Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Just ask 1st Lt. Ehren Watada who’s second court martial is coming up. He’s refused to be deployed to Iraq and made (GASP!) critical statements of Bush and the war.

Watada has acknowledged making public statements criticizing the war and Bush. He has said deploying to Baghdad last year with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division would have made him guilty of war crimes by participating in an illegal war.

How DARE he???

He’s being court-martialed for missing movement and for conduct unbecoming an officer. If convicted, Watada could get six years in prison and be dishonorably discharged.

I’m torn over this. On the one hand, joining the military in the USA is pretty much like checking your conscience and free will at the door, and they make that fact well-known. Orders are orders, and orders are to be followed. On the other, if someone wants speak up about what they think is a senseless war (especially those forced to DO the dirty work) and doesn’t want to participate, can we blame them? I am certain that those that have serious qualms with killing in Iraq might be made use of elsewhere. But, it could be argued that once you make an exception for one, many other “conscientious objectors” start popping up and no one wants to go to Iraq.

Which I’m not certain is a bad thing.


  1. #1 Jeff Harrell
    February 28, 2007

    Yeah, I kinda can blame him. Here’s how I look at it: Part of this guy’s job is not to make any public statements critical of his employer. If he violates that policy, he can be fired for it. It’s just that in this particular case, because he’s an officer in the military and the stakes are a bit higher than they are for you and me, “firing” him can include a stint in the stockade.

    An order to deploy to Iraq is not, by any interpretation, illegal. It simply isn’t. Lt. Watada exacerbated his offense by making public statements critical of the chain of command, which is a textbook example of conduct unbecoming. If you zoom way out and look at the larger issues, yes, there are important questions here. But those larger questions don’t, in my mind, contradict the basic facts.

  2. #2 Shelley
    February 28, 2007

    My issue really isn’t one of technical legality. The war in Iraq is considered legal, yes. He is a soldier and disobeying a deployment order is an offense, yes. Apparently speaking critically against the war is an offense as well, ok. I agree these are the facts, and the current situation he’s in is a result of these.

    My issue is that he doesn’t get First Amendment Rights and that he doesn’t have any choice or even a chance at negotiation when it comes to being placed in a situation which will very likely require him to kill someone. As I said, the reason i’m torn over this is that these facts should have been apparent to him *before* he joined. But really, I’m criticizing an outdated and unfair system of punishment and the denial of rights.

    If you don’t like the war, don’t join. But what if you join in peacetime and are sent to a war with which you disagree vehemently? Wouldn’t the US rather have those people at home, rather than risk them defecting, sabotaging, or deserting anyway?

  3. #3 Gary L. Herstein
    February 28, 2007

    Things may have changed in the almost 30 years since I was in the army. But one of the things that was emphasized in my training is that you do not get to hide behind the “I was following orders” excuse when confronted by an illegal order &/or a crime against humanity. This is true whether it be wartime or not. One thing that leads me to suspect it might still be at least partially true is that Lt. Watada’s first Courts Martial ended in mistrial. (Did I mis-read the news on this?) The jury and the panel of judges (if there is more than one judge) in such trials are peers of Lt. Watada, which means they are also officers in the military.

    Perhaps this earlier attitude toward war crimes has been dismissed by the contemporary military as mere touchy-feely excess, after the rather less touchy-feely excesses of Lt. Calley, Capt. Medina, and others. But the statement above that, “joining the military in the USA is pretty much like checking your conscience and free will at the door,” invokes in me a response that, despite its indisputable legitimacy, would likely be perceived as rude.

    Perhaps Ms. Batts could illuminate me here by offering a few details regarding her years in the service, the nature of her training, and her memory of the oaths she took upon swearing in? Or is she advancing her characterizations of the military in the absence of such knowledge?

  4. #4 Gary L. Herstein
    February 28, 2007

    Ah! a bit more research on my part regarding the mistrial:

    “The first military trial for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada ended in a mistrial Feb. 7, when the judge said he didn’t believe Watada, 28, fully understood a pretrial agreement he’d signed.”

    Curious, to be sure, but still the product of a military tribunal.

  5. #5 Shelley
    February 28, 2007

    Gary, certainly didn’t mean to offend. I’m extremely grateful for the work and sacrifices of all military people. And, I’m not trying to suggest that by joining up, you are now not a moral agent. But rather that questioning what you are told to do (and yes, you may be absolved in the end for *not* doing it) is at the very least aggressively discouraged. I agree that the tricky nature of being a moral agent AND being a soldier probably was what resulted in his first mistrial. Hopefully he can make as strong of a case in the second. The point is what constitutes a crime against humanity…obviously this person’s definition differs very much than the military’s, or else he wouldn’t be in this position.

