Karen Havnaer, a member of the board of the Washington Poets Association, has written a detailed account of attending the court-martial of Lt. Ehren Watada at Fort Lewis, WA, on Feb. 5-7, 2007.[1]  --  Her narrative describes what it was like to be a citizen-observer as the prosecution’s case against Lt. Ehren Watada appeared first to go badly and then to unravel before the astonished eyes of observers.  --  Karen Havnaer is a member of People for Peace, Justice, and Healing, to whose listserv this account was posted on Friday....


By Karen Havnaer

People for Peace, Justice, and Healing (Tacoma, WA)
February 9, 2007

Although I took minute-by-minute -- or tried to -- notes at the court-martial, I'm going to spare you (and myself) from extensively developing those notes. But I do want to share some of my experiences "backstage" at the court-martial.

Mark Jensen of United for Peace of Pierce County (WA) has sent very helpful material over line, as could be expected, and much was available in the local press, although, again as might be expected, much of it seemed confused and almost comically "prejudicial" to me in the way headlines were played and the emphasis given to certain "facts."

I found the article Mark posted from lawyer Bill Simpich of Oakland most helpful, although we had "our lawyers," too. That is, at various recesses -- especially on Wednesday -- when there was little real court time and they were adjourned much more than otherwise -- Dave Mitchell, a lawyer from New York, and another lawyer, I think from California -- maybe HE was Bill Simpich -- helped us out by explaining the proceedings.

Although we headed out at 5:45 on a cold, foggy Monday morning, and Heidi, Sam, Giovanni (Catholic Worker), and I were relatively early in getting our paper work, we didn't make it into the courtroom. No civilians made it into actual courtroom (except Sallie Shawl and Brianna Copley on Wednesday due to a screw-up) and that first day they apparently processed more people then they had seats for in the "overflow" room. When we arrived at the building we were sent across the street, where a huge number of media descended upon us. I demurred at being interviewed. I was taking too much in to feel focused enough to say anything intelligent (my usual condition), but Sam was interviewed and was on TV that night, acquitting himself brilliantly, as usual.

Finally, we were told to return to the entryway and we innocently lined up, thinking there was room for all of us. But there wasn't. When we learned what was going to happen, we moved Dave Mitchell to the front, but the Japanese couple who were making the documentary about Ehren Watada, a very pleasant lady from Hawaii, and about ten more of us didn't make it in. My friends were very disgusted about this. The military isn't good about giving clear information (surprise!). We weren't told, for instance, to leave our official pass on the dashboard, nor that the number on our letter-pass had nothing to do with whether or when we'd get in. No apologies to us for letting us wait around for nearly three hours either.

There was one moment I enjoyed in this disastrous day before we fled camp and that was watching Ann Wright, who was with us at the end of the line, approach one of the security guys and cite, I think, Article 32, and then was immediately led up the stairs and into the "overflow room."

We stopped at the Visitor Center as we left so Sam could tell them the Army (Sam said the Visitor Center was run by a private contractor) wasn't paying any attention to the numbers on our passes and they promised to pass along this information to their boss.

My companions expressed little interest in trying again but I couldn't resist hitting the road Tuesday morning to try getting in again, and this time I made it. I was happy that a Visitor Center guy told us that the numbers on our passes meant nothing as far as the order in which we'd be allowed into the courtroom. Well, I guess I was happy. You can be sure I was close to that front door at Building 2027, where the courtroom was, when we "processed in," although on Tuesday everyone waiting in line made it in.

People told me I didn't miss much that first day when they picked the "panel" and did little else. I talked to a former school teacher from Oklahoma, a woman making a documentary from L.A., a young guy from Philadelphia, and some of the fabulous folks from Olympia who have worked so hard on this event. (A gentleman I sat next to on Wednesday who was retired military and a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility told me that he thought the panel (peer pressure) wouldn't dare to find against the government. When I told Sallie this, she demurred. She felt they were more independent and had more latitude . . .)

The "overflow" room was like a large, rectangular schoolroom with windows principally on the eastern and western walls. Pillars divided the room and civilians sat on one side (there were something like forty chairs) and media sat at long tables on the other side. There was an old-fashioned, schoolroom-type standing screen on which we watched the proceedings. We could see the judge, the witness stand to his left, and the side or backs of the prosecution (or government) or the defense. I never saw Watada (except once outside of the courtroom and once in the hall. He smiled.)

