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.
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?
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.