By Michael Wong, December 29, 2010
In 2009, there were two national cases of Army officers who opposed deployment to a Middle East war. But that’s where the similarities end, because each of the officers chose opposite courses of action.
First Lieutenant Ehren Watada
One Army officer, 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, chose the path of peace, and in 2006 became the first Army officer to publicly refuse orders to Iraq. After almost three years of intense political and legal struggle, he won his discharge from the Army on October 2, 2009. He never did a single day in jail.
The other officer, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, chose the path of war, and on November 5, 2009 went on a rampage shooting and killing his fellow soldiers. Today he lies in a hospital, under arrest, and with the likelihood of life in prison or a death sentence ahead of him.
Let’s look at both their cases – and the consequences – in greater depth.
1st Lt. Ehren Watada joined the Army after 9/11 for the most patriotic of reasons – to serve and protect his country in a time of war. He believed that his country would do the right thing. Once in, he worked hard and eventually earned the rank of First Lieutenant. When informed that he would be employed to Iraq, he studied the history of other American units in Iraq and read everything he could find about the war so that he could most effectively lead his men in combat.
In so doing, however, he discovered far more than he anticipated. Lt. Watada would later write in the Hawaii newspaper the Honolulu Advertiser (June 18, 2006), “The books and articles I read would change my views forever. They exposed in detail the president’s deliberate manipulation to initiate this war. Recent reports show us that this war is a debacle of enormous proportions and that there never was any just cause. I felt as though our lives were being wasted for nothing.”
This initiated a period of immerse turmoil in the young lieutenant’s thinking, a crisis of fundamental moral questions. Finally, as Lt. Watada states in the same article, “Never in my life did I ever imagine I would have to disobey my president. But I have come to the conclusion that participation in this war is not only immoral but a breach of American and international law.” Watada went on to quote the specific articles of the U.S. Constitution and the U.N. Charter that support his statements, noted the clear public evidence of U.S. war crimes, and concluded, “Though I may never be punished for these crimes, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse to take part in them.”
1st Lt. Ehren Watada refused orders to Iraq. When off duty and out of uniform, he spoke out publicly against the war. Perhaps his most famous speech was given to the 2006 Veterans For Peace national convention in Seattle. Lt. Watada spoke to over 500 military veterans, and 60 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War filed onstage to stand behind him as he spoke. His speech electrified the veterans and the GI anti-war movement. Just as Cindy Sheehan’s protest at Camp Casey had inspired the general peace movement, the word of an officer refusing orders to Iraq and speaking out inspired other soldiers to question and in some cases to also resist military orders. As a result, the GI resistance movement grew.
A national campaign entitled, “Friends and Family of Lt. Watada,” arose to support him. Activists in major cities and small towns around the country organized protests in his support, wrote letters and sent emails to the commanding general of Fort Lewis, and held educational events in their areas. Money was raised for his defense. The area around Fort Lewis became a hotbed of anti-war activity in his support, with multiple demonstrations outside the gates of the base and a monthly vigil in Seattle by Veterans For Peace and other local peace groups. News of and support for his case spread internationally as well.
Lt. Watada’s family, too, spoke out. His father, step-mother, and mother went on tours around the country speaking about his case. Everywhere they received tremendous attention from both the mainstream and alternative media, and peace groups sponsored events for them in major cities as well as countless small towns. In one speaking tour alone, Lt. Watada’s father and step-mother, Bob Watada and Rosa Sakanishi, spoke at over thirty events in eighteen states, including cities such as New York, Boston, Phoenix, Houston, Orlando, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Lt. Watada’s mother, Carolyn Ho, also went on a nation-wide speaking tour. In just San Francisco alone, she spoke at nine separate events in two days.
When other soldiers refused orders to Iraq, the military charged them simply with the act of refusal itself, found them guilty in a court martial, and punished them accordingly. Most spent several months to a year in a military stockade or prison.
In the case of Lt. Watada, however, the Army not only charged him with refusing orders, but also with several counts of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” The Army lay criminal charges for Watada’s speeches, in which he called the war immoral and illegal and named the lies that President Bush had used to go to war. All of the statements Watada made were proven by considerable evidence available in mainstream sources, yet the Army declared it “unbecoming” for an officer and a gentleman to speak the truth in public. The combined charges would total six years if he were found guilty on all.
The Army put Lt. Watada on trial in February of 2007 at Fort Lewis, Washington state. Roughly two thousand demonstrators marched in protest outside the gates of Fort Lewis, while several dozen peace activists entered the fort to attend his trial. Other protests in support of Lt. Watada were held in cities and small towns around the nation. His trial generated media coverage around the nation and the world. His support campaign received emails of support from as far away as Great Britain and Japan.
