The Truth Set Him Free: Ehren Watada vs. the U.S. Army

In June 2006, Lieutenant Ehren Watada became the first U.S. Army officer to publicly refuse orders to Iraq.  After almost three years of intense political and legal struggle, he won his discharge from the Army on October 2, 2009.  He never did a single day in jail.

His journey from a believer in his government and Army to GI resister is a dramatic tale of uncovering lies, finding the truth, and daring to take a stand on that truth.

First Lieutenant Ehren Watada joined the Army after 9/11 for the most patriotic of reasons – to serve and protect his country in a time of war.  He believed that his country would do the right thing.  Once in, he worked hard and eventually earned the rank of First Lieutenant.  When informed that he would be deployed to Iraq, he studied the history of other American units in Iraq and read everything he could find about the war so he could most effectively lead his men in combat.

In so doing, however, he discovered far more than he anticipated. Watada would later write in the Hawaii newspaper The Honolulu Advertiser, “The books and articles I read would change my views forever. They exposed in detail the president’s deliberate manipulation to initiate this war. Recent reports show us that this war is a debacle of enormous proportions and that there never was any just cause. I felt as though our lives were being wasted for nothing.”

This initiated a period of immerse turmoil in the young lieutenant’s thinking, a crisis of fundamental moral questions.  Finally, as Watada states in the same article, “Never in my life did I ever imagine I would have to disobey my president. But I have come to the conclusion that participation in this war is not only immoral but a breach of American and international law.” Watada went on to quote the specific articles of the U.S. Constitution and the U.N. Charter that support his statements, noted the clear public evidence of U.S. war crimes, and concluded: “Though I may never be punished for these crimes, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse to take part in them.”

Watada refused his orders to Iraq. When off duty and out of uniform, he spoke out publicly against the war.  Perhaps his most famous speech was given to the 2006 Veterans for Peace national convention in Seattle. Lt. Watada spoke to over 500 military veterans, and 60 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War filed onstage to stand behind him as he spoke.  His speech electrified the veterans and the GI anti-war movement.  Just as Cindy Sheehan’s protest at Camp Casey had inspired the general peace movement, the word of an officer refusing orders to Iraq and speaking out inspired other soldiers to question and in some cases to also resist military orders.  As a result, the GI resistance movement grew.

A national campaign entitled, “Friends and Family of Lt. Watada,” arose to support him.  Activists in major cities and small towns around the country organized protests in his support, wrote letters and sent emails to the commanding general of Fort Lewis, and held educational events in their areas.  Money was raised for his defense.  The area around Fort Lewis became a hotbed of anti-war activity in his support, with multiple demonstrations outside the gates of the base and a monthly vigil in Seattle by Veterans for Peace and other local peace groups.  News of and support for his case spread internationally as well.

Watada’s family, too, spoke out.  His father, step-mother, and mother went on tours around the country speaking about his case.  Everywhere they received tremendous attention from both the mainstream and alternative media, and peace groups sponsored events for them in major cities as well as countless small towns.  In one speaking tour alone, Watada’s father and step-mother — Bob Watada and Rosa Sakanishi — spoke at over thirty events in eighteen states, including cities such as New York, Boston, Phoenix, Houston, Orlando, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Watada’s mother, Carolyn Ho, also went on a nation-wide speaking tour. In just San Francisco alone, she spoke at nine separate events in two days.

Asian activists rallied to support Lt. Watada.  The Watada Support Committee/ APIR (later to become Asian Americans for Peace & Justice) in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress and Asian American Vietnam Veterans Organization in Los Angeles, and the Asian American Alliance in New York organized multiple events and marched in demonstrations for Watada’s cause.

When other soldiers refused orders to Iraq, the military charged them simply with the act of refusal itself, found them guilty in a court martial, and punished them accordingly. Most spent several months to a year in a military stockade or prison.

In the case of Watada, however, the Army not only charged him with refusing orders, but also with several counts of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”  The Army lay criminal charges for Watada’s speeches, in which he called the war immoral and illegal and named the lies that President Bush had used to go to war. While all of the statements he made were proved by considerable evidence available in mainstream sources, yet the Army declared it “unbecoming” for an officer and a gentleman to speak the truth in public. The combined charges would total six years if he were found guilty on all.

1st Lt. Ehren Watada

The Army put Watada on trial in February of 2007 at Fort Lewis, Washington state. Roughly 2,000 demonstrators marched in protest outside the gates of Fort Lewis, while several dozen peace activists entered the fort to attend his trial.  Other protests in support of Watada were held in cities and small towns around the nation.  His trial generated media coverage around the nation and the world.  His support campaign received emails of support from as far away as Great Britain and Japan.

