Watada victory bittersweet


POSTED: Tuesday, September 29, 2009

There's an impulse to reduce 1st Lt. Ehren Watada to a symbol.

Peace activists lionize him as a man of conscience who stood up to George W. Bush's war machine, while military advocates demonize him as a coward who abandoned his troops and his oath to defend the United States.

But his personal saga is more complex than either extreme can capture. Watada is neither a pacifist nor a traitor. For one thing, he requested to fight in Afghanistan rather than go to Iraq.

From a legal standpoint, there is no doubt that Watada won. The Army failed in its attempts to court-martial the first U.S. officer to refuse to fight the Iraq war. After a three-year legal battle, the Kalani High School graduate will leave the Army in early October, discharged under “;other than honorable conditions,”; as the Army recognizes the insurmountable double jeopardy threat raised by his earlier mistrial.

He has been working a desk job at Fort Lewis in Washington state since refusing to deploy with his artillery unit in 2006, on the grounds that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq were illegal and participating would make him a party to war crimes.

Since then, his 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team has served three tours in Iraq. President Bush, whom Watada publicly denounced, has been replaced by Democrat Barack Obama, who campaigned against the war but, once elected, found it difficult to rapidly withdraw U.S. forces. Thousands of military men and women remain in Iraq, praised for their sacrifices even as American support for the overall effort wanes as the war grinds on.

Watada, 31, looks forward to getting on with his life, and one of his lawyers predicted that history will treat him favorably.

But it's unrealistic to expect any softening from many Iraq veterans or their families. By describing the war as illegal, Watada essentially called into question the service of those who did follow orders. He's always been prepared to pay a price for taking a stand, and enmity in certain quarters will be part of the toll.