Peter Neil Kirstein
“Putting the Iraq War on Trial: The Lt Watada Case”
Jan 31, 2007, Wednesday, Chicago, Illinois
When President Bush announced the beginning of the Iraq War on March 19, 2003, he claimed his war aims were to “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” Iraq did not need disarming by war whether or not it possessed W.M.D., or as Mr Bush put it in his intentionally distorted war message, “weapons of mass murder.” The grave danger that the president referred to was not Iraq, that possessed no chemical weapons, no biological weapons and no nuclear weapons. The Iraqi people were freed from a dictator but their lives are worse with a failed state and a civil war that has plunged the nation into chaos and utter ruin.
The parallels between Nazi Germany and the United States in their aggressive conduct of foreign affairs are not insignificant. No, the grave danger is the United States that wages war without justification, without moral purpose and without the consent of the international community. It is essential that an outlaw state that threatens to destroy utterly the fragile underpinnings of international peace and security be challenged not only by other nation-states but also its own people.
Indeed, the grave danger to the US is not our “enemies” but our wars that create new enemies that wish to retaliate, as they tragically did on September 11, 2001, and not remain subservient subalterns within the American/Israeli empire of colonialism and occupation.
Let me say this. 1st Lt Ehren Watada represents liberation from the grave danger. A Lt Watada represents hopes for peace; a Lt Watada represents a challenge to the violent nationalism of America. A Lt Watada represents the dream of a military that thinks beyond strategy and tactics, of “engaging the enemy,” of collateral damage, of killing other humans, many of whom are babies and other innocents. The nation needs more Lt Watadas who desire that America live up to its ideals and quench its lust for war and conquest.
I cannot think of a better exemplar or representative of what the 21st Century US military should reflect. Hopefully it will cease pursuing the goals of being the most powerful, the best trained, the most adept at cyber-warfare, the most aggressive in controlling space or colonizing the moon or Mars, deploying the “smartest” weapons of war, possessing superior firepower, but a military that encourages dissent, discussion, debate, not to mention basic human rights for all who serve regardless of sexual preference.
I cannot bring myself, however, to declare tonight that all military personnel should disobey orders, refuse to deploy, or abandon the battlefield. Those are choices that can lead to great personal sacrifice, the end of one’s military career or, perhaps, future careers, and since I am no longer in the military and when I was, never had to make that kind of choice, I don’t want to urge those to sacrifice so much when I am far removed from that option.
Yes I have paid a price for my views with a suspension, reprimand and national vilification; yes I have stepped up and challenged powerful forces from a university president, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, dozens of infuriated cadets at the Air Force Academy and David Horowitz and Laura Ingraham who write books calling progressive, non-conformist professors like myself dangerous, anti-American and a threat to our students. I have fought to retain my academic appointment, my right of free speech, and to demand virtually unfettered academic freedom. But prison was not an option.
Yet I can and will praise and support military personnel who become pacifists, or morally oppose a specific conflict they are asked to participate in. The fact this event is taking place on this campus tonight is proof of that. I think it is honourable, decent and worthy of respect when a person sacrifices their career for peace. The peace movement is strengthened when military personnel join it. While most Americans oppose the war, the war goes on, the war even escalates and one of the reasons it escalates is because hard choices have not been made. Lt Watada made a hard choice and needs to be recognised for his courage. But he is an exception not the rule.
The Democrats in Congress may oppose the surge and escalation of the war into Baghdad and Anbar province, but they have not made the hard choice to cut off funding for this immoral adventure. You hear folks say, “Well if you cut off all funding, you leave the soldiers in harm’s way.” Oh no. If Congress exercises the power of the purse, the troops are withdrawn and the killing of Muslims by Americans stops. That is what results when paying for the war crime stops. Their guns are not empty; they are not helpless. They are removed from the theatre of military operations and urban warfare, and returned to the “world,” as they would say in Vietnam.
