In its weekend edition preceding the court-martial of Lt. Ehren Watada, CounterPunch posted an essay linking the Watada case to controversial issues relating to the U.S. military presence in Hawaii, where the U.S. military “controls 5 percent of land . . ., 22 percent of O'ahu (85,000 acres), and 4 percent of the Big Island (110,000 acres).”[1]  --  The U.S. Army is at present working on a plan to transform the 2nd Brigade in Hawaii into a Stryker combat brigade, a plan that has run into legal difficulties because it involves the expansion of the Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island — an environmentally deleterious use of land that is “spiritually and historically one of the most important places in Hawai'ian tradition and history.”  --  And then there is the matter of the sovereignty of Hawaii, which was overrun and annexed by the U.S. in 1880s and 1890s, as U.S. history entered its imperial phase.  --  The CounterPunch essay’s transition to a discussion of Lt. Watada, who has not, as far as we know, ever expressed himself publicly about either the Hawaiian Stryker brigade or the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, is effected by way of a lamentation of American militarism that is somewhat abrupt.  --  The author, Timothy J. Freeman, teaches philosophy at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo....


By Timothy J. Freeman

** The Stryker Brigade and the Watada Case **

February 3-4, 2007

Two great volcanoes comprise most of the Big Island of Hawai'i. Mauna Loa, measured by volume, is the largest mountain in the world, and Mauna Kea, if measured from the sea floor, would rank as the tallest. Both peaks are considered sacred, the realm of the gods (*wao akua*), not just for Hawai'ians, but throughout all of Polynesia.

In October of 2002, the first of a series of protests against the imminent U.S. attack against Iraq took place at the Mo'oheau Bandstand on the Hilo Bayfront. As I drove down to Hilo, I was struck by the majestic and stunning presence of Mauna Kea rising 13,792 ft. above Hilo -- so unusually clear on a rare cloudless morning. It was a day that was startling in its beauty even for Hawai'i, and as I listened to the various speakers call our attention to the horrors of what seemed about to take place in Iraq, my gaze often drifted to the tranquil bay and the waves softly rolling down on the sands below. The contrast couldn't have been sharper between the peaceful setting of Hilo Bay and the looming war in Iraq. If it weren't for the voices of the Hawai'ian rights activists -- reminding us of the illegal overthrow of the Hawai'ian nation -- I might have thought only of the profound difference between these beautiful islands and the war-torn country of Iraq. In fact, what was taking place a world away in Iraq was really not that far away at all and is, indeed, deeply connected to what happened and was still taking place in Hawai'i. I was reminded of the "infinite extent of our relations" as Thoreau once put it, and from this perspective, the connections between the war in Iraq, the overthrow of the Hawai'ian nation, and the continuing controversy surrounding the military's presence in Hawai'i become more and more clear.


Hawai'i senior Senator Daniel Inouye apparently doesn't see these connections, as is evident in a recent editorial in the Honolulu Advertiser in support of the Army's plan to transform the 2nd Brigade in Hawai'i into a Stryker Combat Brigade.[Note 1: U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, "Don't Fence Them In," Commentary, Honolulu Advertiser, Sunday, December 17, 2006.] The Army's plan would involve basing about 300 Stryker vehicles at Schofield Barracks on Oahu and also expanding the Army's Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island which the brigade will use for training. The Army's project to bring a Stryker brigade to Hawai'i has met strong resistance for the last several years from native Hawai'ian groups as well as environmental and peace activists. In October of 2006 a federal appellate court, in response to a lawsuit filed by the nonprofit environmental group Earthjustice acting on behalf of three native Hawai'ian groups, found that the Army had violated environmental laws in not adequately considering alternatives to locating the brigade in Hawai'i.[Note 2: "Stryker Base Here Is Found Illegal," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Friday, October 6, 2006.]

The decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed an April 2005 decision by U.S. District Judge David Ezra allowing the Army to proceed with its plans to bring the Stryker brigade to Hawai'i. The Army must now complete a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement assessing the feasability of alternative locations for the brigade. The appellate court decision ultimately sent the case back to Honolulu and U.S. District Judge Ezra in order to determine what an injunction must cover. On the eve of Judge Ezra's decision Senator Inouye's editorial appeared, in which he argued that for the safety of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan "we must allow the training to resume while the Army completes the supplemental environmental study." Not surprisingly, Judge Ezra's decision allows for the Army's plans to go forward while the SEIS is conducted.[Note 3: "Judge Allows Stryker Training to Resume," Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Saturday, December 30, 2006.] Live-fire training of the Stryker brigade is expected to commence at Pohakuloa on the Big Island in February.

