Watada speaking at SPCCWar resister met with admiration, praise

First Lt. Ehren Watada speaks to auditorium full of spectators. (Steven M. Herppich/The Olympian)

Audience greets Watada with support as court-martial looms
Christian Hill
The Olympian

OLYMPIA - Army Lt. Ehren Watada expects a far different reception when his court-martial begins next week for his refusal to serve in Iraq. For this one night, however, he was greeted as a hero.

About 470 people, nearly all strongly aligned with his stance that the war in Iraq is illegal, attended his speech Wednesday at South Puget Sound Community College.


The Fort Lewis officer again assailed the Bush administration for misleading the country to invade Iraq. He urged Americans to end their complacency and help bring an end to the war.


"This needless war has cost so much, but it has not been in vain if we are all willing to change," Watada said.

The audience interrupted him several times with standing ovations.


Starting Monday, he will sit in a far smaller and quieter room with an audience of at least five officers who will weigh whether his defiance warrants up to four years in prison and dismissal from the service.


The Army has charged him with missing movement and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for statements he made in earlier speeches critical of the current administration.


Earlier this week, prosecutors agreed to drop two additional counts of the conduct charge based on statements he made during interviews.

His looming trial did nothing to soften his rhetoric within the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts.


He criticized the U.S. election system, saying it's replete with failing electronic voting machines manufactured by companies with ties to politicians. He said that most Americans are more interested "in 'American Idol' and fantasy football" than what their elected leaders are doing.


Regarding his trial, he said the charges against him were "trumped up" and noted that officers who spoke out against former President Clinton received only minor reprimands, not courts-martial.


"Really it's not much of a trial," he said after Wednesday's speech. "... It's just a disciplinary hearing. 'He's guilty; how much punishment should we give him?' That's pretty much what it's going to be."


He said the arguments that prosecutors will use against him in their effort to maintain good order and discipline within the ranks were the same used 30 years ago.


"Nothing has changed except the names," he said. "Vietnam is now Iraq."


The nation will repeat this cycle of illegal wars and burden future generations with its consequences until elected leaders learn that wars based on deception "should never be allowed or condoned in a free society," he said.


Residents need only have stepped out of the performing arts center to see that many disagree with Watada's stand and that his very name brings out strong emotions. Josh Amos, 35, a state worker, stood outside the front doors holding a sign that read "Watada is a traitor." Next to him, his son Austin, 16, offered a similar commentary: "Watada is no hero."


The elder Amos said he served in the Marine Corps during the Panama invasion and suffers from a service-related injury. There's a code among service members that they don't turn their backs on one another, he said.


He derided Watada's stance as a political show.  "He signed up after the war started," he said. "He knew what was going on."

Watada has maintained that he initially believed the Bush administration when it said former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat and was tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He has said his opinion changed after reading and further research into those claims.

Upon learning he would be sent to Iraq, he offered to resign his commission and twice requested to deploy to Afghanistan instead. The military rejected those suggestions. He's not a conscientious objector opposed to all war.


One women who walked by yelled at Amos, "George Bush is the traitor." A man told Amos he didn't have a deep understanding of the war. That led to a heated debate between that man and another veteran.


Back inside, however, Watada earned near-universal praise.


"He is a true patriot. He is a true American," said Nolan ..., 29, of Olympia, who spoke to Watada after the speech. "He is doing what people are afraid to do."

Chris Carson of Olympia gushed: "Lt. Watada without question is one of the most authentic, genuine, sincere people I have ever been in the presence of."

Concluding his speech, Watada said that in the years ahead, Americans will look back and recognize "the criminality of this current administration." People then will ask who stood up against it, he said.


He ticked off several names: Women in Black, the local chapter that holds weekly silent vigils in downtown Olympia, and Veterans for Peace, an anti-war group that has been a key supporter of Watada. "And Ehren Watada," someone in the audience yelled out.


Hearty applause greeted the remark.



Related Stories:
Web Links:
Official charge sheet against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada (.pdf)



Original link http://www.theolympian.com/101/story/63398.html (webpage is likely to disappear after a short period)