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Army Lieutenant Becomes First Commissioned Officer to Refuse Deployment to Iraq

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For the first time since the start of the war, a commissioned officer is refusing deployment to fight in Iraq. On Wednesday U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada announced his intention to disobey what he says are illegal orders to deploy to Iraq. We speak with 1st Lieutenant Watada and his lawyer, Legrand Jones. [includes rush transcript]

For the first time since the start of the war, a commissioned officer is refusing deployment to fight in Iraq. On Wednesday U.S. Army 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada announced his intention to disobey what he says are illegal orders to deploy to Iraq. He was supposed to make his announcement at a news conference yesterday but military officials told Watada he could not attend because he was barred from speaking publicly about his case while on duty at the base.

Watada is a member of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd infantry Division based at Fort Lewis near Seattle, Washington. His unit is set to be deployed later this month. Lieutenant Watada faces court martial unless the Army allows him to resign or assigns him to duties not directly connected to the war.

On Wednesday, Lieutenant Watada issued a video recording explaining why he is refusing to fight.

  • 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada video statement. Courtesy of Ron Smith.

We are joined now on the line by Ehren Watada and his lawyer, Legrand Jones.

  • 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. He joins us on the line from Washington State.
  • Legrand Jones, attorney for 1st Lt. Watada in Washington state.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, First Lieutenant Watada issued a video recording explaining why he’s refusing to fight.

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: It is my duty as a commissioned officer of the United States Army to speak out against grave injustices. My moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution and not to those who would issue unlawful orders. I stand before you today, because it is my job to serve and protect America’s soldiers, as people and innocent Iraqis who have no voice. It is my conclusion as an officer of the Armed Forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong, but a horrible breach of American law.

Although I’ve tried to resign out of protest, I will be forced to participant in a war that is manifestly illegal. As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must, as an officer of honor and integrity, refuse that order.

The war in Iraq violates our democratic system of checks and balances. It usurps international treaties and conventions that, by virtue of the Constitution, become American law. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible, moral injustice, but it is a contradiction to the Army’s own Law of Land Warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes. Normally, those in the military have allowed others to speak for them and act on their behalf. I believe that time has come to an end.

AMY GOODMAN: That was First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. On Wednesday, he became the first commissioned officer to refuse to fight in the war in Iraq. First Lieutenant Watada joins us now on the phone from Washington state. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by the phone by your lawyer in Washington state, Legrand Jones. And we welcome you, as well.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, can you talk about how you arrived at this decision? When did you join the Army?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: I signed the papers to join the military in March 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: Right at the time of the invasion.


AMY GOODMAN: And what was your understanding at the time of what would happen?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: In terms of the war, I knew that it was probable, more than likely, that I would be deployed to Iraq. At the time I didn’t believe that the war was fully justified. But I think, like millions of people out there, I believed it when the President and many of his deputies told the world, told the U.S., that weapons of mass destruction did exist, that Saddam had ties to 9/11 and he had ties to al-Qaeda, and that he had the willingness to use his weapons to attack his neighbors and also the U.S. And so, at that time I had no reason to believe that the President would betray the trust of the people, and so I said that we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

AMY GOODMAN: How have you changed over this three years?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: When I learned that I was going to be deployed last year, I thought it was my responsibility as an officer to learn everything I could about war in general — its effects on people, its effects on the soldiers, and also specifically why we were there, what was occurring at that time, what had occurred in the past — in order to get a better understanding, as was my job.

And the more I read different articles by international and constitutional law experts, and the reports coming out from government agencies and non-governmental agencies, and the reports and the revelations from independent journalists and the Iraqi people themselves and the soldiers coming home, I came to the conclusion that the war and what we’re doing over there is illegal. And so, being so, I felt it was my duty to morally, and also legally, refuse any orders to participate in it.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response now of the Army? This week at Fort Lewis, right before your news conference, they started to crack down. They called you into a meeting?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: Right, I think as soon as they got word that I was going to make a public statement. That was the first time the brigade commander had talked to me since I had submitted a letter of resignation citing my beliefs and my intent to refuse any orders to participate in an illegal war. He wanted just basically to talk to me and see how strongly I held my beliefs. And he said that he was fairly convinced. And also he wanted to talk to me about making a public statement and that he advised strongly against it. But if I was going to do it, then he had to lay out certain rules. So that was the first time that he had talked to me, the first time I was given out any kind of orders concerning making a public statement.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the penalty you face right now?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: Probably the maximum penalty I face when I refuse orders to board the plane to go to Iraq would be anywhere from two to five years, maybe more, in a military stockade, dishonorable discharge and loss of all pay and allowances. And there could be other punishment.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering, Army Lieutenant Ehren Watada, what your response was to the protest that resulted in, I think, something like 22 arrests in Olympia, Washington this past week, as peace activists tried to stop a ship from moving out of port with striker vehicles and troops.

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: I think that we all have a duty as American citizens for civil disobedience and to do anything we can within the law to stop an illegal war.

AMY GOODMAN: Legrand Jones, you are First Lieutenant Ehren Watada’s lawyer. What happens next? What does he face? What does he have to watch out for?

LEGRAND JONES: First off, Amy, I would like to clarify that Eric Seitz of Honolulu, Hawaii is Lieutenant Watada’s primary counsel. We are with a firm in Olympia, Washington, actually, which is near Fort Lewis. And we’re offering to assist any way we can while his lawyer, Mr. Seitz, is not in town.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what are the stakes right now?

LEGRAND JONES: Well, as Mr. Watada said, he’s looking at a potential incarceration. That period of time is kind of up in the air. At this point the ball has been put in the Army’s court. We hope that a meeting of the minds can occur. If not, I know that Mr. Seitz and my firm are ready, willing and able to defend him in this fight, and we’re honored to assist.

AMY GOODMAN: How much support are you getting, Ehren Watada, in your unit?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: Very little. Of course, as you can probably understand, anybody who supports me personally would probably not voice that out loud. The majority of people, I think, within my unit, and maybe within the military as a whole, do not support my beliefs. And even if they did, they would probably not voice it publicly, if they’re still on active duty.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father, Robert Watada, is a retired Hawaii state official?


AMY GOODMAN: News conference held simultaneously in Hawaii, as well as Washington state yesterday?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: Yes. Well, there was a plan to hold it simultaneously, in which I would be able to call in and answer some questions through my lawyer, Eric Seitz, but I was informed that I was not allowed to talk to any reporters during duty hours.

AMY GOODMAN: Your father opposed the war in Vietnam and was able to do alternative service in the Peace Corps in Peru?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of alternative service would you like to do?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: You know, there’s just — there’s so much problems that we have within our own country. Instead of trying to fix the problems of other countries, I’ll be willing to do anything I can. If they wanted to send me down to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, I’ll do that in a heartbeat. I’m willing to do anything it takes to help the people of America within the laws of America.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you consider yourself patriotic, Ehren?

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: I do. I love my country. And I believe in our principles of democracy. And that’s, we’re ruled by the people and equality for all. And I think — I know I would do anything it takes to ensure that that prevails.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, and we hope to talk to you again, as we follow your case.

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, speaking to us from Washington, as well as his attorney Legrand Jones from Washington state, as well.

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