For a junior Army officer named Ehren Watada, the road to Damascus was a two-lane street called Firing Center Road, which cuts through cow pastures in Yakima County, Washington. The air is bone dry, heavy with the smell of sagebrush, and the climate is similar to parts of Iraq. In the fall of 2005, Watada spent 30 days here, training on the Army's 306-acre stretch of desert. In his free time, he sat in the back of a Stryker vehicle and paged through books borrowed from the library in Fort Lewis, Washington.
Watada was hardly an ambitious learner when he was in college, but during officer training his commander taught him that "you should know everything there is to know about your mission, not just where you're shooting the missiles but why you're shooting the missiles." And so, knowing he was bound for Iraq or Afghanistan, Watada began to read voraciously. Among the books he collected for his time in the Yakima desert was James Bamford's A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies, Watada says, sitting in a restaurant in Olympia, Washington, nearly two years later. "I realized we had been lied to," he says. "I was standing out in the middle of the desert, and I had a deep sense of betrayal. I had joined an army, and I thought it was noble. And to think we had engaged in something that had caused so much carnage and destruction and then to find out it was unnecessary. There I was in uniform, and I felt ashamed of what I was being asked to do. I think there's no bigger crime than taking your country into a war based on lies."
Approximately eight months later, at 2:30 A.M. on June 22, 2006, the soldiers in Watada's unit, the Third Stryker Brigade of the Second Infantry Division, stepped onto an airplane bound for Kuwait International Airport and, shortly thereafter, Mosul, Iraq.
Watada was not with them.
Watada, 30, is an unlikely icon of war resistance. At 5 feet 7 inches, he is unimposing and even shy, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, with his dark hair cut Army-short and his ears sticking out. He was raised in Honolulu, where his father, Bob, worked for decades in campaign-finance reform, and his mother, Carolyn Ho, was a high school guidance counselor. Watada, an Eagle Scout, joined the Army in March 2003, his senior year at Hawaii Pacific University and, like everyone who enlists, pledged an oath that members of the U.S. military have taken since 1789. "It doesn't say, 'I, Ehren Watada, will do as I'm told.' It says I will protect the Constitution," Watada says. He supports war in principle and is not a conscientious objector--in fact, he offered to go to Afghanistan (his commanders turned him down). "I'm against the Iraq War," he says. "By law, the war is wrong."
Watada is the only officer who has both spoken out publicly against the war and refused to deploy. His decision has placed him at the center of a media firestorm and embroiled him in a court battle with the government. In November 2007, a federal judge, Benjamin Settle, halted court-martial proceedings against Watada, saying some legal issues needed to be resolved. Today, Watada remains in the Army despite his fervent wish to leave, as he awaits the outcome of the legal dispute.
Although it may have once seemed that way, Watada is not alone in his beliefs. He is part of a growing group of career military officers who have devoted their lives to the armed forces but, in recent months and years, have turned on the institution they once swore to uphold and obey. Their reasons are complex, varied, and personal, ranging from opposition to the civilian leadership in Washington to an understandable desire to resume their lives as spouses and parents. But the trigger for their unhappiness with the military is the same across the board: Iraq.
The dissatisfaction of individuals within the military is a symptom of an apparently intractable war that will continue for decades if John McCain has his way, or for months, if not years, if a Democrat is elected. The war may have pushed the U.S. armed forces, as well as soldiers and officers themselves, past the point of endurance. During the Vietnam War, soldiers were deployed only once, for a year or less. At the time, it was easier to meet the demands because of the draft. Today, the Army is the smallest it has been since 1941. Soldiers work overtime, going to Iraq for multiple deployments and serving 15 months on each tour of duty.
Many officers have come to believe that the war serves little purpose, but they exist in a restricted environment that is hardly conducive to airing grievances. Nevertheless, they are increasingly saying, "Enough." A striking number of officers have chosen to leave the armed forces--by deciding not to re-enlist after completing their official military obligation, by turning to civilian lawyers when they are told to deploy to Iraq, and, increasingly, through desertion. Among those who remain in the military, morale is low, largely because of the damage caused by Iraq. In a February poll sponsored by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.–based research organization, 42 percent of current and former military officers said that they believe "the war in Iraq has broken the U.S. military." Nearly 90 percent said the war "has stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin." They might not express it as openly as Watada, but the fact that officers are voicing these sentiments at all is something close to revolutionary.
Army officials could have resolved the Watada matter with little fanfare. In the months after he read Bamford's book in the Yakima desert, Watada began privately questioning whether or not he should go to Iraq. "I felt depressed," he says. "I felt trapped." He reached out to the people around him. An Army chaplain, a Chinese American who had protested military rule at Tiananmen Square in the 1980s, advised him not to get overly agitated. "Life is long," the chaplain told him.
