Reprieve for Officer Who Denounced ‘Immoral War’

The court-martial of the first commissioned U.S. military officer to refuse to serve in Iraq ended abruptly Wednesday when the military judge overseeing the proceedings declared a mistrial over a technicality.

At issue, according to the judge, Lt. Col. John Head, was an agreement first Lt. Ehren Watada signed admitting that he failed to deploy to Iraq when his unit was sent there, as well as confirming that he gave several antiwar speeches for which the military had charged him with "conduct unbecoming of an officer."

In his decision, Col. Head said the agreement amounted to a "confession," but in exchanges with the judge in open court Lt. Watada disagreed.

"Your Honor," he said. "I have always believed that I have a legal and moral defense. I realize that the government can make arguments and you can make rulings contrary to that, but that does not negate my belief that I have a defense."

"To me," Watada told the court, leading soldiers into battle in Iraq "means to participate in a war that I believe to be illegal."

In earlier motions, Col. Head had ruled that Watada’s claim – that the war is immoral and illegal – would not be a permissible defense at trial. Watada had hoped to argue under the so-called Nuremberg Principals which 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 because they were "just following orders" are just as culpable as their superiors.

"How are we gonna unring that bell?" Col. Head said of the conflict between Watada’s statements before the seven-officer panel judging the case and the facts stipulated in the agreement. Head then ruled Watada’s agreement to be void and directed the prosecution to more thoroughly document its case or move for a mistrial. Caught unprepared, military prosecutors ultimately chose the latter.

Lt. Watada’s attorney, Eric Seitz, blamed the suppression of what he called his client’s "legitimate defense" for the mistrial.

"Every time the government has tried to prevent political speech, which they are attempting to punish, from infusing the trial proceedings it has created a major mess and many of those cases resulted in mistrials," Seitz said, mentioning a few famous cases he has handled over the years, such as the 1969 Chicago conspiracy trial where seven peace activists, including Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale, were charged with crossing state lines with the intent to incite antiwar riots and disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

"The government tried in artificial ways to prevent the defendants from explaining in their own way why they were there and why they did what they did," Seitz said. "But there is a contradiction, because they are the core issues of what led the defendant from being there in the first place."

Antiwar activists who have been monitoring the Watada trial unanimously cheered its outcome.

"I was in a very similar situation during Vietnam," noted Mike Wong, a San Francisco social worker who deserted the Army rather than fight in the Vietnam War.

Like dozens of other peace activists, Wong traveled to Fort Lewis to observe the court martial first hand. He said more and more service members are following Lt. Watada’s example and opposing the war.

Wong said a GI Rights Hotline set up to help soldiers who want to get out of Iraq or out of the army is now fielding 2,000 calls a month.

"There are GIs that are rebelling in different ways," he added. "Even in Iraq there are GIs who have their own blogs, blogging against the war while they’re in Iraq. GI resistance is growing."

At trial, one of Ehren Watada’s superiors, Lt. Col. William James, testified that Lt. Watada’s public comments opposing the Iraq war "lowered morale" by "creating a lot of discussion in the chow hall" when soldiers should have been "zeroing in their weapons and kissing their wives goodbye."

Geoff Millard, an Iraq war veteran who covered the Watada court martial for the website, said that was one of the most significant statements of the trial.

"The military doesn’t want the American public to know that soldiers are talking about this in the barracks," Millard said. "Some soldiers think he’s a disgrace and others think he’s a frickin’ hero. But what it’s causing is for soldiers to discuss, to debate, and what’s really frightening to this administration is that soldiers are thinking. They don’t want soldiers to think. They want soldiers to follow orders."

A new trial is possible in the spring. In the meantime, out-of-court negotiations between Lt. Watada’s attorneys and government lawyers will continue. For his part, Lt. Ehren Watada will remain on duty at Fort Lewis continuing his service at a desk job he’s held since refusing to deploy to Iraq.

(Inter Press Service)