All along the halls as we entered, and at the back of the room, stood "security." In just the overflow room there must have been ten guys -- and an occasional female -- posted. The guys were generally polite and I was kind of flattered when they inspected my car back at the parking lot before giving me my pass -- I thought they were looking for something dramatic and lethal -- someone actually thinks I'm dangerous! -- but they were only looking for "propaganda and protest literature." They were very big on the idea that we shouldn't wear or distribute anything that was pro-Watada.

The audio wasn't very good for hearing what was going on in the courtroom. Questions often seemed garbled. The judge, John Head, wasn't particularly easy to understand. To be charitable, I will describe him as "low affect." Eric Seitz, Watada's lawyer was very understandable and frankly the only officer of the court who acquitted himself with confidence. He gave Watada's biography and told the panel that he "admitted statements, that there were no practical issues or questions about what he said or did." He explained Watada's service up to this time and the fact that he "took his oath seriously to protect and defend the constitution." He explained (with some interruptions from the judge) that when Watada learned he was going to Iraq he felt he needed all the information he could find for his men dependent upon him for his leadership and for himself about that war -- that he read and discussed the situation with "people and retired military leaders."

What he learned created a "crisis of conscience" for him. In January of '06 he wrote a letter to his commander discussing his problem and telling him he couldn't carry out his duties in good conscience. He asked to resign. Seitz says Watada's offer to resign was ignored. He was told he would have to go through a formal process but when he did that he was again ignored. He emphasized that Watada continued to do his duty and didn't discuss with his men his decision. There was no attempt made by the military to assist him. His commander refused to talk to him or his lawyer. On June 7, 2006, he called a press conference and declared the Iraq war morally wrong. When command got wind of his public statements they asked him to coordinate with Public Affairs what his plans were. He was told to make no statements while on duty or in uniform. On June 22 (or 28 -- I heard both dates) he didn't deploy. Seitz stated that it wasn't Watada's intent to judge or criticize his fellow soldiers or officers. He was interested in stimulating discussion and debate and he wanted others to examine their own consciences and opinions. Seitz emphasized that Watada didn't shirk his duty, had no criminal intent, had offered to go to another combat zone, had offered to resign.

After a fifteen-minute recess, the judge questioned Watada about "feeling compelled not to go to Iraq." I didn't quite understand what this exchange was about (questioning Watada's courage?) The lady next to me thought he was "trying to help the prosecution." Watada answered him: No, he hadn't felt "compelled."

Although I'm sure I missed or misunderstood some of the testimony, my sense of Bruce Antonia was that "he couldn't remember" if he said anything to Watada about not making public statements. He claimed only to be dismayed at the effect Watada's position would have on the morale of the men. Every time, of course, Watada's motives or "state of mind" became relevant -- the reasons for his behavior -- the judge interfered or "overruled." I was amused and intrigued when the subject of Watada's public statements became the veracity of the "commander in chief" and the fact that the military is ruled by civilians. Antonio asked, "How does a lieutenant know whether the commander in chief lies or not?" As to the issue of "legality," Antonio stated that an act had to be "criminally illegal" and that the "chain of command" determined legality. Seitz then asked Antonia why he ordered Watada to Iraq following his public statements.

The judge asked for the relevance of the question. Seitz said, "When he heard the public statements, he decided Watada wasn't a leader. Why, then, did he order him to Iraq?" Antonia said, "He disobeyed." Seitz: He disobeyed on June 22.

The jury was also allowed to ask questions of the witnesses. The judge read the questions to the panel. "What objective impact did you observe in the battalion?" Antonio responded that there was a lot of discussion about what an officer should or shouldn't say. The judge wanted to rephrase the question: Did this have an impact on your unit?

Antonio: It didn't.

Judge: Did it decrease morale?

Antonio: No. I heard one soldier say...

Defense: Objection. (Hearsay.)

Judge: Did you hear soldiers talk about . . .

Antonia: Yes.

Judge: Subordinates?

Antonia: Yes. It had no negative impact.

Seitz: Other than creating controversy?

