By Mark Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Oct. 2, Ehren Watada was discharged from the U.S. Army under “other than honorable conditions.” Ehren is the Asian American Army officer who refused to deploy to Iraq because he claimed the war was illegal.
While Ehren may never have met President George W. Bush, their stories are connected by history. To understand Ehren’s story, we should look at Bush’s story.
Bush was born in 1946. In his younger days, it seemed that he was a bit of a party animal. In 1976, he was arrested for a DUI, which he pled guilty to. In 1977, he married his wife Laura. He credits Laura for stabilizing his life and helping him to give up drinking.
Before running for president, he started an oil company, served as Governor of Texas, and was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. He was first elected President of the United States in 2000 and was re-elected in 2004.
Part of Bush’s appeal was his reputation as a guy that you can drink a beer with. He can come across on TV as a likeable, regular guy in spite of his silver spoon background. Most of us have probably met many “George W” types before. They are the life of the party, and everybody seems to like them. However, a problem arises when the popular frat guy becomes the president and decides to invade Iraq.
One of the main justifications for the war was the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to an extent that justified invasion. This turned out to be incorrect.
A 2004 report, authored by Charles Duelfer, who advises the director of central intelligence on Iraqi weapons, says Iraq’s WMD program was essentially destroyed in 1991 and Saddam ended Iraq’s nuclear program after the 1991 Gulf War. There are other arguments for why Bush invaded Iraq. The real question is, even if there was some other basis for the invasion (such as getting rid of Saddam), was it worth the sacrifice of more than 4,000 American lives, many Iraqi lives, billions of tax dollars, and years of commitment?
This is the moment in which Watada’s story crosses paths with Bush’s.
Watada was born in 1978 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His father had refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Watada played football as a cornerback in high school and was an Eagle Scout. He graduated magna cum laude from college with a degree in finance.
He joined the Army shortly after the Iraq War began, stating that he joined out of his desire to protect his country after the 9/11 attacks. He was commissioned as an officer in November 2003. After he was deployed to Fort Lewis, he learned that his unit would be deployed in Iraq and began researching the country and the reasons for his country’s involvement. He said he read several books and articles, researched international law, and spoke with veterans returning from Iraq. He then concluded that the war was an illegal war of aggression and was based on misinformation about weapons of mass destruction.
In January 2006, he tried to resign from the Army. The Army refused to accept his resignation because he had not finished his eight-year commission. He stated that he offered to serve in Afghanistan instead, which the Army refused. He was also offered a desk job in Iraq which he refused.
After more than two years of legal battles, including a mistrial, the government dropped the case and allowed him to resign.
Using court battles as a backdrop, Watada became a symbol of the anti-war movement, and Bush’s popularity declined to the point where his approval ratings were the worst in the 70-year history of the Gallup poll. Bush’s unpopularity, combined with the economy, set the stage for the election of Obama.
In many respects, Watada’s stand played a significant role in altering the course of recent history. Did he do the right thing? It can certainly be argued that he should have done his research on the legality of the war before he decided to join the Army, and as a result, he had to face the consequences of his decision. He was in his 20s when much of the story happened. When you are young, you are more likely to act on your desires without thinking through all the consequences.
He does appear to have been sincere in both his decision to join the Army and to resist going to Iraq. He may also have had more reason to question the war when he heard about soldiers getting killed by roadside bombs. Perhaps Watada should have thought things through before joining the Army. On the other hand, Bush should have thought things through before getting the country involved in Iraq and telling the citizens that we needed to invade. Watada believed our president when he said we needed to protect the world by invading Iraq. Watada can probably be blamed for being young, idealistic, and perhaps naïve about the reality of joining the military.
But it was also his idealism that caused him to take a stand against the war and help educate the public about the errors of Bush’s justification to invade.
By this point, Watada would probably like to quietly get on with his life. However, for a time, he was in the role of the rebel taking a very publicized stand against what he believed to be an unjust use of authority. It is somewhat unusual to see an Asian American receive publicity for being in this type of situation. Watada’s story shows that anyone who acts on the courage of their convictions can make a difference. ♦
Mark Lee is a monthly columnist at Northwest Asian Weekly. He is a lawyer practicing in Seattle.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.