Saturday night, I was lucky enough to be at the Veterans for
Peace National Convention. For that night, Lt. Ehren Watada
was able to give the following speech, which I've just
received permission to post here. The speech was met with a
powerful, standing ovation from the vets who've been there.
Watada, for those who don't already know, became the first
commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to the
unlawful war and occupation in Iraq. While doing this on
June 22, 2006, Watada said, "As the order to take part in an
illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must refuse
Just as Watada took the stage and
began to speak, over 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the
War filed in behind him. Watada, surprised by this and
obviously taken aback by the symbolic act, turned back to
the audience, took some deep breaths, then gave this speech:
Thank you everyone. Thank you all for your tremendous
support. How honored and delighted I am to be in the
same room with you tonight. I am deeply humbled by
being in the company of such wonderful speakers.
You are all true American
patriots. Although long since out of uniform, you
continue to fight for the very same principles you
once swore to uphold and defend. No one knows the
devastation and suffering of war more than veterans -
which is why we should always be the first to prevent
I wasn't entirely sure what to
say tonight. I thought as a leader in general I should
speak to motivate. Now I know that this isn't the
military and surely there are many out there who
outranked me at one point or another - and yes, I'm
just a Lieutenant.
And yet, I
feel as though we are all citizens of this great country and
what I have to say is not a matter of authority - but from
one citizen to another. We have all seen this war tear apart
our country over the past three years.
seems as though nothing we've done, from vigils to protests
to letters to Congress, have had any effect in persuading
the powers that be. Tonight I will speak to you on my ideas
for a change of strategy. I am here tonight because I took a
leap of faith. My action is not the first and it certainly
will not be the last. Yet, on behalf of those who follow, I
require your help - your sacrifice - and that of countless
other Americans. I may fail. We may fail. But nothing we
have tried has worked so far. It is time for change and the
change starts with all of us.
I stand before you today, not as an
expert - not as one who pretends to have all the answers. I
am simply an American and a servant of the American people.
My humble opinions today are just that. I realize that you
may not agree with everything I have to say. However, I did
not choose to be a leader for popularity. I did it to serve
and make better the soldiers of this country. And I swore to
carry out this charge honorably under the rule of law.
Today, I speak with you about a
radical idea. It is one born from the very concept of the
American soldier (or service member). It became instrumental
in ending the Vietnam War - but it has been long since
forgotten. The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and
unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.
Now it is not an easy task for the
soldier. For he or she must be aware that they are being
used for ill-gain. They must hold themselves responsible for
individual action. They must remember duty to the
Constitution and the people supersedes the ideologies of
their leadership. The soldier must be willing to face
ostracism by their peers, worry over the survival of their
families, and of course the loss of personal freedom. They
must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home
is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the
battlefield. Finally, those wearing the uniform must know
beyond any shadow of a doubt that by refusing immoral and
illegal orders they will be supported by the people not with
mere words but by action.
The American soldier must rise above
the socialization that tells them authority should always be
obeyed without question. Rank should be respected but never
blindly followed. Awareness of the history of atrocities and
destruction committed in the name of America - either
through direct military intervention or by proxy war - is
crucial. They must realize that this is a war not out of
self-defense but by choice, for profit and imperialistic
domination. WMD, ties to Al Qaeda, and ties to 9/11 never
existed and never will. The soldier must know that our
narrowly and questionably elected officials intentionally
manipulated the evidence presented to Congress, the public,
and the world to make the case for war. They must know that
neither Congress nor this administration has the authority
to violate the prohibition against pre-emptive war - an
American law that still stands today. This same
administration uses us for rampant violations of time-tested
laws banning torture and degradation of prisoners of war.
Though the American soldier wants to do right, the
illegitimacy of the occupation itself, the policies of this
administration, and rules of engagement of desperate field
commanders will ultimately force them to be party to war
crimes. They must know some of these facts, if not all, in
order to act.
Mark Twain once remarked, "Each man
must for himself alone decide what is right and what is
wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot
shirk this and be a man. To decide against your conviction
is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to
yourself and to your country …" By this, each and every
American soldier, marine, airman, and sailor is responsible
for their choices and their actions. The freedom to choose
is only one that we can deny ourselves.
The oath we take swears allegiance not
to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed
to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not
relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it
excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to
distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following
orders" is never an excuse.
Nuremburg Trials showed America and the world that citizenry
as well as soldiers have the unrelinquishable obligation to
refuse complicity in war crimes perpetrated by their
government. Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of
detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through
an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the
peace. An occupation violating the very essence of
international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime
against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax
dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through
self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable
as the soldier in these crimes.
The Constitution is no mere document -
neither is it old, out-dated, or irrelevant. It is the
embodiment of all that Americans hold dear: truth, justice,
and equality for all. It is the formula for a government of
the people and by the people. It is a government that is
transparent and accountable to whom they serve. It dictates
a system of checks and balances and separation of powers to
prevent the evil that is tyranny.
As strong as the Constitution is, it
is not foolproof. It does not fully take into account the
frailty of human nature. Profit, greed, and hunger for power
can corrupt individuals as much as they can corrupt
institutions. The founders of the Constitution could not
have imagined how money would infect our political system.
