Home / Ehren Watada, Abu Ghraib and America’s Conscience

Ehren Watada, Abu Ghraib and America’s Conscience

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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.

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About Kati

  • Very well written, thoughtful post Kati! Bravo!

  • Arch Conservative

    “But calling someone a “weasel”, or even a traitor, isn’t an attempt at political discussion.”

    So I’m not allowed to call Adam Gadahn or John Walker Lindh these things?

    Also if you think other nations that publicly condemn torture wouldn’t actually use torture to prevent the deaths of their own civilian citizens at the hands of terrorists you’re a moron. At least we are honest about it.

    What I find disturbing is that there is a certain portion of the American public that is more concerned with Abu Gharib and Gunatanamo than they are with 911 and the possibility of future terrorist attacks which kill Americans on our own soil.

    But I bet people like you and Adam “I hate America” Ash could never bring yourselves to write articles addressing these issues huh Katie?

  • Doug Hunter

    “I am a film and music librarian for a public library system.”

    I think that says it all. Go back to your storybook fantasy world where everyone loves each other and lions lay with lambs. Those soldiers protect the society that allows you to be far removed from the harsh realities of human survival. Our soldiers are the only thing standing between your little taxpayer funded paperwork shuffling job and a literal horde of people who would burn your silly library, throw you into a Burka, and slice your infidel throat.

    If Iraq ends in success it will be a great thing for the middle east and the world, if it ends in failure it will be a disaster for generations. Iraq can be stabilized with a reasonably strong government, but not by the leftist failures in the democratic party. The democrats want America to lose becuase it helps them get more votes.

    Purposefully withholding reinforcements and attempting to lose a war for political gain is vile and disgusting beyond words but it’s a level to which the democratic party is willing to sink. I suppose you don’t need to demonstrate morals or values when your entire system depends on buying people’s votes with public funds. (they’ve done a good job with you)

  • zingzing

    arch: “Also if you think other nations that publicly condemn torture wouldn’t actually use torture to prevent the deaths of their own civilian citizens at the hands of terrorists you’re a moron. At least we are honest about it.”

    being honest about hypocrisy doesn’t make you less of a hypocrite. and i don’t know that “other nations that publicly condemn torture” use it… torture isn’t very humane.

    “What I find disturbing is that there is a certain portion of the American public that is more concerned with Abu Gharib and Gunatanamo than they are with 911 and the possibility of future terrorist attacks which kill Americans on our own soil.”

    maybe because there is a connection between our actions and the actions of terrorists. equal and opposite, all that. maybe by not reducing ourselves to their level, they won’t find any reason to attack us. god knows that if they wanted to, they could hit us, no matter if our army is on the other side of the earth or… wait, wouldn’t it be better to have our military at home anyway?

    “But I bet people like you and Adam “I hate America” Ash could never bring yourselves to write articles addressing these issues huh Katie?”

    you’re too blind to see that they are.

  • Paul

    I thought that the text was pretty good.

    The United States as a democratic nation has lost and will lose a lot of its legitimacy by breaking humanitarian regulations (torture, abduction) that are generally accepted throughout the world. If the people are guilty of a crime, prosecute them — and if their innocent you need to let them go. That’s it.

    What you’re saying, boils down to the same ridiculous Bush argument: either you are for us or your are our against us. And being for us means that anything, any crime or any violoation of rights is justified ? Do you think that the US has become a safer place because of Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib ?


  • moonraven


    I am ASHAMED to be an American–so much so that things happen to my passports (the already beat up one I have now is my third one in less than two years!)

    And one of the reasons why I am ashamed is because there are racist, murder-mongering creeps who actually have the nerve to post on sites like this one that the US is just great because it’s HONEST about its torturing people.

    That perverse statement pretty much says it all.

  • ffakerson

    Whoa there guys. Seems like the people posting have missed the whole point of the article. You guys are attacking each other and talking at each other instead of discussing. The “love it or leave it” argument and “what you say is of no consequence because you are a racist, murder-mongering creep” argument are the real problem here.

