An Iraq war all his own

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Times Staff Writer

THE soldier stands in his living room eyeing all the cool soldier stuff he never got to use in a real fight. Like the helmet with not a single ding and the sleek body armor with not a scuff. The gear piles high on the carpet.

First Lt. Ehren Watada is giving it all back and, out of courtesy, packing it up. The Army had treated him with the utmost respect until the moment it decided to court-martial him. It was nothing personal. The Army does what it has to do.

Just as Watada himself did what he felt he had to do seven months ago when he became the first -- and only -- commissioned officer in the United States to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq.


His conscience, he said, had overtaken him. He told the world what he had privately told his superiors months earlier: that he believed the war was illegal and immoral, and he would play no role in it.

Watada tried to resign; the Army respectfully denied him. He said he was willing to fight in Afghanistan; the Army refused him again -- a soldier can’t pick and choose where he fights. As his unit shipped off to Iraq, Watada stayed to face the consequences.

Thousands of GIs have gone AWOL or voiced opposition to the Iraq war, but when an officer says he won’t go, the whole military machine must take note. It means dissent has crept up the chain of command, potentially undermining the war effort.

The Army felt compelled to respond forcefully, charging Watada, 28, with one count of failure to deploy and four (later reduced to two) counts of “conduct unbecoming” for making public statements against the war and against the Bush administration. His court-martial begins today at Ft. Lewis, 15 miles north of here.

Watada ponders the prospect of spending four years in military prison, and he muses on his spiral from exemplary military man to reviled antiwar poster boy.

“Life has been ... “ He laughs nervously and shakes his head, searching for words. “A little abnormal.”


His living room, like the rest of the apartment complex, feels boxy and new and unmistakably inexpensive -- made for function rather than form. A balcony looks out at a parking lot crowded with pickups and SUVs.

In the middle of the room he stands in stocking feet, wearing baggy fatigues like pajamas, hands on hips. He’s deciding where to begin the packing. When all the world seemed chaotic, it made sense to organize. Should he start with his barely mussed chemical suit or his spotless all-weather traction-control camouflage boots?

His smooth brown face is boyish and devoted, like a child inspecting his most precious toys. He’s not a small man, but not big either. Certainly not as big as the Rushmore-sized symbol he’s become to the antiwar movement, which hails him as nothing less than an American hero.

But he also bears no sign of the sniveling qualities ascribed him by pro-war groups that have branded him a coward. One syndicated columnist posted Watada’s Army photo on her website with the caption “The face of a deserter.”

With everyone judging him, he wants to make one thing clear. “I’m not afraid to fight,” he says. “I’m not a pacifist. If our country needed defending, I’d be the first one to pick up a rifle. But I won’t be part of a war that I believe is criminal.”

Watada calls himself “an ordinary American” and a patriot who unwittingly found himself in a moral dilemma he could never have imagined when he first put on a uniform 18 years ago. That’s when the story begins, according to his mother, Carolyn Ho, a high school counselor in Honolulu.


It all started because she thought Cub Scout uniforms were cute.

THE uniforms also represented wholesome activity. Ho and her then-husband, Bob Watada, wanted to keep their two young sons out of the malls and out of trouble. Ehren was the thoughtful one; his older brother, Lorin, the rambunctious one.

Ehren thrived on the order and discipline, and the little rewards that marked one’s ascension in the scouting ranks. “He was the sort who studied for every merit badge possible,” Ho says.

Thus Watada’s kinship with the uniformed life was born. He went from Cub to Boy to Eagle Scout, and he had an inkling as early as 15 that he would end up in the armed forces.

As an Eagle Scout, he got the idea of carving out a hiking trail on a hillside abutting a neighborhood park in Honolulu.

Neighbors privately snickered. Sure, kid. Go ahead. Good luck.

Ho says she still beams whenever she drives past the park today and she spots the trail zigzagging up the hill. That’s my son’s work, she thinks. It took many months. She’d never doubt his resolve again.

Ho tells one other story. At Kalani High School, where Watada was a four-sport athlete, he reported a fellow football player who had been stealing money from the cafeteria coffer. “He risked ostracism [as a snitch] in a very small, tight-knit community,” Ho says. “But he’s like that, very principled.”


Ho is calling from a hotel in Indiana. Her ex-husband, Bob, is in a hotel in Washington, D.C. Both parents have spent the last six months speaking at schools and churches across the nation, telling their son’s story and lobbying the government to acquit him.

