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U.S. Officer Denounces Iraq War, Refuses Duty There

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When First Lt. Ehren Watada refused to be deployed in Iraq, he probably didn’t have Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson in mind. “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” wrote Tennyson in describing the ill-fated British Charge of the Light Brigade. Watada did choose to reason why, because he views the war as illegal. His offer to resign, or fight in Afghanistan, couldn’t placate an Army determined to make an example

The 28-year-old from Hawaii was due to deploy on June 22 last year but refused on the grounds that he viewed the Iraq war as 'illegal and immoral'. Although his first court martial at Fort Lewis has ended in a mistrial, a new tribunal will be convened on March 19. If found guilty of all the charges, Watada be sentenced to up to four years in prison.

Some of the more intellectually facile arguments against Watada are easy to dismiss. He is patently not a coward who is simply unwilling to fight. He is on record as offering to fight in Afghanistan and is also on record as being an ‘exemplary’ soldier prior to his Iraq refusal. Even if his decision had been made through cowardice it would not make it any less comprehensible.

The plain fact is that many of Watada’s critics are ‘armchair generals’ – people who write and opine without ever having to face the reality of soldiering in Iaq. It is their right and privilege in a democracy to be able to do this, but a certain amount of intellectual and emotional latitude should be expected in return. I suspect most people reading this would tolerate serving in Iraq.

Political Debate

This explosive debate is both political and moral. Supporters of the Iraq war line up mainly against Watada, and its opponents support his cause. This is only natural. However, it detracts from a potentially wider and more fundamental debate.

Tennyson’s soldiers served the old British Empire. They existed to serve its greater glory: its will was the personification of God’s and its cause was in and of itself inherently just. In a democracy, things are not so simple. You may well not view your commander-in-chief as just and inherently correct, and that is your right in a democratic nation. It is your right and, arguably, your duty to dissent. So the real debate provoked by Watada’s trial is what kind of army a democracy should foster? Should soldiers of a democracy be expected to follow orders unquestioningly and execute them without further thought about the consequences?

On this very point, Watada’s commanding officer contradicted himself under cross-examination. On the one hand, he testified that Watada’s view of President Bush’s deceit was “nowhere in the realm of a lieutenant in the United States Army”. However, he then admitted that the determination of what constituted an illegal order fell to the individual soldier. If so, it cannot also be the case that an order is conferred with legality purely by virtue of being issued by a superior officer. Either Watada had the right to determine and act upon his own view of the Iraq war, or he didn’t, and that is one of the wider issues that this tribunal will have to settle.

If Watada was a Democrat or even Republican politician, the very thought of imprisoning him for his beliefs would be anathema for the majority of his opponents. If he was only a private citizen, the same would be true. The question is essentially whether in entering military service you can reasonably be asked to abrogate rights you would otherwise enjoy. Soldiers in Iraq are well aware of the growing tide of public opinion against the Iraq war. Obviously this may adversely affect morale but is all dissent to be then quashed on those grounds?

Defending Civilisation

We are frequently told the ‘war on terror’ is for ‘civilisation’, but there have been numerous ‘lapses’ when its conduct has been less than ‘civilised’. Watada’s treatment threatens to be another example of that tendency to ‘lapse’. Defenders of such a lofty goal have to have an ability to conceptualise that ideal. No greater act of conceptualisation was asked of Tennyson’s soldiers other than the glory of Empire. In refusing to serve, Watada showed great strength of conscience, that pitches him into a battle he didn’t expect to be fighting but one that nonetheless places him on the side of ‘civilisation’.

Civilisation is a complicated concept; it is also a relative. However, to have any coherence it must embody something approaching a universal standard of judgement. Certain rights are non-negotiable: they do not cease to exist even when an opponent does not respect them. They do not cease to exist because a party occupies a certain position. In fact, they operate with especial force and importance in these conditions; there,defence becomes more important. It may well be argued that you are in a position of greater responsibility which, of course, you are.  However, responsibility increases the importance of your rights, and not vice-versa.

