Backstory: Dissent of an officer
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.