The new documentary, “Lt. Watada,” by Academy Award-winning director Freida Mock, does a great job in explaining why U.S. Army First Lt. Ehren Watada refused to deploy to Iraq.
Even those who disagree with Watada may come away with a different view of what it means for a soldier to take an oath to uphold the Constitution. As one scholar notes in the documentary, in the United States, we do not take an oath to a person such as Hitler or a George Bush; we take an oath to a doctrine.
Additionally, Watada’s stand is backed by the Nuremburg Principle, which obligates a soldier to disobey an illegal or immoral order.
While Watada’s action has international ramifications, it is also important, on a smaller scale, for Japanese Americans to remember that he is not the first and only Nikkei military resister.
The Nisei military resisters took an equally courageous stand during World War II against authoritarian abuses. For this, they were threatened with fines or going before a firing squad. Some served time at Leavenworth; others ended up in the 1800th Engineer General Service Battalion. They were, for the most part, written out of Japanese American history.
Like Watada, these Nisei soldiers questioned what they were fighting for. And like Watada, they took a stand before they shipped overseas. Many questioned whether they could fight for the Constitutional ideals of democracy overseas if their own families were languishing in United States concentration camps.
The Fort Riley incident pushed many over the edge. On Easter Sunday 1943 President Roosevelt was scheduled to visit Fort Riley. All Nisei soldiers, like the other American soldiers, were told to fall out Sunday morning in Class A uniform. As they did, the Nisei soldiers were marched towards a hangar, under armed guards, and told to sit on wooden bleachers with no back rests for four hours while Roosevelt toured Fort Riley. Even requests to the latrine were under armed escort.
Soon after, these Nisei soldiers were issued the so-called loyalty questionnaire. How’s a loyal American soldier of Japanese descent to answer the questionnaire after such treatment?
The military also handed out the same “less than honorable” discharge to Watada as they did to many of the Nisei military resisters. This “blue” discharge means the soldiers are not eligible to receive veterans’ benefits. It is the military’s convenient way of getting out of a tight spot. It is still uncertain whether Watada will appeal his discharge.
For the Nisei military resisters, it took them close to 40 years to resolve their “less than honorable” discharge to satisfaction. Charles Zane, Hyman Bravin and Paul Minerich fought, mostly on a pro bono basis, to have these “less than honorable” discharges upgraded.
During the 1980s, the 1800th veterans were able to get an honorable discharge, while the Fort McClellan Disciplinary Barrack Boys had their benefits restored but the military refused to vacate the court-martial convictions, a partial victory.
Men such as Watada and the Nisei military resisters will never receive a Medal of Honor, but their battle to keep incompetent leaders in check and to uphold the Constitution is an equally, if not a more critical war.