    People (me, commenters, etc) hold opinions all the time on this blog related to scientists, politic, policy, or whatever. I don’t expect that only scientists should voice opinions related to my science posts nor will I withold my opinions about areas not within my particular scope of direct expertise and experience.

  6. #6 Charlie (Colorado)
    February 28, 2007

    Shelley, the thing is that he could have done this in the normal fashion, by resigning his commission. Then he’d be out and he could do anything he liked. If he’d decided he had reasons of conscience, he could have requested release as a conscientious objector.

    Remaining in, but failing to show up, just doesn’t cut it. Other people are depending on him; by failing to show up, he’s hurting a lot of people.

    Similarly, the question of criticism: as an officer he’s expected not to publicly criticize his superiors in ways that could become known to juniors. You can call a general an idiot to his face: that’s legitimate, if perhaps not a wise way to get a good fitrep. But if you, as an L.T., call the General an idiot while talking to your soldiers, then you’re reducing the confidence of the whole group. This has many unfortunate side effects, a lot of them tending to get people unnecessarily dead. That’s why “conduct unbecoming” is considered a serious crime: it makes the whole unit work less well, which tends to cause casualties that might otherwise be avoided.

    Again, there’s a solution: resign. But he didn’t take it; instead he’s insisting on making a political statement while remaining in. Even though it’s damaging.

    Personally, I think he’s lucky it’s only “missing a movement” and “conduct unbecoming.” I’d have charged him with desertion.

  7. #7 Charlie (Colorado)
    February 28, 2007

    Gary, as you can see, I don’t agree with Shelley on this. None the less, that snark was out of line.

  8. #8 Debbie
    February 28, 2007

    He has offered to resign his commission at least twice but the offers were rejected.

    The reason he did not claim concientious objector status is because that is not his reason for not going to Iraq. He has offered to serve anywhere else, even Afghanistan. Of course, soldiers ususally don’t get to choose where they serve, but he is not trying to take the easy way out by claiming concientious objector status.

    According to the newspaper he was drawn to the military as an eagle scout and ROTC officer. When he learned he was to be deployed to Iraq he decided to learn more about it and after reading up on it, he came to believe the war was illegal. I belive is being made an example because he is an officer, and maybe because he is Asian-American, although I don’t ususally like playing the race card.

    I respect him for standing up for what he believes in. Should he have gone, perhaps having to put troops in harms way for something he does not believe in? Made bad decisions because his heart was not in his mission? Or risk a court martial and prison for himself? It must have been a very difficult choice.

    I think there are many more AWOL soldiers than we are lead to believe. The other day I was at the mall and overheard some young men talking at the next table in the food court. One guy was explaining how he got here. He was a soldier with orders to go to Iraq so he went AWOL, trying for the Canadian border, but they caught him before he crossed. They gave him a dishonorable discharge and a one-way ticket. As I left, after finishing my lunch, he was saying he wished he could have made it to Canada. Of course that is anecdotal, but still.

  9. #9 Stogoe
    February 28, 2007

    Fuck the military. This war was based on lies and fascist fear-mongering propaganda, aided and abetted by the media conglomerates and defense contractors who stood to rake in windfall profit. The cowards who were put into office to defend the interests of we the people have been bought by the corporate fascist rulership; they no longer serve us. Our military was co-opted for the corporate profit war, and not for our security.

    Watada needs a promotion and a commendation at least. Stop this evil war by any means necessary. If that means a revolt of the generals, so be it. If that means impeachment and imprisonment of everyone this administration has touched, so be it. If we have to decapitate the government because of the institutional corruption and cronysim, all the better.

  10. #10 Bob Abu
    February 28, 2007

    They’d let him out for being a homo. Why doesn’t he just come out of the closet?

  11. #11 Bob Abu
    February 28, 2007

    I also thought, since the Nuremberg trials, war crimes were still a big “no, no” for US soldiers.

    “Just following orders,” was not a defense for Eichman either.

    But, I guess that was only for the defeated Nazis and not for the victorious allies.

  12. #12 Paul Weidler
    March 1, 2007

    Bob Abu has the gist of it: yes, this is an illegal war, by international law. By the US Constitution, the UN treaty is law in the USA. Watada’s refusal to disobey illegal orders is very much conduct becoming an American Officer. Unfortunately, the military court refused — repeatedly — to address the illegality of the war, and Watada’s right and duty to refuse to follow orders to deploy.

    Under normal circumstances, a soldier does not have the same rights to speak out against their civilian commanders that we civilians have (indeed, they do not even have the right to petition the government for redress of greiveance…another topic with other soldiers seeking alernative means to petition Congress). However, Watada did everything, according to military law and custom, to refuse what he saw as illegal orders. That is the foundation of his defense, and the cause of his mistrial. has been following his case closely, and has many details about the legal defense and arguments in this case.

