Reporting from the Veterans For Peace convention in Seattle last weekend, Dahr Jamail reprinted a speech by Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned U.S. Army officer to publicly refuse orders to Iraq, who stated on June 22, “As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must refuse that order.”
In his speech to the VFP members, Watada laid down the most critical challenge to the antiwar movement yet: will we show soldiers that if they quit fighting this insane, criminal war and go to jail that we will provide for their families as long as necessary?
Watada’s challenge should be placed on the agenda of every peace group in the land–from national coalitions to grassroots groups in every city and village. Adopt a soldier’s family, plan how to do it, and announce that decision publicly to create a growing list of those ready to cease business as usual and end this war.
Following are excerpts from Lt. Watada’s speech to the Veterans For Peace convention, edited only for length. Jamail reported that as the young officer began to speak, some 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War left their seats to stand behind him on the stage in solidarity.
Lieutenant Ehren Watada:
“We have all seen this war tear apart our country over the past three years. It seems as though nothing we’ve done, from vigils to protests to letters to Congress, have had any effect in persuading the powers that be…It is time for change and the change starts with all of usThe idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.
Now it is not an easy task for the soldier. For he or she must be aware that they are being used for ill-gain. They must hold themselves responsible for individual action. They must remember duty to the Constitution and the people supersedes the ideologies of their leadership. The soldier must be willing to face ostracism by their peers, worry over the survival of their families, and of course the loss of personal freedom. They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the battlefield. Finally, those wearing the uniform must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that by refusing immoral and illegal orders they will be supported by the people not with mere words but by action.
The American soldier must rise above the socialization that tells them authority should always be obeyed without question. Rank should be respected but never blindly followed. Awareness of the history of atrocities and destruction committed in the name of America – either through direct military intervention or by proxy war – is crucial. They must realize that this is a war not out of self-defense but by choice, for profit and imperialistic domination. WMD, ties to Al Qaeda, and ties to 9/11 never existed and never will. The soldier must know that our narrowly and questionably elected officials intentionally manipulated the evidence presented to Congress, the public, and the world to make the case for war. They must know that neither Congress nor this administration has the authority to violate the prohibition against pre-emptive war – an American law that still stands today. This same administration uses us for rampant violations of time-tested laws banning torture and degradation of prisoners of war. Though the American soldier wants to do right, the illegitimacy of the occupation itself, the policies of this administration, and rules of engagement of desperate field commanders will ultimately force them to be party to war crimes. They must know some of these facts, if not all, in order to act.
The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one’s right to seek the truth–neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. ‘I was only following orders’ is never an excuse.
The Nuremburg Trials showed America and the world that citizenry as well as soldiers have the unrelinquishable obligation to refuse complicity in war crimes perpetrated by their government. Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable as the soldier in these crimes.
The American soldier is not a mercenary. He or she does not simply fight wars for payment. Indeed, the state of the American soldier is worse than that of a mercenary. For a soldier-for-hire can walk away if they are disgusted by their employer’s actions. Instead, American soldiers become indentured servants whether they volunteer out of patriotism or are drafted through economic desperation.
Aside from the reality of indentured servitude, the American soldier in theory is much nobler. Soldier or officer, when we swear our oath it is first and foremost to the Constitution and its protectorate, the people. If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols – if they stood up and threw their weapons down – no President could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, ‘Against all enemies foreign and domestic,’ what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice.
The military, and especially the Army, is an institution of fraternity and close-knit camaraderie. Peer pressure exists to ensure cohesiveness but it stamps out individualism and individual thought. The idea of brotherhood is difficult to pull away from if the alternative is loneliness and isolation. If we want soldiers to choose the right but difficult path – they must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will be supported by Americans. To support the troops who resist, you must make your voices heard. If they see thousands supporting me, they will know.
Increasingly, more soldiers are questioning what they are being asked to do. Yet, the majority lack awareness to the truth that is buried beneath the headlines. Many more see no alternative but to obey. We must show open-minded soldiers a choice and we must give them courage to act.
Three weeks ago, Sgt. Hernandez from the 172nd Stryker Brigade was killed, leaving behind a wife and two children. In an interview, his wife said he sacrificed his life so that his family could survive. I’m sure Sgt. Hernandez cherished the camaraderie of his brothers, but given a choice, I doubt he would put himself in a position to leave his family husbandless and fatherless. Yet that’s the point, you see. People like Sgt. Hernandez don’t have a choice. The choices are to fight in Iraq or let your family starve. Many soldiers don’t refuse this war en mass because, like all of us, they value their families over their own lives and perhaps their conscience. Who would willingly spend years in prison for principle and morality while denying their family sustenance?
I tell this to you because you must know that to stop this war, for the soldiers to stop fighting it, they must have the unconditional support of the people. I have seen this support with my own eyes. For me it was a leap of faith. For other soldiers, they do not have that luxury. They must know it and you must show it to them. Convince them that no matter how long they sit in prison, no matter how long this country takes to right itself, their families will have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, opportunities and education. This is a daunting task. It requires the sacrifice of all of us. Why must Canadians feed and house our fellow Americans who have chosen to do the right thing? We should be the ones taking care of our own. Are we that powerless – are we that unwilling to risk something for those who can truly end this war? How do you support the troops but not the war? By supporting those who can truly stop it; let them know that resistance to participate in an illegal war is not futile and not without a future.
I have broken no law but the code of silence and unquestioning loyalty. If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I learned too much and cared too deeply for the meaningless loss of my fellow soldiers and my fellow human beings. If I am to be punished it should be for following the rule of law over the immoral orders of one man. If I am to be punished it should be for not acting sooner. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’
I’ll end with one more Martin Luther King Jr. quote: ‘One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.’
Thank you and bless you all.”
MIKE FERNER served as a Navy Corpsman during Vietnam and is a member of Veterans For Peace, who is currently serving two months house arrest for spraypainting “Troops Out Now!” on a highway overpass in Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at: email@example.com