Normally the court marshal of Lt. Ehren Watada is not the sort of thing I reflect upon in my various pop culture writings. But if popular culture is, as Wikipedia defines it, the daily interactions, needs and desires and cultural 'moments' that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream, Ehren Watada’s story is undoubtedly a cultural moment which speaks volumes about where we are as a country, and has created some interesting ‘daily interactions’ for Americans, or at least for me.
In some respects, Watada’s story is nothing new. With every war there come people in opposition, and soldiers who decline to fight. As Americans, our hazy collective memory is filled with residue from Vietnam: draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, running to Canada and amnesty. But just as Ford’s pardon of Nixon didn’t salve the anger over Watergate in our national conscience, Ford’s amnesty for draft dodgers didn’t erase the anger on either side of the Vietnam issue.
Vietnam remains an unhealed scar on the American body. There is an enduring image of a culture unable to separate disapproval of the war from the soldiers sent to fight it. The image of a draft dodger being praised while a veteran is jeered is a boogieman in the American memory. Even if it never happened, we still smart somehow at the embarrassment. Just the shame of the whole darn thing. We lost. We treated returning vets poorly.
Our unofficial "Heroes of the World" prize, earned in the trenches of World War II became tarnished with napalm and images of death. Society divided itself into those that felt the patriotic response was to question our government and military, and those that felt that questioning was the very antithesis of patriotism, a division which only seems to have increased over time. Although the war had been over nearly 30 years, in 2004 a decorated and honored Vietnam vet was hounded and pilloried into losing a Presidential race, not because he refused to serve, but because at the end of his service, he publicly criticized the war. It is no wonder Americans flounder with conflicted feelings about Iraq. We still haven’t resolved our issues over Vietnam.
I had two experiences relating to the Watada trail within 24 hours of each other which have led me to this rumination about our country’s struggle over what it means to be a patriot. It happens that just this week, I’ve been serving on jury duty. Despite assurances from many that I’d spend a week watching bad movies and doing crossword puzzles, on my first day I was assigned to a preliminary jury pool, passed the voir dire stage and was empanelled on a jury.
Waiting in the jury room to be called for opening arguments, the group made small talk and brief introductions. One woman said that she has five children, four of whom are serving in Iraq. The fifth one is still in high school. If she weren’t serving on jury duty, she said, she’d be down at that trail of that…that….traitor. A few, though not remotely all, other voices chimed in…terrible…awful…treason…coward.
I knew I had problems with what they were saying, but I had no idea how to articulate it. The best I could come up with, in my mind, was something about how lucky were all are to live in a society where we can speak our opinions without fear of death. Unfortunately, my eloquent sentiments were also mixed with some decidedly uncharitable thoughts. I mean, there’s no draft Mrs. Ryan. Under present circumstances, to have one child in the military may be considered a source of pride, but four seems like carelessness.
The next day I saw a local midday news report on the trial and the growing circus around it. There were interviews with Sean Penn, who came to town to show his support. Tacoma isn’t really used to celebrity visitation, and this was undoubtedly more exciting then the time Carrot Top was spotted working out at the local Y. Regardless of how one leans politically you do learn things when you spend 10 years living next to an Army base which is probably why, when I saw Mr. Penn, all I could think was, well shit. That’s not going to help Watada’s case one bit.
I quickly forgot Mr. Penn when the reporter switched to interviewing the other side: the people who were there to protest Watada, not the war. One of them said with great glee that he was looking forward to the end of the week when “that weasel” would be “put away for life”.
I couldn’t get that word out of my head. Weasel. It’s such an ugly word, and it was delivered with such relish. I understand someone saying “I don’t approve of what he’s doing.” I get the argument that when you enlist in the military, you are forfeiting the right to debate orders or politics. You are no longer a political animal but a tool. I might not agree, but I get it.
But calling someone a “weasel”, or even a traitor, isn’t an attempt at political discussion. To be honest, neither is standing there waving a sign that the Iraq war sucks. The people who are loudly supporting Watada because all war is bad, man, are just as guilty of overlooking the true meaning of Watada’s action.
Maybe all of this would have just swirled around in my head for a while until I forgot it. But something else happened this week which suddenly clicked the whole Watada case into sharper focus for me. This week the trail date was set for the only officer charged with crimes in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. So far nine soldiers have been convicted and they all have been enlisted personnel, not commissioned officers.
I don’t think that any American, regardless of where they stand politically, believes that the actions at Abu Ghraib were the result of some high spirited high jinx of bored Privates while all the commanding officers were in meetings. Armies don’t run from the bottom up. Top down is what it’s all about. Top down is why the Watada case is getting so much attention. It’s not just that he didn’t want to go, it’s that he’s an officer who didn’t want to go.
Truth is, we know that the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib was a top down affair because our leaders, our Commander in Chief, promised us that torture would happen. From the minute we marched into Iraq, the Attorney General and Pentagon lawyers started murmuring about “enemy combatants”. The Geneva Conventions, the Gold Standard by which a country's behavior in wartime is judged, were suddenly being dismissed like a frivolous, annoying Kyoto Treaty. But strangely now that evidence they fulfilled their promise has come to light, suddenly it seems none but the lowly are responsible.
Repeatedly in the Watada case the issue of morale has been brought up, how damaging to morale it is to have an officer refuse to carry out their commission. I’m trying to imagine what could be more damaging to morale than the knowledge that your leaders are ready to hang you out to dry for carrying out their orders. If we are going to burden certain members of our society with the responsibility for waging war, for shooting their guns and killing an enemy, the least we can promise them is that we wont jail them for doing what they were told.
Vietnam and now Iraq are wounds that have been inflicted on America by our leaders; people driven by political or personal ideologies which had little in common with what was actually best for our country or the world. Now some of them tell us that our lack of success in Iraq is not because they never set a clear goal or strategy, not because they failed to send enough troops or equipment but it is in fact our fault. We have caused the present situation because we questioned our leaders’ judgment. We asked for explanations. Mothers requested reasons for their children’s deaths. We demanded our leaders to be accountable, to take responsibility for the actions they took, and in return they have tried to guilt trip upon us. It is not their fault things have turned out this way, but ours. The saddest part is when, instead of calling them on their BS, we turn on each other, accusing each other of being weasels and war mongers.
In the long view it is our fault. Unlike the military, democracies do work from the bottom up. We elected these people. We gave them the power. Our guilt stems not from questioning our leaders, but not questioning them enough. I’d like to hope that our future history remembers Ehren Watada, and others like him, as people who questioned, who risked questioning too much, because the cost of not doing so was too high. And next time you hear of a soldier being punished for acts like Abu Ghraib, ask yourself where their commanding officer is. Where all of us might be if enough of those in charge had asked the hard questions before ordering things that cannot be undone.