Public split on anti-war officer
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By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
Even before he speaks publicly today for the first time on his refusal to participate in the Iraq war, 1st Lt. Ehren K. Watada has touched a new nerve in the three-year-old conflict.
Watada, a Kalani High School graduate based at Fort Lewis, Wash., is supposed to deploy this month to Mosul in northern Iraq with an Army Stryker brigade.
His attorney, Eric Seitz, said the 28-year-old won't go to a war he cannot justify or support legally and morally.
News of the refusal has some fuming. Others have rallied to his cause.
The Honolulu man is believed to be one of the first military officers to publicly take steps to refuse his deployment orders in the current conflict.
In doing so, he's become a touchstone for controversy over Iraq.
"If the people and soldiers in Nazi Germany had refused to follow Hitler's orders, the world would have praised them as honorable and heroic," said one contributor to an Advertiser online forum, a war opponent who wished there were "more like (Watada)."
Replied another: "And if our soldiers had refused to land on Normandy 62 years ago (D-Day, June 6, 1944), we'd have ... what?"
Another said Watada is disobeying a direct order: "You enlist to serve your country, to obey your commanders, not to let your political beliefs cloud your service."
Watada is expected to participate by telephone in an 11 a.m. news conference today at the state Capitol that will include his father, former state Campaign Spending Commission executive director Bob Watada, and other supporters.
"It's the timing," Seitz said of the public's response. "The war is on everybody's mind. I think public opinion about the war is at an all-time high in terms of opposition."
A Harris Interactive poll conducted May 9-16 of 2,085 adults shows many Americans remain pessimistic about Iraq: Sixty-one percent said they aren't confident that U.S. policies in Iraq will be successful, while 22 percent said they are confident of success.
Seitz said he received 50 calls about Watada, mostly from news media. Bob Watada, who lives in Hawai'i Kai, fielded 25 calls, including one from a reporter in New Zealand.
"They've all been very positive," Bob Watada said. "I'm sure there are the negatives out there, but Ehren has to do what he believes is correct."
Ehren Watada reported for boot camp in 2003 and is obligated to serve as an officer until Dec. 3, 2006. He asked last January and subsequently to be allowed to resign his commission based on moral objections to the Iraq war, but his command refused, Seitz said.
"I am wholeheartedly opposed to the continued war in Iraq, the deception used to wage this war, and the lawlessness that has pervaded every aspect of our civilian leadership," Ehren Watada said in a statement released by Seitz.
Erin Benson, a Fort Lewis spokeswoman, yesterday said, "I can't tell you what will happen to (Watada), because to my knowledge, he hasn't done anything."
Bob Watada said his son was told by his command that he couldn't leave the base to attend a news conference, also scheduled today in Tacoma, Wash.
Seitz said Ehren Watada "is legally obligated to go" to Iraq. Watada is not a conscientious objector — someone opposed to all war — and if court-martialed, could face several years in prison.
"He's on very difficult legal ground. Basically, he's operating on the grounds of conscience and morality," Seitz said. "The military and the legal system in the military don't recognize those kinds of arguments readily, except for perhaps in exercising some leniency."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.