An interview with Lt. Ehren Watada
By Sarah Olson, 07 June 2006
t r u t h o u t | Interview
Ehren Watada is a 27-year-old first lieutenant in the United States Army. He joined the Army in 2003, during the run-up to the Iraq war, and turned in his resignation to protest that same war in January of 2006. He expects to receive orders in late June. He is poised to become the first lieutenant to refuse to deploy to Iraq, setting the stage for what could be the biggest movement of GI resistance since the Vietnam War. He faces a court-martial, up to two years in prison for missing movement by design, a dishonorable discharge, and other possible charges. He says speaking against an illegal and immoral war is worth all of this and more. Journalist Sarah Olson spoke with Watada in late May about his reasons for joining the military, and why he wants out.
Sarah Olson: When you joined the Army in 2003, what were your goals?
Ehren Watada: 2003 was a couple of years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I had the idea that my country needed me and that I needed to serve my country. I still strongly believe that. I strongly believe in service and duty. That's one of the reasons I joined: because of patriotism.
I took an oath to the US Constitution, and to the values and the principles it represents. It makes us strongly unique. We don't allow tyranny; we believe in accountability and checks and balances, and a government that's by and for the people. The military must safeguard those freedoms and those principles and the democracy that makes us unique. A lot of people, like myself, join the military because they love their country, and they love what it stands for.
SO: You joined the Army during the run-up to the Iraq war, but you had misgivings about the war. How did that happen?
Watada: Like everybody in America and around the world, I heard what they were saying on television about the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the ties to al-Qaeda and 9/11. I also saw the millions of people around the world protesting, and listened to the people resigning from the government in protest. I realized that the war probably wasn't justified until we found proof of these accusations the president and his deputies were making against Iraq.
But I also believed we should give the president the benefit of the doubt. At that time, I never believed ... I could never conceive of our leader betraying the trust we had in him.
SO: What was your experience in the military?
Watada: My first duty assignment was in Korea. It's hard learning to be an officer, and it was hard being stationed overseas. It is a different kind of situation that you're put in. You're not just being told what to do and execute. As an officer, you are constantly leading by example. You have to do the right thing even when you don't necessarily want to. When you go into the field, it's not like a civilian job where you go home at the end of the day, take a shower, relax, and eat a nice meal.
SO: So you got the order to go to Iraq after you returned from Korea. What were your thoughts at the time?
Watada: Back in Korea we trained for a separate mission, but we all knew what was going on in Iraq. Our commanders were telling us to be ready for war and to start training for it.
When I came back I still had doubts about the war and why we were in it. When they told me I was going to deploy, I said OK: I'm going to start training for it, and I'm going to start training the guys under me. And I'm going to do that to the best of my ability.
SO: So what changed?
Watada: I realized that to go to war, I needed to educate myself in every way possible. Why were we going to this particular war? What were the effects of war? What were the consequences for soldiers coming home? 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.
My mind was in turmoil. Do I follow orders and participate in something that I believed to be wrong? When you join the Army you learn to follow orders without question. Soldiers are apolitical, and you don't voice your opinion out loud.
I started asking, why are we dying? Why are we losing limbs? For what? I listened to the president and his deputies say we were fighting for democracy; we were fighting for a better Iraq. I just started to think about those things. Are those things the real reasons why we are there, the real reasons we were dying? But I felt there was nothing to be done, and this administration was just continually violating the law to serve their purpose, and there was nothing to stop them.
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.
SO: You made decision to refuse orders to deploy to Iraq. What happened next?
Watada: I alerted my commander this January, and told him I would refuse the order to go to Iraq. He asked me to think it over. After about a week, I said OK, I've made my decision. I've come to believe this is an illegal and an immoral war, and the order to have us deploy to Iraq is unlawful. I won't follow this order and I won't participate in something I believe is wrong.
My commanders told me that I could go to Iraq in a different capacity. I wouldn't have to fire a weapon and I wouldn't be in harm's way. But that's not what this is about. Even in my resignation letter I said that I would rather go to prison than do something that I felt was deeply wrong. I believe the whole war is illegal. I'm not just against bearing arms or fighting people. I am against an unjustified war.
SO: You've had about six months to think about this. It's a pretty heavy revelation that you're quite possibly facing prison time. How are you feeling now?
Watada: A lot of people including my parents tried to talk me out of it. And I had to tell them, and I had to convince myself first, that it's not about just trying to survive. It's not about just trying to make sure you're safe. When you are looking your children in the eye in the future, or when you are at the end of your life, you want to look back on your life and know that at a very important moment, when I had the opportunity to make the right decisions, I did so, even knowing there were negative consequences.