Watada did have a duty to his unit that cannot be denied, but he also has a wider duty to the principles and ideals he is sworn to uphold. It is often the case that duties conflict, and in that case the duty that has to be upheld is the ‘higher’ one. Fighting and killing against his individual conscience would have been a betrayal of the very freedom he would be fighting to uphold. Imprisoning him for this is a similar betrayal. Where you stand on Iraq is not the question that should determine your stance on Watada. Where you stand on the fundamental principles of democracy is. Tennyson’s time has gone. His ideal,of the thoughtless, unquestioning soldier has no place in a modern democracy. Their’s is to reason why.  Only then can we expect them to do and die.

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About Darrell Goodliffe

  • moonraven

    Good piece.

    Just a couple of quick comments:

    1. The war on terror is like a war on bad breath–it simply doesn’t exist. BUT, it has been used as a campaign AGAINST–not FOR–civilization, as is obvious in its target: The Cradle of Civilization, which the barbarians at the gates (the US led “coalition”) saw fit to destroy by actively cheering on the looting of the museums and the destruction of absolutely one of a kind items.

    2. Watada has the courage of his convictions. He should not be on trial. The folks that should be on trial are the war criminals–and THEY should be convicted. If not, justice will never have been served.

  • Nancy

    Unless I misremember, this was the question at the very heart of the My Lai Massacre trials: did “I was following orders” constitute a valid defense. Ditto in Nuremburg for the Nazi officers tried there. In both cases, the answer was “no”. Therefore the US has already lost the case based on TWO prior major precedents, QED. If one argues that, as president, Dubya is entitled to legitimately declare war, then an excellent case can be made that he is NOT the “legitimate” president & won the 2000 & 2004 elections through election rigging. At any rate, it would certainly open up a can of worms legally. The military might be better advised to let it go. They would seem to have painted themselves into the proverbial corner on the question of individual responsibility.

  • Nancy

    I was trying to say, if Watada has the right to refuse illegitimate orders, i.e. to refuse to carry out the My Lai massacre, to refuse to participate in Nazi genocide, etc., then he can’t be court-marshaled for refusing any other order he holds as illegitimate, or from illegitimate authorities. If, on the other hand, he CAN’T refuse orders, then neither the Nazis nor Lt. Calley should have been convicted, nor anyone at Abu Ghraib, or anywhere else, as long as they were following orders. Catch-22.

  • moonraven

    Catch-22 was all about the contradictions of military service….

  • JustOneMan

    yawwwnn….Watada is a punk! You assholes are making him to be a hero…he is a soldier in a volunteer service. Now that he is afraid to fight he wants to change the rules…please stop sounding like a bunch of morons…

    Just One Mans Opion of course

  • Emry

    “…he wants to change the rules…”

    Which rules? There’s no rule that says a soldier has to take part in an illegal military action.

  • JustOneMan

    “illegal military action”???? tee…hee…hee

    Please cite the court ruling Einstein…


  • D’oh

    In military culture, and in the UCMJ, it is explicity laid out thatthe individual servicemember should NOT obey an “unlawful order”.

    Now, if such an order is found to be “lawful”, then the individual suffers the consequences.

    By all accounts, the individual in question, an officer, made his case plain, and accepted the consequences of taking such a stand…at the very least losing his commission and being expelled from the service….at most some time in prison.

    The system worked, he registered his protest, and is under trial to face the consequences.

    Much ado about nothing, imo.

  • Clavos

    Nancy #3:

    Though Calley claimed he was following orders, he was lying. His CO, Capt. Ernest Medina, was also tried and was acquitted of all charges.

    The responsibility for My Lai was solely Calley’s.

