Backstory: Dissent of an officer
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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?' "