Dissenting officer is to be court-martialed

Times Staff Writer

The nation’s first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq said he was disappointed by the Army’s decision last week to proceed with a court-martial against him but reiterated that he believed he did the right thing in opposing the war.

As the nation honored its military veterans Saturday, Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada said he believed his refusal to lead his soldiers into what he viewed as an illegal and immoral war was fulfilling his duty to them and the Constitution he pledged to uphold.

“I am at peace with my decision because I feel that from the beginning I made it according to my conscience and my duty as a soldier and officer,” said Watada, who is stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash., about 50 miles south of Seattle. “The reason I’m standing up is that no one else is speaking up for the troops dying every day -- not to mention the 600,000 Iraqis who have died.


“I’m willing to accept the punishment, whatever it may be,” said Watada, whose case has sparked widespread debate over a soldier’s duty to follow orders versus conscience.

In phone interviews Friday and Saturday, Watada also said that recent events had reinforced his belief that many Americans, including a growing number inside the military, shared his sentiments against the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. Those events include the midterm election results giving Democrats control of Congress, the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and a landmark editorial in four affiliated military-focused publications calling for the Pentagon chief’s ouster.

On Thursday, the Army announced, as expected, that it would refer Watada’s case to a general court-martial for refusing to deploy to Iraq.

What observers were closely watching was whether Lt. Gen. James Dubik, Ft. Lewis’ commanding general, would also refer to trial charges involving critical public statements Watada made about the administration’s war efforts.

Watada stated in a June news conference: “The war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law.... The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible moral injustice, but it is a contradiction to the Army’s own law of land warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes.”

The Army contends that that statement and others -- expressing shame over wearing the uniform to conduct a war he said was based on “misrepresentation and lies” -- brought dishonor to the military.


In his decision, Dubik dismissed two of the speech-related charges of “contempt toward officials” but referred to trial four charges of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” The lieutenant could be sentenced to a maximum of six years in prison.

Army officials were not available for comment.

Watada’s attorney, Eric Seitz of Honolulu, said Saturday that he was disappointed that the Army had refused to negotiate on the charges. Seitz argued that Watada’s statements, made off-duty and out of uniform, were permissible exercises of his free-speech rights.

The trial is “going to be a spectacle,” Seitz said. “It’s going to raise a lot of issues that frankly I don’t understand why the Army wants to raise” in an antiwar political climate.

Watada, a Honolulu native who enlisted after the Sept. 11 attacks, said he gradually came to his conclusion that the Iraq war was illegal and immoral after his superiors told him to study up on it last year in preparation to deploy to Iraq in June with his Stryker brigade combat team.

Watada said he concluded that the war violated international and U.S. law because the administration failed to obtain U.N. Security Council authorization for it and secured congressional authorization based on wrong assertions that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was linked to Al Qaeda.

The Nuremberg principles adopted after World War II, he said, require soldiers to disobey illegal orders.


Watada offered to deploy to Afghanistan or resign his commission instead, but the Army refused to allow that. Army spokesman Col. Dan Baggio told The Times in a previous interview that soldiers could not pick and choose their conflicts but must uphold their oath to follow orders.

Although some soldiers have fled the country, gone absent without leave, claimed conscientious-objector status or taken illegal drugs to avoid Iraq service, Watada said, it was never his aim to avoid combat per se.

“I felt I could never do any of that personally because I needed to take a stand and hold people accountable for this illegal and immoral war,” he said. “It all boils down to ‘What is the purpose of a soldier and officer?’ And that is to serve the American people.”