  • I hope Watada’s defense doesn’t rest on the unlawful order argument. They’ve got to be able to do better than that. For that argument to win they’d have to prove the war was illegal, and there’s not a lot of precedent for determining the legality of wars, plus it’s beyond the scope of a court martial.


  • D’oh

    Which is why he will do the time, imo.

    He took a stand, and will have to pay the price for it, because I agree, that justification won’t fly at a courts martial.

  • I think he’s a dumbass, but I do wonder what the appropriate punishment for him is. I don’t think they should come down on him too heavily. How about they bust him down to private and send him to Afghanistan? That would have a certain ironic appeal.


  • D’oh

    He asked to be sent to Afghanistan instead of Iraq, it wasn’t war he was against, or serving in hazardous combat…just Iraq.

    1-3 years , stripped of his commission, and dishonorable discharge, would be my guess…could go as low as 6 months.

  • I was thinking that the military needs all the men they can get, so why not let him go to Afghanistan since he’s willing?

    But I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to make an example of him with a sentence harsher than what you suggest.


  • D’oh

    Try reading the actual article posted, it mentions his asking to go to Afghanistan, and also accurately states the maximum sentence is 4 years if found guilty of all charges and given the maximum.

  • I’ve read the article and several others. My point was just that taking his commission and sending him to Afghanistan might be punishment enough.


  • MCH

    “I was thinking that the military needs all the men they can get, so why not let him go to Afghanistan since he’s willing?”
    – Dave (Vox Populi) Nalle

    Sorry, I can’t comment on this, due to Rose’s new “MCH Exception.”

    (Chris: my goal is to get OUT of your dreams…)

  • Arch Conservative

    The war on terror is like a war on bad breath–it simply doesn’t exist.

    Yeah I guess we imagined 911, the London subway bombings, the Spain train bombings, the bali nightclub bombings, the uss cole, the embassy bombings, the 93 wtc bombings, the murder of theo van gogh, muslim youths rioting in France etc etc…….

    It figures someone like you would side with islamic terrorists and blame the USA for the world’s problems.

    There have certainly been a number of anti American [Edited] posting on BC in the past but you are by far the most reprehensible, anti American, leftist [Edited] that I’ve ever had the misfortune to have stumbled across on BC.

  • Arch Conservative

    That comment was obviously directed at moonraven.

  • Clavos

    It’s a mistrial.

    The government blinked…

  • troll

    leave it to the Con to stick his left hand in the humus

  • S.T.M

    I don’t understand why people continue to believe there is no “war on terror”. Perhaps the choice of name is a dud. Yet it IS real and it doesn’t just involve the US – it’s a global challenge that sees police forces and anti-terror units from places as diverse as Sanaa, Yemen, and Sydney, Australia, banding together to track down, stop or capture actual or would be mass murderers.

    But it really has nothing to do with the war in Iraq … and it never has. That other war is the War in Iraq. One’s about stopping mass murderers, the other’s about oil.

    George Bush might say the two things are linked – and now they probably are since every fanatical nut of a particular fervent religious belief now wants to be involved and will point to it rightly or wrongly as a classic example of US imperialism – but they are very different issues.

    My view (for what it’s worth): mass murderers are mass murderers, and insurgents are insurgents. The lines might seem blurred sometimes, but the old Iraqi regime never did have any real links with al-Qaeda.

    Iraq as a ba’athist/modern-day Arab-style stalinist state under Saddam was even further removed from the ideals and goals of al-Qaeda than is the US.

    As others have said, the Iraq invasion painted as revenge for 9/11 is a bit like Canada invading the US and the US using that to justify an all-out attack on Mexico in retaliation.

    Bush and the US administration and its military are right to stand up to mass murderers who kill Americans and others, but wrong to go to war for oil because a madman might use it as a bargaining chip and then tell their own people that it’s part of a war on terror. That’s the bit that’s bullshit.

