Officer's Refusal of Iraq
Deployment Divides the Japanese American Community
By Charles Burress, 17 September 2006
A U.S. Army officer's refusal to go to Iraq has touched
off an intense, at times furious debate among Japanese Americans,
reopening an unhealed wound that dates back to World War II
Many news articles, op-ed pieces and emotional letters to the editor in
the Japanese-American press have featured the case of 1st Lt. Ehren
Watada, a Japanese American native of Honolulu stationed at Fort Lewis in
Washington state. Army officials say he's the first commissioned officer
to refuse orders to deploy to Iraq, on the principle established by the
Nuremberg war-crimes trial that he is obliged to disobey illegal or
28-year-old Watada is expected to be court-martialed and faces a possible
seven years in prison, not just because of his refusal to deploy on June
22 but also because of public comments accusing the Bush administration of
lying to Congress and the American people about the justifications for the
invasion of Iraq. His statements, according to the Army charges against
him, make him guilty of "contempt toward officials" and "conduct
unbecoming an officer and a gentleman," each of which are crimes under the
Uniform Code of Military Justice.
case, which could put the war's legality on trial in a military courtroom,
has garnered a moderate amount of mainstream media coverage, as well as an
amicus court filing from the American Civil Liberties Union, which
supports his free-speech rights. It also drew three well-known and
distinguished critics of the war who testified on his behalf at a
preliminary hearing at Fort Lewis on Aug. 17: Denis Halliday, former UN
Assistant Secretary General in charge of humanitarian relief in Iraq in
the late '90s; retired Army Col.
Mary Ann Wright, who began a second career at the State Department and was
the number two official at the U.S. embassy in Mongolia in March 2003 when
she abruptly resigned in protest of the Iraq invasion, making her the
highest ranking among the three diplomats who quit in protest that month;
and Francis Boyle, an expert in international law at the University of
Illinois College of Law and a specialist on military law and civil
Yet, the most intense emotional heat generated by the case has centered
among Japanese Americans. Some see Watada as tarnishing the legendary
proof of their patriotism -- the sacrifice of Japanese Americans who
fought and died in large numbers for the United States in World War II,
even as many of their families were forced out of their homes, deprived of
their property and relocated by the U.S. government to internment camps.
The heroism of these Nisei, or second-generation, Japanese-American
soldiers is a famous chapter in the annals of the U.S. military.
"Rarely has a nation been so well-served by a people it has so
ill-treated," President Clinton said in June 2000 as he awarded the
nation's highest military tribute, the Medal of Honor, to 20
Japanese-American veterans of World War II, including a U.S. Senator from
Watada's home state, Daniel Inouye, who lost an arm in the fighting. "For
their numbers and length of service, the Japanese Americans of the 442nd
Regimental Combat Team, including the 100th Infantry Battalion, became the
most decorated unit in American military history."
More than 33,000 Japanese Americans served in the war, including those in
the Military Intelligence Service, Women's Army Corps, Army Nurse Corps
and other support roles, according to a history compiled by the National
Japanese American Memorial Foundation.
surprisingly, Watada's stance has been condemned by many, though by no
means all, Japanese-American veterans and their organizations.
is bringing shame to the JAs (Japanese Americans)," Bob Wada, charter
president of the Japanese American Korean War Veterans, told the Pacific
Citizen, newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League. "The guys
that were killed in action ... they must be turning over in their graves
that a JA is refusing to go to war."
Fred Oshima, a columnist for the San Francisco-based Nichi Bei Times,
denounced "Watada's selfish military antics." He quoted with approval the
statement issued by Henry Wadahara, former commander of the California
division of the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars): "Refusing a deployment is
a dishonor and a slap in the face to all who have served so bravely. Our
105,000 members stand behind me in saying we are not supporting Watada's
decision to disobey a lawful order. Ehren Watada has violated the oath he
took as an officer in the United States Army. He's betrayed the men and
women who are putting their lives on the line every day out there working
to make the lives of the Iraq people better."
other Japanese Americans have joined anti-war activists and demonstrations
supporting Watada. Some place him in the tradition of Martin Luther King
Jr. and Rosa Parks, hailing him as a hero willing to sacrifice his own
future to resist an unjust war.
