THE WATADA COURT-MARTIAL
Refusal dubbed betrayal, a disgrace
Videos of Watada's statements are shown during trial
FORT LEWIS, Wash. » The actions of an Army lieutenant who refused to ship out to Iraq were a betrayal and inconsistent with the behavior of a good officer, one of his commanders told a court-martial yesterday.
In opening statements, prosecutors in the case against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada said he abandoned his soldiers and brought disgrace upon himself and the service by accusing the Army of war crimes and denouncing the administration for conducting an illegal war founded on lies.
Defense attorney Eric Seitz countered that Watada, who is from Honolulu, acted in good conscience, based on his own convictions.
Prosecutors then called Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia, battalion commander for the brigade's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
Antonia said he learned of Watada's concerns late in January 2006. He urged Watada not to make any public statements, Antonia said.
"I was dismayed, probably a little bit betrayed," Antonia said. "I believe what he said was that the commander in chief made decisions based on lies, that he specifically deceived the American people. That is nowhere in the realm of a lieutenant in the United States Army."
Watada, 28, is charged with missing movement for refusing to ship out with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He also faces charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for his statements against the war. If convicted, he could receive four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Watada has already acknowledged he didn't get on the plane and that he made the statements in question, Seitz said in his opening statement.
"At most, he engaged in an act or form of civil disobedience," Seitz said. "No way does that add up to conduct unbecoming an officer."
Watada is the first commissioned officer to be court-martialed for refusing to go to Iraq, said Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington, D.C.
Despite a sworn duty to lead his fellow soldiers, Watada sat comfortably in his office as his soldiers departed for Iraq on June 22 -- "Absent a leader they had trained with. Absent a leader they had trusted," Capt. Scott Van Sweringen, an Army prosecutor, told a seven-member panel of officers hearing the case. "He brought disgrace to himself ... and the Army."
Van Sweringen said that by Jan. 1, 2006, Watada had concluded that the Iraq war was illegal, but "rather than quietly accept the consequences of his decision" he publicly declared his intent not to deploy to Iraq.
On June 7, Watada released a video statement at a news conference in Tacoma.
"The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible and moral injustice, but it's a contradiction to the Army's own law of land warfare," Watada said in the video.
The court watched video of Watada's statements from June and from an Aug. 12 Veterans for Peace convention in Seattle, where he told a crowd that the Bush administration had "used us for rampant violations of time-tested laws banning torture and degradation of prisoners of war."
Under cross-examination from Seitz, Antonia told the court he believed soldiers are obligated to determine for themselves whether they've been given an illegal order.
"I would expect him not to obey if the order was illegal," Antonia said, prompting several excited murmurs from spectators watching the hearing from a nearby overflow room.
Antonia stressed, however, that if the chain of command determined it to be a legal order, he would expect the officer to obey.
Earlier yesterday, Seitz said Watada had no choice but to go public after the Army refused his offers to take a combat post in Afghanistan or elsewhere, and rejected his request that he be allowed to resign.
The court also heard from a professor who teaches professional ethics at West Point and Watada's former deputy brigade commander.
Professor Richard Swain said he advises cadets that they must make a distinction between legal issues and moral issues.
"We are a nation of laws and particularly in the military, violations of laws have accountability," Swain said, adding that soldiers are not obligated to obey an illegal order.
"Moral issues are another category," he said. When a soldier arrives at a moral conflict, "Then you have to do what you have to do in the full knowledge that you will be held accountable for what you decide."
Lt. Col. William James said he counseled Watada on one of his requests for resignation, telling him not to make "a young man's mistake, not making a decision based solely on emotion."
It was important, James said, that Watada understand his responsibilities both as a citizen and as an officer who would lead soldiers.
When asked whether an officer's actions had an effect on other soldiers, he said there was little doubt.
"An officer at any level ... you are oftentimes the point of reference soldiers use for their moral compass," James said.
Because military judge Lt. Col. John Head has barred several experts in international and constitutional law from testifying about the legality of the war, Seitz said the defense will offer just two witnesses: Watada himself and an Army captain who has known him for roughly two years.