  • The problem with the term ‘war on terror’ is that it suggests that terrorism is like a nation you can make war on, when it’s really just a subcategory of crime which happens to be politically motivated. Dealing with it is ultimately more a business for police and courts than for armies, which makes it just as inappropriate a name as the ‘war on drugs’ is.

    However, the one way in which the war on terror really is like a war is that there are state sponsors of terrorism and states whcih terrorize their own population. If you throw that in then the war on terror really is like a war. A big, nasty and incredibly difficult and expensive to fight world war which will go on for decades.

    All in all, it’s probably easier to call it ‘zero tolerance for terror’ and keep it in the realm of crime rather than war.


  • S.T.M

    The writer said: “Tennyson’s soldiers served the old British Empire. They existed to serve its greater glory: its will was the personification of God’s and its cause was in and of itself inherently just. In a democracy, things are not so simple.”

    Oops, little mistake there Darrell, and one that I do love to correct … while it might also have had an Empire, Britain at the time of Lord Tennyson’s writing had long been a parliamentary democracy and a vibrant and vigorous one at that – and one that believed above all else in certain inalienable rights and personal freedoms (sound familiar?).

    Indeed, it was Benjamin Disraeli, the great British jewish parliamentarian and later Prime Minister, who described the Charge of the Light Brigade in the House of Commons as a “feat of chivalry, fiery with consummate courage, and bright with flashing courage.” He forgot the insanity bit, but let’s not cloud the real issue.

    This is something I find increasingly bizarre in the modern age when inofrmation is available at the press of a button: too many Americans still make the mistake of thinking that because Britain has a King or Queen, or had one in 1854, it can’t be a democracy and wasn’t one then.

    Truth is, British monarchs for centuries are only constitutional monarchs – much loved but anachronisms nevertheless who are nothing more than figureheads. They are subject totally to the will of the British people and the people’s elected representatives in Parliament. On a related note, it’s my bet that the British leave Iraq well before the US. And it’ll have nothing to do with the Queen.

    Democracy takes many forms, and in the case of these two we are talking about, one in fact doesn’t guarantee any more rights or freedoms than the other. One’s freedoms and rights are guaranteed under common law dating back centuries, the other’s by a Constitition largely based upon that exact same common law.

    In fact there might even be a good argument to suggest that one has actually evolved into a fairer, more just society in many ways because its constitition is by its very nature and the nature of the law fluid and changing and thus subject to the changing will of the people, while the other is set in stone and hasn’t kept pace.

    It’s bound to cause a drama on this site, but the second amendment might be a classic example of why that argument holds water.

    And sometimes I wonder whether the US really is still a democracy and whether at election time, it is the will of the people being voiced or that of the the corporate interests and lobby groups who finance the parties’ political campaigns.

    Just a thought …

  • S.T.M

    Dave Nalle wrote: “All in all, it’s probably easier to call it ‘zero tolerance for terror’.”

    Nah, Dave, too bloody American mate – it won’t catch on anywhere else. People’s eyes will just glaze over. Why make it any more unpopular than it already is?

    I prefer the term used by Lt Col David Kilcullen, a Bush military adviser, who calls it “the long war”. Could that be a primer for the American people? I read it the other night and it just doesn’t sound as hokey as “war on terror”. Ultimately they both mean the same thing though: zero tolerance for terror.

  • Nancy

    Clavos #9: so what Calley was really convicted of was lying, claiming he was given an order he wasn’t?

  • Arch Conservative

    While several of the more reasonable individuals who have posted on this thread have pointed out that “war on terror” may be a poor choice of words….Ms. moonraven isn’t making a semantic distinction when she says there’s no war on terror.

    She is saying that there is no threat posed by radical fundamentalist islam and that America is the problem.

    She’s your typical leftist anti American [Edited]

  • Nancy

    No, Arch: MR is way waaaaay left. She’s not the typical US liberal at all, as she herself has pointed out on aother thread. Even I’m way left of typical Lefties on SOME issues, altho I’m far right on others. I dunno – who on here considers themselves to be “typical” i.e. moderate liberals?