And so it went. Neither of the officers intimated that Watada had a negative effect on his unit either through public statements or in his conduct within his unit or that he created any untoward problems. In fact, he had followed procedure in every case and they felt "understood" the gravity of his case.

Lt. Col. James made much of the fact that he had appealed to Watada to not make a "young man's mistake" meaning acting "emotionally," I suppose, or "idealistically." Professor Swain, teacher of "military ethics," tried to focus on the oath Watada took -- inferring that the oath constituted loyalty to the military -- and whatever "it" wanted -- rather than the Constitution. He emphasized the assumption that "serving the country" is serving the military (rather than thinking for oneself) although pressed later stated that it is desirable for officers to think creatively and critically. As to public statements, he felt they might violate the oath if they seemed to call into question the importance of civilian control over the military. The professor also maintained that an officer had to obey legal orders. If he feels an order is illegal he can offer to resign, but if the resignation isn't accepted he must "carry on." The government then asked the professor what the Constitution says about who an "officer is responsible to . . ." The judge stopped the questioning at this point, saying, "We're getting far afield," and the government let the professor go. And (after James, I think) the government rested their case.

We were not impressed. Joan, my friend from L.A., saw the judge as trying to "help" the government and most of us felt the government needed it. We all felt things had gone very badly for them, but also resigned that they would probably win anyway. It seemed to me that at every turn in the argument, the judge's refusal to let Watada argue the legality of the war came back to haunt him. Still there was some drama and excitement in the questioning of these three witnesses, and we were all eager for the next day and hearing Watada.

That didn't happen, of course. I arrived earlier than the day before, and though there were again lots of people there, everyone got in Wednesday except Sallie, who was first in line but who had to leave for a meeting and then when she returned they wouldn't seat her. (There were a few empty chairs, too -- and considerably less media on Tuesday and Wednesday although still a lot of folks. I was glad to see the woman from the Japanese documentary team seated in the media section.) Finally, sometime after noon they let Sallie and Brianna into the courtroom -- where nothing was happening.

At 9:20 they told us it would be 10:00 before we started, at 10:00 they told us 10:30 or 10:40. Massey, our chief security officer, also told us not to use any but one vending machine on the premises. He told us we were eating his candy bars. We mulled around, got coffee from the "mall" and talked. The retired military doctor from Physicians of Social Responsibility, who supports Ground Zero and worries some about retaliation from the military for his social stands, told me a good story. The female astronaut was in the news that morning and he said that as the courts have learned to consider people who get into trouble because of their mental difficulties, we must learn, too, to deal with sensitivity and exception to those who, like Lt. Watada, are our visionaries and bell ringers. He cited exceptional creatures in nature who watch out and over the flock or herd to warn them of difficulties. He thinks Watada is one of those "bell ringers" who can see problems where others can't and who take drastic actions to warn the "flock."

When the judge finally appeared, he didn't look happy. At issue was the stipulation of facts that both the government and defense had signed off on. The judge wanted to interpret Watada's agreement to the fact that he didn't deploy as "confessional." While Watada agreed he didn't deploy and the defense didn't demand that the government produce evidence that he didn't deploy, it was not a fact he confessed to at all. He had pleaded not guilty. The judge asked the government if they wanted to consider reopening their case. He offered them more time to consider doing that. He offered them an hour to think it over. They asked for thirty minutes. It was back to Starbucks for us.

We gathered around "our" lawyers and they tried to clarify what was happening for us. We were a large crowd and security moved us across the street and then tried to break us up. We didn't budge. The security guy gave up. "Our" lawyers explained that the "stipulation" had been broken because the government and the defense were interpreting the stipulation differently.

We returned to court again -- one or two times. The judge questioned Watada, although Seitz let that happen over his objection. Among other questions, he asked Watada if he thought he had a defense. Watada replied that he'd always thought he had a moral and legal defense. Watada consistently stated his reasons for not deploying -- because he thought the war illegal and that in signing the stipulation of fact he was relieving the government of having to prove that he didn't go, but that his signature didn't mean he was guilty. The judge declared that "We can't have disagreements about what the stipulation means." The government asked for a mistrial. (The defense didn't.) After, I believe, another break for the government to reconsider their request, the judge declared a mistrial.

As we walked away from the "overflow" room and past the courtroom, I saw Lt. Watada. He was signing his autograph.