This illegal war, fought for conquest, oil, neo-conservative messianism and to expand Israel’s geostrategic influence in the region, can only be stopped when people make hard choices. Many university presidents oppose this war but are afraid to speak publicly against the war for fear of losing federal funding, alienating possible fund raisers or becoming embroiled in political controversy. I am speaking about them generally without reference to any individual. It would be a hard choice for them but some like Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr became a harsh critic of the Vietnam War and abolished Yale’s Army and Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1969. The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame (1952-1987), demonstrated independence during the Vietnam War, and toleration of war resisters when appointed to the Ford administration’s clemency board concerning Vietnam War draft resisters.
Many people in academia and not just those in a president’s office, such as provosts, vice-presidents and tenured deans, oppose this war but have not publicly spoken against the war. Yet an Alan Jones, who is Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Pitzer College in California, has eloquently defended antiwar professors and signed petitions denouncing prowar zealots who wish to attenuate academic freedom. Hard choices need to be made, by senior university administrators throughout academia to oppose publicly this tragic, senseless war. This would contribute to the greater good of America and show compassion for the tragic victims of war.
During Vietnam, more than any other conflict, many military personnel made that hard choice which a Lt Ehren Watada so bravely has made today. While most were enlisted men or draftees, some were officers as Lt Watada.
Richard Steinke graduated from the United States Military Academy in June 1965 and refused a combat mission while in country. He said, “The Vietnamese war is not worth a single American life.” His punishment was court-martial and separation from the army.
Lieutenant Susan Schnall was a nurse in the navy. There were eight nurses that were killed in Vietnam. She was court-martialed for participating in an antiwar demonstration in uniform, and for her activities in leafleting from the air antiwar literature onto naval installations.
Captain Howard Levy was an army doctor stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. He trained Special Forces in dermatology care, but in 1966 stopped because he believed Special Forces were, “murderers of women and children” and “killers of peasants.” He was charged with promoting “disloyalty and disaffection among the troops.” Colonel Earl Brown presided over his court-martial and allowed Levy to challenge the Nuremberg Defence that was used by many defendants that they were just following orders, (”Befehl ist Befehl”). Levy claimed he could not participate in training Special Forces for a criminal and illegal war. Yet he was convicted by a ten-officer jury and sentenced to three years of hard labour.
The Nuremberg Principles were adopted by the U.N. in 1950 that essentially codified the charter and judgment of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal (1945-1949). I might say I think those war-crimes trials held in Germany after the war were merely revenge killings and probably illegal with their reliance on ex post facto law—laws passed subsequent to the commission of a crime. They excluded U.S. and British war criminals such as Prime Minister Winston Churchill who unleashed strategic bombing that paralleled Germany’s inattention to sparing innocent life. As the Iraq-hanging executions, only defeated Germans were tried at Nuremberg, and Japanese, not American war criminals such as President Harry S Truman, were sentenced to death in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948) in Japan.
Principle 1 of the Nuremberg Tribunal states:
Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible, therefore, and liable to punishment.
Principle 4 of the Nuremberg Tribunal 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.
The latter is an explicit rejection of the Nuremberg Defence. International law is clear. A military subordinate may not obey an order of a superior if it is illegal and she has a moral choice. Lt Watada should be allowed to defend his declining orders to join the occupation, because Iraq is a criminal enterprise and participation could be construed as violation of international law.
Not surprisingly, on January 16, 2007, Lieutenant Colonel John Head, the judge in the pre-trial Watada hearing, ruled the defence may not introduce evidence that could assess the legality of the George Bush-Hillary Clinton-John McCain war. Unlike the Levy case, the defence cannot use Lt Watada’s claim that Iraq is an illegal war. Only a rogue state would deny its military personnel, who act out of conscience against a war, the right of defence counsel to explore the legitimacy of that act of conscience. A farcical military justice system won’t even allow examination that the Iraq war, that has killed over 600,000 Iraqis, may be beyond the laws of war.
So let us examine our own role as current or potential resisters to this crime that America has become. Hard choices must be made to overthrow a ruling elite that is violent, dishonest, unscrupulous, impervious to the destruction of a little country such as Iraq and evil as it claims global hegemony over a planet that it has neither the legal nor ethical right to plunder or manipulate to satisfy its so-called “vital strategic interests.”
Our nation must be demilitarised and its leadership separated from its military option as Americans come to realise that their own survival and continuity as a people and a nation requires the utter transformation of this country and its role in the international community.