  • Clavos

    Nancy #26:

    No, Calley was convicted on three counts of premeditated murder and one count of assault with intent to kill.

    My point was he lied (or so a jury found, by acquitting Medina)) about having received orders for the My Lai incident.

    And I believe he didn’t do it under orders.

    I don’t condone what Calley and his soldiers did, but I think I understand why it happened.

  • Nancy

    Waitaminnit – now I’m even more confused. So, Calley claimed he got orders to off My Lai, but he in fact hadn’t, & did it on his own? Wasn’t he under orders to take out the Enemy? Which leads me to: how the hell can you commit murder during a war – especially when the enemy is prone to stuff like wiring their own kids w/explosives, etc.? That’s insane. You’re either there to kill or you’re not.

  • Emry

    S.T.M #24 – “…while it might also have had an Empire, Britain at the time of Lord Tennyson’s writing had long been a parliamentary democracy and a vibrant and vigorous one at that – and one that believed above all else in certain inalienable rights and personal freedoms (sound familiar?).”

    Are you by any chance a “chauvinist pig”, S.T.M?

    How can you have vibrant and vigorous democracy if women aren’t allowed to vote?

  • Clavos

    But the people Calley was convicted of killing were judged to be innocent civilians, not enemy.

    He had no orders to kill innocent civilians.

    The question mark that will never be fully resolved in some people’s minds is whether or not those people were, in fact, innocent, since they were harboring combatants. The trial decided that they were innocent.

    Discerning who was “innocent” and who was enemy was one of the most difficult aspects of that war, believe me. Most times when we had to, American lives hung in the balance, and the decision had to be made instantly.

    The trial determined, however that Calley and his men were not in exactly that “instant” kind of situation; hence the “premeditated” aspect of his convictions.

  • Mark

    I see today they declared a mistrial on this case. The judge is afraid to put the legality of the Iraq war on trial. Wonder why? Could it be if the war is found illegal it could open a pandoras box for Bush, the administration and company? From my ignorant understanding of military, I see military tribunals, judges, court martials and everything as very biased. Watada doesn’t have a chance but I am sure he realized that and knew the consequences of disobedience and probably is prepared for whatever they dole out. Usually, people that engage in civil disobedience have thought through the consequences and have arrived at some place in their mind that is willing to suffer those consequences to stand up for what they believe. Go Watada you have my support

  • Nancy

    Moi aussi.

  • moonraven

    Arch: You believe no doubt in the Tooth Fairy, too.

    Too bad there’s no quarter under your pillow this time.

    Nobody ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the US citizen. That’s why the US government routinely makes suckers out of jokers like you.

    Whether I am the most leftist and most un-estadudinese on this board–or on the planet–has absolutely nothing to do with anything.

    The military is a screwball organization. Example: I spent 11 days at Fort McClellan as an E5 in the CASP program–in order to get a story that Mike Wallace DIDN?T get for 60 Minutes.

    The program was a complete crock. When I publically said I would have no part of it, they offered to make me a MAJOR! I filed a statement of conscientious objection to the program and to war. They flew me back to Seattle (where I arrived in time to speak at Amnesty Day) and gave me an honorable discharge–which hung in the place of honor–over the toilet–for a number of years.

  • moonraven

    sorry, anti-estadunidense. Dark in here–and I am not a touch typist.

  • STM

    Emry asked: “Are you by any chance a “chauvinist pig”, S.T.M?”

    Probably, but then I’m a boor … also, where DID women have the vote at the time? The country I live in was one of the first in the world to give women the vote, and it wasn’t that long after the Crimean war.

    It’s all relative Emma-ry, and timelines are important; what seemed right then obviously isn’t today, but just having a vibrant democracy in the first place was the thing that paved the way for women’s suffrage.

