.

When Watada's mother, Carolyn Ho, learned of his decision, she was caught off guard, she said. Her son, an Eagle Scout who grew up in Hawaii, had always admired the Army.

"I tried to talk him out of it," Ho said. "I just saw his career going down the drain. It took me a while to get through this." Now, she said, "I honor and respect his decision."

Watada had two assignments in South Korea. One was as the executive officer of the headquarters battery, the other as a platoon leader of a unit of multiple-launch rockets. His evaluations were glowing.

"Exemplary," said his executive officer fitness report, which Watada provided to a reporter. "Tremendous potential for positions of increased responsibility. He has the potential to command with distinction. Promote ahead of his peers."

His evaluation as a platoon leader also called him "exemplary" and said he had "unlimited potential."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad