SEATTLE – An Army lieutenant who has refused to deploy to Iraq with his Fort Lewis Stryker brigade was barred by his commanders from attending a news conference Wednesday.
Instead, 1st Lt. Ehren Watada issued a videotaped statement, saying he had appealed to his commanders in his wish not to participate in the war.
"It is my duty as a commissioned officer of the United States Army to speak out against grave injustices. My moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution and not those who would issue unlawful orders," Watada said, wearing a dark suit and blue tie rather than his military uniform. An American flag served as a backdrop.
Watada is a member of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the Army's first Stryker Brigade Combat Team. The unit is set to begin leaving later this month for a second mission in Iraq. This would be Watada's first deployment to Iraq.
Watada scheduled the news conference here, near Fort Lewis, but was barred from attending during his duty hours from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. PDT.
In his statement, Watada said "it is my conclusion as an officer of the armed forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law.
"Although I have tried to resign out of protest, I will be forced to participate in a war that is manifestly illegal. As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must as an officer of honor and integrity refuse that order."
He said the war violates the democratic system of checks and balances and usurps international treaties and conventions.
"The wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of the Iraqi people with only limited accountability is not only a terrible moral injustice but a contradiction to the Army's own Law of Land Warfare," Watada said.
In a letter to his command in January, Watada said he had reservations about the Iraq war and felt he could not participate, his lawyer, Eric A. Seitz, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Tuesday from his office in Honolulu.
A couple of months later, at the Army's suggestion, Watada resubmitted his request to resign, Seitz said. He was told last month that his request had been denied.
After his workday ended, Watada told reporters he will soon submit another request to resign but he added, "I feel it is inevitable ... I will be charged and I will be punished."
He added such punishment would be "no more and no less" than the sacrifices of the soldiers serving in Iraq.
The Army said Wednesday his request was denied because Watada's current unit is in a stop-loss category, and he has not fulfilled his service obligation.
Paul Boyce, a spokesman in the Army's national public affairs office, said Tuesday that Watada is "not the first officer, not the first enlisted, nor the first soldier" to refuse deployment to Iraq. An Army fact sheet dated Sept. 21, 2005, the most recent one available, said 87 conscientious objector applications had been approved and 101 denied since January 2003.
Watada, who is opposed only to the Iraq war, did not apply for conscientious objector status. He said Wednesday evening he wouldn't object to going to Afghanistan.
Army regulations define conscientious objection as a "firm, fixed and sincere objection to participation in war in any form or the bearing of arms, because of religious training and belief."
Watada's decision to publicly declare his intent to disobey orders "is a serious matter and could subject him to adverse action," Army officials said in a statement Wednesday. "No decision regarding personnel actions involving 1st Lieutenant Watada will be made until a thorough review by his commander occurs in accordance with military law."
Watada could be court-martialed if he refuses to serve as ordered, unless the Army allows him to resign his commission or assigns him to duties that are not directly connected to the war, Seitz said.
Watada enlisted in 2003 after graduation from Hawaii Pacific University. He reported for boot camp that June and began officer candidate school two months later.
His commission requires that he serve as an active-duty Army officer for three years ending this Dec. 3, Seitz said.
"He is willing to be court-martialed and go to prison because he believes the war is illegal," Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, said after Wednesday's midday news conference.
Watada's case highlights the increasing resistance to the war in Iraq, Cohn said. She contends that the only way to stop the war is to pressure Congress to cease funding for the war.
"There are many here today who come from many different religious traditions, and we oppose this war in Iraq as an unjust war. We believe that the war is wrong and misguided," said Jim Davis, a United Methodist minister and chaplain of University of Puget Sound, who also attended the news conference. "As is now abundantly clear, Americans have been misled with distorted information to gain support for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq."
Watada's decision was criticized by Rebecca Davis, co-founder of Military Families Voice of Victory.
Davis, the mother of three sons, said in an e-mailed statement that she hopes Watada is prosecuted "to the fullest extent."
"He is a coward and a traitor. His actions will only serve to get his fellow soldiers killed so that he can save himself and become famous," Davis said.