Watada defends refusal before anti-war crowd
By Edward Russo, The Register Guard, 18 March 2007

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Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who faces court-martial for refusing to serve in Iraq, speaks against the war on the fourth anniversary of the start of the invasion Saturday at the Federal Building in downtown Eugene.   Brian Davies, The Register-Guard

In a slow, measured voice, Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada urged people at an anti-war rally in downtown Eugene on Saturday to choose what is right, even when faced with negative consequences.

Watada, stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., faces a court-martial and up to six years in prison for refusing to fight in Iraq. He was the main speaker at Eugene's annual protest against the war, held each year at the Federal Building to mark the March 20, 2003, anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"They may imprison or torture or take away our lives, but they can never take away our freedom to choose what is right and just," Watada said, to loud cheers from the crowd that packed the Federal Building plaza.

Watada, 28, was the first commissioned military officer to refuse to fight in Iraq, claiming that the war is illegal.

During his 23-minute speech, Watada avoided describing his legal battles with the Army. Instead, he spoke generally about the thinking that led to his unsuccessful attempt to resign from the Army in January 2006.

Watada, who had previously concluded that the war violates the Constitution and the War Powers Act, told his army superiors that he was willing to fight in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. He was charged last year with one count of missing movement because he did not join his brigade as it deployed to the Middle East. He also was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer for subsequent statements he made.

"Am I a pacifist? Apologetically, no," he told the crowd. But like most people, Watada said he values "peace, justice and happiness" and opposes "suffering, war and death." The only inherent right that people have is the right to choose, he said, and when people surrender that right, they surrender their own freedom.

Watada said that while he debated whether to follow orders, he realized that, "I am free because I can choose."

"I was afraid of what (the Army) would do to me, but I was more afraid if I did nothing," he said.

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy spoke before Watada, explaining last Monday's approval by the City Council of a resolution calling for a rapid and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Some may question the effectiveness of a city council statement on a national matter, Piercy said, "but the voices of the cities are the voices of America, and our influence is strong."

After Watada's speech, some in the crowd called him courageous.

"I think he said so eloquently all of the things that all of us wish we could say," said Allen Johnson, a retired pediatrician. "He's a brave man because it's not easy to do what he did."

Michael Carrigan, a rally organizer, said Watada inspired the audience because he risked his personal freedom to stand up for his beliefs.

"It was one of the most brilliant and moving talks that I have ever heard," Carrigan said. "He captured the hearts and mind of every single person in that audience."

A Saturday evening benefit was planned at Cozmic Pizza in downtown Eugene to raise money for Watada and Suzanne Swift, the Eugene soldier who was court-martialed in January for refusing to go to Iraq.

Saturday's rally and a morning march to the Federal Building from the Lane Events Center were among many events held in cities across the nation to coincide with Tuesday's anniversary of the invasion.

The marchers, many carrying anti-war signs, pushing children in strollers or walking dogs, walked six or more abreast during their 16-block trek.

Carrigan estimated that 2,500 people attended the rally. Several people who attended previous marches and rallies said they were more optimistic than in past years about U.S. troops coming home from Iraq because of last fall's elections.

"I'm much more hopeful than I was four years ago," said Ellen Arietta of Eugene. "I would like to see an immediate and orderly withdrawal" of U.S. troops.

Some of the marchers were veterans, including 85-year-old Edgar Peara, a retired Unitarian minister and a combat engineer in World War II, who wore his dress Army uniform and carried a U.S. flag.

World War II made "me a peace advocate," Peara said. "To me, no civilized nation should consider war as an instrument of foreign policy."

A two-day march sponsored by Stand For Peace begins at noon today at Coiner Park, 12th and Main streets, in Cottage Grove, preceded by a rally at the park at 10 a.m. Marchers will take Highway 99 to Creswell. The march resumes at 9 a.m. Monday and ends at the Federal Building, at East Seventh Avenue and Pearl Street in Eugene.