In early 2006, Watada handed his senior commander a resignation letter. "I told him I would be willing to prepare and train other soldiers to go and fight. But it's just not something I personally could do." While commanding officers discussed the letter, Watada spent one month training for military maneuvers. But the officers began to get frustrated when they realized that Watada was determined not to deploy, regardless of the personnel shortage in Iraq, the president's order, or the commander's wishes. One officer told him, "In your resignation letter, you say you're willing to go to prison. We can accommodate that." Watada thought, "Maybe it's time to get a lawyer."
Within months, he had hired civil-rights attorney Eric A. Seitz, who has defended such well-known clients as American Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Watada says that Seitz warned him he could be handcuffed and forcibly taken to Iraq. "Between 1968 and 1974 I was aware of many cases in which individuals who were opposed to the Vietnam War submitted applications for discharge as conscientious objectors and were required to deploy to Vietnam before the applications were acted on," Seitz says. "In some cases, their applications were denied, leading to disciplinary actions in Vietnam where it was exceptionally difficult to help them." Watada found that a terrifying prospect.
And so he decided to go public. During an eight-month media blitz, he was featured on CNN's Situation Room and the CBS Evening News and in The New York Times. Members of Courage to Resist, an anti-war organization based in Oakland, California, created the Web site, "Thank You Lt. Ehren Watada," and celebrities took notice. Over the next few months, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, and Ed Asner all added their names to a list of supporters on the site, and Sean Penn called Watada to speak with him about his situation. ("It was like talking to a friend of mine," Watada says.)
In some ways, the attention has paid off. Watada has become a cause célèbre of the anti-war movement and a visible symbol of officers' dissatisfaction with the war. But in the eyes of the military, publicly speaking out against the war is an offense as great as or greater than missing that plane to Kuwait. In particular, the Army has taken issue with Watada's statements at a press conference on June 7, 2006, at a church in Tacoma, Washington. Speaking on videotape, Watada announced his refusal to deploy and said that he believes the war is "illegal." Less than two weeks later, he spoke out against the war again--this time in person at University Lutheran Church in Seattle. "He is very measured and considered in his speech," says Ann Wright, a retired Army colonel who also gave a presentation at the event. "He knew the possibility of him being court-martialed and imprisoned [was] high. But he took a stand."
And it cost him dearly. Army prosecutors filed charges within weeks.
Iraq has created a class of dissenters--many of them officers--who, like Watada, oppose this war but not war in general. Many are remaining in the service but speaking out. Partly because of military blogs, "remarks against the President have become more prevalent among service members," wrote Maj. John L. Kiel Jr. in the Autumn 2007 issue of the military journal Parameters. Roughly 100 officers have signed an online petition (their names are not made public) through the Appeal for Redress Project, a Washington, D.C.–based organization of military personnel opposed to the war.
Others have simply left. More than 25,000 soldiers and officers have deserted since 2003; more than 200 have sought refuge in Canada. The number of deserters is only a small fraction of the number who fled during Vietnam, when roughly 90,000 young men went to Canada. Today's deserters are not draft dodgers; they enlisted and then changed their minds, largely because of the Iraq War. For a long time, the Army did little about it. Soldiers who were caught after leaving an Army post without permission were punished administratively or sent home. But as the number of deserters has increased, the military has started to pursue more cases.
Meanwhile, dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals who have been "stop lossed," or called back into service, have been asking civilian attorneys for help. (According to some estimates, 81,000 men and women have been stop-lossed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.) They may have a legal obligation, at least from the military's perspective, to continue serving. Yet government lawyers have been reluctant to pursue the cases, say legal experts, because of negative publicity, and many of these individuals have been quietly released from the military. Even recent graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are deciding to leave the armed forces: Nearly 60 percent of the class of 2002 has chosen not to stay in the military--up from 46 percent in the previous class and dramatically higher than in years past.
In addition, men and women who have spent their entire adult lives in uniform--and who would have remained in the military were it not for Iraq--are leaving the armed forces after fulfilling their service obligation. As one former officer, John Rogers, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March, "My experience with war has left me feeling angry, frustrated and mismanaged."
Given the demoralized state of the military, it seems as though Watada's greatest offense was making anti-war statements at high-profile events--not only at the press conference in Tacoma but again at the Veterans for Peace rally two months later, which caused officials to increase the charges against him. Ultimately, he was charged with not only "missing movement" (which means an individual does not deploy though it is possible for him to go) but also "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman"--a phrase that evokes Richard Gere circa 1982 and is used to hold officers to "high moral and legal standards." The charge of "conduct unbecoming" refers specifically to his public statements and, as it turns out, may be the more serious one.
