DOn November 9 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, supporters of Iraq war resister Lt. Ehren Watada made a presentation to community press and local activists that included good news for their cause. On November 8, Judge Benjamin Settle of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington issued a grant of a preliminary injunction in favor of Lt. Watada, the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to the Iraq War.
As people gathered in Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, Watada Support Group member Ying Lee told me, “At the time that we called the news conference we did not know that the judge was going to give his decision yesterday.” Lee went on, “The decision was due by today, so he was early … we are very appreciative of a United States Federal judge respecting the constitution and saying the trial cannot proceed.”
Lee described Watada as “a young man who out of a patriotic sense of duty after 9/11 enlisted. … And he was such a good officer that when he was stationed in Korea, his commanding officer told him to prepare to be sent to Iraq, because that was going to be his next station.”
Watada studied the background of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Lee continued, and “he said this war is based upon lies, it’s illegal, it’s unconstiutional, it’s a violation of the human rights charter, it’s a violation of the Nuremberg Principles which we’ve adopted, and my oath of alliegance is to the country and the constitution, and not to one man. So he tried to resign three times, they wouldn’t accept his resignation, the President wouldn’t accept his resignation. He asked to be sent to Afghanistan, he’s not a conscienscious objector, and they refused that, so he felt he had no choice because he couldn’t tell his men to go into a war that he thought was so wrong that he then took the step of saying I will not fight in Iraq. He’s the first U.S. army officer to do so. And since then the military has charged him, through a series of court martials, with refusing to be sent to Iraq and behavior unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman. And when the court martial occurred, he was not allowed any witnesses. … But the army, as the prosecution, had six or seven witnesses. Each one of them spoke to what a wonderful young man he was, responsible, perfect officer, and very promotable. … The judge decided the trial was not going the way he had wanted it to, and so, he called a mistrial. In other words, he aborted the trial, and that was in February of 2007. Since then, the military has been trying to prosecute him again.”
Opening the press conference, Chinatown community activist Reverend Norman Fong set an appropriately upbeat tone in his remarks about the injunction. Fong enthused, “we’re here to keep hope alive, it’s going very good!”
The Reverend’s comments were translated into Cantonese by a young woman who also translated other speakers, including three poets. Local activist Peter Yamamoto, read a poem describing Watada as
Young, Asian, and articulate–
Athletic, good-looking, with short military-cut hair-“
Local Attorney David Chiu followed Yamamoto. Chiu said, “As a former prosecutor, [I would] remind the current prosecutors of their ethical obligations. Contrary to what you might see on television crime television shows, the ethical obligation of a prosecutor is not simply to prosecute, it’s not to put people in jail.”
Chiu continued, “The ethical obligation is very simple. A prosecutor is supposed to do justice. And justice in this case is not about putting this man in jail. … Justice in this case is about letting a man who’s already gone through a first trial, who’s about to be pushed through a second trial that’s unconstitutional, to let Watada go free.”
Several rowdy old men playing cards nearby quieted down as San Francisco poet laureate and radical gadfly Jack Hirschman came to the microphone. Flanked by activists holding signs which read “Refuse Illegal War/ Thank You Lt Ehren Watada,” Hirschman read a poem he had written for Watada. That poem, and another read by the city’s former poet laureate Janice Mirikitani, can be heard at indybay.org.
Rev. Fong closed the presentation by noting that Watada’s mother Carolyn “came to Chinatown a year ago and asked for help and we’ve been doing it ever since.” Rev. Fong concluded, “today we can celebrate a little bit of sunlight breaking through the fog of war. And all of you know this was is crazy, it’s illegal. And so a little bit of joy, a little bit of love, and let’s give it up for our captain of hope, Lt. Watada. Thank you everybody, you’re all beautiful , we’ve got to keep doing this.”
As many present noted, the struggle for an honorable discharge for Lt. Watada is not over. The U.S. Army has announced it intends to file briefs in U.S. District Court to try to prevent Judge Settle’s injunction on behalf of Watada from becoming permanent.
The U.S. military estimates 10,000 soldiers have deserted since the beginning of the current Iraq war. But dissidents think the number is far higher. According to the group Courage to Resist , “In the past few years, tens of thousands of service members have resisted illegal war and occupation in a number of different ways-by going AWOL, seeking conscientious objector status and/or a discharge, asserting the right to speak out against injustice from within the military, and for a relative few, publicly refusing to fight.”
BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com