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Is Lt. Watada an Isolated Case of Military Dissent?


The Army refilled five charges against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada late last week, paving the way for a possible second court-martial for the highest-ranking member of the military to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq. When his first court-martial ended in a mistrial on February 7th, serious debate on the emerging opposition to the war within the military, the legality of war, and the right of military personnel to publicly disobey illegal orders had not yet begun to surface. Though it’s unclear that a second court-martial may legally proceed, the possibility brings these issues back into focus.

I was one of two journalists subpoenaed to testify in Lt. Watada’s court-martial. I objected on the grounds that members of the military must be free to speak with journalists without fear of retribution or censure. That so few critical voices in the military are given an ongoing platform in the media contributes to an inaccurate view of the Iraq War and erroneous ideas about how to ameliorate the problems. Supporting the troops requires that we listen to what they have to say.
Opposition is growing

Army Specialist Mark Wilkerson was just sentenced to 7 months in prison for refusing to return to Iraq. Last year, he wrote: In the year I was in Iraq, I saw kids waving American flags in the first months. Then they threw rocks. Then they planted IEDs. Then they blew themselves up in city squares full of people. Hundreds of billions of American dollars, thousands of American lives, and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives have al been wasted in this war. I feel as though many more soldiers want to say things like this, but are afraid of retribution, and who’s really listening anyway.

Ivan Brobeck, a Marine who went to Canada rather than return to Iraq, was released from prison on February 6th, just in time for the birth of his first child. Army Medic Augustine Aguayo awaits a March 6th court-martial in Germany and is facing up to 7 years in prison. He’s a conscientious objector who refused to load his gun during the year he spent as a combat medic in Iraq. Despite nearly three years attempted to have his conscientious objector status approved, Aguayo was ordered back to Iraq. When his commanding officers threatened to send him to Iraq in shackles, he climbed out his bedroom window and went AWOL into Germany. According to the Pentagon, there are at least 8,000 soldiers who have quietly AWOL. Hundreds more have gone to Canada.

The Appeal for Redress has received over 1600 active duty signatures. The online petition says, “As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price.” What began as a simple online petition has exploded into public dissent: soldiers are attending anti-war demonstrations, holding press conferences. Liam Madden is one of the appeal’s founders, and embarked on a cross-country speaking tour just two weeks after being released from the Marines.

Last year’s Zogby poll showed that 72% of soldiers wanted to leave Iraq by the end of 2006. Opinion has not grown more sanguine. Though soldiers have stinging criticisms of the Iraq War we rarely get to hear them. Instead, Lt. Watada is relentlessly juxtaposed with soldiers who have no apparent qualms about their orders.
Speaking against the war

When Lt. Watada announced his opposition to the Iraq War on June 7, 2006, many called him a coward. He took an oath, they argued, and must obey orders regardless of the war’s legality. Even those sympathetic to Lt. Watada’s beliefs sometimes appear uneasy with his public opposition to the Iraq War, especially when speaking to members of the press.

Whether members of the military should abandon individual responsibility when they go to war is a debate worth having. While members of the military agree to certain speech restrictions, the extent of those limitations is by no means immutable. In fact, it is one of several questions in Lt. Watada’s prosecution.

Members of the military agree not to speak contemptuously about the commander-in-chief. Lt. Watada expressed himself respectfully, out of uniform, off base, and after work hours. It seems that the specter of military law is so dark and mysterious a force that ordinary civilians have ceded their ability to question the authority of those that wield it.

Why is our civilian society so comfortable allowing the military to determine the parameters of acceptable speech during a time of war? Lt. Watada along with the thousands of men and women who are returning from Iraq today is uniquely positioned to speak about the military mission in Iraq. What do we lose when we allow the systematic exclusion of their voices?

The Iraq War is messy. It’s inconvenient. The absence of soldiers denouncing the war in mainstream consciousness likely has something to do with the public’s unwillingness to face the war itself. What does it mean if this war is actually illegal? In what ways is each of us complicit in the perpetration of a war not thoroughly vetted by the media, debated by congress, nor considered by the public?

The starkness of these answers is reflected in the faces of the men and women returning from battle. But if we don’t hear from Ivan Brobeck, Mark Wilkerson, Augustine Aguayo and any of the hundreds of Iraq veterans return to the United States isolated and disillusioned, it’s easier to believe that everything is going just fine.

SARAH OLSON is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at:



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