Watada took talk too far

By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist

To see what's at stake in the Ehren Watada court-martial trial, all you have to do is look out the courtroom window.

Convoys of Stryker armored vehicles snake back and forth across the Fort Lewis Army base, stopping traffic as the troops prep for an April ship-out to Iraq. It's the war 1st Lt. Watada refused to fight. He will almost certainly be convicted and thrown in prison for that.

More controversially, he is also on trial for words he has said. Words that at first were personal, then aimed at swaying the American people. And then, most radically, words that urged fellow soldiers to end the war by laying down their arms.

His lawyer said in court Tuesday it only adds up to "civil disobedience." But as I watched a line of 19-ton armored vehicles with machine guns and rocket launchers rumble past in the fog, it struck me that that misses the real point.

What Watada did is military disobedience. And no matter how opposed you may be to this war, you've got to stop and think: Do we really want officers who run the most powerful fighting machine in the history of the world deciding what rules to follow as they go along? Even if this time you might agree with this particular officer?

Last summer, I wrote that I admired Watada's act of conscience even as it was inevitable the Army would punish him for it. I wrote then that the Army was wrong to bring charges for the words he said.

Speech isn't so free in the Army. But it also isn't banned. All Watada had said at the time is that the war was based on false pretenses and was, in retrospect, a mistake. I don't think stating the obvious should be a jailable offense.

But that was before Aug. 12, 2006, when Watada did something that by his own admission was "radical." His statements that day were so eye-opening it seems likely he'll get a second conviction, this one for "conduct unbecoming an officer."

He spoke to the Veterans for Peace convention in Seattle. He called on all soldiers to also refuse to fight: "If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols -- if they stood up and threw their weapons down -- no president could ever again initiate a war of choice," he said.

"When we say 'against all enemies, foreign and domestic,' what if our elected leaders become the enemy?"

Now if I said this, you'd yawn. As you should -- I'm a newspaper columnist. But he's an officer urging a mass insurrection by the military against the civilian government.

Yes, he's proposing a peaceful one. Still it subverts the entire premise that it's we civilians who control the military, not vice versa. It might sound good right now if, like me, you're against this war. But who's to say next time it won't be an officer wanting to take up arms against the government?

It's why the founding fathers so wisely "chained the dogs of war."

It's why Watada is going to be found guilty.

And it's why if we're going to get out of Iraq, it's up to we the people, not soldiers, to do it.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday.

Reach him at 206-464-2086 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Full story: