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Resistance to War Cannot be Jailed

ColumnFebruary 01, 2007


    You can jail the resisters, but you can’t jail the resistance. George W. Bush, take notice as U.S. Army Lt. Ehren Watada is court-martialed next week. Congress, take heed. Young people in harm’s way are leading the way out of Iraq. It is time you followed.

    Watada was the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. He joined the military in March 2003. He believed President Bush’s claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, connections to 9/11 and al-Qaida, and that Iraq was an imminent threat to the United States.

    After signing on, he studied intensively to be well prepared to lead troops in Iraq. His studies, and the daily news coming out of Iraq of civilian deaths and no WMD, led him to the conclusion that the war was not only immoral, but also illegal.

    On June 6, 2006, Watada said: “My moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution and not to those who would issue unlawful orders. … 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.”

    He refused to deploy. The Army charged Watada with missing the troop movement, contempt toward officials and conduct unbecoming an officer. Watada hoped that his court-martial would be a hearing on the legality of the war. He was not claiming conscientious objection; rather, he says, he simply refused an illegal order. He offered to resign his commission. He offered to serve in Afghanistan. The Army refused his offers. A military judge ruled Watada cannot present evidence challenging the war’s legality or explain what motivated him to resist his deployment order.

    On our “Democracy Now!” news hour, Watada said of his upcoming Feb. 5 court-martial, “it will be a non-trial. It will not be a fair trial or a show of justice. I think that they will simply say: 'Was he ordered to go? Yes. Did he go? No. Well, he's guilty.’ ”

    Several journalists to whom Watada spoke were subpoenaed in order to testify, first at his pretrial hearing, then at the court-martial. The journalists fought back, and in each case, the Army backed down. Sarah Olson, one of the independent journalists involved, said, “I am glad the growing number of dissenting voices within the military will retain their rights to speak with reporters.”

    Dissent within the military against the war in Iraq is growing. Iraq Veterans Against the War has quadrupled in size in the past year. More than 1,200 soldiers have signed on to an “Appeal for Redress,” with which active-duty soldiers can appeal to Congress for an end to the war with legal protections against retaliation from the military. The appeal simply reads:

    “As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.”

    Sgt. Ronn Cantu signed the Appeal for Redress, which soldiers can do confidentially online at In a “Democracy Now!” exclusive, Cantu spoke to us over a crackly cell-phone connection from the front lines in Iraq: “I’m scared out of my mind right now. … It’s a belief of the soldiers I’ve talked to that any troop increase over here, it’s just going to be more sitting ducks, more targets.”

    Since Watada and other active-duty resisters are facing years in military prison, I recently asked two of the most progressive members of the new Senate, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, what Congress could do for the soldiers facing court-martial. Both replied, “I don’t know.” As Congress wrangles over non-binding resolutions condemning Bush’s war-making — or as he calls it, his “surge” — these brave young patriots are making binding decisions.

    Without Congress taking decisive action, these soldiers are left to fend for themselves. How many must die, how many must be sent to prison or flee to Canada, before Congress ends this war?

    Amy Goodman hosts the radio news program “Democracy Now!” Distributed by King Features Syndicate.

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