    Sometimes wars need to be fought and that means sending soldiers to do things that aren’t nice. They aren’t being sent to Sunday school class. Which makes it important that we as the citizens of a democratic country, constantly monitor our government and make sure we’re doing the right things with our military. The real trick is how do we balance these two equally important things without ripping each others throats out.

    It obvious from the comments about this article, that we haven’t achieved that balance. Please remember, whether you are ASHAMED to be American, or would bleed on the stripes of the flag to keep them red, if you’re a citizen of the United States, then you are ultimately on the same team.

    Start talking to each other that way or else there won’t be much of “United” States left to argue about.

  • Paul


    I didn’t agree on the fact that “sometimes wars need to be fought” …

    And I don’t believe “sometimes” a little torture and abuse is neccessary or -let’s say- adequate.

    And it is indeed a little racist if you tolerate that for some foreigners and of course not for Americans.

    Most important though, how do you “constantly monitor” the US government to make sure their “doing the right thing”? And how successful have you been so far ?

  • Arch Conservative

    [Entire comment deleted]

  • zingzing

    “We torture people who want to do us harm. people whose goal is to kill us [Personal attack deleted]”

    lovely. don’t you see how wrong and dangerous that is?

    “Moonraven lives in Mexico and she called America shithole on another post. if Mexico is so fucking great why are so many Mexicans risking their lives to come here?”

    that doesn’t follow logically.

    [Personal attack deleted]

    “america” isn’t ashamed of anything. i don’t often agree with moonraven, but you certainly aren’t any better at representing what america is all about (i.e.-the free expression of ideas) than she is. in fact, you’re probably worse. at least she doesn’t pretend to love america while totally misunderstanding it.

  • Arch Conservative

    Thanks for reposting my entire comment zing…seems like the thought police are out in full force tonight.

    I misunderstand America while moonraven understands it? You’re kidding right. All her psosts are are tired litanies of insults toward this nation. She has never once uttered anything positive about this nation or it’s citizens. I on the other hand am able to see the imperfections in this nation even though I stick up for it while the resident leftist BC posters do their best to tear it down.

    Is shithole a more accurate description of America or Mexico in your estimation Zing?

    If you knew that torturing islamic terrorists would help the US military to obtain info that would save American lives would oppose it Zing?

    Do you honestly think that no other nations use torture when they have to?

    Do you think everyone who opposed illegal immigration is a racist Zing?

  • Paul

    What ?

    This is just my first day here Arch Conservative but your language is completely inappropriate and actually kind of shocking… You can’t be serious.

    You and your naive patriotism make it impossible to actually discuss something. And obviously you have some personal issues being afraid that everyone wants to harm or kill you.

    The people in the iraqi prisons didn’t want to kill you and i.e. the Guantanamo prisoners now released –locked away for five years (w/room&board)– didn’t want to kill you either. They did nothing.

    And thats your problem: you actually find that okay.

    ( A country cannot be ashamed )


  • Arch Conservative

    “You and your naive patriotism make it impossible to actually discuss something.”

    Yet moonraven’s constant bashing of everything about this nation makes for great rational debate?

  • zingzing

    archie, i never said she understood it. i said, “at least she doesn’t pretend to love america while totally misunderstanding it.” so that is referring to you. she doesn’t claim to be american. you do. i suppose you are, but sometimes you represent all that is wrong with this place.

    “Is shithole a more accurate description of America or Mexico in your estimation Zing?”

    parts of both nations are shitholes. but i never said either was a shithole.

    “If you knew that torturing islamic terrorists would help the US military to obtain info that would save American lives would oppose it Zing?”

    i would hope that there would be a way around it. i would hope that we wouldn’t ever be in a position that torture was necessary. there are legal, humane ways to extract information from someone who doesn’t want to tell.

    “Do you honestly think that no other nations use torture when they have to?”

    no, i don’t. those that do are evil.

    “Do you think everyone who opposed illegal immigration is a racist Zing?”

    nope, but using terms like “wetbacks” and “spics” (jom) or calling for immigrants’ deaths (you) is racist (jom) and inhumane (you).

  • Arch Conservative

    how is calling for ILLEGALS deaths racist?

  • zingzing

    reread, archie. i said it’s “inhumane.”

  • Arch Conservative

    Yeah well how humane is it when ILLEGALS murder American citizens?

