Exclusive: One on One With 1st Lt. Ehren Watada

Pacific Citizen, Q&A, Caroline Aoyai-Stom Posted: Aug 30, 2006

It’s been just a little over a month now since 1st Lt. Ehren Watada followed through with his decision to refuse deployment orders to Iraq after offering to serve in other areas of the world and rendering his resignation. Now the U.S. Army has officially charged him for his actions and he will face a pre-trial hearing Aug. 17.

watada family
First Lt. Ehren Watada thanks his parents Carolyn Ho (left) and Robert Watada (right) for supporting his decision to refuse deployment to Iraq, often facing criticism themselves. Photo by Jeff Paterson.

From Fort Lewis, Washington where he is currently stationed and working in an administrative position, Watada speaks with the Pacific Citizen. Although he now faces three charges — missing troop movement, conduct unbecoming an officer, and contempt towards officials — he has no regrets.

Reflecting on the impact his decision has had both personally and for the larger Japanese American community, we get a rare glimpse into the reasons behind Watada’s controversial decision.

Pacific Citizen: How has the response from the Japanese American community and the larger Asian Pacific American community been since you announced your decision in June?

Ehren Watada: Just by reading a few of the comments, the response has been fairly polarized. I didn’t expect a large proportion of Asian Americans or Japanese Americans to rally to my side. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. I feel relieved that all Americans, regardless of race or creed, including AAs have lent their support. This really shouldn’t be an issue about race. Yet, it is curious to note, that the majority of soldiers who have voiced their support in person, have been minorities. Whether they see me as giving a voice to minorities in the Army or simply fighting for minority rights I don’t know.

PC: How have you been doing since the charges were announced? Any regrets?

EW: No regrets. How could I regret making the moral choice? How could I regret refusing to participate in something I believe is illegal? How could I continue to be silent — condoning the continual violation of laws by our nation’s leaders?

To understand my position, you first have to ask yourself what you believe is the role of an American soldier. Is he or she a mercenary — obliged by a signed contract to follow all orders without question? Or can he or she be a freethinking, educated, and rational person, given the opportunity to discern between lawful and unlawful orders?

Not surprisingly, the prevailing attitude whether assumed or reinforced is “yes” to the first question. The Army has always strongly relied on the authoritarian command structure where orders are followed without question and the assumption is that those issuing the orders are trusted and honorable. Yet, my experience tells me that those who issue the orders are not infallible, including our civilian leadership. Reliance on an unquestioning, blindly obedient Army is a slippery slope which can only lead to the likes of Abu Graib and many other atrocities that will never be known by mainstream America.

So then we go back to the role of the American soldier. The ability and responsibility to question is not a foreign thought even in the Army. Just a month before my former unit deployed, a battalion commander (lieutenant colonel) was relieved of his command. This came about because his subordinate commanders formed a consensus that he nurtured a negative command climate and voiced their dissent to the battalion commander’s boss.

According to my detractors, this would constitute mutiny! Surely, these captains should have waited for this lieutenant colonel’s command time to end (after Iraq) — after all, he had trained with these men for over a year. But these men committed no such crime, because fortunately for them and their men, there exists a system of accountability. I would hope that your readers can take this example and apply it to my situation.

PC: As you know, the JA community has long revered its war vets, especially its WWII vets. Do you think your decision has had a negative impact on their accomplishments?

EW: The 442nd Infantry and 100th Battalion are one of the most decorated units in American Army history. Many Americans who have served or are serving in the military will never know this fact. The JAs who served during WWII fought a two-front battle. They fought against the Germans, Italians, and Japanese. They also fought for their civil rights and that of their families. Some even saw it as fighting for their honor and loyalty as Americans.

Participating in the war in Iraq shows neither honor nor loyalty. If my family was behind barbed wire today, I would not fight in Iraq. This is a war based upon deception of the American people and conducted in full violation of the Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian law, and the laws of land warfare. This is not a WWII fight against German or Japanese aggression. In this war, we the Americans, are the aggressors.

Do my actions reflect negatively on their accomplishments? I would say, no. They fought for honor and loyalty. I am fighting for the honor of our country, through which we do not condone the torture of prisoners of war and we don’t condone a war fought for reasons akin to the Nazis and Imperial Japan.