  • Clavos

    but just having a vibrant democracy in the first place was the thing that paved the way for women’s suffrage.


    Totalitarian societies tend to take away, not give voters power to vote.

  • STM

    Evenin’ Clav, how are you old mate? … just another little smack on the hand from Emma-ry.

    I think she’s right though about my male chauvinism though and it’s something I really need to address with every fibre of my being … example: here I am, yahooing and carrying on and watching a fu.king great rugby match involving my team in Durban when I really should have been out and about in the p.ssing rain on my Saturday morning off collecting money for the nursing mothers’ association or findacureforvaginalthrush.org. Honestly, sometimes I just don’t know how I can live with myself. I can’t stand unreconstructed males and neither can the rest of the pub.

    Speaking of which, Dave’s been copping it over his Vox Populi debacle, eh?. Lol. Tee hee. Do squirm and wriggle (as in out of) mean the same thing in Nalle’s lexicon, do you think??

  • STM

    Nancy wrote: “Moi aussi.”

    Moi too!

  • Clavos

    Hi, mate.

    You mean to say you’re not a feminist?

    My wife, with supreme irony, often accuses me of being a “SNAG”, a Sensitive, New Age Guy.

    She’s a great gal, though, so I don’t take offense.

    Yep, ol’ Dave’s somewhat beleaguered these days. I’ve pretty much stayed out of the fray; I get accused enough as it is of being his “lap dog” and worse.

  • STM

    My wife’s response to the meterosexual/SNAG/I’m a male feminist debate: just men, trying another sneaky ruse to con their way into your pants. “Oh, yes … most men ARE neanderthals … I really understand where you’re coming from. Now, how about another vodka?”

    I used to sit next to a bloke at work who liked to tell everyone he was a feminist. What a wanker. His other main claim to fame was that he and a whole lot of other basket-weaving idiots used to strip down, paint themselves up and run around a park with spears while making grunting-type noises to get in touch with their “male warrior side”. I asked him why he didn’t just play footy or go to the pub like every other bastard. Cutting down on lentils and mung beans and eating a rare steak every now and then probably would have helped too. But fair dinkum, how the hell can a bloke be a feminist?

    You can only believe in the concept of feminism if you’re a man. It’s like white people who aren’t of aboriginal descent saying they know how tough it is to be black. They can’t know …

  • Clavos

    So, you’ve got those weirdos over there too, huh?

    Nothing like a good fishing trip with your mates and a coolerful of beer for getting “in touch with your male” whatever.

    I really can’t see these guys; what’s more I don’t think most women do, either. At least, not the women I know, who are a mix of my mate’s wives and women I know from work, as well as some of my wife’s friends.

    All of ’em great people, and not a one interested in the metrosexual type guys.

    But I guess it takes all kinds to make the world go ’round…

  • Emry


    “Probably”?? Not sure are we, cobber?

    BTW, you were droning on and on and on about Britain not OZ.

    Up your timelines and groaner excuses with a sharp stick, you tosser.

    Whichever way you try to spin it this is half-assed pap:

    “Oops, little mistake there Darrell, and one that I do love to correct … while it might also have had an Empire, Britain at the time of Lord Tennyson’s writing had long been a parliamentary democracy and a vibrant and vigorous one at that – and one that believed above all else in certain inalienable rights and personal freedoms (sound familiar?).”

    Flush your sloppy drivel down the crapper. There were/are certain rights and freedoms for certain people, lesser rights and freedoms for the common bloke and blokette and much, much lesser, or no rights for the blacks, browns and reds.

    Loved setting you straight.

  • STM

    Fantastic Emma-ry … for once, one of your standard vitriolic personal attacks that actually runs to more than two lines. You go girl.

  • Emry

    Stick with “Oops”, STuMpy, the rest was ZZZZZZZZZZ.

  • STM

    Anything that would make you go to sleep and disappear would be a fu.king bonus. I’ll keep trying.