The Officers' War: The Case of Iraq War Opponent Lt. Ehren Watada Reveals the Toll the War Has Taken on Career Military Personnel

By Mckelvey, Tara | The American Prospect, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Officers' War: The Case of Iraq War Opponent Lt. Ehren Watada Reveals the Toll the War Has Taken on Career Military Personnel


Mckelvey, Tara, The American Prospect


For a junior Army officer named Ehren Watada, the road to Damascus was a two-lane street called Firing Center Road, which cuts through cow pastures in Yakima County, Washington. The air is bone dry, heavy with the smell of sagebrush, and the climate is similar to parts of Iraq. In the fall of 2005, Watada spent 30 days here, training on the Army's 306-acre stretch of desert. In his free time, he sat in the back of a Stryker vehicle and paged through books borrowed from the library in Fort Lewis, Washington.

Watada was hardly an ambitious learner when he was in college, but during officer training his commander taught him that "you should know everything there is to know about your mission, not just where you're shooting the missiles but why you're shooting the missiles." And so, knowing he was bound for Iraq or Afghanistan, Watada began to read voraciously. Among the books he collected for his time in the Yakima desert was James Bamford'sA Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies, Watada says, sitting in a restaurant in Olympia, Washington, nearly two years later. "I realized we had been lied to," he says. "I was standing out in the middle of the desert, and I had a deep sense of betrayal. I had joined an army, and I thought it was noble. And to think we had engaged in something that had caused so much carnage and destruction and then to find out it was unnecessary. There I was in uniform, and I felt ashamed of what I was being asked to do. I think there's no bigger crime than taking your country into a war based on lies."

Approximately eight months later, at 2:30 A.M. on June 22, 2006, the soldiers in Watada's unit, the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division, stepped onto an airplane bound for Kuwait International Airport and, shortly thereafter, Mosul, Iraq.

Watada was not with them.

WATADA, 30, IS AN unlikely icon of war resistance. At 5 feet 7 inches, he is unimposing and even shy, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, with his dark hair cut Army-short and his ears sticking out. He was raised in Honolulu, where his father, Bob, worked for decades in campaign-finance reform, and his mother, Carolyn Ho, was a high school guidance counselor. Watada, an Eagle Scout, joined the Army in March 2003, his senior year at Hawaii Pacific University and, like everyone who enlists, pledged an oath that members of the U.S. military have taken since 1789. "It doesn't say, 'I, Ehren Watada, will do as I'm told.' It says I will protect the Constitution," Watada says. He supports war in principle and is not a conscientious objector--in fact, he offered to go to Afghanistan (his commanders turned him down). "I'm against the Iraq War," he says. "By law, the war is wrong."

Watada is the only officer who has both spoken out publicly against the war and refused to deploy. His decision has placed him at the center of a media firestorm and embroiled him in a court battle with the government. In November 2007, a federal judge, Benjamin Settle, halted court-martial proceedings against Watada, saying some legal issues needed to be resolved. Today, Watada remains in the Army despite his fervent wish to leave, as he awaits the outcome of the legal dispute.

Although it may have once seemed that way, Watada is not alone in his beliefs. He is part of a growing group of career military officers who have devoted their lives to the armed forces but, in recent months and years, have turned on the institution they once swore to uphold and obey. Their reasons are complex, varied, and personal, ranging from opposition to the civilian leadership in Washington to an understandable desire to resume their lives as spouses and parents. But the trigger for their unhappiness with the military is the same across the board: Iraq.

The dissatisfaction of individuals within the military is a symptom of an apparently intractable war that will continue for decades if John McCain has his way, or for months, if not years, if a Democrat is elected. …

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