Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Drink the Hemlock

By Shawn Healy
The military trial of First Lt. Ehren Watada at Ft. Lewis, WA, has attracted national headlines over the last couple of days, and the story of his criticism of the Iraq War and refusal to deploy with his unit surfaced on the media radar since last summer. If convicted, Watada faces up to 4 years in military prison and dishonorable discharge.

While I certainly support the right of Lt. Watada to make disparaging comments about the Iraq War and other matters of public concern, I feel that he abrogated his duty to our country by deserting his 4,000 fellow troops in the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and making comments that undermine their daily efforts to bring stablity and hopefully democracy to Iraq and the Middle East. Lt. Watada made a commitment to serve in 2003 as the US was already deployed in Afghanistan and contemplating an invasion of Iraq. He supported and served in the first conflict, but refused to deploy to the second, contending that "the wholesale slaughter and mistreatment of Iraqis is not only a terrible and moral injustice, but it's a contradiction to the Army's own law of land warfare."

Watada does not shy away from his spoken and published remarks, and shouldn't balk at serving time in jail or a dishonorable discharge either. He knowingly accepted the responsibilities of a soldier when he enlisted, leaving the terms of foreign engagements and deployments to elected officials and his superiors. When he violated this commitment he must have known that consequences would follow.

I find the story of Socrates as told by Plato a sound parallel. Socrates was a teacher of historic import and an advocate for democracy in his native Athens. When accused by the local government of teaching false gods to local youth, he accepted the punishment of his peers and drank the fatal dose of hemlock. Although his students crafted a plan for his escape, he reduced their argument in famed Socratic fashion, believing his decision rested in the best interests of democracy.

Watada should also stand on principle and accept his prison sentence and discharge. The merits of the Iraq War certainly warrant intense debate, but members of our military cannot pick and choose which battles to fight just as citizens cannot decide which, if any, laws they choose to obey. I saltute Watada's service in Afghanistan, and admire his outspoken opposition to the Iraq War. Socrates drank his hemlock, and Watada should enter his cell, both with their personal principles in tact.

Update: A mistrial was declared in the Watada case as he apparently signed a statement admitting to the actions described above, including his duty to deploy to Iraq. Watada contends that he did not want to go, never accepting it as his duty. The jury was dismissed and a new trial will begin on March 19th.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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