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Friday, August 18, 2006

Putting the War in Iraq on Trial

It's a story most people aren't aware of. In June of 2006, Lt. Ehren Watada refused to deploy to Iraq. According to Watada, the Iraq War is illegal and it's his duty as an officer to refuse the order, since obeying would constitute participation in a war crime (a video statement to that effect is posted at Lt. Watada makes it clear that he's not a conscientious objector and would serve in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the US Army isn't all that happy with this. Watada is charged with conduct unbecoming an officer, missing movement, and contempt toward officials, among other things. His lawyer, Eric Seitz, had this to say about the charges:

Well, we expected him to be charged with missing movement or violating an order to get on a bus to accompany his unit to Iraq. We did not really anticipate that they would charge him with additional offenses based upon the comments and the remarks that he's made. And that opens up a whole new chapter in this proceeding, because what the Army has clearly tried to do by the nature of these charges is send out a message to people in the military, that if you criticize the war and if you criticize the decisions that were made to bring the United States into this war, that you, too, could be charged with disloyalty, contemptuous remarks and disrespect for higher officers, and in this case, specifically in this charge, the President.

By putting Lt. Ehren Watada to a court martial, the government has put the Iraq War on trial as well. TIME reports:

In a packed hearing room on this Army base south of Seattle Thursday, lawyers for Lt. Watada used the opportunity to put the war itself on trial, trying to prove he was right to see the war as "manifestly illegal," and as a result, to refuse to participate. "A soldier has an obligation to disobey illegal orders," said Francis Boyle, a Harvard-trained professor of international law who testified on behalf of Lt. Watada and whose mentor wrote the Army's field manual for land warfare. "Under the circumstances of this war, if he had deployed, he would have been facilitating a Nuremberg crime against peace."

If Watada's defense is successful, the war will be found illegal in a court of law. It's not Lt. Watada's supposed insubordination that worries the army, TIME reports:

In one clip, from a Veterans for Peace convention held last weekend in Seattle, Watada explained that he is trying to put forward a "radical idea" first born during the Vietnam War. "The idea is this," he said. "That to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers and service members can choose to stop fighting it."

That, prosecutors said, is exactly what they most fear. To give credence to Lt. Watada's argument, they said, would create a breakdown in military order and discipline. "It's just dangerous in our Army to allow that to happen," said Capt. Dan Kuecker, one of the prosecutors. Whether the war is legal, he said, "is not a decision for a lieutenant to make — it's a decision for politicians and legislators." Watada's behavior, Capt. Kuecker told the hearing, "is dishonorable and it is disgraceful."

The problem with this reasoning is that it would oblige officers to obey orders they know are illegal. As we've seen from the Abu Ghraib scandal, the crimes committed by soldiers are paid for by soldiers, regardless of whether they were following orders or not. It would allow people in power to use military personnel to commit crimes by proxy, then avoid punishment by blaming the proxy criminals. The personnel would not be able to say no to these orders or be able to defend themselves by by saying 'I was only following orders'. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Lt. Ehren Watada's trial will determine more than his guilt or innocence. It will determine whether or not the war in Iraq is legal and whether the US military and government will be able to operate with all the moral and ethical restraint of a street gang.


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