In wartime, the responsibility of citizens

Ehren K. Watada, the first U.S. military officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq, says everyone is a politician; it is our job to learn what elected officials are going and why

The following is excerpted from a talk Watada gave on campus Jan. 23.

There are many who believe that to allow soldiers to decide for themselves if a particular war is illegal or immoral would lead to the degradation of our armed forces. This is perhaps true, which is why any conflict we as a country engage in must be fully supported by the people, the justifications for the sacrifice must be clear and transparent, and the decisions of those in charge must be held to account; we cannot allow our service members to be placed in a position of moral and legal ambiguity. …

Many detractors have sought to belittle my actions. They have accused me of dabbling in politics and speaking of things “way above my pay grade.” Well, certainly there are those who will always seek to equate politics with cynicism and elitism, something, they say, normal worker-type people shouldn’t concern themselves with. The fact of the matter is that politics is our lives. If we seek to allow others to act in our stead without knowledge or accountability of what they do, how can we expect them to act in our best interests? Politics is that which governs our lives, determines our quality of life and indeed our deaths. In a democracy we all must involve ourselves with politics. Anyone else who tells you otherwise is leading you astray and committing a disservice to government by the people.

As for my pay grade, it is not pay or rank that inspires me or gives me the right to speak of that which is wrong in our country. The right is mine, as an American and a leader to call on the people for justice and redress. An officer protects his soldiers, plain and simple. The threats I speak of affect the lives and welfare of today’s service members and puts them in imminent peril. I don’t have to be a general, a Ph.D. from Harvard, or a ranking senator. The ideals and principles that I speak of are simple. Any man, woman, or child with the willingness to study civics, the Constitution, and some history could very well comprehend them. Indeed, that which I speak to you about is the very essence of what it means to be American, to be a democracy, and live under the rule of peace, law, and justice. If this is what we want for our future, we must educate ourselves on how to bring it about. In a democracy, everyone is a politician.

Consider this: Does the occupation of Iraq protect or hurt the American people? How great is the threat to our democracy when elected leaders intentionally mislead the public and do so with impunity? If an occupation of another country threatens the safety of the American people, if it is led by men who are not accountable for their actions, and if the vast majority of people in this country are ignorant of the facts, what is left for the men and women who pledged their lives for this country to do? Next, consider: What is the responsibility of us all, when it comes to the actions of our government? What is our responsibility when those who are empowered to serve us fail in their obligation?

Back in Officer Candidate School we had a saying: Freedom is never free. This is true. Except that in a democracy everyone must pay to retain it, and surely everyone pays if it is lost.

Normally in our democracy the people speak and act for those in the military. Representatives are elected and officials are appointed to serve on behalf of the people. If the policies of any official are illegal or immoral, it is the obligation of our representatives to correct this misconduct and hold those responsible accountable. This is done to ensure the safety and welfare of the American people. This is done not as a simple matter of politics but as an assurance to our way of life.

Before my pre-trial, I watched on CSPAN as our newly elected Congress waved and congratulated each other. They shook hands, smiled for the camera, and had grand parties with unlimited food and drink. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, our countrymen are trying desperately to stem gushing wounds and drag their comrades to safety. What are we smiling about?

In no small way, our elected representatives have failed the people. Be they Republican or Democrat, those with the power and duty have failed to protect the people against the violation of civil liberties, abuse of Constitutional powers, and breaches of international and federal law.

Before you nod your head in agreement, consider this: Where our elected representatives have failed the people, have not the American people as a whole failed their country, including those in the military, those who have no voice? I am told: Those in the military do not have a right to question or dissent. Then who, I ask, is speaking for us? Who is acting on our behalf? Some will say because the war persists today the people will it and it could not be illegal or immoral. Could it be that the vast majority of the people do not care about the legality or morality of this war nor are they willing to risk much to stop it if it is?

We in the military are paying a horrible price, and very few of the 300 million people in this country seem to be willing to help us, to scream out, to stop this tragedy this instant. Is it any wonder that I have stood up? Would you not have done the same if you watched helplessly as your brothers and sisters perish—powerless to do anything about it, as your countrymen seem more interested in “American Idol” and fantasy football than the intricacies of the Iraq War? …

Only 40 percent of our entire population makes the effort to cast a vote in one of the most important elections of our time. What kind of government by the people is that? How many of that 40 percent do you think knew all the facts behind the war—facts that are easy to find with a little effort? … What kind of democracy are we living in? Why are people not afraid or angry? What will it take for us to act?

I am here today to speak for those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves. The American people have relinquished their responsibility and therefore the solution to this problems lies with those who have the knowledge and the willingness to act. If it should fall on those within the military than so be it—there is little alternative when it comes to the safety and care of this country and its soldiers.

You see, I do not have the power to stop this war or the deaths of 3,000 more men and women. I do have the power to make you aware of why soldiers are dying and why this war is unjust. I do have the power to impel you to care. It is the American people who have the power to end this war—it is the American people who can save the lives of every soldier who dies from this day on—but only if they have the will to do so.

They can try me, convict or acquit me, sentence me. My life does not matter. But the lives of thousands of soldiers do. During basic training, my drill sergeant told me to always serve my soldiers and they in turn will serve you. Taking part in an illegal and immoral policy while those who have the power ignore or refuse their duty is not serving the best interest of my soldiers. Appealing to those with the power to change is. Sacrifice for his soldiers is certainly one of the duties of an officer.

Watada was court-martialed in early February for refusing to deploy to Iraq and for conduct unbecoming an officer. On Feb. 7, a military judge declared a mistrial because he didn’t believe Watada fully understood a pretrial agreement he’d signed. The Army referred the charges for a second court marital, and Watada’s lawyer will move to dismiss the charges based on the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy. The complete text of Watada’s speech is posted at