    Illegal aliens murder 12 American citizens every day zing? Doesn’t that bother you. Isn’t much more inhumane than my merely advocating vigalante justice?

  • zingzing

    vigilante justice does not include killing someone who did not kill someone else. if you suggested killing those illegal aliens who killed american citizens, that might be somewhat… understandable…

    sure it bothers me that illegal aliens kill american citizens. but i’m sure more american citizens kill american citizens than illegal aliens do. so, what do you propose for them? should we shoot american citizens on sight?

    that immigrant that just crossed the fucking desert in a trunk isn’t hurting you, now are they?

    if that immigrant does one day kill an american citizen, i say they should be arrested and put on trial. what happens to them after that is up to the jury.

  • Martin Lav

    Don’t let the “moonie” get under your skin. She’s obviously trying to incite. I mean she must have no interesting life in Mexico as she trolls and posts all day long here in the good ol USA. If she’s so convinced that this is nothing, but a racist genocidal society then if she had true convictions she would renounce her citizenship and never step foot in the country again. She’s just trying to pull your chain.

    [Personal attack deleted]

  • Baronius

    Kati, well-written article. (I disagree with most all of it.)

    Paul, greetings. You’ll notice that Arch, Moon, and a few others are bullies, but there are still some pretty good conversations to be had around here.

  • It’s interesting to me how many of the postings here, especially from Arch Conservative and Moonraven, exactly prove the problem I try to wrestle with in the article. Note I say “wrestle with”, not “solve”.

    I want to make it clear, I’m not a pie in the sky idealist. I understand that sometimes war is inevitable. It’s a fact of human civilization that occasionally, war is the answer.

    But, I have problems with our country going to war with an under-funded, under supplied military, over trumped up reasons with no long term strategy guided by people who were more concerned with American politics than Middle East strategy.

    If you believe that I’m wrong, that I’m missing some essential facts, then please, by all means, tell me. Explain to me why you believe what you do, but don’t accuse me of hating America, don’t call me names, or make assumptions about me based on my profession.

    It may be easier for someone to read my words and respond that I’m stupidly naive, but the challenge for them is that I am neither. I am open to intelligent conversation from all perspectives. I am capable of changing my mind. I am capable of respecting people whose opinions differ, even vastly, from mine. But not if they choose to open the conversation with insults.

  • Paul


    I’m a bit confused now about what your opinion actually is…

    Did you find THIS war inevitable ? And if yes for what reasons, please ? And how is this war part of any strategy at all ?

    And are your worries more about the “underfunded” ans “undersupplied” soldiers or about the civilian casualties (their numbers dramatically exceed the number of deaths of US soldiers), their torture and mistreatment ?

  • ffakerson

    I don’t want to speak for Kati but it would appear as if this article is not about whether this war is inevitable or whether it’s been executed well–it’s about people in this country being able to have a rational and reasonable debate of the issues, any issue, without being attacked on a personal level.

  • Paul


    you’re right – the article was also about that, but i was mainly referring to the following discussion and her response to that. in this case it is also important assess the current situation and to take a position, that offers room for a debate.

    you’ve stated that you find that war can be neccessary and that torture might come with it and that moral and legal obligations aren’t such a big deal and your monitoring system of the us gov’t works.

    that’s your position. ok.

    i find that the current situation is unacceptable and that it could have been avoided.

  • “you’ve stated that you find that war can be neccessary and that torture might come with it and that moral and legal obligations aren’t such a big deal and your monitoring system of the us gov’t works.

    that’s your position. ok”

    That is actually not even remotely my position. I do not believe this war was inevitable, unavoidable or necessary. Any opportunity to prove that it was irrevocably compromised when our leaders manufactured evidence to force our consent. I never think that torture is acceptable. Arguing that it is somehow inevitable is the same as saying child abuse is an inevitable result of parenting.

    It wasn’t an accident that I related Watada’s actions to those of the commanding officers in charge of Abu Ghraib. Watada refused to go to Iraq because he would not order soldiers to participate in a war he believes to be illegal. Torture is pretty clearly illegal in most civilized nations, but the commanders of Abu Ghraib made it happen.

