Military war resisters protect First Amendment freedoms

By Susan Van Haitsma

Austin American-Statesman / DissidentVoice / CommonDreams

Freedom. It’s the word used over and over by George W. Bush to defend military offensives initiated by his administration. Freedom, he says, is being protected and expanded through the sacrifices of US soldiers ordered into Iraq and Afghanistan.

First Amendment rights to speak, assemble, publish, practice religion and petition the government are essential freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution soldiers swear to defend. But are soldiers themselves accorded the rights they are ordered to protect? Is it possible for First Amendment freedoms to be advanced by an institution that suppresses those freedoms?

On June 7, 2006, 3-year Army officer, Lt. Ehren Watada, stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA spoke publicly in opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq and declared his intent to refuse orders to deploy. After careful study of the events leading to the invasion and reports of the ways the occupation has been conducted in light of US Constitutional and international law, Lt. Watada reached a conclusion shared by many, perhaps most of his fellow Americans.

Lt. Watada stated, “The war in Iraq violates our democratic system of checks and balances. It usurps international treaties and conventions that by virtue of the Constitution become American law. The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people with only limited accountability is not only a terrible moral injustice, but a contradiction to the Army’s own Law of Land Warfare. My participation would make me party to war crimes… My oath of office is to protect and defend America’s laws and its people. By refusing unlawful orders for an illegal war, I fulfill that oath today.”

On June 22, Lt. Watada refused orders to deploy with his unit to Iraq. On July 5, he was formally charged with three articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), including charges of missing movement and of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” and using “contemptuous words” toward officials, specifically President Bush. The words used by Watada, “our government led us into war based on misrepresentations and lies,” echo the sentiments of millions of people in the US. The charges against Watada represent the first known prosecution since 1965 of UCMJ Article 88 regarding contempt of superior officers. Lt. Watada’s lawyer, Eric Seitz, said, “We expected the missing movement charge, but we are somewhat astounded by the ‘contempt’ and ‘conduct unbecoming’ charges. These additional charges open up the substance of Lt. Watada’s statements for review and raise important First Amendment issues.”

A pre-trial hearing of Lt. Watada’s case is scheduled for August 17. Watada does not consider himself a Conscientious Objector to all war, but he takes seriously his obligation to abide by the Nuremberg Principles, international law ratified by the US following WWII.

The fourth article of the Nuremberg Principles states, “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Punishable as crimes under international law are the following:

Crimes Against Peace, including “waging a war of aggression.”

War Crimes, including “ill treatment of prisoners of war, plunder of public or private property and wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.”

Crimes Against Humanity, including “murder and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population.”

Do we want soldiers to follow orders without question, or do we want them to think critically about their actions? Why are some soldiers punished for committing atrocities during war at the same time that other soldiers are punished for resisting orders to participate in a war known for its atrocities? Lt. Watada joins a growing number of soldiers whose moral convictions are leading to punitive convictions in military courts. Many soldiers who have sought Conscientious Objector status have been denied. Thousands of soldiers have gone AWOL as a result of the formidable legal blocks to establishing moral objections to the Iraq war. Many have sought refuge in Canada, though political asylum for US military war resisters is not official there.

Freedoms are protected and expanded, not through war, as President Bush would have us believe, but through the courageous moral choices being made by young war resisters like Lt. Ehren Watada. By practicing First Amendment freedoms of speech, press and conscience, they are shouldering the responsibilities being shirked by their elders to bring international and US law to bear on the war in Iraq.

Van Haitsma is active with Nonmilitary Options for Youth in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at

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