Officer Who Refused Iraq Tour Goes on Trial

TACOMA, Wash. – Supporters of the first commissioned U.S. officer to refuse to serve in Iraq plan to pack the courtroom at Fort Lewis, Wash., where 1st Lt. Ehren Watada will face a court-martial Monday.

"If more officers like Lt. Watada come forward and said they wouldn’t order their troops into a war that’s morally wrong that means fewer enlisted people like myself will come back injured or killed," former Marine Corps medic Chanan Suarez-Diaz told a packed house of activists Sunday evening in the basement auditorium of the First Congregational Church in nearby Tacoma.

Suarez-Diaz’s back was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade in Ramadi in 2005.

Like many members of the crowd, Suarez-Diaz is a member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War, which organizers say has quadrupled in size in the last year. Suarez-Diaz told IPS anger about the war is growing in the rank and file of the military, making Watada’s trial very important.

"Soldiers aren’t machines that don’t think and don’t have a consciousness," he said, adding that his unit is scheduled to redeploy as part of President George W. Bush’s plan to send at least 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

"I’ve spoken to a lot of my buddies who went to Iraq with me, and a lot of them have changed their minds," he added. "Before they were more Republican or conservative, but now they’re seeing what this war is about," he added.

Watada faces four years in prison if he is convicted of all the charges against him. That’s because he’s not charged only with refusing to go to Iraq, but also for "conduct unbecoming of an officer" for speaking in public forums against the war.

Among them was a speech to the Veterans for Peace annual convention in Seattle last year.

"Today, I speak with you about a radical idea," Watada told the gathering. "That to stop an illegal and unjust war, soldiers can choose to stop fighting it. … If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols – if they stood up and threw their weapons down – no president could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, ‘against all enemies foreign and domestic,’ what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice."

Initially, the U.S. military had angered the journalism profession by subpoenaing two reporters and three peace activists to testify as witnesses for the prosecution. Prosecutors had argued that their testimony was necessary to prove, legally, that Watada had been speaking out against the war.

Under a deal reached last week between the Army and Watada’s lawyers, however, the journalists and activists will not longer be needed at the court-martial, with Watada agreeing to stipulate to his public comments.

As a result, the court-martial is likely to be short, especially since the military judge overseeing the trial ruled last month that Watada’s claim – that the war is immoral and illegal – will not be a permissible defense at trial. Watada had hoped to argue under the so-called Nuremberg Principals that arose from trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II.

The fourth of the Nuremberg Principles says that superior orders are not a defense to the commission of an illegal act, meaning soldiers who commit a war crime after "just following orders" are just as culpable as their superiors.

Nonetheless, families of other soldiers refusing to fight in Iraq are watching the trial closely.

Helga Aguayo flew in from Los Angeles to Seattle with her two daughters and mother-in-law to attend Watada’s court martial. Her husband, Augustin, is an Army medic currently incarcerated at a U.S. military prison in Germany for going AWOL after his application for conscientious objector status was denied. He faces seven years in prison.

"We are here because it’s important to show support for people who resist wars," she told the gathering at Tacoma’s First Congregational Church.

"We know what Watada’s family is going through," she added. "My husband has been fighting for more than three years to be declared a conscientious objector. He is so opposed to war that when his commander sent him out on patrol he did so without putting any bullets in his gun."

A military court martial in Germany is scheduled to be held March 6. A ruling in the Watada case is expected by the end of the week.

(Inter Press Service)