  13. #13 Charlie (Colorado)
    March 1, 2007


    (1) Can you find someone who seriously believes the Iraqi campaign is illegal who has any legal credibility to match, eg, Joe Biden, who says the resolution was a clear declaration of war?

    (2) Can you explain why this campaign is illegal while Kosovo isn’t? Seeing as Kosovo had neither an authorizing Congressional action nor an authorizing resolution from the UN?

    (3) When did Watada try to resign? Before he was ordered to Iraq or after?

    I’m not particularly impressed by the notion that Watada was willing to pick and choose his assignments, ie, Afghanistan vs Iraq. If one is illegal, so is the other; if his moral constraints won’t let him serve in Iraq, it’s not clear to me how it becomes more moral if he goes 300 miles to the right.

  14. #14 bernarda
    March 2, 2007

    There was a news report that several U.S. generals have threatened to resign if Bush orders an attack on Iran.

    Why is it that generals have the right to resign but lower-level soldiers don’t?

  15. #15 jon
    March 2, 2007

    I am 54, a veteran (enlisted and officer), and I strongly oppose the war in Iraq. But Watada’s wrong. To me he’s the worst sort of officer for letting down his teammates. Following an illegal order doesn’t pertain. The war isn’t illegal, that’s a meaningless concept. The important point is that he’s not been asked or ordered to do anything against his oath to serve the Constitution. He probably has an obligation to serve for a certain number of years (to repay a scholarship, I assume) and therefore can’t resign. Though I agree with his political position, his political position is irrelevant and he should go to jail.

  16. #16 Bob Abu
    March 3, 2007

    No war declaration has been issued by the United States Congress. This is required by the US Constitution. Though the Constitution is just a “god damned piece of paper,” according to the current President.

    But even if the war was declared, this would not make it legal under international law which outlaws “unprovoked wars of aggression,” but offers no enforcement mechanism for the laws violation.

    So, the President’s pronouncements are just rhetoric similar to the “war on fat,” the “war on drugs” or even the “war on poverty.”

    Anyway, unlike those other “wars,” the Americans have achieved all of the objectives they stated were the reasons for the military action at the outset of the invasion – satisfy themselves that there were no WMD’s and also remove Sadam. They should withdraw.

    We need more men like Watada in the military. There cannot be an American solution to every problem. And indeed our presence there is causing the very instability and anarchistic state decent people oppose. It may also lead to our own destruction much like the Soviet Union was destroyed by its foreign adventures in Afghanistan. See

  17. #17 Jeff Harrell
    March 4, 2007

    The United States hasn’t issued an official declaration of war since 1941, despite having been involved in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia (sort of), the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq twice in that time. So even if that had been a requirement at one time (it wasn’t), precedent would have moved on by now.

    International law is just a notion, really. In the US, every law traces its authority and legitimacy back to the Constitution, but there’s no international equivalent of the Constitution, nor is there any international framework for making or repealing laws. What the lawyers call “international law” is usually the “make it up as you go along” relations between nation-states. It’s fuzzy at the very best.

    If you want to look to the UN Charter as a binding document, which it clearly has never been, then you simply have to conclude that the Iraq invasion was both legal and justified. It’s not even a grey area. In 1991, the UN Security Council voted under Chapter VII of the Charter that Iraq must be disarmed through a system of inspections and reports. That was never accomplished. Whether Iraq was EFFECTIVELY disarmed or not, Iraq was never OFFICIALLY disarmed, and we’re talking about the law here. At any time from 1991 to 2003, any member of the United Nations had the legal authority to use military force in Iraq in order to halt their aggression. The US is the state that chose, after years of harsh negotiations and limited military engagements, to take more drastic action. Whether you think it’s right or wrong, if you adopt the UN as your legal framework, you simply have to agree that it was both legal and justified under that framework.

    Absolutely none of this has anything to do with the case at hand. Soldiers, both officers and enlisted men, have both the right and the obligation to disobey illegal orders. An order to deploy cannot be illegal, no matter what the context. “Soldier, shoot that woman in the head” would be an illegal order except under the most ridiculously extreme circumstances; that’s an order that could and should be disobeyed. “Soldier, board that jetliner and eat peanuts for twelve hours” is not.

    Whether Watada is right or wrong in larger, more abstract terms, he’s totally wrong in the specific terms of this case, and should be subject to the normal system of a court martial and, if necessary, some time in prison.

  18. #18 Blas
    March 4, 2007

    >The war in Iraq is considered legal, yes

    by who?. only if the US doesn´t care about the rest of the world

    when will you nuke me? I am scared.

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