In a commentary a version of which has been submitted to the News Tribune of Tacoma, WA, UFPPC's David Gilmour delved on Friday into Lt. Ehren Watada's heroic qualities.[1]  --  Gilmour believes that "if word spreads about his case, a large population might come to admire him as the existential, tragic hero," and compares Watada first to Don Quixote "attempting to slay the pride of giants," then to Achilles refusing to fight in the Iliad, and finally to Socrates "in the way he thinks his action a model for all citizens and soldiers to follow."  --  "In our diminished democracy and culture of death," Gilmour concludes, "how wonderful it is that someone dares to show a new way to think and act virtuously.  This is a debate for our time." ...



By David Gilmour

United for Peace of Pierce County (WA)
August 25, 2006

In a recent editorial (News Tribune [Tacoma, WA], Aug 19, 2006) on Lt. Watada’s moral stand, the reasoning in his defense is characterized as absurd. I imagine this means “wrong-headed” and “foolish”; just as when the editorial says that the Iraq War is looking like folly, I take it to mean “misguided” and "foolish.” This hits the nail on the head: Watada’s decision is absurd, but not in the colloquial sense. Officer Watada saw the Iraq War to be so grossly undertaken, by criminal motives, that life would have no meaning or value if he chose to act in accordance with the government’s malevolent military strategies. This is the philosophical stand Watada has taken that’s recognized as sound, even heroic, by many Americans. Of course, he’s a Don Quixote, the absurdest of all heroes, who showed the folly of chivalry by tilting at windmills. This is why his heroism is so hard to understand by the majority. However, even Quixote, over time, became one of the most admired and loved heroes; Cervantes’ purpose of showing up knighthood as stupid fantasy backfired. Watada’s quixotic stand is admired by many, because he is honestly attempting to slay the pride of giants who got our soldiers mired in Middle East chaos under false pretenses.

On another level, Lt. Watada is admired, perhaps, because he made an existential choice that was tragic: he’d be damned if he did go to war and damned if he didn’t. First, he made some bad judgments of military commitment before he knew the facts and must suffer even in trying to set his life and soul aright. How brave to acknowledge a human mistake and still face the dire consequences by acting rightly according to conscience. In America, though the Watada case is still mostly West Coast and local news, if word spreads about his case, a large population might come to admire him as the existential, tragic hero. Although such a hero seldom materializes in the flesh to become known in our grim times, Lt. Ehren Watada is the classic tragic hero.

The editors of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer also delivered an opinion (August 22, 2006), finding Watada’s position both right and wrong -- both dishonorable and courageous. They waffle a lot, but depending on the code by which one views the lieutenant’s action, they are correct. Morally, by philosophical and intelligent reasoning, he has the right to denounce an order as wrong, or to avoid acting in a complicitous manner to condone criminal belligerence and war strategies. On the other hand, by the romantic code of the traditional hero, Lt. Watada looks like he has chickened out because he refused to go into battle in Iraq, to take his chances in that hell, perhaps to get killed and be carried off ingloriously bleeding in his armor. Later, his casket would be sneaked back into the States. Which is right or wrong: the man of principle or the hero of war? Because of the ineptitude of leaders and the horrible failures of wars, many today prefer the realistic heroism born of conscience rather than bravado.

Going further back into literature and history, Watada’s heroism is like that of Achilles. The mythical hero of Homer’s Iliad refused to fight for the army against Troy, when the battle was not going well for the Greeks, because his general, Agamemnon, greedily took from his major warrior the share of plunder rightfully owned by Achilles. This was criminal, a breach of proper military conduct. Watada’s heroism comes from preserving his honor by a principal of warrior ethics: a crime had been committed by the leaders in the conduct of the Iraq War. Philosophically, Watada is also like Socrates in the way he thinks his action a model for all citizens and soldiers to follow and he refuses to accept the court’s justice without their examining his thoughts and motive regarding the criminality of the Iraq War. Like Socrates, Watada must defend his stand against the nation’s ideals. This can be his Platonic“Apology” if he gets it right. Either way, by ethics or patriotic codes, he might pay dearly for this refusal to comply by court-martial. This is genuine bravery, heroism of a type that made the Greek warrior famous in story and that gave us the first philosopher hero, a veteran of wars, willing to defend himself against terrible odds in a revolutionary time.

If I thought the Iraq War just, I’d probably never have thought much about Watada’s dilemma. I don’t know why others see Lt. Watada as a hero, “poster boy for the left,” but I know intuitively he’s a hero because he’s an individual, courageously taking on an outmoded system of duty and patriotism, willing to suffer for high principles. He is showing us that personal choices have great effect. In our diminished democracy and culture of death, how wonderful it is that someone dares to show a new way to think and act virtuously. This is a debate for our time.