Archive for January 18th, 2007

Free Watada

1st Lt. Ehren Watada is facing up to six years in prison for not deploying with his unit to Iraq and for publicly criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the war. Watada’s ground for defense has been that because the war itself is illegal, he was within his rights to refuse deployment. But yesterday, a military judge ripped that defense out from under the Lieutenant’s feet:

Defense attorneys had hoped to argue that the war is illegal, in part, because it violated Army regulations that call for wars to be launched in accordance with the United Nations charter. But in a ruling, Lt. Col. John Head said that “whether the war is lawful” is a political question that could not be judged in a military court.
(The Seattle Times)

In what perverse understanding of the judicial system is legality a matter of political affiliation? Does the judge mean to say that what appears illegal to democrats is legal to republicans? Lt. Col. Head is selectively stripping away an essential function of the judicial system – to consider necessary evidence to debate the applicability of laws that are often vague.

Head, citing federal court precedents, also rejected defense attorneys’ claim that Watada’s First Amendment rights shielded him from charges relating to his criticism of the war. Instead, Head ruled that there are limits to the free-speech rights of military personnel and that a military panel should decide whether Watada’s criticism of the war amounted to officer misconduct that could have endangered the morale, loyalty and discipline of troops.

The notion that those who sacrifice most the war effort are not allowed to publicly criticize its legitimacy is blatantly authoritarian and unconstitutional. It appears that Watada is being singled out, because over 1,000 Iraq veterans have come out against the war with no consequence, signing a web site petition that calls for bringing the troops home:

Marine Sgt. Liam Madden helped to launch Appeal for Redress last fall. A portion of the group’s Web site ( is devoted to the rights and responsibilities of people in military service. A Defense Department directive allows service members to send a protected communication to a member of Congress on any matter without blowback. Although Madden was braced for some sort of retribution, formal or informal, after he went public with his opposition to the war, “it never came,” he said. “I give credit to my chain of command. After all, the appeal for redress is legal.”
(The Seattle Times)

Watada is being prosecuted for a speech he gave August 12 to the Veterans for Peace in Seattle, in which he said:

Though the American soldier wants to do right, the illegitimacy of the occupation itself, the policies of this administration and the rules of engagement of desperate field commanders will ultimately force them to be party to war crimes.

Nothing in the recent history of this country’s civil liberty abuses gives me hope that Watada will come out of this a free man, but I hope that I am wrong. If he is incarcerated, then another scrap of freedom will have been stripped from the American people – we now walk a slippery slope where one bull headed decision could send us tumbling towards a very dark future.


The Suzzallo Library reading room at the University of Washington resembles a grand Cathedral; only here, instead of worshipping Christ, students bow their heads deep into books, praying to attain wisdom (or at least a passing grade) from the gods of academe. Above them, royal yet industrious-looking iron chandeliers hang low from the vaulted cieling, emitting a mix of soft amber and fluorescent light as the students hunch in stiff, scholarly wooden chairs.

One of the greatest things about the room, a friend of mine once said, is that the architects could have constructed at least three more floors in the space that silence now occupies – which might have housed more books and stressed-out students – but chose instead to create an aesthetically impressive structure in which people could study and learn. The impact of that decision echoes quietly in the humbling sense of awe one feels as they step inside and look up.

I’ve paid my dues at the library’s desks, sweated and napped here in plenty of pre-final cram sessions. But I remember that the astounding peace was always a bit of a distraction – it’s very difficult to get worked up about scores or papers when the very air around you inspires meditation. So many campus libraries the world over feel oppressive and stuffy, but the openness of Suzzallo makes room for thought and imagination. Often when I come I’ll bring the day’s paper or a novel, maybe a cup of coffee. As I read, every word seems to float, every event is allowed impact, and every character is able to move and be heard.

Buildings like Suzzallo embody what I feel is (or should be) the spirit of Academia – a kind of bubble from which to examine and understand the world. People often dismiss academics as radicals, criticizing them for not being connected to reality; while this argument holds some water, it is important to remember how easy it is to lose sight of big realities in the every day hustle. In order to see our world in the larger context, some distance from the grind is necessary.

You see, the roar of the everyday world – the language of direct returns and bottom lines – does not translate into the sanctuary of the reading room: it simply evaporates into the silence, inaudible above the pencil scratching of the knowledge seekers.

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January 2007