The Pohakuloa Training Area is already the largest live-fire military training area in the Pacific. It consists of approximately 109,000 acres of land that have been used for the last 60 years as a live-fire area and bombing range for an assortment of military weapons. The Strykers will come to the Big Island on the new Hawai'ian Superferry, offloading at Kawaiihae Harbor and then traveling up to Pohakuloa via a newly constructed military road. It is partly for the construction of this access road, and also to increase the training area for the Strykers, that the military's plans include the expansion of the Pohakuloa Training Area by approximately 23,000 acres of land recently purchased from the Parker Ranch.

Pohakuloa sits between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. Even the Army acknowledges, in its Environmental Impact Statement, that "the entirety of Mauna Kea, whose southwestern slopes form part of PTA's base, is considered holy." Mauna Kea (The White Mountain) is associated with Poli'ahu, the snow goddess of the summit, while Mauna Loa (The Long Mountain), last erupting as recently as 1984, is associated with Pele, the goddess of volcanic fires. The area between the two sacred mountains, considered to be a site of conflict between Poli'ahu and Pele, is called "Pohakuloa" (‘The Veil that Covers the Spiritual Realm’). Within the Pohakuloa Training Area there are seven stone shrines and a reported 291 archeological sites.

By the Army's own admission in the EIS, Pohakuloa is "spiritually and historically one of the most important places in Hawai'ian tradition and history . . . It is difficult to describe the emotional and spiritual link that exists between Native Hawai'ians and the natural setting. Hawai'ians generally believe that all things in nature have mana, or a certain spiritual power and life force. A custodial responsibility to preserve the natural setting is passed from generation to generation, and personal strength and spiritual well being are derived from this relationship. Because of this belief, Mauna Kea may be the most powerful and sacred natural formation in all Hawai'i." [Note 4: Army Transformation Environmental Impact Statement, Section 8:11: “Cultural Resources,” p.4.] The EIS acknowledges that there will be "significant unavoidable adverse biological impacts" upon the environment at Pohakuloa. The PTA is said, by former area commander Lt. Col. Dennis Owen, to have "the highest concentration of endangered species of any Army installation in the world." The negative impacts will come from fires that result from live-fire training, as well as from off-road maneuvers by the Stryker vehicles that will adversely affect sensitive species and habitat. The Army also acknowledges significant negative impacts on air quality (caused by wind erosion by the off-road maneuvers of the Strykers), soil loss and soil contamination from training activities, lead and asbestos contamination caused by the construction and demolition of buildings, and destructive impacts on such cultural, historic, and archeological resources such as the Ke'amuku Village and sacred sites such as the Pu'ukohola Heiau.

The Army also proposes an increase in live-fire training. This poses a significant risk, according to the EIS, to workers and army personnel from unexploded ordnance. Environmentalists have drawn attention to the danger from unexploded ordnance that litters many former military sites in Hawai'i, as well as the military's poor record of cleaning up these sites. The EIS states that "only simulated biological agents" will be used and that hazardous materials do not pose a significant impact. There is also some concern about the potential toxic contamination from depleted uranium since the primary armament on Stryker vehicles is the Stryker Mobile Gun System, which uses ammunition made from depleted uranium. The Army has claimed that depleted uranium weapons will not be used in training at Pohakuloa, but this has hardly eased the concerns of local residents.

While the military promises to do what it can to limit the adverse impacts from the training at Pohakuloa, it states that there is a practical limit to mitigation measures. The bottom line is that these adverse impacts and potential dangers are considered acceptable by the military.

The issue that always looms large in the background of this controversy is the very presence of the U.S. military in Hawai'i. For Hawai'ian sovereignty activists, the proposed expansion of the Pohakuloa Training Area is only the latest issue in a long history of U.S. military acquisitions of Hawai'ian lands -- going back most notably to the 1875 "Treaty of Reciprocity" that ceded control of Pearl Harbor to the U.S. Navy. The military now controls 5 percent of land in Hawai'i, 22 percent of O'ahu (85,000 acres), and 4 percent of the Big Island (110,000 acres). Moreover, the proposed 23,000 acre expansion of the Pohakuloa Training Area is only about a quarter of the projected acquisition for the further development of the PTA.[Note 5: See Haunani-Kay Trask, "Stealing Hawai'i: The War Machine at Work," Honolulu Weekly, July 17, 2002.]

It's a sad irony that this latest land acquisition is almost the size of Kaho'olawe (28,766 acres), the "Target Isle" used for bombing practice for nearly 50 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Navy finally officially ceded control of Kaho'olawe on November 11, 2003, after over two decades of protests by peace and Hawai'ian sovereignty activists. That campaign cost the lives of two Hawai'ian leaders, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, who were lost at sea in 1977 in an effort to reach the island to protest the Navy's occupation and bombing of the island. Their deaths became an emotional turning point in the struggle for Hawai'ian rights. Now, just as the Navy finally cedes control of Kaho'olawe, the Army takes control of a similar-sized piece of land on the sacred slopes of Mauna Kea. It would be the largest military acquisition in Hawai'i since WWII.