"Regardless of dove or hawk, we all now know that the American people, and
our ally countries, were deliberately lied to about why we needed to go to
Iraq," wrote Sharon Maeda of Seattle to the Pacific Citizen. "And now,
over 2,500 of our young men and women have died. What is most sad is to
learn that he's one of -- if not THE first --officer to have the guts to
stand up and do what is right, despite the consequences to himself. THAT
is true American patriotism."
Among those who lent support in a series of rallies and appearances in the
San Francisco Bay Area in late August were San Francisco's elected Public
Defender, Jeff Adachi; the executive director of San Francisco's Japanese
Cultural and Community Center, Paul Osaki; and award-winning filmmaker
Steven Okazaki. His family has rallied around him, with his father, Bob
Watada, the recently retired executive director of Hawaii's election
watchdog agency, the Campaign Spending Commission, making dozens of
appearances on the West Coast and in Hawaii. And a web page,
http://www.thankyoult.org, has been set up to funnel information and aid.
ad hoc group of Sacramento-area supporters, who call themselves Asian
Pacific Islanders for Peace, issued a statement that endorsed Watada's
position and also displayed a special sensitivity shared by many Japanese
Americans to the War on Terror's impact on Muslim Americans. "Like
Japanese Americans after imperial Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7,
1941, our Middle Eastern American neighbors have been unjustly blamed for
the actions of others."
the chief reason for Japanese American sensitivity to the Watada case may
lie elsewhere. Among his supporters are those who not only see a big
difference between World War II and the Iraq invasion but also recall a
different, less publicized side to the Japanese American experience in
World War II. Not all Japanese-Americans rushed to prove their loyalty by
joining the military.
few refused to go to the internment camps, including Fred Korematsu, whose
conviction was belatedly and famously overturned by a federal appeals
court in 1984 and who was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the
Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1998 by President Clinton.
even larger group of 12,000 Japanese Americans, a tenth of the internees,
dissented on the so-called loyalty oath," Japanese American Citizens
League member Andy Noguchi told Nichi Bei Times readers in a guest column.
"They answered 'No,' qualified their answers, or refused to respond to
this insulting questionnaire. In 1943, they became known as the disloyal
'No-No Boys,' and the Tule Lake Segregation Center became their home for
the duration." The two questions were whether they would serve in combat
for the U.S. military and whether they would swear allegiance to the
United States while renouncing allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any
other foreign power.
In addition to American citizens of Japanese descent, a large percentage
of internees had been born in Japan. Having been barred in that era from
becoming U.S. citizens, many of them declined to answer yes because they
didn't want to become stateless by renouncing their Japanese allegiance.
third category of protesters consisted of more than 300 Nisei draft
resisters, who refused to obey their draft orders while their families
were held in internment camps. Most of them were sent to federal prison
for an average term of three years.
bitter split between the protestors and those who fought for the U.S. is
mirrored today in the Watada dispute, said Noguchi, civil rights co-chair
for the JACL's Florin chapter near Sacramento.
lot of the people who took part in that protest and answered no to the
loyalty oath have been labeled as trouble-makers and disloyal for
decades," Noguchi said in an interview. "A lot of people were ostracized
at that time. Many kept it secret from their children and grandchildren."
"It's been very difficult," he continued. "It's torn apart families.
Communities have been divided. Even to this day, some people on opposite
sides of that fence won't talk to each other."
Central to the dispute is the JACL, which calls itself "the nation's
oldest Asian American civil and human rights organization." It played a
leading role in supporting and cooperating with the government in the
relocation and in condemning protesters. Differences of opinion over what
exactly it did and what it should have done have persisted for many years,
as illustrated by the uproar in 2000 and 2002 when Noguchi helped organize
national JACL efforts to achieve long-delayed reconciliation over the
Nisei draft resisters.
history weighed heavily when the JACL was confronted with the Watada case.
In the end, it refused to take a stand on Watada's refusal to go to Iraq.