SO: What is your intellectual and moral opposition to the Iraq war? What is that based on?
Watada: First, the war was based on false pretenses. If the president tells us we are there to destroy Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and there are none, why are we there? Then the president said Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and 9/11. That allegation has been proven to be false too. So why are we going there? The president says we're there to promote democracy, and to liberate the Iraqi people. That isn't happening either.
Second, the Iraq war is not legal according to domestic and international law. It violates the Constitution and the War Powers Act, which limits the president in his role as commander in chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit. The UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, and the Nuremberg principles all bar wars of aggression.
Finally, the occupation itself is illegal. If you look at the Army Field Manual, 27-10, which governs the laws of land warfare, it states certain responsibilities for the occupying power. As the occupying power, we have failed to follow a lot of those regulations. There is no justification for why we are there or what we are doing.
SO: One of the common criticisms of military resisters is that you have abandoned your colleagues, and that you are letting others fight a war in your place. What's you're response to this?
Watada: My commander asked me, if everybody like you refused to go to Iraq, what would that leave us with? And I guess he was trying to say we wouldn't have an army anymore, and that would be bad. But I wanted to tell him if that happened the war would stop, because nobody would be there to fight it.
When people say, you're not being a team player or you are letting your buddies down, I want to say that I am fighting for my men still, and I am supporting them. But the conscionable way to support them is not to drop artillery and cause more destruction. It is to oppose this war and help end it so all soldiers can come home. It is my duty not to follow unlawful orders and not participate in things I find morally reprehensible.
SO: Are your feelings common among people in the military?
Watada: The general sentiment of people within the military is that they're getting a little sick and tired of this war. You can tell with the recent Zogby poll that said more than 70% of people in the military want to withdraw the end of this year. That's a powerful statement from people within the military who aren't really given the chance to speak out publicly.
SO: What do you think the US should do in Iraq now?
Watada: I think the US should pull out all troops immediately. The outbreak of the civil war is something that we caused with our invasion and our war. I don't think it's at a point right now where we can fix it.
SO: You've mentioned your sense of betrayal. Can you explain this?
Watada: The president is the commander in chief, and although he is our leader, there must be a strong relationship of trust. Anybody who's been in the military knows that in order to have a cohesive and effective fighting force, you need to have a certain level of trust between leaders and soldiers. And when you don't, things start to break down.
I signed a contract saying I will follow orders, and do what I'm told to do. There are times when I won't be able to question it and evaluate the legality of these orders, so I have to have the ultimate trust in my leader. I have to trust the president's word, and trust him to do what's right. I have to trust him to sacrifice our lives only for justified and moral reasons. Realizing the president is taking us into a war that he misled us about has broken that bond of trust that we had. If the president can betray my trust, it's time for me to evaluate what he's telling me to do. I've realized that going to this war is the wrong thing to do.
SO: What do you make of the growing anti-war sentiment in the country?
Watada: I don't see it manifest. Soldiers who come back from Iraq say they get the impression many people don't know a war is going on; they say even friends and family seem more involved in popular culture and American Idol. People are not interested in the hundreds of Iraqis and the dozens of Americans dying each week.
SO: How does the plight that faces Iraqi civilians impact your decision not to go?
Watada: Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. He was repressive. He did use torture. But the torture and the killing hasn't stopped since we've been there. It's something I don't think I or anybody else in this country should be a part of.
In war, each side dehumanizes the other. American soldiers dehumanize Iraqis, to the point where Iraqi civilians are nothing to them. And that's how these atrocities occur. You have a lot of young American men and women doing things, killing a lot of innocent civilians without thinking. The Iraqis are probably worse off than they were before we invaded the country.
SO: Now that you've submitted your resignation, what's next for you?
Watada: I submitted a resignation packet, which was disapproved. My commander has asked me again if I am still going to go along with this. And I said yes of course. I still believe the same things that I did six months ago. And he said he couldn't charge me until I violate an order. So I've been given an order to deploy in late June. When I refuse, the chain of command will charge me and court-martial me.
SO: As people learn about your story, are there things you especially want people to hold in their minds and their hearts about what you're doing and why?
Watada: I think that we are all given freedoms and liberties by the Constitution but I think the one God-given freedom and right that we really have is freedom of choice. The moment we tell ourselves that we no longer have that choice is the moment we take that one freedom away. The only freedom we have. And I just want to tell everybody, especially people who doubt the war, that you do have that one freedom. And that's something that they can never take away. Yes. They will imprison you. They'll throw the book at you. They'll try to make an example out of you, but you do have that choice. And that is something that you'll have to live with for the rest of your life.
Sarah Olson is a radio producer and independent journalist based in Oakland, CA.