The Army was under intense pressure to “win” on this case, but it overreached.  By charging him with not only refusing orders to Iraq but also of speaking the truth in public, the Army was forced to present in court his statements that it objected to. They played a videotape of his speech to the Veterans for Peace national convention.  The members of the jury, all senior military officers, saw Watada lay out the case very clearly that the war in Iraq was illegal, based on public lies by the President of the United States and his administration.  They heard Watada explain very clearly that soldiers have a duty in both law and morality to refuse illegal orders.

The judge refused to allow any defense witness to appear in court, while allowing the prosecution witnesses to appear. Yet when each of the three prosecution witnesses – all senior military officers (active or retired) – were asked what an officer should do if given an order he believes to be illegal, every one gave the same answer: an officer must refuse to obey an illegal order. This, combined with Watada’s speech, made the Army’s case against him extremely weak, self-contradictory, and in danger of failing.  Perhaps fearing that the Army might lose, Judge Lt. Col. John Head forced a mistrial over the objections of both the defense and prosecution lawyers rather than allowing the court martial to continue.

The Army then attempted to try Watada a second time. The Army set a new court martial date, but Watada’s lawyers appeal on the grounds that a second court martial would constitute double jeopardy. Three Army courts ruled that in this case, two trials would not be double jeopardy.  Watada’s lawyers then took the case to the next level, a federal civilian court, where US District Court Judge Benjamin Settle had been newly appointed by President George W. Bush.  Judge Settle, himself a former Army lawyer, issued a stay of the court martial, and eventually ruled that in fact a second trial would constitute double jeopardy.  The Army announced that it would appeal this decision.  But when the Obama administration came into office, Watada’s supporters launched a national campaign appealing to the new Justice Department, which then directed the Army to stand down on it’s appeal.  Watada got out of the Army, a free man who never spent even one day in jail.

Watada’s struggle had a ripple effect. Active duty soldiers that I talked to mentioned him and other GI resisters as people they look to for inspiration.  Each GI resister, each act of resistance, inspires others. Today, many young former soldiers speak out for peace, and if the Viet Nam generation of peace veterans is any example, some of them will likely continue to work for peace for the rest of their lives and will eventually pass the torch on to future generations.

Thus, the political result of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada’s peaceful refusal of orders to the Iraq war was a three year stream of bad publicity for the Army, the war, and the Bush administration, an example that inspired the GI anti-war movement within the military as well as the veteran and civilian peace movements outside the military. In the end, it was a major victory for the peace movement and a vindication of Watada’s actions. The result was three years of intense personal, political, and legal struggle and great individual sacrifice for Lt. Watada. But it was a victory in the end, personal vindication, and freedom from the Army.

Combined with determination and courage, the truth can indeed set people free.

About Michael Wong

Michael Wong refused U.S. Army orders and deserted to Canada during the Viet Nam war. He currently is a member of Veterans for Peace and the Veterans Writers Group led by Maxine Hong Kingston. He is featured in the movie “Sir! No Sir!” about GI resistance to the Viet Nam war, and in the anthology, “Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace,” edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. He is a social worker with a Master of Social Work degree.


  1. Steve Morse says:


    Thanks for sharing this and thanks for your work and that of the other four veterans in these articles and in putting this blog together. I was moved by each of the five not-so-easy pieces. Your article was a very good retrospective of Watada and his campaign, which was hard to see as clearly while it was still happening.

    In each of the articles, there was a synthesis of sharpness of thinking, knowledge of history, experience with militarism and war, fierce humanity, poetic sensibility and the conviction that wielding a well-tempered pen can make a difference for peace.

    I look forward to more.

    Steve Morse, Viet-Nam veteran, Veterans for Peace, Oakland, CA

    • Marlena Sanotyo says:

      Am one of many to have come out & supported Ehren Watada and the Vets who spoke & continue to speak out against the immoral & illegal Iraq War of Bush & Cheney.

      Thank you for being at the forefront of speaking truth to power & in so doing empowering the rest of us from the East to West coast, and across the seas, in solidarity with those who refuse to commit murder & destroy for greed, oil & power.

  2. Ellen Murphy says:

    I certainly don’t want to diminish your excellent and much-needed article and update on Ehren Watada by bringing up a side issue, so please take this just as a personal thought and not a criticism, but it wasn’t only 500 vets that Ehren spoke to at the convention; I am an associate member, and I was there that awesome night in Seattle, and on the Ft. Lewis bridge, and I give everything I possibly can to VfP, and I know there are many other associate members, yet somehow we seem to be invisible. I believe that none of us wants or needs any attention. That’s not why we’re there. We are there to work along side our vets and support them because we want to, because we can do nothing less. It’s just that, well, if we do swell the ranks, and are counted in, let us also be counted.

  3. Richard Thompson says:

    Thank you for writing this. It is a great reminder that truth vigorously and constantly fought for overcomes.

  4. ArchiesBoy says:

    I had lost track of Lt. Watada for a couple of years. Am SO GLAD to know that he finally achieved justice, and that the army got the black eye it so richly deserved!

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