Despite conflicting loyalties, I am fighting for the allegiance to which I swore an oath to uphold and defend — the Constitutional laws and principles of democracy. My decision brings honor to veteran JAs. Instead of perpetuating war crimes and a war of aggression, I am actively trying to put a stop to it. Instead of being the “quiet, obedient Japanese,” I am fulfilling my oath to protect my soldiers and this country from our government. This is all at great expense — when the easier, safer path would have been to do my tour in Iraq.

PC: Some of the JA vets organizations have said that you knew what you were getting into when you signed up for the U.S. Army. Is there anything you would like to personally say to the JA WWII veterans?

EW: It is important to remember that there are JA vets who individually support me. These JA vet organizations, I assume are referring to blind obedience and loyalty to the civilian leadership. My oath of office specifically dictates neither of those assumptions. They must remember that they volunteered to fight against injustice, tyranny, and aggression. Their decision to join the Army was not out of compulsion. I would hope that these vets see parallels in my actions.

When I volunteered after 9/11 to serve my country I knew I would have to follow orders — sometimes without rhyme or reason. I would have to be obedient and respectful to authority. Never did I believe I would have to follow orders that were contrary to my moral beliefs and illegal. Moreover, never could I have conceived that my trust in leadership would be shattered because of their deception used to wage this war.

We must remember our duty and obligation to do what’s morally right. It’s not that I disagree with this war; it’s not a matter of choice. The government has broken the law and is forcing soldiers to do the same. My ultimate orders provided by the Constitution are simple: refuse to condone or participate in a crime, hold your superiors accountable, and if all possible protect life. For these JA vets to tell me to go to Iraq anyway is wrong and irresponsible.

PC: You could now possibly face prison time if you are convicted of the charges. How are you dealing with this possibility?

EW: I knew joining the Army, whether it was fighting in a foreign war or now fighting for the rights of soldiers, meant sacrifice. In combat, you may lose a limb, bodily functions, or your life. Speaking out against an authoritarian government and refusing to obey their unlawful orders may mean loss of liberty and other less than pleasant things. These are both sacrifices and commitments made to the American people as an American soldier. I gave my life to protect freedom and democracy — a sacrifice I am willing to make by doing the right thing.

In a way I’m already free. Physically they can lock me up, throw away the key, leave me to rot and contemplate my “crimes.” For a long time I was in turmoil. I felt compelled to fulfill the terms of my contract despite what I knew to be utterly wrong. Only when I realized that I served not men and institutions but the people of this country, did I believe there was another answer. That choice was to do what is right and just.

PC: The national JACL recently released a statement regarding your situation. Although they did not have a position on your refusal to deploy to Iraq they did express concern about two of the charges against you: contempt towards officials and conduct unbecoming an officer. Do you take any comfort in that a national JA organization has come out with such a statement of concern?

EW: From my understanding, the vote, even though it was favorable to me, was very close. It was heavily and very emotionally disputed. Despite the reservations of many members, I am eternally grateful for their public support. I would hope that in time, those who disagree with me, will see that my actions are representative of all the proud things JACL stands for.

PC: What are some of the lessons that the younger generations of JAs can take away from your situation?

EW: Be involved. Be an informed citizen who is willing to act and sacrifice for the freedom and democracy we all cherish. The voting age was changed to 18 because we realized that if America’s young men and women were eligible to die for their country at that age, they should have a say.

I say be involved, because as a young man working my way through school, playing tennis, surfing, and partying on the weekends, I never was. Beyond skimming the front-page headlines, I never delved into the deeper issues behind politics and current events. Beyond one class in college, I never realized how certain past administrations have wrecked havoc upon third world countries in the name of power and greed.

Would I be where I am now if I had never joined the Army? Absolutely not. I would not be in a position to do what I am doing or even be aware of what’s really going on in Iraq. But that’s not an excuse for inaction or ignorance. I advocate mandatory service be it in the military or some other volunteer organization.

PC: How have your fellow soldiers been treating you since you announced your decision?

EW: Immediately after my public statement, you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. Some things were said around me, within hearing distance, but not to my face. The majority of negative comments were made to those who worked directly with me. I was probably the least popular person on Fort Lewis.

