SAN FRANCISCO — As the Feb. 5 date for court martial proceedings against military resister 1st Lt. Ehren Watada approaches, antiwar, faith-based and veterans organizations are building support for his right to refuse deployment to Iraq and to speak out against a war he declares is illegal.
As Watada, the first commissioned officer to reject going to Iraq, underwent pre-trial hearings at Fort Lewis, Wash., Jan. 4, over 200 supporters gathered at the federal building here for a rally and “die-in” to demand the return home of U.S. soldiers. Some 28 protesters were later arrested as they lay, wrapped in sheets, in front of the doors.
“They’ve told so many lies, let them tell another — declare victory and bring our troops home now,” Marilyn Saner of Military Families Speak Out told the crowd. Saner’s son, an active duty Army soldier, was wounded by an IED last July and now faces redeployment to Iraq.
Calling his organization a “cross-section” of the community, the Rev. Lloyd Wake of the Watada Support Committee urged Congress to end funding for the war, bring the troops home and treat them decently on their return. “It is time to rebuild our nation’s desire to be part of the family of nations, and not a country seeking hegemony,” he said.
In a conversation before the rally, Wake said the committee is calling on the military to “back off and let Lt. Watada resign.” Current developments in the war and occupation underscore the lieutenant’s contention that the war is illegal, Wake said.
Earlier, Watada’s resistance was controversial among some Japanese American veterans, particularly those who struggled to be accepted as soldiers in World War II. But now, said Wake, “with the way the war is going, they understand that Lt. Watada is right to protest the war and to assert his right to freedom of speech.”
Besides the Watada Support Committee, the protest was organized by APIs Resist, Declaration of Peace, faith-based organizations including Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, Episcopalians and Buddhists, and peace and veterans groups. Watada’s supporters also gathered at the gates of Fort Lewis.
Watada is charged with missing a troop movement for refusing to go to Iraq last June and with four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for publicly criticizing the war and President Bush. He could face a total of six years in prison, four of them for his public criticism.
In the pre-trial hearings, his lawyer, Eric Seitz, urged the judge to dismiss the conduct charges on grounds of freedom of speech. At press time, results of the hearing were not yet available.
The free speech issue is taking on new dimensions as the court martial date approaches.
The military has subpoenaed two peace activists based in Washington state, Phan Nguyen and Dr. Gerri Haynes, and two journalists, Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako and Oakland-based freelance journalist and radio producer Sarah Olson, as prosecution witnesses. It plans to call another independent journalist, Dahr Jamail, to testify as well.
Olson objects strongly to the request to testify, citing the chilling effect on free speech and press freedom if journalists participate in a government prosecution of political speech. “The difficult thing about this is that on the surface, it is a textbook case of precisely when a journalist would testify,” she said in a telephone interview. “The Army is saying, we just want to have you verify your reporting. No one is contesting the accuracy of it. It’s the speech nature of this thing that concerns me so much.”
Olson also expressed concern about the subpoenas’ potential effect on the very limited media coverage military resisters currently receive. “No one wants to be subpoenaed, or to have to participate in a court martial,” she said. “It’s happening more and more frequently, which I think is another alarming aspect of this.”
Lt. Watada’s supporters are calling for letters to Commanding General, Fort Lewis and I Corps, Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, Bldg. 2025 Stop 1, Fort Lewis, WA 98433, asking that the Army accept his resignation and provide an honorable or general discharge.
mbechtel @ pww.org