    Now, instead of standing up and taking responsibility for these actions, they’re letting enlisted soldiers take the fall. If, as some would like to argue, that torture is an inevitable and acceptable part of war, then there is no reason for them to duck responsibility. The fact that they continue to do so shows that no matter how many position papers the Attorney General may manufacture on the topic, Americans don’t need the President’s consent to know torture is wrong.

    If I failed to make that clear in my piece, mea culpa. I was trying to wrestle with my own strong emotions about the topic while also examining an aspect of our culture that makes us yell at each other instead of speaking with each other.

    Thank you for making me clarify myself!

  • Paul

    the quote you referred to was concerning ffakerson and not you… sorry if there was a mix-up.

    anyway, thanks for making your position clearer. actually a lot of that was what i thought when i read your article. i was just a bit irritated when you spoke about the underequipped soldiers….

    no yelling was intended, i just find it good when people actually take a position.

  • Jeanette

    I aspire to convey what you have so eloquently written in this article.
    Why is common sense so difficult for so many to comprehend?
    I am the Very Proud Mother of a young, enlisted and “naively patriotic” United States Marine.
    At times I do not know which enemy I have to fear most that might bring my son into harm’s way.
    It is with gratitude for someone such as yourself to speak for those who do not have your gift of words.

  • perhaps now there is room for someone who actually served in the Army and who actually was present in Iraq for the war we are talking about to throw his opinion in.

    War is never the answer, it is merely the chosen solution.

    I, being a veteran, wholeheartedly support the troops, and wholeheartedly understand that doing that, and supporting the war they participate in, are two separate ideas.

    BECAUSE I support the troops, I am upset at the government at the poor job they have done at preparing and funding the troops they deploy (though, in all honesty, that is part of a much larger problem. My entire enlisted career was day after day of trying to fix bullet holes with duct tape – to speak metaphorically).

    I agree that torture IS very rarely necessary, but should be avoided at all costs.

    I met many, many, many of the foreigners that some of you bash while I was over there. A lot of them love us. A lot of the ones who hate us do not really hate “us”, they hate that we are “meddling” in their business (supporting Israel, strong-arming Iraq, Iran, etc.)

    Kati is right in one sense… I support Lt. Watada in his actions, though I also understand that, as part of his contract, he isn’t exactly allowed to do so.

    That said, I am removed from active duty now, but not yet out of my contract, and if I were called back to active duty, I would conscientiously object and serve the necessary jail time rather than return to fight in a war (Iraq? Iran?) that I do not belive in.

  • Zedd

    Well written article!

    Watada has exemplified what being the master of ones fate is. All laws are written by men. While they must be followed, it has taken men like Watada to change rules or ideas that are detrimental to the public.

    This war was contrived and the lives of average Americans who BELIEVE in the elite are being sacrificed daily. The lives of Iraqis are being tossed as if they have no significance.

    This man is standing up for all of us and saying “NO!”.

    Some of us live in a world of “supposed to” others of us live in a world of “is”. Its the latter group that interprets their world and take full ownership of it and their experiences. They understand their value and their journey and don’t see themselves as role players in someone else’ interpretation or manipulation of reality.

  • Clavos

    Watada is a mutineer; plain and simple.

    A pity the government blinked; he should have been jailed.

  • Clavos

    Watada is a mutineer; plain and simple.

    Under the UCMJ, soldiers do not have the right to refuse lawful orders. His disagreement with them did not make his orders unlawful.

    When my Army unit was shipped out to Vietnam, we had two medics who were religious Conscientious Objectors. They had chosen to serve, even though their religion (I think they were Quakers) prohibited them from touching weapons. When we got the orders for Nam, these guys didn’t even hesitate; they shipped out with the rest of us, even though it meant they would be performing their jobs unarmed in combat.

    Those two men were real American heroes.

    A pity the government blinked; Watada should have been jailed.

  • Zedd

    His a mutineer for the right reasons. If more people would do the same thing, the elite will think twice next time they want to send our troops to some trumped up war.

    He’s a hero.

  • Clavos


    That’s ridiculous.

    There is NO “right” to mutiny, by definition it’s a violation of military law and a dereliction of a soldier’s duty.

    He’s a criminal.