The Army was under intense pressure to “win” on this case, but it overreached. By charging him with not only refusing orders to Iraq but also of speaking the truth in public, the Army was forced to present in court his statements that it objected to. They played a videotape of his speech to the Veterans for Peace national convention. The members of the jury, all senior military officers, saw Lt. Watada lay out the case very clearly that the war in Iraq was illegal, based on public lies by the president of the United States and his administration. They heard Lt. Watada explain very clearly that soldiers have a duty in both law and morality to refuse illegal orders.
The judge refused to allow any defense witness to appear in court, while allowing the prosecution witnesses to appear. Yet when each of the three prosecution witnesses – all senior military officers (active or retired) – were asked what an officer should do if given an order he believes to be illegal, every one gave the same answer: an officer must refuse to obey an illegal order. This, combined with Lt. Watada’s speech, made the Army’s case against him extremely weak, self-contradictory, and in danger of failing. Perhaps fearing that the Army might lose, Judge Lt. Col. John Head forced a mistrial over the objections of both the defense and prosecution lawyers rather than allowing the court martial to continue.
The Army then attempted to try Lt. Watada a second time. The Army set a new court martial date, but Lt. Watada’s lawyers appeal on the grounds that a second court martial would constitute double jeopardy. Three Army courts ruled that in this case, two trials would not be double jeopardy. Watada’s lawyers then took the case to the next level, a federal civilian court, where US District Court Judge Benjamin Settle had been newly appointed by President George W. Bush. Judge Settle, himself a former Army lawyer, issued a stay of the court martial, and eventually ruled that in fact a second trial would constitute double jeopardy. The Army announced that it would appeal this decision. But when the Obama administration came into office, Watada’s supporters launched a national campaign appealing to the new Justice Department, which then directed the Army to stand down on it’s appeal. Lt. Watada got out of the Army, a free man who never spent even one day in jail.
Thus, the political result of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada’s peaceful refusal of orders to the Iraq war was a three year stream of bad publicity for the Army, the war, and the Bush administration, an example that inspired the GI anti-war movement within the military as well as the veteran and civilian peace movements outside the military, and in the end a major victory for the peace movement and a vindication of Watada’s stand. The personal result was three years of intense personal, political, and legal struggle and great personal sacrifice for Lt. Watada, but a victory in the end, personal vindication, and freedom from the Army.
Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan
Now let’s turn to the case of Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. Considerably less information is available about this case, virtually all of it from the mainstream media.
Major Nidal Hasan served eight years in the U.S. Army as an enlisted man before attending the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences where he earned his medical degree in 2001. He then went on to a residency in psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and eventually duty as an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas.
On November 5, 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting rampage at the Soldier Readiness Center on his base. Shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”), he opened fire with two handguns, killing 13 and wounding 30 before being shot by two civilian police officers who engaged him in a firefight. He currently lies in the intensive care unit at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, under arrest and heavy guard. He is said to be paralyzed and if he recovers enough to stand trial, he faces a probable life in prison or perhaps a death sentence.
His exact motives are subject to debate and conjecture. The government has released some information to the media, saying that he had a history of less than outstanding work, that he was disciplined in the past for proselytizing about his Muslim faith, was prone to anti-American rants and questioning the American wars in the Middle East, had email communication with Anwar al-Awlaki who in 2001 was his iman at a mosque in Falls Church, Virginia and also iman to two future 9/11 hijackers, and that Hasan had said in a paper he wrote during his senior year of residency at Walter Reed that the military should allow Muslim soldiers to be released as conscientious objectors.
Major Hasan was said by some family members to have suffered harassment because of his Islamic faith and his political views, and to have tried to get out of the Army because of the harassment. Official military sources deny this. However, an August 2009 Killeen police report states that Hasan’s car was once vandalized, causing damage estimated at $1,000 to repair, and another soldier was charged with the crime. A neighbor said that the other soldier did this because of Hasan’s religion.
Government sources told the mainstream media that Hasan had email communication with Anwar al-Awlaki in 2008 and 2009, but that the emails were innocuous. On his blog, Anwar al-Awlaki praised Hasan’s actions after the fact. Anwar al-Awlaki is currently in Yemen.
The difficulty in analyzing Hasan’s case is that all the information available comes through the mainstream media, and most of that comes from military or government sources. The track record of both the mainstream media and the government in the run-up to the Iraq war, as well historically in other conflicts, leaves their objectivity and accuracy open to serious question.
As an example of military inaccuracy, the Army’s public statements related to the Watada trial were in conflict with the statements not only of Lt. Watada and his lawyer, but also inconsistent with statements made by the Army prosecutor during the trial itself. After the first court martial, an Army spokesman said that the judge declared a mistrial in order to insure fairness to Lt. Watada. The spokesman never mentioned the fact that both the defense lawyer and the prosecutor had repeatedly objected to the judge’s attempt to force a mistrial, and that the prosecutor only gave in to the judge when he was left with no other choice. In the case of Lt. Watada, however, he had both a lawyer and a large peace movement who spoke to and publicized these contradictions.