The parents shudder at the thought of their son behind bars. Invariably, both Ho and Bob Watada entertain fleeting misgivings: Maybe joining Cub Scouts was a mistake. Maybe, Bob Watada says, he should have tried harder to persuade his son to simply go to Iraq and “lie low.”

Lying low is better than prison.

But there’s a counterpart to this parental protectiveness.

Rebecca Davis, head of a Maine-based group called Military Families Voice of Victory, prays every day for her son, Stuart, who is serving in Iraq. Davis has publicly called Watada a traitor. “What he’s done,” she says, “is embolden an enemy who is aiming for my son’s head.”

WATADA, kneeling on the carpet with an arm buried deep in an olive-green duffel, explains his epiphany about the war in Iraq. It was the slo-mo kind, not the brilliant flash of lightning in the night.

The way he tells it, the arc of his realization somewhat followed that of many Americans. That is, he believed at the beginning but grew disillusioned as the justifications for the war proved false and the strategy flawed.

In 2003, after graduating near the top of his class at Hawaii Pacific University, he walked into a recruiting station in Honolulu and hopscotched from Officer Candidate School to his first tour of duty in Korea, where his superiors rated him exemplary.


His battalion commander, whom Watada won’t name so as not to drag him into his predicament, spoke long and often of the paramount importance of preparation.

“He told us, ‘If you don’t know all there is to know about your mission, you’re failing yourself and you’re failing your soldiers,’ ” Watada says, still kneeling. He folds his hands in front of him now and looks vaguely like someone pleading or about to propose. “I took the lesson to heart.”

So when he was reassigned to Ft. Lewis in early 2005 in anticipation of deploying to Iraq, he did his job: He got to know everything there was to know about Iraq. He spent nights online, read books, talked to combat veterans, devoured media reports.

At the end of 2005, he was convinced that the Bush administration had purposefully manipulated intelligence to justify the invasion and that the congressional approval of the war therefore was based on lies.

He said he was so anguished by his conclusion and the knowledge that he would soon be “participating in the madness” that he grew deeply depressed. In December 2005, he sought guidance from a chaplain and a mental-health counselor. Neither helped. He considered filing for conscientious objector status but couldn’t in good conscience, he says, because he does not oppose bearing arms.

“I was in this situation where I knew something was wrong,” he says, still on his knees, “but I was being forced to do it anyway. It felt like I was in an invisible prison of my own making. It’s a terrible place to be.”


Then it occurred to him: He’d rather risk the other kind of prison. It would be difficult but ultimately easier to live with. In January 2006, he submitted a letter of resignation, he was refused, and the process rolled inexorably to where it is today.

The Army could have chosen to accept Watada’s resignation. Courtmartialing him, however, sends a clear message to other officers thinking about defying orders to deploy. During a preliminary hearing in August, Army prosecutor Capt. Dan Kuecker called Watada’s actions “dishonorable” and “disgraceful.”

For his part, Watada doesn’t blame the Army as much as he blames the administration. The Army does what it must to function. Military culture has always presumed that individuals lose certain kinds of freedom when joining the armed forces.

“The idea is when you put on a uniform, you put your personal opinions to the side,” says Kathleen Duignan, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, D.C. A military could not be effective if soldiers had the option to choose which wars to fight and which to forgo.

Duignan says the best-known case that parallels Watada’s occurred in 1965 during the Vietnam War, when 2nd Lt. Henry Howe was caught participating in an antiwar demonstration. The Army court-martialed Howe and sentenced him to two years of hard labor.

Watada’s unit deployed to Iraq last summer. He has been doing administrative work ever since, barred from traveling farther than 250 miles from Ft. Lewis. His life settled into a workaday routine -- going to work, coming home to his little apartment and wondering what the future holds.


Standing up, crossing his arms as if in defiance, he says he believes history will absolve him no matter what happens in court this week.

At the base, there have been no blatant acts of hostility. “But, yes,” Watada says, “you can feel the seething just underneath.”

During what was supposed to be a casual football scrimmage among officers late last year, two majors “accidentally” broke Watada’s nose. One major shoved, the other smacked. Watada for weeks walked around with two black eyes, a crooked beak and a sneaking hunch it was no accident.

But what encourages him is how much quiet support he receives from individual soldiers. The support, he says, isn’t showy. “Nobody wants any part of me officially,” he says, laughing that nervous laugh again. There are the approving nods, the knowing glances, the subtle remarks about hanging in there and keeping the chin up.

“It happens almost every day,” Watada says. And it makes him think that maybe, just maybe, a whole lot of other uniformed souls feel the same way he does and just haven’t figured out a way to say so.