In February 2007, Watada faced the "missing movement" charges in a military court in Fort Lewis. The court-martial was presided over by a military judge, then–Lt. Col. John Head, who declared that Watada had already admitted his guilt when he signed a statement saying he had not been with his unit on the Kuwait-bound aircraft on June 22, 2006. The signed statement, Judge Head said, was tantamount to a confession of guilt. Watada saw things differently. He believed the Iraq War, along with the orders to deploy, was illegal, and he wanted to present his argument in court. Two days after the court-martial was convened, the judge declared a mistrial. But the government lawyers continued to pursue the case and to push for a second court-martial. In November 2007, a federal judge halted the proceedings, indicating Judge Head erred in calling for a mistrial and that his decision may have jeopardized the case against Watada. A final verdict is months, perhaps years, away, and depending on its outcome, Watada could face up to six years in prison.
So Watada exists in a legal limbo. Each morning he drives a 2001 Civic to Fort Lewis, where he works a desk job. (His security clearance has been suspended.) His boss, a full colonel, has "created a lot of work" for him, says Watada. "It's--'Hey, look up this regulation.' If I wasn't there, they really wouldn't skip a beat. I'm drawing a paycheck but not really being utilized."
In a subtle way, Watada is being punished. It is extremely rare for a military officer both to criticize a war and refuse to serve in it. (The only similar case in recent history "involved an Army doctor who publicly opposed the Vietnam War and openly encouraged enlisted soldiers to disobey their deployment orders," wrote Kiel in Parameters.) Watada stated clearly that he believed the war was wrong, articulating the concerns of the majority of Americans and of many people serving in the military. His remarks were all the more powerful because he made them in public as an active-duty officer who had devoted years of his life to the service. Military officials were not pleased.
A large number of officers disagree with administration policies that have led to the war and also with the military strategy currently employed in Iraq, yet they have expressed their views only privately, in conversations with friends and colleagues, or anonymously in venues such as the online petition. None has done what Watada has: object to the war publicly and then refuse to go. For most individuals serving in the military, even those who are opposed to the war, that is a step too far. Once, Watada says, a middle-aged woman recognized him in a Fort Lewis post office, and he tried to leave the building. "She said, 'Yeah, you walk away, you coward,'" he recalls. On another occasion, a counterterrorism expert gave a presentation at Fort Lewis about "sedition" and "disloyalty," using Watada as an example, along with CIA mole Aldrich Ames.
If there is one military man who should be inclined to show compassion, it is Paul D. Eaton, a 53-year-old retired Army major general who joined an elite group of men--all retired generals--who in 2006 called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Eaton graduated from West Point in 1972, and he wears a heavy, gold class ring with a chipped tiger eye (a casualty of a swiftly closing hatch on an armored fighting vehicle). He says he is now an "undesirable" at his alma mater because of his public stand against the war.
When it comes to Watada, though, Eaton sides with Swain, who was a witness for the prosecution at Watada's court-martial. "We are a nation of laws and particularly in the military, violations of laws have accountability," Swain testified. Speaking out against the military may be the right thing to do--even necessary--when the system needs to be corrected, Eaton says, but dissent should not come from within the ranks. He is comfortable taking on the role of military critic only because he is retired. "There are a lot of guys who think what I did is at best inappropriate and at worst absolutely wrong," Eaton tells me. "But I am no longer in the Army. Watada is an active-duty soldier, and he has failed to obey the orders of the officers over him. He does not have the right."
In March 2007, shortly after the mistrial was declared, two Seattle lawyers, Kenneth Kagan and James E. Lobsenz, took over Seitz's duties as Watada's chief counsel. (Seitz, who is based in Honolulu, was working pro-bono, but Watada says he could no longer afford to pay for Seitz's travel. Seitz says they clashed over several issues, not only travel costs, and therefore parted ways.) Watada has not spoken to members of the press (except for me) in 13 months. These days, he talks wistfully about his life and career goals after the Army. "I've heard there's this position called 'congressional staffer,'" he says, his voice trailing off.
Yet despite the negative attention and the threat of jail time, Watada says he would not do anything differently. "What if I sat in prison for six years or if, after a year of being in jail, the war is ended? People would say, 'Oh, what a waste of time.' Fine," Watada says, explaining that he'd rather sit in jail on principle than sacrifice his beliefs. He says he joined the Army long ago because he thought the military served a just cause and had high ethical standards. "I believed I would always try to do what I believe is moral," he says. "I didn't do this to be a public figure--to be hated or loved. I just did it because it needed to be done."