Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The Watada Case and Just War Theory

This post is a reprint from by former blog, Levellers, in 2007 when this case was front page news.

Although I am a Christian pacifist, my mentors, Glen H. Stassen and John Howard Yoder, taught me to learn Just War Theory at least as well as its supporters for several reasons: 1) To enlist JWTers support in opposing particular wars; 2) To ask about the adequacy of church practices in preparing Christians in the virtues needed for either pacifism or JWT; 3) To ask about internal weaknesses in JWT and what they might mean for its viability as a “live moral option,” especially for Christians. The case of the trial of U.S. Army Lt. Watada falls into the 3rd category.

Nota Bene: Yesterday, the judge in Lt. Watada’s court martial declared a mistrial and, because of double jeopardy issues, this may end the legal threats against him. I’ll continue the rest of this post with that in mind, but I think the issues the case raises for JWT remain the same. The mistrial declaration appears to hang on technical violations by the prosecution and not on the issues important here.

Summary of the case: In the aftermath of 9/11, Ehren Watada decided to join the U.S. Army specifically to be part of the effort to defend the nation in the “war against terrorism.” Already a college graduate with a bright future, Watada was not part of the “poverty draft,” but saw himself as a volunteer in a noble cause. Convinced by the Bush administration’s case against Iraq, he joined specifically wanting to be deployed in Iraq. But, during officer training school, Watada learned Just War Theory and how it is (supposedly) embedded in the Uniform Code of Military Justice, specifically in the difference between lawful orders, which must be followed, and unlawful orders, which must be refused. Watada also continued to follow the news and was astonished when no Weapons of Mass Destruction were found in Iraq and, point by point, the Bush administration’s case for the invasion (ius ad bellum, “justifications for the war” in JWT terms which must reach the level of a causus belli, a just reason for the war) fell apart.

By the time Watada’s unit was to be ordered to Iraq, he came to the conclusion that the war was illegal under both U.S. and international law. Therefore, any order to deploy to Iraq was illegal and any orders he would give as an officer in that deployment would be illegal. So Watada refused to be deployed with his unit. Note carefully: He was not claiming to have become a conscientious objector. One can apply for CO status in the U.S. military (I did over 20 years ago when I became converted to gospel nonviolence), although it is harder to win that status during war time. But Watada had not embraced pacifism and had no objection to military service as such. He volunteered to be sent to Afghanistan (which still seemed justified in his view), instead.

He was charged with several counts of missing troop movements, refusing to follow orders, and conduct unbecoming an officer. If he had been convicted (or if there is a 2nd trial and he is convicted), the maximum sentence he could receive would be a dishonorable discharge and 4 years in military prison. (Had his refusal taken place in Iraq, in the war zone, he might have been arrested and flown home for trial, but he could have been given a field court martial and possibly executed on the spot.)

Now, here’s where things get interesting for our purposes: Watada was told that he could not bring up the issue of the war’s legality in his court martial. Nor could he offer his reasons for refusing to deploy in his defense. This tactic is not limited to military courts martial. There have been many cases of civil disobedience in post-Vietnam era U.S. history (especially under federal judges appointed by Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I & II) involving trespass at military bases or attempted destruction of nuclear weapons in which defendants were not allowed to bring up the legality of such weapons under U.S. or international law, nor allowed to cite the Nuremberg Principles in their defence.

Q: Naturally, a jury could decide that someone like Watada was wrong in application, but if judges rule that one may not even bring up the question of an order’s legality, then what is the point of the distinction between lawful and unlawful orders? Deeply embedded in Just War Theory is the concept that unjust wars may not be fought and unjust actions in war must be refused. Is this a “live option” in the U.S. context? If not, can U.S. Christians who hold to JWT join the U.S. military? A “blank check” to the nation agreeing to fight any wars it wants to fight is ruled out by JWT, but is the U.S. effectively asking its citizens in uniform for such a blank check? If so, if adherence to JWT norms is impossible in the U.S. context, can U.S. Christians give it any support? Should they then re-investigate the claims of Christian pacifism?


August 4, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Thank you for posting this. When it comes to war and faith, I am a pacifist in my personal views. I appreciate the way you have opened up the JWT for discussion. I have a very difficult time with those who promote war. It unleashes the worst in us. When Pope John Paul II warned the U.S. against entering into war in Iraq, he said that “War would be a failure of humanity.” And he was right. I think that in this day and age, war is never a good option. Even as Jesus once declared, “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you…”, I think that we will one day hear someone say, “You have heard the Just War theory proclaimed, but I say unto you that war is never the way to resolve disputes and differences.”

    Comment by Charles Kinnaird | August 4, 2012 | Reply

    • Thanks for stopping by, Charles. I am a former soldier who became a pacifist and conscientious objector in 1983 and a peace activist in 1984.

      I also thought Pope JP II was prescient in his warnings and was furious when the U.S. bishops basically told American Catholics to ignore him because he was dying!

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 4, 2012 | Reply

  2. I too thank you for posting this. I am ashamed to say I too once wore the Imperial uniform. It took me a long time to realize the poison of Constantinianism and how it has worked its way into Christian understandings of power, economics, and certainly ethics….in fact the whole of theology.

    Comment by protoprotestant | May 2, 2013 | Reply

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