Army Officer Rejects US War in Iraq

By John Kifner and Timothy Egan

New York Times
July 23, 2006

CAPTION: First Lt. Ehren K. Watada joined the Army after Sept. 11 but says he
will not serve in Iraq. “I was still willing to go until I started reading,”
he said.]

SEATTLE -- When First Lt. Ehren K. Watada of the Army shipped out for a tour
of duty in South Korea two years ago, he was a promising young officer rated
among the best by his superiors. Like many young men after Sept. 11, he had
volunteered “out of a desire to protect our country,” he said, even paying
$800 for a medical test to prove he qualified despite childhood asthma.

Now Lieutenant Watada, 28, is working behind a desk at Fort Lewis just south
of Seattle, one of only a handful of Army officers who have refused to serve
in Iraq, an Army spokesman said, and apparently the first facing the prospect
of a court-martial for doing so.

“I was still willing to go until I started reading,” Lieutenant Watada said in
an interview one recent evening.

A long and deliberate buildup led to Lieutenant Watada’s decision to refuse
deployment to Iraq. He reached out to antiwar groups, and they, in turn,
embraced his cause, raising money for his legal defense, selling posters and
T-shirts, and circulating a petition on his behalf.

Critics say the lieutenant’s move is an orchestrated act of defiance that will
cause chaos in the military if repeated by others. But Lieutenant Watada said
he arrived at his decision after much soul-searching and research.

On Jan. 25, “with deep regret,” he delivered a passionate two-page letter to
his brigade commander, Col. Stephen J. Townsend, asking to resign his
commission. “Simply put, I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in
Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has
pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership,” Lieutenant Watada wrote.

At 2:30 a.m. on June 22, when the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry
Division set off for Iraq, Lieutenant Watada was not on the plane. He has
since been charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with one count
of missing movement, for not deploying, two counts of contempt toward
officials and three counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Lieutenant Watada’s about-face came as a shock to his parents, his fellow
soldiers, and his superiors. In retrospect, though, there may have been one
ominous note in the praise heaped on him in his various military fitness
reports: he was cited as having an “insatiable appetite for knowledge.

Lieutenant Watada said that when he reported to Fort Lewis in June 2005, in
preparation for deployment to Iraq, he was beginning to have doubts. “I was
still prepared to go, still willing to go to Iraq,” he said. “I thought it
was my responsibility to learn about the present situation. At that time, I
never conceived our government would deceive the Army or deceive the people.

He was not asking for leave as a conscientious objector, Lieutenant Watada
said, a status assigned to those who oppose all military service because of
moral objections to war. It was only the Iraq war that he said he opposed.

Military historians say it is rare in the era of the all-voluntary Army for
officers to do what Lieutenant Watada has done.

“Certainly it’s far from unusual in the annals of war for this to happen,”
said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in military affairs at the Brookings
Institution. “But it is pretty obscure since the draft ended.

Mr. O’Hanlon said that if other officers followed suit, it would be nearly
impossible to run the military. “The idea that any individual officer can
decide which war to fight doesn’t really pass the common-sense test,” he said.

Lieutenant Watada conceded that the military could not function if individual
members decided which war was just. But, he wrote to Colonel Townsend, he
owed his allegiance to a “higher power” -- the Constitution -- based on the
values the Army had taught him: “loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service,
honor, integrity, and personal courage.

“Please allow me to leave the Army with honor and dignity,” he concluded.

Lieutenant Watada said he began his self-tutorial about the Iraq war with
James Bamford’s book *A Pretext for War*, which argues that the war in Iraq
was driven by a small group of neoconservative civilians in the Pentagon and
their allies in policy institutes. The book suggests that intelligence was
twisted to justify the toppling of Saddam Hussein, with the goal of
fundamentally changing the Middle East to the benefit of Israel.

Next was *Chain of Command*, by Seymour M. Hersh, about the Abu Ghraib prison
scandal. After that, Lieutenant Watada moved on to other publications on
war-related themes, including selections on the treatment of prisoners at
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and the so-called Downing Street memo, in which the
British chief of intelligence told Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2002 that
the Americans saw war in Iraq as “inevitable” and that “the intelligence and
facts were being fixed around the policy.

Lieutenant Watada said he also talked to soldiers returning to Fort Lewis from
Iraq, including a staff sergeant who told him that he and his men had probably
committed war crimes.

“When I learned the awful truth that we had been deceived -- I was shocked and
disgusted,” he wrote in the letter to his brigade commander.

There were efforts to work things out, Lieutenant Watada said. The Army
offered him a staff job in Iraq that would have kept him out of combat; but
combat was not the point, he said.

Lieutenant Watada said he had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, which he
regarded as an unambiguous war linked to the Sept. 11 attacks. The request
was denied.

In public statements, Army officials warned Lieutenant Watada that he was
facing “adverse action” in the days leading up to his decision to refuse to go
to Iraq. Charges were filed only after he showed insubordination, they said;
his insubordination included giving interviews.

“This was a call of his commander, after he decided that Lieutenant Watada’s
action required these charges,” said Joe Hitt, a Fort Lewis spokesman.

When Lieutenant Watada’s mother, Carolyn Ho, learned of his decision, she was
caught off guard, she said. Her son, an Eagle Scout who grew up in Hawaii,
had always admired the Army.

“I tried to talk him out of it,” Ms. Ho said. “I just saw his career going
down the drain. It took me awhile to get through this.

Now, she said, “I honor and respect his decision.

Two officers who served with Lieutenant Watada in South Korea also voiced
support for him in telephone interviews arranged by Lieutenant Watada, though
they made it clear they did not share his views on Iraq.

“He was a good officer, always very professional,” said one of the officers,
Capt. Scott Hulin. “I personally disagree with his opinion and his stance
against the war. But I personally support his stand as a man, to be able to
do what his heart is telling him.

A former roommate of Lieutenant Watada, First Lt. Bernard West, offered
similar remarks.

Lieutenant Watada had two assignments in South Korea. One was as the
executive officer of the headquarters battery, the other as a platoon leader
of a unit of multiple-launch rockets. His evaluations were glowing.

“Exemplary,” said his executive officer fitness report, which Lieutenant
Watada provided to a reporter. “Tremendous potential for positions of
increased responsibility. He has the potential to command with distinction.
Promote ahead of his peers.

His evaluation as a platoon leader also called him “exemplary” and said he had
“unlimited potential.

Under the military system, the charges against Lieutenant Watada will be
reviewed in an Article 32 hearing, the rough equivalent of a grand jury
hearing. If there is a court-martial hearing, it will probably come in the
fall; the maximum penalty would be a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay
and seven years in prison, according to a news release from Fort Lewis.

A spokesman for the Army, Paul Boyce, said that as far as he knew, Lieutenant
Watada would be the first Army officer to be court-martialed for refusing to
go to Iraq.