Meanwhile, another soldier was in the news the other night, holding his baby daughter on his arm while being interviewed on local TV about going to Iraq. He shrugged and said, "Sure, I hate to leave my wife and my daughter. But what can you do? Gotta go."
Gotta go? There's nothing brave about a passive surrender to fate. This soldier is fighting because he "gotta." Lt. Watada, in comparison, is fighting for the right to be an exemplary human being, someone brave enough to stand for truth instead of easy and blind acquiescence. He's a patriot who believes in free speech and his right to criticize the war. Now that's worth fighting for.
Lt. Watada made his choice. In this war or any war, every soldier needs to make a choice, one way or the other, about going to fight. When an individual fails to make a choice concerning a major decision, but instead lets that choice be made for him, he's not assuming enough responsibility for the outcome.
That means, in a soldier's case, that he's in grave danger of being very angry about his experience while he's there and greatly embittered when he returns home. If a soldier comes back emotionally or physically disfigured, after setting off without making his own choice, he will likely have less inner strength to fall back on.
The very passivity that led him to Iraq will follow him home and make his emotional recovery (and possible physical recovery) that much harder to achieve. The passivity that led him into a bad situation can't protect him when the bullets of self-loathing and self-hatred start flying.
True, a soldier makes a choice to sign a contract with the military-but in the case of Iraq he got a lemon in return. The war in Iraq is not a good war. A young soldier is being asked to kill or be killed for nothing. He can fight instead to be his own person. And he can reflect on the likelihood that all the promoters of a bad war and the killers in it are going to be held accountable at some level, wherever and whenever and however that may be.
To believe he has no choice is also to think that what he wants and feels doesn't matter. He is saying, at some critical intersection within himself, that who he is doesn't count. What ends up counting is the brotherhood of soldiers who together plunge into the chaos. This camaraderie is a fine and sometimes noble feeling, but it can cover up the needs of justice and human progress for accountability. Someone has to be responsible or else we are less than human.
Lt. Watada has chosen to be responsible. If he should go to prison, he will likely emerge from it at peace with himself, much more intact than the soldiers who went unblinkingly to Iraq. In any case, prison doesn't have to be the outcome for dissenting soldiers. An organization called Appeal for Redress is raising resistance to the war from inside the military. Its members met on Capitol Hill this week and, armed with signatures from more than 1,000 military personnel who oppose the war, urged Congress to stop the troop escalation and bring U.S. forces back home.
When making a choice about a serious matter, we often come face to face with our own self. We're talking about the essence of who we are. This is the place of our deepest integrity, where our own value as a person can be accessed and felt. This is the point inside ourselves where we can most wisely contemplate our options.
Why is it that our country and the world benefit when soldiers say no? Foolish leaders who start bad wars will know they can't take their soldiers for granted. World peace depends on the right of soldiers to say no to their participation in foolish wars.
Soldiers can look for information or knowledge to help them decide. One honest and factual book, published last year, is titled, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. The author, James Carroll, is a columnist at the Boston Globe, a winner of the National Book Award, and a former Catholic priest. Carroll's father worked at the Pentagon and was, in the 1960s, a three-star general and the Air Force inspector general. In the 1950s as a young boy the author visited the Pentagon frequently with his father.
Those of us in the antiwar movement respect the difficult position that soldiers are in. We ask them to make the best choice they know how. It's good to do honor to your country, and it is just as noble to do honor to yourself.