Neither could they believe a standing army would be used for
profit and manifest destiny. Like any common dictatorship,
soldiers would be ordered to commit acts of such heinous
nature as to be deemed most ungentlemanly and unbecoming
that of a free country.
The American soldier is not a
mercenary. He or she does not simply fight wars for payment.
Indeed, the state of the American soldier is worse than that
of a mercenary. For a soldier-for-hire can walk away if they
are disgusted by their employer's actions. Instead,
especially when it comes to war, American soldiers become
indentured servants whether they volunteer out of patriotism
or are drafted through economic desperation. Does it matter
what the soldier believes is morally right? If this is a war
of necessity, why force men and women to fight? When it
comes to a war of ideology, the lines between right and
wrong are blurred. How tragic it is when the term Catch-22
defines the modern American military.
Aside from the reality of indentured
servitude, the American soldier in theory is much nobler.
Soldier or officer, when we swear our oath it is first and
foremost to the Constitution and its protectorate, the
people. If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what
the Constitution extols - if they stood up and threw their
weapons down - no President could ever initiate a war of
choice again. When we say, "… Against all enemies foreign
and domestic," what if elected leaders became the enemy?
Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that
lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being.
Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice.
The military, and especially the Army,
is an institution of fraternity and close-knit camaraderie.
Peer pressure exists to ensure cohesiveness but it stamps
out individualism and individual thought. The idea of
brotherhood is difficult to pull away from if the
alternative is loneliness and isolation. If we want soldiers
to choose the right but difficult path - they must know
beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will be supported by
Americans. To support the troops who resist, you must make
your voices heard. If they see thousands supporting me, they
will know. I have heard your support, as has Suzanne Swift,
and Ricky Clousing - but many others have not. Increasingly,
more soldiers are questioning what they are being asked to
do. Yet, the majority lack awareness to the truth that is
buried beneath the headlines. Many more see no alternative
but to obey. We must show open-minded soldiers a choice and
we must give them courage to act.
Three weeks ago, Sgt. Hernandez from
the 172nd Stryker Brigade was killed, leaving behind a wife
and two children. In an interview, his wife said he
sacrificed his life so that his family could survive. I'm
sure Sgt. Hernandez cherished the camaraderie of his
brothers, but given a choice, I doubt he would put himself
in a position to leave his family husbandless and
fatherless. Yet that's the point, you see. People like Sgt.
Hernandez don't have a choice. The choices are to fight in
Iraq or let your family starve. Many soldiers don't refuse
this war en mass because, like all of us,, they value their
families over their own lives and perhaps their conscience.
Who would willingly spend years in prison for principle and
morality while denying their family sustenance?
I tell this to you because you must
know that to stop this war, for the soldiers to stop
fighting it, they must have the unconditional support of the
people. I have seen this support with my own eyes. For me it
was a leap of faith. For other soldiers, they do not have
that luxury. They must know it and you must show it to them.
Convince them that no matter how long they sit in prison, no
matter how long this country takes to right itself, their
families will have a roof over their heads, food in their
stomachs, opportunities and education. This is a daunting
task. It requires the sacrifice of all of us. Why must
Canadians feed and house our fellow Americans who have
chosen to do the right thing? We should be the ones taking
care of our own. Are we that powerless - are we that
unwilling to risk something for those who can truly end this
war? How do you support the troops but not the war? By
supporting those who can truly stop it; let them know that
resistance to participate in an illegal war is not futile
and not without a future.
I have broken no law but the code of
silence and unquestioning loyalty. If I am guilty of any
crime, it is that I learned too much and cared too deeply
for the meaningless loss of my fellow soldiers and my fellow
human beings. If I am to be punished it should be for
following the rule of law over the immoral orders of one
man. If I am to be punished it should be for not acting
sooner. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "History will have
to record that the greatest tragedy of this period … was not
the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling
silence of the good people."
Now, I'm not a hero. I am a leader of
men who said enough is enough. Those who called for war
prior to the invasion compared diplomacy with Saddam to the
compromises made with Hitler. I say, we compromise now by
allowing a government that uses war as the first option
instead of the last to act with impunity. Many have said
this about the World Trade Towers, "Never Again." I agree.
Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life
to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The
time to fight back is now - the time to stand up and be
counted is today.
I'll end with one more Martin Luther
King Jr. quote:
"One who breaks an unjust law that
conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts
the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the
conscience of the community over its injustice, is in
reality expressing the highest respect for law."
Thank you and bless you all.
The only thing Watada said that
I would disagree with is that he claimed that he is not a
hero. He is a leader, yet again, by taking this stance. And
he may never know how many lives he has already touched.
Today, it is up to the anti-war
movement to make sure his leadership touches as many
soldiers' lives in Iraq as possible. Watada is making his
stand. He needs continued support.
As he said, if more American soldiers
in Iraq know that they, along with their families, will be
supported if they stand up against this illegal occupation,
countless more will follow, and this repulsive war will end.
Dahr Jamail is an independent journalist
who has reported for the Guardian, the Independent, and
the Sunday Herald. He now writes regularly for Inter Press
Service and Truthout.