Major Hasan, on the other hand, has no support from the peace movement because his actions directly conflict with the peace movement’s basic premise of non-violent political struggle. The mainstream Muslim community has publicly and consistently rejected his actions as contrary to the Islamic faith. Thus, Hasan is left without any significant political support in the United States. Due to the nature of his actions, there is no movement to speak to or support his views. Yet the news reports leave very large questions unanswered.
If you Google the term “conscientious objector,” you get over 946,000 results. The first one is a long article in Wikipedia about conscientious objectors and objection, which contains links to related websites, including the GI Rights Hotline (phone: 877-447-4487). The GI Rights Hotline is a national network that gets roughly 3,000 calls a month from service members calling with issues with or wanting to leave the military. Other links detail how to become a conscientious objector, connect to organizations around the country which aid conscientious objector applicants, tell stories of the hundreds of thousands of past conscientious objectors, and discuss other ways of resisting the military. The amount of information is massive and the availability of support is unmistakable.
If Major Hasan felt that Muslims should be allowed to get out of the Army as conscientious objectors, then why didn’t he attempt to do so? A simple Google search would have told him that such a goal had in fact been achieved by many soldiers, and that a large support network exists to help soldiers who object.
As a psychiatrist, Major Hasan would have had the intelligence and means to research and know all this information. Given the views the mainstream media implies that he held, looking into options for conscientious objection or some other form of GI resistance would have seemed logical.
Furthermore, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Code Pink, and Veterans for Peace have been active in and around Fort Hood, even establishing a GI coffee house, “Under the Hood,” in the town of Killeen outside the gates of Fort Hood. The GI coffee house has advertised in both the local Killeen newspaper and the official Army newspaper that sells on base. The coffee shop is a center for GIs to express and discuss their feelings about the wars and the military, and to support and defend the rights of those GIs who choose to oppose the wars. Under the Hood has been featured in articles in the local Killeen paper, and Iraq Veterans Against the War has marched in anti-war demonstrations outside the gates of Fort Hood. Courage to Resist and other organizations have also helped many soldiers successfully resist military orders to deploy to war and have launched campaigns to support them. Yet there is no indication that Hasan ever did any such research, and peace movement sources including GI, military family, and veterans activists do not report any contact with or prior knowledge of Major Hasan.
Since we aren’t hearing from Major Hasan directly, we may never know really why he choose the path of war over the path of peace. But we can compare the cases of the two Army officers who choose opposite paths, and note the contrast in their effectiveness.
1st Lt. Ehren Watada choose the path of peace. He inspired a large movement in support of his actions, publicized the lies of the Bush administration, became an example for other soldiers to follow, and won his freedom in the end. American soldiers around the world heard of him, were inspired by his courage, and began their own process of questioning and dissent. His example continues to live in history and will continue to be a role model in the future.
Major Nidal Malik Hasan choose the path of war. He is now isolated and his example, rather than harming U.S. military efforts, actually strengthens the propaganda for the war. It is being used in the right wing and mainstream media as another example of “terrorists” that we all should fear, and as another example of a stereotype that the Muslim community has to struggle to break. Because he is isolated, the military and the mainstream media have almost total control over information and the spin applied to this case. No one speaks for Hasan with any public effectiveness.
Yet, consider what would have been likely if Major Hasan had chosen the path of peace. If a Lieutenant refusing orders to war created an international sensation, imagine a major—two ranks above 1st Lt. and three ranks below general—refusing orders to war. As both a major and a psychiatrist, Hasan’s words would have been heard around the world. While the military and conservative sources might rush to put spin on it and “explain” it away, his credibility would be hard to break, particularly since a majority of Americans currently oppose the wars as well. His support would be massive, the peace movement would be galvanized, and his voice could have influenced the very nature of the public debate. He could have made a difference.
Instead, he lies in a hospital bed, under arrest, completely discredited, and is now a propaganda tool for the pro-war forces. Yes, he killed 13 soldiers and wounded 30. But that has no military effect on the war, and doesn’t even begin to counteract the propaganda victory he handed to his supposed political enemies. A propanada victory which Anwar al-Awlaki’s blog post praising Hasan only cemented. 13 and 30? That’s only 43 American soldiers taken out of combat. In the first four months of 2003 alone, several hundred soldiers applied for conscientious objector status (http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0415-11.htm), and the pace has continued since then. Major Hasan missed a golden opportunity to inspire even more GI resistance, take far more soldiers out of combat, and dramatically change the tone of the war debate by his example. The highest form of fighting is not fighting. It is to change hearts.
The contrast in the two examples could not be more stark. In America today, the pen is far mightier than the gun.