Backstory: Dissent of an officer
BELLEVUE, WASH. — Carolyn Ho was at her apartment that overlooks Kaneohe Bay on the windward side of Oahu, on another enviable evening of silk-shirt temperatures, when the phone rang. It was New Year's Day 2006. Her son, Ehren, was calling from Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, Wash., where he was stationed as an artillery officer in the US Army.
She assumed he was calling to wish her a happy New Year. He had something else on his mind. He told her he was opposed to the war in Iraq and was going to refuse to deploy there. "I was surprised and pretty much went ballistic over it," recalls Ms. Ho. "I tried to talk him out of it."
A week later, Ho – with the help of a Kahlil Gibran poem reminding her that we don't really own our children – changed her mind and has supported her son ever since. Proudly. Fiercely.
On Monday she will be doing it again as 1st Lt. Ehren Watada goes on trial in a military court as the nation's first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq.
It's a trial with significance beyond Lieutenant Watada. The case will provide a test of how far officers can go in resisting an order and how much they can criticize their superiors – notably the commander in chief. Over time, Watada came to believe that the Bush administration lied about the reasons for invading Iraq and concluded its actions were "illegal and immoral."
The Pentagon, however, argues that no soldier can pick and choose assignments, something that would undermine a core tenet of the military – the command structure. It also says that when people join the Army, they lose some of the free-speech rights of a civilian.
Thus Watada faces two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, for his suggestion that President Bush "deceived" Americans, and one count of "missing movement." Two other charges were dropped. He could get a maximum sentence of four years in prison.
The trial comes at a time when the antiwar movement is gaining strength, which has added to its symbolic importance. Almost overnight, Watada has become a poster child for critics of the war – a sort of Cindy Sheehan in fatigues. He speaks at public rallies. His father addressed the antiwar protest in Washington D.C. last weekend.
Yet beneath it all lies the story of how a one-time Eagle Scout and model patriot came to be a war resister – one willing to suffer time in prison to prove the "generals, the Congress, and the president" are a "threat to the Constitution."
As a child growing up in Honolulu, Watada remembers "playing war. Who didn't? Who didn't watch 'G.I. Joe'?" His mother recalls "a reflective child. When I would take him to soccer practice he always listened intently to his coach; he wasn't horsing around like the other kids."
Young Watada was a two-sport athlete: soccer and football. He also rose to the top in the local Boy Scouts. "Some of that desire to be in the military came from that," he says – "the dedication to service, loyalty, morality."
In his early 20s, Watada delivered packages during the day while finishing school at night. Then terrorists struck in New York and Washington. "I always wanted to join the military – and, especially after 9/11, a lot of us wanted to do more," he says. "We had this call to duty."
Watada already had a strong military heritage in his family, which is of mixed origin: his mother is Chinese-American, his father Japanese-American. Both grandparents on his mother's side served in the US Army and were stationed in China. Two of his father's brothers enlisted as translators and interrogators in World War II. Another died in Korea, and a fourth later joined the US Marines. "We served when we were asked," Watada says. His father, Robert, took a different path. Ehren Watada says his father saw Vietnam as a "very racist war." So he joined the Peace Corps and went to South America.
When it came time for Watada to enlist, he was diagnosed with asthma and declared physically unfit. He paid $800 to have an outside test done and was accepted into the Army's college-option program. He completed basic training in June 2003, and went to Officer Candidate School in South Carolina. He emerged 14 weeks later as a 2nd lieutenant. "Nothing dissuaded me from wanting to be in the military, not even the war in Iraq," he says. "I believed in the war. I believed in the president. I believed there were weapons of mass destruction."
During a yearlong tour in Korea, he served under a commander who told his junior officers that if they didn't learn everything about their mission, they would be mediocre leaders – and fail those serving under them. The earnest Watada took this to heart in his own way. When he returned to Fort Lewis, he began researching Iraq. The exposé at Abu Ghraib prison fueled his doubts about the war. He read the report of the Iraq Survey Group, a team formed after the 2003 invasion to see if weapons of mass destruction existed. It found they didn't. He studied the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Later, after concluding that Saddam Hussein had no ties to Al Qaeda, as the president had claimed, he became more disillusioned: "And I said, 'Wow – it's not bad intelligence; it's manipulative intelligence.' When you put it all together, I became convinced that what we're doing is illegal and immoral. I went into a short period of deep depression. I was so shocked. I felt betrayed."
In early 2006, after telling his family of his decision not to deploy, Watada went to see his commanding officer. "I was very nervous," he says. He offered to train his replacement. He offered to fight in Afghanistan instead of in Iraq. Both requests were denied. On June 5, 2006, he called a press conference to announce that he would not fight in a war he considered "illegal and immoral." Soon afterward, the Army took a step of its own – launching an investigation that resulted in the convening of a court-martial.
Watada looks trim and athletic, though not large. He has neatly cropped black hair and today is dressed in a gray sweater, blue jeans, and running shoes. He has just addressed a crowd of 60 people at a church here in Bellevue.
As his case has gained notoriety, and his trial neared, he has been speaking out about the war at public rallies and to the media. In a 90-minute interview at the church, he talks matter-of-factly about his possible court-martial and position at the vortex of a national debate.
Not surprisingly, he is both vilified and vaunted. Letters to the editor here have called Watada a coward and a traitor. Many members of his Fort Lewis unit were shocked and angered at his decision. "Soldiers can't just pick and choose which war they would like to fight or where they would like to deploy," says Joseph Piek, a civilian public information officer at the base.
His family has been engulfed in the controversy, too. His mother asked the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) to back her son. One influential group – the storied 442 Infantry, an all-Japanese unit that served in World War II – was adamant: Watada is being unpatriotic. In the end, the JACL voted 7 to 5 to stand by him.
While his mother doesn't want to "dwell" on what might happen at the trial, Watada is prepared for the worst. His older brother, Lorin, has come here to help pack up his apartment.
"To me, it's a worthwhile sacrifice," Watada says over a buffet lunch. "I didn't enter into this cause because I thought I had a great case, especially in the military justice system."
He adds: "And I didn't want the people of the world to look back on America and say, 'Why didn't Americans stand up against this?' "