It declared in July that his situation "is not, per se, a civil rights
case" and is "beyond the reach of the JACL's authority based on the
organization's mission statement." Said Nichi Bei Times columnist Oshima,
"To take a daring supportive position with this lively issue for Watada
would've been suicidal for JACL." Yet, at the same time, the JACL
statement, which has been prominently featured on its home page, argues at
length against punishing Watada for his opinions. And an interview with
him has been featured at the top of the home page for the Pacific Citizen,
the JACL newspaper (pacificcitizen.org).
while the long shadow of the past can be seen in the battles over Watada
and the war, Nichi Bei Times columnist Chizu Omori sees the dispute as an
indicator of continuing second-class status for Japanese Americans today.
"All of us JAs, according to some, are still expected to be a 'credit to
our race,' and conversely, we bring 'shame' to our community if we behave,
in their eyes, in some unacceptable manner," she wrote. "It strikes me as
evidence that some of us still operate as though we are second class
citizens who have to be on our best behavior at all times...That he
(Watada) happens to be a JA is coincidental and really irrelevant to the
issues at hand. We ought to be arguing over the merits of the war rather
than harp on the shame Watada brings on the JA community."
Watada himself does not frame the issue in terms of his Japanese American
identity. He has cited his duty as an American citizen and U.S. Army
officer. In public statements quoted by the Army at the Aug. 17 hearing,
Watada made clear the principles behind his objections to the war:
moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution and not those who would
issue unlawful orders," he said in a June 7 statement. "...It is my
conclusion as an officer of the Armed Forces that the war in Iraq is not
only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law. Although I have
tried to resign out of protest, I am forced to participate in a war that
is manifestly illegal... My participation would make me party to war
"This is a war not out of self-defense but by choice, for profit and
imperialistic domination," he said in an Aug. 12 speech at a Veterans for
Peace convention in Seattle. "WMD, ties to Al Qaeda, and ties to 9/11
never existed and never will...Our narrowly and questionably elected
officials intentionally manipulated the evidence presented to Congress,
the public, and the world to make the case for war.... 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."
"'I was only following orders' is never an excuse," he said. "The
Nuremberg 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."
Watada had a very different view in March 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq.
A senior at Hawaii Pacific University, he enlisted in the Army that month
in response to President Bush's call to join the war on terrorism and
began active duty after graduating that June.
After serving in Korea, he learned he would be dispatched to Iraq.
realized that to go to war, I needed to educate myself in every way
possible," he told journalist Sarah Olson in an interview for
Truthout.org. "Why were we going to this particular war? ...I began
reading everything I could."
"One of many books I read was James Bamford's Pretext for War. As I read
about the level of deception the Bush administration used to initiate and
process this war, I was shocked. I became ashamed of wearing the uniform.
How can we wear something with such a time-honored tradition, knowing we
waged war based on a misrepresentation and lies? It was a betrayal of the
trust of the American people. And these lies were a betrayal of the trust
of the military and the soldiers.
"The deciding moment for me was in January of 2006. I had watched clips of
military funerals. I saw the photos of these families. The children. The
mothers and the fathers as they sat by the grave, or as they came out of
the funerals. One really hard picture for me was a little boy leaving his
father's funeral. He couldn't face the camera so he is covering his eyes.
I felt like I couldn't watch that anymore. I couldn't be silent any more
and condone something that I felt was deeply wrong."
Watada's offered to resign or to serve in Afghanistan instead but was
When his unit, the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, left Fort
Lewis on June 22, he refused to board the plane. He has been reassigned to
administrative tasks on base while the Army reviews his case and is free
to come and go when off duty.
doubt Watada's sincerity. In his report on the Aug. 17 hearing at Fort
Lewis, the Army's investigating officer, Lt. Col. Mark Keith, wrote, "I do
believe 1LT Watada is sincere in his beliefs. This...should mitigate any
future punishments." However, Keith also concluded that "the defense
argument regarding the war is a political question and therefore
irrelevant." He recommended that Watada face a general court-martial on
Watada's public comments, Keith said Watada's "contempt for the President
serves to break down the good order and discipline of all military
personnel by casting doubt regarding his integrity and leadership
attributes while under the stress of combat operations." In addition,
Keith said Watada's refusal to deploy and "his contempt for the President
while in an official capacity dishonor and/or disgrace him as a U.S. Army
the case against Watada, JACL has commented that the contempt charge "is a
broad and little-used provision of military law which was applied during
the civil war and again during World War I. Its last known application was
in 1965 when an officer protested the war in Vietnam. However, during the
impeachment of Bill Clinton, numerous military officers critical of the
president wrote articles and public letters that expressed insulting
opinions of, and contempt toward, the commander in chief, but none of
these officers was disciplined."
