Saturday, June 4, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Ehren Watada


1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada, US Army

In June, 2006, US Army 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada became the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse a combat deployment to Iraq. In August of that same year, Lt. Watada, in a speech to the National Convention of Veterans for Peace in Seattle, Washington, gave these reasons for his principled stand:

The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth – neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.

The Nuremberg Trials showed America and the World that citizenry as well as soldiers have the unrelinquishable obligation to refuse complicity in war crimes perpetrated by their government. Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable as the Soldier in these crimes.

Aside from the reality of indentured servitude, the American Soldier in theory is much nobler. Soldier or officer – when we swear our oath – it is first and foremost to the Constitution and its protectorate, the people. If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols – if they stood up and threw their weapons down – no president could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, "Against all enemies foreign and domestic" – what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice.

For his decision not to deploy to Iraq, Lieutenant Watada was court-martialed in February 2007. When his court-martial ended in a mistrial, in November 2008, the U.S. Department of the Army appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. And on May 7th 2009, in a complete victory for Lieutenant Watada, the Justice Department decided to drop any further attempts to retry the officer for his refusal to deploy to Iraq, and his case was dismissed. Lt. Watada did not spend a single day in jail. In October 2009, Lt. Watada was granted an administrative discharge on "other than honorable conditions." 


Watada's lawyers described him (and I agree with them) as "a hero and a patriot ... [who] took a lonely stand as a matter of conscience, never attempted to spread discord within the ranks, and never sought to evangelize about his ethical convictions. It is our belief," they said, "that history will treat Lt. Watada far more favorably than the United States Army sees fit to regard him now." 

One of the things that complicated Lieutenant Watada's case was that, by the definition that the U.S. military uses, he was not a true conscientious objector because he was not opposed to war. In fact, he joined the US Army after the Iraq war had started, out of (in his words) "a desire to protect our country." He was no pacifist. He joined the Army with the intention of fighting for his country in a war he felt was just. When he discovered the truth about Iraq; he attempted to resign his commission. The Army refused his request. He offered to deploy to Afghanistan instead, believing that the occupation there was a just war. The Army refused. Only then did Lt. Watada make the conscientious decision to refuse deployment to Iraq. 

Here's why Lt. Watada's principled stand is significant: He stood firm in defense of his moral obligation and his legal right to refuse participation in something he knew, absolutely, was wrong. 

One of the most fundamental moral issues we all have to deal with is the limit of our allegiance to authority. Is "I was just following orders" an acceptable excuse for wrong-doing? Can we excuse our actions by claiming that, "if I had not done it; someone else would have"? 

The companies we work for are not responsible for our choices or our actions. Neither is the military or the government. They can't be. We are, each of us, individually, responsible for our own actions.. Accepting personal responsibility and accountability takes courage. Sometimes, it takes a lot of courage. 

The German soldiers who gassed millions of Jews in the holocaust? Just following orders. Just doing what someone else would have done, if they had refused. Of course, refusing meant death. In other words, the job paid well. Did it take more courage to commit murder, or to refuse to commit murder? Whether you do it with a canister of Xyklon B, or with an unmanned aerial drone using a joystick from 7,000 miles away, when you kill a defenseless person, and you justify that action by claiming you're only doing your duty; or you only committed an act that someone else would have done if you did not, you are guilty of despicable cowardice. 

Just following orders. That was the defense of the Nazis at Nuremberg. And, by the way, what they did was 100% legal. They had the full support of the state; and it was their duty as soldiers to do what they were ordered; not to question the morality of those orders or to resist them in any way. They were only doing their patriotic duty as soldiers. 

They hanged 'em anyway. Because no soldier is required to commit acts they know are morally indefensible (Nuremberg Principle IV). Just like you and I were not required to support the wrong-doing of those who tortured helpless prisoners. We were morally obligated to express outrage. 

Patriotism is the ultimate defense of a coward for the commission of evil deeds. All fundamental moral issues are individual, not decided by the government or the military. 

"Just following orders." "My country, right or wrong." Those are the words Lieutenant Watada refused to say. Because he is no coward. 

War is when the government tells you who the bad guy is. Revolution is when you decide that for yourself.