Thursday, January 04, 2007

Conscientious Rejector Officer: 1st Lt. Ehren Watada

A very interesting article/interview has appeared as a special feature over at Yahoo News.[1] This kind of military ethics discussion often happened during the Vietnam war, but this junior officer gives a nuanced apologetic of his position. He is clearly an educated and articulate person (and hardly a coward, as many are cat-calling him). Here's the opening paragraph or two of the piece:

First Lt. Ehren Watada, a 28-year-old Hawaii native, is the first commissioned officer in the U.S. to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq. He announced last June his decision not to deploy on the grounds the war is illegal. Lt. Watada was based at Fort Lewis, Washington, with the Army's 3rd (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He has remained on base, thus avoiding charges of desertion. He does, however, face one count of "missing troop movement" and four counts of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison.[1]

On Mr. Watada's view, the issue seems to rotate around whether he has been issued a legal order. Here is a selection from the interview where he gives a synopsis of his position:

I'm trying to end something that is criminal, something that should not have been started in the first place and something that is making America less safe — and that is the Iraq war. By just going there and being willing to participate, and doing my job, or whatever I'm told to do — which actually exacerbates the situation and makes it worse — I would not be serving the best interest of this country, nor the soldiers that I'm serving with. What I'm trying to do is end something, as I said, that's illegal, and immoral, so that all the soldiers can come home and this tragedy can come to an end. It seems like people and critics make this distinction between an order to deploy and any other order, as if the order to deploy is just something that's beyond any other order. Orders have to be determined on whether they're legal or not. And if the order to deploy to a war that is unlawful, if that is given, then that order itself is unlawful.

This is not as tidy as he'd like us to have it. As a thought experiment, if an officer was issued an order to slay unarmed, non-hostile civilians, then an officer would be right to refuse it on legal grounds, since it is indeed illegal to slay unarmed, non-hostile civilians. But this is not the issue in Mr. Watada's case.

Since there is no world supreme court or world law, how can Mr. Watada say that the war in Iraq is "legal" or not? I don't think the issue of legality ever gets started. The Iraq war might have begun because of immoral actions, but the soldier's duty is to follow legal orders, and the order to deploy to geographic area X (Iraq or anywhere else) is certainly a legal one.

The soldier might deplore The President's policy which motivated (and motivates) the use of the military, but an officer at Mr. Watada's level is not a policy determining soldier. The Joint Chiefs of Staff could appropriately make such an argument, but they have not; thus, Mr. Watada should not.

In conclusion, Mr. Watada is confused about what his role is at the level which he participates (i.e. at the level of junior officer). I can appreciate his moral revulsion at participating in the Iraq war, but he should have carefully investigated what was his duty as a soldier before he signed. This is one of the more important lessons in military ethics gleaned from the Vietnam War. (Disclaimer: I'm a veteran of both the Air Force and the Army.)


[1] "Conscientious Rejector?" Yahoo News (Accessed 1/04/07)

[also] You Tube speech by Watada. (Accessed 1/04/07)


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At 7:45 PM, Blogger Isaac said...

ahhh... Lieutenant Watada. Since it's not Captain Watada... I'd say it's almost certain this guy accepted his commission after the 19 Mar 03 start of the invasion.


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