For Hawai'ian sovereignty activists, Hawai'i is an occupied country, and the lands in question are "stolen lands." Though most Americans are either blissfully unaware or couldn't care less, the sovereignty activists appear to have international law on their side. For its part, the United States government has already admitted to the illegal overthrow of the Hawai'ian nation, by issuing a formal apology by joint resolution of Congress in November of 1993 in acknowledgment of the 100th anniversary of the coup that dethroned Queen Lili'uokalani. Although the United States was the first nation to formally recognize the sovereignty of the Hawai'ian nation in 1842, it was the U.S. Navy that provided the force that enabled American business interests to dethrone the Queen in January of 1893. In recent years, experts in international law have called into question the legitimacy of "statehood" and American military occupation of Hawai'ian lands by pointing out that there is no known record of the Hawai'ian Kingdom ever relinquishing its sovereignty.


Since that cloudless Hilo day in October of 2002, the war in Iraq has unfolded in its all-too-easily predictable catastrophe. As the violence spirals out of control and any remaining vestige of a fraudulent justification of the invasion evaporate -- that Iraq is better off from having been 'liberated' from a despotic dictator or that the world is safer from the threat of global terrorism -- the American people have slowly come to the realization that it was all a terrible mistake. It reminds me of a story I read in the paper a number of years ago when I was living in San Francisco about a jumper who had somehow managed to survive his plunge from the Golden Gate. As I remember it the hapless one said his first thought after his ill-conceived leap was "Oops, that was a mistake." That's about where we are today as a nation after failing to heed the warnings of so many experts and hundreds of thousands of protestors around the world and instead following the Fox News and New York Times propaganda that cheered on the Bush Administration's leap into the abyss that is now the war in Iraq. All the head-scratching about what to do now, including the proposals of the Iraq Study Group, are nothing but the desperate flailings of one grasping at thin air after the ground has fallen away. The Bush administration, of course, can only 'stay the course' and thus, with its sights now firmly set on 'surging' in Iraq and even more insanely on expanding the war into Iran, seems hell-bent on plunging the nation only further into the abyss. We've come to our "Oops" moment as a nation, but we are still far from realizing just how devastating a mistake it was to launch this war.

Senator Inouye's editorial in support of the Stryker brigade in Hawai'i illustrates this point. The Senator writes: "Our country is at war. With the pace of operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, our Army is stretched thin. We simply cannot afford to stand down any of our forces right now." After reminding us that he voted against the Iraq war, the Senator concludes that the "issue on the Stryker brigade should not be a referendum on the Iraq war." Perhaps it's the other way around, however, and that the Iraq war should be a referendum on the Stryker brigade.

Our country is at war -- but it is a war that was completely unnecessary. The United States has the most powerful military force in the world, spending more on the military than all the other nations of the world combined; and yet the United States has demonstrated a propensity to use that great military force irresponsibly and that is one of the underlying causes and certainly not the solution to the problem of terrorism. We cannot defeat the problem of terrorism by participating in terrorism and that is certainly what we are doing when we engage in unnecessary wars of aggression. Perhaps the lesson that should be drawn from the war in Iraq is that it is time to stand down all of our forces right now. The best hope for a peaceful world is for the United States to pull out of Iraq, stand down its military force, and recommit itself to the rule of law among nations.

The United States needs to overcome its addiction to war and a good place to start would be to pull out of Iraq and to shut down the Army's plan to base a Stryker brigade in Hawai'i. As Kyle Kajihiro, program director of the American Friends Service Committee, puts it: "The Stryker Brigade in Hawai'i is an illegal and catastrophic project meant for use in an illegal and catastrophic war. The bitter history of the U.S. military in Hawai'i has demonstrated that if the military gets an inch, it will take a mile, or in this case, 25,000 acres of land. We refuse to allow our sacred 'aina to be used to perpetuate wars of aggression against other countries and peoples, or to let politicians send our loved ones to kill or be killed in such immoral and illegal wars."[Note 6: Kyle Kajihiro, "Aloha 'Aina Statement on Proposed Stryker Training," DMZ-Hawai'i, December 18, 2006.]

Perhaps a concern for the safety of our troops is not the primary reason behind Inouye's support for the Stryker brigade. Obviously any training that needs to be done before the troops are withdrawn can be done at existing facilities elsewhere. Kajihiro continues: "The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that the Army failed to answer the question 'Why Hawai'i?' and ordered the Army to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) that considered alternatives. But it is unlikely that another EIS will be able to honestly answer such a question that is essentially political. Stryker Brigades are in Hawai'i and Alaska because of the power of Hawai'i's and Alaska's Senators to secure 'military pork.' Politicians cannot claim to be against the war while promoting the military expansion that drives wars."[Note 7: See also Jeffrey St. Clair, "The General, GM, and the Stryker," Counterpunch, April 22/23, 2006.]