Most who had been friendly and cordial to me before, greeted me with silence. Some of the lieutenants I was close with told me in confidence that although they did not agree with my decision, they knew I was a good person, respected my decision, and sincerely wished me good luck.

Since my transfer out of my deploying unit, I work with a mixture of senior officers and civilians. All of them have been polite and professional. To my surprise, I have been approached by several soldiers of all ranks who have voiced their support. I have also had complete strangers approach me in the outlying communities to lend me words of encouragement.

I am not under any illusions, I know there are those who despise me and would like to see me harmed; I have received just as many of those types of messages. Fortunately, for now, I have been spared the worst.

PC: Your family has been very outspoken in support of your decision. How are they dealing with your situation? What has their support meant to you?

EW: The support of my family has been immeasurable and helped me to realize how important it is to love, understand and support one another. At times I know my parents fear for my safety and my future. It’s actually ironic considering they would be facing the same fears had I deployed. I had to reassure them that no matter what the outcome, I am at peace because I did the right thing.

To go through what I am experiencing would definitely have been much more difficult without the support of my family. Even my parents at one point needed much convincing and explanation. But even if I did not have their support, it would not have stopped me from making my decision. In fact it was made before I told them.

For my parents to come out publicly and support me exemplifies their courage and integrity. They could just have easily supported me from the shadows. Instead, they have opened up and exposed themselves to the same hatred directed towards me. They face the same danger to their personal safety and future risks for standing up for me and our common cause.

PC: Many of the P.C. readers have come out in support of your plight. Is there anything that you would like to personally say to them?

EW: Thank you, thank you, and thank you again for taking an interest and supporting a cause which belongs to all conscientious Americans. But it is not enough. There are many more servicemen and women who believe as we do and feel trapped. Help them realize that they too have a choice — they too can do the right thing. Be vocal, take an active interest, and force others to do the same. All of us must be willing to sacrifice if we want to see change.

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User Comments

Henry Wadahara on Sep 27, 2006 at 15:08:32 said:

First of all, I would not call Watada a Lt. He don't deserve that. He gave that title up when he refused to deploy with the rest of the troops.

Watada could have gone and not shoot at anyone if he felt it was inmoral to do so. Don't be a baby all your life, it's time to grow-up and be a man and stop making excuses and crying. Stand-up for right and for yourself and don't depend on others because you screwed-up.

The lucky one's are the hero's who did not have to serve under him. I would rather see him turn tail and run now than while under fire for the troops would not have a leader to follow. I'm glad he was not handcuffed to go to Iraq for the word "fraging" would resurface again in America.

Tom Watson on Sep 10, 2006 at 14:49:25 said:

Let me respond:

"...all NCO's and Officers have the right to defend their belief of illegal or immoral orders, once they paprticipate. "

So a soldier has to participate in a war crime before they can protest it? Hmm.

"You can hardly stand in Washington state and defend your troops from an illegal or immoral order you haven't received."

Is his mind, (and many others') the very order to go to Iraq is illegal.

"The Lt has repeatedly said he'd go to Afghanistan, is that any more illegal or immoral than Iraq."

Yes, because people in Afghanistan attacked us. President Bush recently said in a press conference that Iraq had "nothing" to do with 9/11.

"He's been to Korea, he served there. This looks and sounds more like cowardice with each growing day."

Your reasoning doesn't make sense. He'd agree to go into combat in Afghanistan (where we are suffering casualties and losing control due to the fact that we're fighting a two-front war, but I digress), but he's a coward? He's served on the line in Korea, but he's a coward? Please show some respect for those of us who've actually served in Korea. Also, sticking his neck out the way he has must have taken a hell of a lot of courage. Ask yourself how you would feel - risking the contempt of EVERYONE on base, destruction of your career, jail. Cowardice would be going AWOL, or deploying and hiding out in the green zone for a year and coming home. He's not a coward.

"If he was the man he says he is, he'd be with his troops, taking care of them."

Maybe fighting to stop their pointless mobilization, injury and death in this illegal war is "taking care of them". Also, he's not making any claim to be "a man" in the sense you speak of. He seems very humble and thoughtful.

