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Jayne Lyn Stahl Headshot

Conduct Unbecoming

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In Ft. Lewis, Washington this week, a 28 year old commissioned Army officer , First Lt. Ehren Watada, faces court martial before a panel of his peers for refusing to return to Iraq, as well as two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for publicly condemning the war. If convicted of both charges, he faces up to four years in jail, as well as dishonorable discharge from the Army.

While making public disparaging remarks about a war in progress is deemed to be an actionable offense, Watada argues that "under military law those in the military are allowed to refuse, in fact, have a right to refuse unlawful orders." It is his belief that the U.S. is in Iraq under false pretexts, and illegally; he thinks it is his duty to refuse those orders. It is important to keep in mind that Ehren Watada is not a conscientious objector, not someone opposed to combat; he has said he would be willing to fight in Afghanistan. He is not against war, per se, he is speaking out against this administration's military adventurism, and its activist campaign to deceive the American people, manufacture evidence, and shun diplomacy.

Watada is not the first to say "hell, no, we won't go." Many enlisted service members have faced discipinary action for abandoning their units, and/or saying they won't go to Iraq; "Watada is the first to do so publicly." (NYT) And, we will need more Watadas in the months to come if, as pro-Iraq neoconservative, Richard Perle suggests the president intends to attack Iran before his term runs out. We will need more Ehren Watadas especially in light of Senator Chuck Hagel's recent disclosures that the president attempted to get a resolution through Congress back in the fall, of 2002, which would have allowed him to pick a fight anywhere in the Middle East. It's not too late. There's still plenty of time to occupy and plun Tehran in which case abandonment, by a commissioned officer, may become the only honorable thing to do.

Judging by the muscle-flexing in the State of the Union address, the fighter jets are waiting in the wings. In fact, the Bush Doctrine with respect to foreign policy can be summed up by the phrase fill in the blanks. It is making the same noises about Iran it once made about Iraq, and doing no more to back up those allegations than with Iraq; i.e. suggesting that Iran is arming Iraqi insurgents without concrete evidence that they are, insisting that Iran is lying about its nuclear ambitions.

As the Los Angeles Times recently asserted "no Iranian agents have been found" in Iraq despite state department spin to the contrary. Clearly, the Commander-in-Chef is at it again, and cooking up yet another recipe for armed, unilateral, preemptive (read: unprovoked) military action. Bush's taunts of the Iranian president are hauntingly reminiscent of his censure of Saddam Hussein. So, now, instead of Baghdad, we merely substitute Tehran, and the result looks, ominously, like more of the same. And, while the prosecutor in the Watada case calls Watada's statements "disgraceful," (Reuters) what could be more disgraceful than manufacturing a rationale to attack, and topple a sovereign country?

Regrettably, for the most part, the mainstream media are standing by, almost voyeuristically, by downplaying the domestic troubles currently facing Ithe Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, his failure to deal with unemployment as promised, and talk of impeaching him. We do need an enemy with whom to go to war, after all. By helping to transform Ahmadinejad into a wartime president, Bush is helping to keep him in power, and we know all about the power of wartime presidents.

So, this is the context in which the court martial of one young, and very brave First Lieutenant must be taken, and this is the only context. Ehren Watada is setting a much-needed precedent, and that is --just say no to an illegal war, one based on lies and deception. Watada is not saying that war should be outlawed, only that his government, and those in command should tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth to those they expect to make the ultimate sacrifice in their name. As another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, once said, "Trust, but verify." Had Congress, the media, and the American people taken President Reagan's advice, we would never have been in Iraq in the fist place, and Ehren Watada would never be standing trial for "abandoning his unit." Indeed, the abandonment that is criminal here is that of this government's abandoning the trust of those it governs.

Watada's public outrage against being a pawn in the Machiavellian game of a superpower run amok is something that future generations will see in much the same way as we remember courageous acts of civil disobedience by men like Patrick Henry. In his refusal to play alng with the kind of ethos that says it's okay to swear, and plunder in private, as long as one sings, and smiles in public, he is refusing to participate in a lie. One can only hope that, if the gestures of this president towards Iran prove to be authentic, there will be others, like First Lt. Watada who will publicly refuse to accommodate hypocrisy and deceit.

Given that Lt. Col. John Head, the judge in the Watada court martial, has ruled that his defense attorney's witness list is "irrelevant" (Reuters), insists that the legality of the war, or lack thereof, is not something worthy of discussion in a military court, and believes that military service requires accepting limits to free speech, a plea bargain, or agreeing to a lighter sentence may be the only way out. Should this honorable, and courageous young man be convicted, this president, and this military, will, for generations hence, bear the guilty verdict of history.