Geov Parrish The Army blinked
Lt. Watada, believing Iraq war illegal, gets court martial mistrial

An amazing thing happened in a courtroom at Fort Lewis, Washington on Wednesday. The U.S. Army was in the third day of what to all appearances was a kangaroo court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, over his refusal to deploy for what he believes to be an illegal war in Iraq. (Noted one courtroom observer: "I had images of robe-clad kangaroos hopping through my head...") The judge, Lt. Col. John Head, had seemingly done his best in the trial's first two days to ensure conviction, while Watada had steadfastly maintained his belief that he had a duty not to follow an illegal order to deploy to Iraq.

Then, suddenly, the Army blinked, and there was a mistrial. And due to double jeopardy issues, the Army may be unable to retry Watada, or to give him anything as punishment beyond a dishonorable discharge.

Essentially, Head coerced the mistrial, ruling that Watada "did not understand" a pre-trial stipulation, prepared by the Army and signed by Lt. Watada last week, which dropped two additional charges in exchange for Watada acknowledging, among other things, that he willfully refused to deploy. Head had already ruled that Watada could not use his reason for refusal - the illegality of the Iraq conflict - as a defense, and so Head had excluded all of the defense team's witnesses to that effect. To the judge, this then meant Watada was acknowledging guilt in the pre-trial stipulation. But when the Watada team successfully motioned to include a jury instruction that Watada be found innocent if he "reasonably believed" that what he was doing was legal, after prosecution witnesses had already testified to that effect, the Army's case fell apart. Head, in his haste to control the damage, wound up declaring a mistrial over Watada's objection.

Head tentatively set a retrial date in mid-March. But a judge or prosecution cannot simply abandon a trial in mid-proceeding over the defense's objection because it doesn't like the way a trial is going. That's what double jeopardy is about, and Watada's attorney has already said he will fight any effort to retry the lieutenant. That's why, Wednesday night, Army spin doctors were doing their best to express satisfaction with the bizarre outcome by noting how it shows the fairness of the military justice system - rather than by reiterating the Army's belief that Watada acted illegally.

Watada, in other words, improbably, won this round, and may have won his battle with the Army. (The war, however, still rages on.)

How did this happen? It happened because one young officer stuck to his principles, even under enormous pressure, and the Army didn't know how to react. Its handling of the case has allowed Ehren Watada - young, photogenic, articulate, and deeply moral - to become a folk hero within the anti-war movement, so much so that even his (supportive) parents have become minor celebrities in their own rights.

This outcome will only cement Watada's status, with or without a second court martial. But Watada's victory shows something further. It shows us that the Army, and the government, is not a monolith. The internal contradictions posed by a war now almost universally acknowledged as both disastrous and founded upon lies are leaving America's military in disarray, just as they have left the political fortunes of the Bush administration in shambles. Iraq is a baby that tars all who touch it.

How profound is that disarray? One man, armed only with unshakable conviction and a simple truth - that if a war is illegal, begun with lies that subverted the Constitution, then orders to deploy for that war must be illegal as well, in violation of an officer's oath to defend the Constitution - has thrown the military justice system for a loop. The military cannot under any circumstances afford to have its officers disobeying orders to deploy. Yet an officer who did exactly that is likely now off the hook, simply because he posed an unanswerable challenge to an indefensible war.

And if Lt. Ehren Watada, against all odds, can exploit the contradictions of Iraq and do his part to refuse to support this war, so can each of us. The Bush administration is no more inflexible and unassailable than the military justice system, and a Congress reluctant to cut off war funding is more malleable still. If Ehren Watada can prevail, so can we.

The political haggling, posturing, and butt-covering? Mere details. All it takes to stop this war is persistence, unshakable conviction, and a simple truth: this war is deeply illegal, deeply immoral, and must be stopped. Now.

Just ask Lieutenant Ehren Watada.