Perhaps the war in Iraq should be a referendum on the Stryker brigade in Hawai'i, for there is a deep connection, after all, between the war in Iraq and the U.S. military's presence in Hawai'i -- the war in Iraq is really only the latest symptom of the same problem that led to the overthrow of the Nation of Hawai'i in 1893. Time and again U.S. military power has been used not really for the defense of 'freedom' but for the expansion of corporate global interests.

War, if ever justified, should be an absolutely last resort. All peaceful means of resolving a conflict should be exhausted before resorting to war. There is every indication that the Bush Administration, acting to extend those corporate global interests, did everything they could to avoid any peaceful solution and manufacture a reason for war.

Perhaps the problem is that it is far too easy for the United States with its overpowering military force to go to war. There obviously needs to be some greater force of restraint that would make it much harder for the nation to engage in war. Part of the problem is that too few Americans really feel the cost of war. I imagine that if professional sports were banned while the nation was at war, our leaders would make every effort to find a peaceful solution. It might seem a ridiculous suggestion to make, but obviously if it is important enough to go to war then sacrificing professional sports should be no big deal. Conversely, if it is not worth sacrificing professional sports, then it is obviously not worth going to war. Can one imagine just how long the Vietnam War would have lasted if there could be no World Series while the nation is at war? Would the nation so easily have accepted the fraudulant arguments for war and leapt off the cliff into the hell that is Iraq if there could be no Super Bowls while the nation is at war?


Unfortunately, as Americans love their bread and circuses so much, the only hope for any restraint on the reckless militarism of the United States might be in the example set by the rare courage of the soldier from Hawai'i, Lt. Ehren Watada, who faces court martial for refusing deployment to Iraq. The military judge presiding over the court-martial has, however, denied the attempt by Lt. Watada's defense to 'put the war on trial.' The ruling by military circuit judge Lt. Col. John M. Head on January 16 denied the defense motion for a hearing on the "Nuremburg defense," thus preventing Watada's defense from presenting evidence on the legality of the war. The highest ranking soldier to refuse deployment to Iraq, Lt. Watada has argued in his defense that according to the Nuremberg Principles and U.S. military regulations he was under oath to follow only "lawful orders" and that the war on Iraq is illegal under international treaties and under Article Six of the U.S. Constitution. Lt. Watada's trial at Fort Lewis, Washington is set to begin on February 5. [Note 8: David Krieger, "The Iraq War Goes on Trial," Peace Journalism, January 17, 2007.]

The ruling by Judge Head conflicts with the statement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Tribunal, that the United States must be bound by the same rule of law used to prosecute the Germans: "If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us."[Note 9: Robert Jackson, Minutes of Conference Session of July 23, 1945, International Conference on Military Trials: London, 1945.] The Nuremberg trials established that soldiers are not immune from prosecution for war crimes just because they were following orders. The judgement at Nuremberg means that the common view held by Judge Head and apparently many Americans that "soldiers like Lt. Watada can't pick and choose when to fight" is just flat out wrong. In denying the "Nuremberg defense" the military is simply setting aside the judgement at Nuremberg and ignoring Justice Jackson's explicit statement.

Lt. Watada's refusal to deploy to Iraq should call to mind Thoreau's startling words about the three ways one can serve one's country:

"The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus, &c. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, -- as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and officer-holders; -- serve the state chiefly with their heads; and as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it." (Henry David Thoreau, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," 1848.)

Thoreau is clearly right that it is plainly wrong to think that the highest service one can give to one's country is to serve blindly with one's body, even if it means giving one's life. To serve without conscience, as a mere weapon of war, is really to forsake what is highest and most human within us. To force our soldiers to surrender their conscience is not only to ignore the judgement at Nuremberg, it is also treating our soldiers like horses and dogs. Sending our troops into an unnecessary and immoral war is in fact treating them far worse than horses and dogs.

The nation would be stronger not weaker if it recognized Lt. Watada's right to refuse deployment to an illegal war. If Lt. Watada's action is recognized as right, the nation would be far less prone to engage in unnecessary and immoral wars. In refusing deployment to Iraq Lt. Watada is serving the country with his conscience, and in so doing, is giving the highest service. If Lt. Watada goes to prison, as seems now very likely, he will be a powerful symbol of the injustice of the nation and its shame in ignoring the judgement at Nuremberg and refusing to remember Justice Jackson's counsel.

--Timothy J. Freeman teaches philosophy at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.