"Secondly, anyone who has voiced her or his opinion here has the right to do so, won on the blood and sacrifice of veterans, a term defined as those who have defended what others reap."

If I understand, you're waving the flag here a little. Good for you. But you're implying that anyone who doesn't agree with you dishonors the fallen.

"We will however, do what we're ordered to do, within reason."

"'Within reason,"? NO Sergeant - within the law. Under the Constitution, not within reason. Under the Geneva Convention, not within reason. By the way, we're not "at war". Congress has yet to declare war.

"There have been many occasions where field commanders have refused attacks, bombardments, or strikes on targets without legitimate value or reason. Let's hope the same military defending our homeland has the good common sense to obey orders the next time we're attacked on our own soil. Respectfully."

Again, you're missing the basic point of what we are trying to get across here. The argument is that the very act of going to Iraq is supporting an illegal order. That's the argument. You and I may disagree on the bigger picture, and that's fine (and obvious), but I think you just don't want to acknowledge the specific argument being brought up here, because quite frankly, this guy has made a very try at putting the war on trial.


Don Hardison on Sep 08, 2006 at 05:32:23 said:

Mr Watson, your the one missing the point. I believe all NCO's and Officers have the right to defend their belief of illegal or immoral orders, once they paprticipate. You can hardly stand in Washington state and defend your troops from a illegal or immoral order you havent received. The Lt has repeatedly said he'd go to Afghanistan, is that any more illegal or immoral than Iraq. He's been to Korea, he served there. This looks and sounds more like cowardice with each growing day. If he was the man he says he is, he'd be with his troops, taking care of them.
Secondly, anyone who has voiced her or his opinion here has the right to do so, won on the blood and sacrifice of veterans, a term defined as those who have defended what others reap. The military again can not wage war without civilian control, if you dont like the people you elected to control it, you have a right to change that with a vote. We don't make policy, nor do we have to like it. We will however, do what we're ordered to do, within reason. There have been many occasions where field commanders have refused attacks, bombardments, or strikes on targets without legitimate value or reason. Let's hope the same military defending our homeland has the good common sense to obey orders the next time we're attacked on our own soil. Respectfully.

Tom Watson on Sep 08, 2006 at 03:00:53 said:

SGT Hardison, with all due respect, you missed a critical point. Here's an extreme illustration: if the President announced that he was suspending the constitution, and you were ordered to round up anyone of Arab descent (including women and children) and execute them, would you do it? I would hope not.
Volunteering for service is not a rubber stamp to do whatever you are told. You, as a soldier, have the MORAL OBLIGATION to evaluate every order given you and, if necessary, disobey an illegal one. "I was just following orders" has been the excuse of war criminals since the history of war. We are Americans. We should be better than that.

You may disagree with his reasoning... that's fine, but his point is that he (along with a growing number of Americans) sees this as an illegal order.

Since you deign to speak for veterans and widows victimized by this war, I'll give it a try also.

Ask them if they'd like their arm or leg back. Ask them if they'd like their missing spouse back. Ask them if this war against a country that didn't attack us was worth it.

Would you give your son or daughter up to remove Saddam Hussein? I wouldn't. Why don't we send our kids into the Sudan? Tibet? North Korea? Somalia?

By the way, I spent three years in the Army putting my life on the line, so I do have some knowledge of how soldiers think, and how they really want to be supported. Sending them on a worthless adventure in Iraq (two or three tours) ain't it.

Jodi on Sep 06, 2006 at 05:48:48 said:

I completely support Lt. Watada and am so impressed by his courage to stand against this immoral war. I am opposed to the war myself, but to say so does not cost me my job, nor threaten incarceration. How many times have we all not said something we believe because we\'ve been afraid of even the smallest rejection of friends, family and co-workers. Yet here is this young man, who is doing exactly that. The armed forces should be proud to have such a MAN in their ranks.

I am so tired of people who support this war, who talk about our national security and the fight against terrorism. Don\'t they see that this war is EXACTLY the kind of Amercian Imperialism that generated the kind of hate behind the attacks of 9/11? There IS a relationship between 9/11 and the Iraq war, but it is quite the opposite of what the Bush administration and these war supporters say it is. The relationship is not about stopping terrorism against the US, it is about ENSURING it. All we are doing in this war is making rich people in our county richer, running up our national deficet, killing innocent people (both Iraqis and Americans) and making more terrorists--fueling the already rampaging fire of hate for the US.

