Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ehren Watada and Coram Nobis

For a while now, I've taken pride in following the Iraq War fairly closely. When my friend Roxy forwarded me an item about Ehren Watada, I was embarrassed to realize that I knew little to nothing about the case. Ehren Watada is a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who refused orders to go to Iraq in May 2006. His court martial proceedings begin next month. A soldier's courage is normally measured on the battlefield. Lt. Watada's has chosen to demonstrate his courage by refusing to fight in an unjust war. He is the first U.S. officer to openly refuse to serve in Iraq.

One of the surprising things is that the Army apparently offered to settle the matter at one point by assigning Lt. Watada to a desk job in Iraq. Watada countered by saying that he was willing to be assigned to Afghanistan which he considers a "just" war, but believes it is his duty to refuse service in Iraq essentially because the administration justified it through false pretenses.

Watada, who joined the army after 2003, does not claim to be a pacifist or a conscientious objector. Instead, he argues that soldiers have an affirmative duty to refuse a clearly invalid order. In this case, he points out that the invasion of Iraq was premised on false and purposely misleading information. In the meantime, Lt. Watada who has an otherwise exemplary record serves at a desk job stateside while waiting for his court martial. According to his lawyer, the lieutenant has even had fellow soldiers approach him to shake his hand and thank him for taking a stand.

Very few of us ever risk our lives for a principle. Lt. Watada is betting his life and military career that either a military tribunal or history itself will agree with his position.

A little more than fifty years ago, another American of Japanese descent, Fred Korematsu took a similar stance. After Pear Harbor Korematsu, then a very young man, in California went into hiding rather than report for relocation. The ACLU of Northern California supported Korematsu's stance that the relocation was unconstitutional,but Korematsu ultimately lost in the Supreme Court.

For the next 35 years, Fred Korematsu lived out his life working as a welder and draughtsman who could not advance his career because he remained a convicted felon for the one act of resistance that defined his life. For at least 30 years, the Japanese-American heroes of choice were the members of the 442nd a group of Japanese who went from the internment camps to fighting for the United States in Europe and who served so well that they were the most decorated combat force of their size during the war. The line went something like, "Once given the chance to prove their patriotism...."

In the 1970's, Korematsu found a lawyer Dale Minami who took the case and eventually got a reversal of the conviction in Judge Marilyn Patel's court on the basis of Coram Nobis, righting a wrong. Korematsu and his attorneys were able to show that the evidence of Japanese espionage had been fixed thirty years earlier to exagerrate the danger (that's got to sound a little bit familiar these days). When Korematsu had lost his Supreme Court case, Justice Black had leaned heavily on the potential danger and the fact that the U.S. was at war. Not long after that, the President awarded Fred Korematsu the medal of freedom.

Roughly a decade after Korematsu was exonerated and ultimately celebrated for his heroic act of dissent, the Congress voted reparations of 20,000 dollars to those who had been relocated. My stepfather was one of them. He pointed out at the time that it was really his father who had suffered the injustice. He was only fourteen at the time. It didn't really matter, my stepfather has still never seen a dime of the reparations.

In some odd ways, Ehren Watada's case suggests that there has at least been racial progress in 64 years. Not only is Watada an officer in the army, he's been able to dissent with surprisingly little expectation that he somehow represents all Asian-Americans.

In other ways though, some of the themes are too familiar. What does one do when the government misleads its own citizens? I already hear people saying that the new Democratic congress shouldn't get sidetracked by trying to impeach either the president or the vice-president even though most reasonable people now acknowledge that the nation was misled. Am I the only one wondering why we can't punish the president for getting thousands of people killed, but so many people assume that Lt. Watada should be court martialed and sentenced up to eight years in military prison for pointing out the truth?

It took thirty five years for coram nobis to vindicate Fred Korematsu for having said that the relocation of citizens simply for being Japanese was unconstitutional. The evidence that ultimately gave the court a reason to vacate his conviction was supressed for 35 years. We have a chance now to support Ehren Watada. He has not yet been tried and he has not yet been court martialed. We should be recognizing his courage.

It's not Ehren Watada who needs to be on trial. It's the people who gave orders that they knew to be wrong.



At 1/06/2007 05:41:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Astounding, I wonder how much coverage this will get in the mainstream media?

At 1/06/2007 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

It's been covered some...I linked the Watada family's web page devoted to the matter and they have several links to stories...Also the court martial hasn't really started up yet, so I imagine that's the time the media will pick up on the story.

As I said...Why is it that the administration shouldn't be punished for lying and letting thousand of people die while a soldier who points out that Nuremberg says you have a duty to not follow a wrongful order is likely to get court martialed and sent to a military prison?

At 1/07/2007 10:33:00 AM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Great post, Chance. Go Ehren!

At 1/08/2007 12:55:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Inky...
It's going to be interesting to see how interested the media gets in this story.

At 1/08/2007 10:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been inspired by this young man for months now. I'm glad you're bringing up this most courageous on-going act.

Many acts of courage are a short adrenal blast of an action. This sustained courage is much harder & less sung.

At 1/09/2007 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Good point Mr. Pogblog. Battlefield courage is often very sudden and by its nature it's often happenstance that makes heroes. This is a very different kind of courage, the sort we don't respect nearly enough. It's someone saying, "This is what I believe" and standing by it.

At 1/09/2007 05:56:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

They always call Katie Couric courageous and that's because her husband died of cancer. The word courage is used incorrectly far too often. It's warranted in this man's case.

At 1/10/2007 08:21:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I didn't know anything about Katie Couric's husband having cancer.
All I know is that I doubt that I'd be able to do what he's doing.


Post a Comment

<< Home