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The education of Lt. Watada

July 26, 2006

First Lieutenant Ehren K. Watada, of the U. S. Army’s Second Infantry Division, became famous overnight when his brigade left for Iraq without him. But his decision to refuse to serve, for which he currently faces court-martial, wasn’t made overnight. Over the course of months he gradually came to the conclusion that the war is illegal, and that his conscience just wouldn’t let him serve.

Watada told the Times, “I was still willing to go until I started reading.” [Note: Not watching the news. Not listening to talk radio. But reading. And not just reading The Times, either. Reading investigative journalism. Reading primary documents. And talking to those who had first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground.] (By the way, is anyone going to follow up on that staff sergeant’s admission of “probable” war crimes?) Basically, Lt. Watada decided to educate himself about the war he was being trained to fight. This is both depressing and inspiring.

Depressing because it’s a reminder of just how unusual self-education is these days. What would happen if every soldier – or every American – took it upon him or herself to simply read up on these matters? The Times quotes Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution saying, “The idea that any individual officer can decide which war to fight doesn’t really pass the common-sense test.” Ignoring the snobbish assumption that enlisted people can’t or don’t make similar decisions, O’Hanlon is correct that it is lunacy, from the point of view of the Armed Forces, for individuals to think for themselves. The military relies on groupthink to keep order. But so, to a large extent, does our democracy. How else could a 2003 poll find 70% of Americans laboring under the belief that Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 attacks? [Yikes: That percentage sank and seems to be going back up lately.]

The education of Lt. Watada is inspiring, especially for those of us in the knowledge-production industry, because it means that our efforts are not in vain. The books and articles that we write can and do change people’s minds – and thus, their actions. The pen is never so much mightier than the sword than when it convinces the sword-bearer to lay his weapon down.

Guest Blogger Jennifer Heckart is a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

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