Watada's refusal to deploy, his claim that he has a right and an
obligation under Nuremberg principles to disobey illegal orders presents a
touchy issue for the Army.
"How effective of an Army would we have if we allowed our soldiers --
especially officers -- to refuse to comply with military orders just
because they did not agree?" wrote retired Col. Harry Fukuhara of San Jose
to the Pacific Citizen.
his report, Lt. Col. Keith wrote, "The defense contends every officer is
duty bound to evaluate each order given for legal sufficiency. I agree.
However, due to the complexity of U.S. and International law, I believe it
would be very difficult for Army officers to determine the legality of
combat operations (nor should they attempt to do so) ordered by the
President of the United States of America/Commander in Chief. Individuals
should seek clarification of orders they believe are unclear or improper
and should rely upon official interpretations or approvals of those orders
unless definitively illegal."
Keith's closing term, "unless definitively illegal," suggests the
ambiguity that lingers in the U.S. military over the Nuremberg principle
that America played a leading role in establishing.
This issue is addressed in equivocal terms by the US Army Field Manual No.
27-10 "The Law of Land Warfare." It says, "In considering the question
whether a superior order constitutes a valid defense, the court shall take
into consideration the fact that obedience to lawful military orders is
the duty of every member of the armed forces; that the latter cannot be
expected, in conditions of war discipline, to weigh scrupulously the legal
merits of the orders received; that certain rules of warfare may be
controversial; or that an act otherwise amounting to a war crime may be
done in obedience to orders conceived as a measure of reprisal. At the
same time it must be borne in mind that members of the armed forces are
bound to obey only lawful orders (e. g., UCMJ, Art. 92)."
That telltale last sentence references Article 92 of the Uniform Code of
Military Justice, which says that a member of the armed services who
"violates or fails to obey any lawful general order ... shall be punished
as a court-martial may direct." By inference, a soldier is not obliged to
obey unlawful orders.
Army seems to agree that Watada doesn't have to obey illegal orders, but
it also asserts that he does not have the authority to determine what
orders are unlawful.
Boyle, the University of Illinois expert on international law who
testified for Watada at the Fort Lewis hearing, acknowledged that the
determination of an order's legality is subjective but cited Nuremberg,
saying it is up to the individual soldier to make that determination.
Watada has said he is prepared to accept the consequences of his decision.
the Pacific Citizen interview, conducted by Executive Editor Caroline
Aoyagi-Stom, he said, "I knew joining the Army, whether it was fighting in
a foreign war or now fighting for the rights of soldiers, meant sacrifice.
In combat, you may lose a limb, bodily functions, or your life. Speaking
out against an authoritarian government and refusing to obey their
unlawful orders may mean loss of liberty and other less than pleasant
things. These are both sacrifices and commitments made to the American
people as an American soldier. I gave my life to protect freedom and
democracy -- a sacrifice I am willing to make by doing the right thing.
"In a way I'm already free. Physically they can lock me up, throw away the
key, leave me to rot and contemplate my 'crimes.' For a long time I was in
turmoil. I felt compelled to fulfill the terms of my contract despite what
I knew to be utterly wrong. Only when I realized that I served not men and
institutions but the people of this country, did I believe there was
another answer. That choice was to do what is right and just."
Following standard procedure, the Army is reviewing its investigating
officer's report before deciding the next step. Watada's attorney, Eric
Seitz of Honolulu, put the likelihood of a general court-martial at "100
Burress covers Asia-Pacific and Asian-American affairs for The San
Francisco Chronicle. He wrote this article for Japan Focus.