Monday, November 20, 2006

Lt. Ehren Watada’s Court Martial

Part of me sympathizes with 1st Lt. Ehren Watada who is facing court martial and up to six years in jail for refusing orders to deploy with his Stryker Brigade to Iraq earlier this year.

Part of me doesn't.

The part of me that does sympathize with this young man is the part of me that filed for the Vietnam-era draft as a conscientious objector. I registered with the request that I be considered as a candidate for the status of "1-AO." Under this status I could have been drafted but would have served my military service in a non-combatant status. This could have been anything from clerical work to Chaplain's assistant to medical service. My uncertainty concerning my moral conscience regarding taking the lives of others, even in war, would not have made me a very effective or reliable soldier in those days. I was not afraid of danger to myself, particularly, but felt that I could better serve my country and fulfill my obligation to military service without a rifle in my hands.

I believe that the human conscience is central to what makes each of us human. I was glad that my nation had made provision for people like me who, when faced with the possibility of forced conscription, would have their conscience respected under law.

I do not know Watada but I believe (at least I hope) that he is acting honorably according to his conscience.

In his own words,
I am at peace with my decision because I feel that from the beginning I made it according to my conscience and my duty as a soldier and officer.
It is not for me or anyone else to judge his conscience. We must respect it. Even so, we must hold him to account for the covenant promises he made to the United States and the U.S. Army when he volunteered for service and voluntarily took his oath of service.

I believe that honorable service in the US Armed Forces not only permits and expects but requires soldiers to assert their unwillingness to obey what they perceive to be a illegal, immoral or otherwise improper order. Such a position having been taken, however, it is up to the military to determine whether the act of conscience/disobedience is justified according to the military code of conduct.

Lt. Watada will be required to face a court martial in order for this matter to be sorted out and decided according to military justice.

This is right and good.

To his credit, I do not see Watada trying to weasel his way out of his military obligations. He has been quoted as saying, "I'm willing to accept the punishment, whatever it may be."

His lawyers, however, have been working overtime to turn this matter into a legal case against the US War in Iraq. The success of failure of his case will turn on this point. For Watada has not claimed that he is against war of any kind. He is only opposed to participation in the US military actions, occupation and presence in Iraq. He has, in fact, offered to serve in Afghanistan or anywhere else but Iraq.

This puts him in a very difficult position as far as military discipline is concerned. Army spokesman Col. Dan Baggio has made the military's position clear: That soldiers cannot pick and choose their conflicts but must uphold their oath to follow orders.

Under the Vietnam draft I worked within the law and was willing to accept responsibility for whatever personal decisions I might have made. (As it turned out I was never drafted and did not serve). At no time did I believe that I, or anyone else for that matter, should be given some special, exceptional status not available to everyone else.

It is my belief that, by challenging this court martial charge, Lt. Watabe is, in fact, asking to be given unprecedented, special, exceptional status that, if made available to other members of our military, would destroy our military and render it useless overnight.

So, while I sympathize with Lt. Watada acting according to his conscience, I also believe that he must be held to full account according to the voluntary oath he took when he volunteered to serve in the US Army.

Personally, I hope that he will be court-martialed. I do not, however, believe that he should receive the maximum penalty for his disobedience. His actions did not place anyone at risk nor did it effectively hinder the mission to which he had been assigned. He acted openly and, I believe, in good faith. When his request for alternative assignment was denied he stood his ground and was willing to accept the consequences.

He should be disciplined. He should be court-martialed. He should spend the equivalent of the remainder of his service commitment plus one additional year in jail.

If he accepts his punishment honorably I will respect him and, perhaps, even admire him for following his conscience in this matter. If he whines and cries about "injustice" and turns this into a shameful demonstration against the US Government (including his Commander-In-Chief) and the US Army then he will have brought disrepute to every soldier who has served honorably and faithfully by obeying the commands that Watada has refused.

Note: It has been reported (but unconfirmed) that Watada has, through his lawyers, recently requested permission to be granted leave from his confinement so as to be able to spend the holidays with his family here in Hawaii. Considering that those who have gone to Iraq (including one soldier who went in his place) will not be enjoying that particular privilege this year I find it appalling and inexcusable that this soldier, under these circumstances, would have the gall to even voice such a request. If true, this does not speak well for Lt. Watada.

Note #2: I am also aware of statements that Lt. Watada has made to the press and at public events that were passionately critical of US policy concerning Iraq. Several of these comments have been "thrown out" of the trial but at least two of them will be considered as evidence of disrespect. This, for me, will be the more interesting part of the court-martial procedure; a determination as to what freedom active-duty soldiers have to express their personal opinions concerning matters of military, political and public policy.