By JONATHAN VAN HARMELEN

Historical anniversaries are special occasions that offer us a moment to both commemorate events and reflect on how our world has changed since their occurrence. Yet this summer, a number of recent events remind us of William Faulkner’s quote: “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

First, this summer marks the end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. After almost 20 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the weeks after Sept. 11, the U.S. now ends one of its longest wars. In many ways, the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan has defined U.S. foreign policy of the 21st century, and the impacts of the occupation are felt globally. For Afghans, the absence of American soldiers closes one door to the past and opens another of uncertainty, with little time to grieve for the thousands lost. For Americans, it means reconciling the death of soldiers overseas and billions of dollars spent in reinventing a new Afghanistan. 

Army Lt. Ehren Watada, left, walks with his father, Bob Watada, mother, Carolyn Ho, and attorney, Eric Seitz, during a break in an Army hearing concerning Watada’s refusal to deploy to Iraq, at Fort Lewish, Wash., on Aug. 17, 2006. (File Photo)

The invasion of Afghanistan and ensuing War on Terror was the crusade of many politicians in the Bush Administration, one of whom is the recently deceased Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld was the architect of numerous infamous policies under the Bush administration, such as the torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and one of the main advocates for the invasion of Iraq. Rumsfeld’s death, like the withdrawal from Afghanistan, reminds us that the turmoil of the early 2000s is neither recent history nor far-removed from the present. 

Which brings me to the historical anniversary I have in mind. Amid the chaos of the War on Terror arose the trial of Ehren Watada. Fifteen years ago this June, Watada took a stand. After serving a yearlong tour in South Korea, Watada was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington when, in June 2006, his unit was ordered to deploy to Iraq. In his quest to better understand Iraq and the purpose of the war, Watada read everything available on the war and spoke to returning veterans. Much of what he read highlighted the illegality of the war, and many of the returning veterans he met spoke of war crimes witnessed during the occupation.

Horrified by the news of the war, Watada decided that he could not participate, in good conscience, in an illegal war. Citing the Nuremberg Principles, which, following the Nuremberg Trials of 1945, state that soldiers must refuse orders that contribute to war crimes, Watada submitted a letter resigning his commission. After the Army refused to accept his letter of resignation, Watada indicated his refusal to deploy to his superiors.

In the years that followed, Watada faced multiple court martial trials, which involved the legality both of Watada’s conduct as an individual and the war as a while. Celebrities and journalists took opposing sides, with antiwar activists like Sean Penn voicing his support for Watada at a rally near Fort Lewis. Iraq War supporters vilified him for his stance, calling him a traitor. News of Watada’s court martial appeared in major U.S. papers, such as The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, along with European news outlets like The Guardian in the United Kingdom and Le Monde in France.

Watada’s case divided the Japanese American community. In 2006, JACCC hosted a gathering of his supporters, while others, including “Horse’s Mouth” columnist George Yoshinaga, were vocal in their opposition. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

After judges declared a mistrial at his first proceeding in 2007, the Army moved to retry Watada. In 2009, following the inauguration of President Barack Obama, a new administration received Watada’s retrial case. Obama’s solicitor general decided to drop the case, stating that the prosecution of Watada was unnecessary and the case had been overly politicized by the previous administration. That solicitor general, as it turned out, was Elena Kagan, now one of the few remaining liberal judges on the Supreme Court. 

The trial of Watada was also an important moment in the recent history of the Japanese American community. Community newspapers, such as The Rafu Shimpo and The North American Post, followed the events of Watada’s legal odyssey regularly. His stance divided the Japanese American community, with many elders like the late Bill Hosokawa and George “Horse” Yoshinaga condoning military punishment of Watada. Many veterans, haunted by the memories of camp and the loyalty questionnaire, refused to stand with Watada out of fear of bringing shame on the community. And the words of President Bush – “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” – represented to many a frightening reminder of the rhetoric of 1942.  

On the opposite side, a number of activists took up Watada’s defense. Playwright/activist Frank Chin arranged a telephone meeting between Watada in Seattle and Heart Mountain draft resisters Frank Emi and Yosh Kuromiya and MIS veteran Paul Tsuneishi in Los Angeles. With the help of Frank Abe, Watada was filmed by Lucy Ostrander and Don Sellers at the home of professors Stephen Sumida and Gail Nomura in Seattle, with filmmaker Curtis Choy capturing the other end of the call in Los Angeles, editing the video, and posting it to YouTube. Legal scholars like University of Hawaii law professor Eric Yamamoto praised Watada’s defiance of the Iraq War, and similarly drew comparisons between Watada and the Nisei draft resisters of 60 years before. 442nd veteran and chaplain George Aki applauded Watada’s stance as “asserting a higher loyalty than to patriotism.”

The world of 2021 seems almost foreign to the world of 2001, let alone 2006. The weakening of civil liberties under the Bush Administration, the collapse of the economy in 2008, and the rise of white supremacy during Trump’s presidency remind us the 21st century has been anything but tranquil. In our present moment, it seems that recalling Watada’s story is now more needed than before. Regardless of where one stands on the legality of the Iraq war and Watada’s decision not to join his unit, nobody can deny that Watada demonstrated great courage. Anchoring our actions in a higher moral conviction, as Watada did 15 years ago, will help lead us to a better future. 


Jonathan van Harmelen is a Ph.D. student in history at UC Santa Cruz. A specialist in the history of Japanese Americans, including their relationship with the Catholic Church, he is a regular columnist for Discover Nikkei. He can be reached at jvanharm@ucsc.edu.

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