Thank God for people like Lt. Watada. Maybe we still have some hope to stop this illegal war and start holding this corrupt administration accountable for all of their crimes. That is who should be on trial. Not someone who has a conscience! How did everything get to be so backwards?

MollyA on Sep 06, 2006 at 02:31:36 said:

If all Americans had the courage to do what Ehren Watada did... what he believed was right... There wouldn't be enough soldiers left to make this war happen.

Don Hardison on Sep 05, 2006 at 08:01:42 said:

While I understand the Lt's feelings and reason's it ultimately boils down to the fact he volunteered. Was he a no nothing 17 year old hood winked by a recruiter into thinking he'd be cleaning pots and pans during his enlistment, obviously not. He speaks of being accountable and preventing the carrying out of unlawful orders, participating in an unlawful action such as the war. Those are luxuries civilians have while they protest out of uniform. Had you deployed when you were supposed to, protected your men as you gave an oath to do, whether that was physically or morally denying an unlawful order of battle or of questionable legality, you would have been fulfilling some of the same desires you speak of now. You also speak of losing a limb, bodily functions or a life as if you know somehow what that means. Speak to a veteran who has recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan, and tell them you didnt go because of the immoral foundation in which this war is being waged and I'll bet the ask for one of your limbs or bodily functions. Ask a widow about the life her or his spouse gave as the ultimate sacrifice. You don't get to choose when you die or how you die, had you been wearing that uniform and upheld the oath you made, you can guarantee the life you gave would have been an honorable one. I have served for over 19 years, I know the sacrifices made, I gave some, but many have given all. You my friend have given up and you will be convicted for that offense. I feel you'll also suffer more with your own decisions as you mature. I'd be surpised if this is published after reading their disclaimer.

Sincerely awaiting your sentencing

Don Hardison

Max Williams on Sep 04, 2006 at 13:13:30 said:

I believe that the efforts of Ehren Watada and those of his ilk are hoping for the wrong end. They say they seek an end to this Iraq War.

Unfortunately for them and all of us, if we do not continue the fight in Iraq , Afghhanistan, and any where else that Terrorism rerars it's ugly head, we will be fighting it here and in the not too distant future.

The failure of Watada is to see an even bigger picture: the likes of Osama Bin Laden and his disciples will stop at nothing to destroy all freredom loving people, even their own family members, to achieve world domination.

So, face it now or face it later but we all who love democracy and freedom will have to fight or be destroyed by the evil that is seeking to take frredom from us.

Karen L. on Sep 01, 2006 at 03:35:57 said:

Lt. Watada deserves support for his outstanding courage. This immoral, illegal invasion of another country based on deception does not need to be supported. To conquer another people and their country is not a war. If what Lt. Watada is doing is considered illegal, I ask, is this invasion legal? Daily news accounts of atrocity after atrocity committed by both sides creates fear, undue pain suffered by innocents and families of those that have a son/daughter as soldiers. Speaking as a Native American of this country, we know about lies, genocide, broken treaties, desecration of sacred lands, discrimination, etc.. My message is: Because international laws have been broken by the invasion, there is an all more sacred law that is broken, and that is the natural law of life which we as humans must abide by here on earth.

Tim Truitt on Aug 30, 2006 at 15:18:02 said:

I support Watada. The war is illegal and the President has and continues to lie about the war. The USA should bring all troops in Iraq home immediately

Shannon T Monkowski on Aug 30, 2006 at 09:52:15 said:

For all Americans who know in their hearts that this war in Iraq is immoral, and is the agenda of the oil barons who are intent on controling the middle east's resources, Lt. Watada is our voice, and he is our hero. All Americans need to ask, when will the administration who has lied us into an expensive and immoral war be put on trial. When will their crimes be in front of a judge and jury? Why should Lt. Watada be punished for telling the truth and doing what is right? These are the real questions of justice, and of what is right and wrong.

False patriotism that enables the real criminals to go unpunished is that last thing this country needs. Especially when the rest of the world sees our country as becoming a corporate fascist police state, intent upon controling the world through illegal military actions.




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