December 6, 2005
I cannot support a mission
that leads to corruption, human rights abuse, and liars. I am
sullied. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death
before being dishonored any more.
Having written a last note, and placed
it by his bed in his trailer on a U.S. military base near Baghdad,
on the afternoon of June 5, 2005 Colonel Ted S. Westhusing put
his 9-mm. service pistol to his head and blew his brains out.
He was 44, survived by a wife and three young children.
Quite a number of U.S. troops
have committed suicide in Iraq, or upon return home. According
to the Washington Times, 24 soldiers' deaths in Iraq were ruled
suicides in 2003, nine in 2004. But the Washington Post
reports that "Thirty-one Marines committed suicide in 2004,
all of them enlisted men, not commissioned officers. The majority
were younger than 25 and took their lives with gunshot wounds,
according to Marine statistics."
How many committed suicide
in Iraq it does not say. But war experience is surely linked
to the incidence of suicides by veterans who bring the war back
with them. Between March 2004 and August 2005 three Special Forces
Iraq veterans took their lives after their homecomings.There
were a rash of reports about this issue in late 2003-early 2004,
but it tapered off and I find no cumulative 2005 statistics about
military suicides on line.
In any case. the level has
caused official concern and consternation. According to the
Post (Feb. 25, 2005):
Military psychiatrists are
puzzled by the suicide rate in Iraq, saying that it makes little
sense in comparison with those in past conflicts. The accepted
wisdom in military psychiatry is that the level of suicides---
far from increasing during wars --- drops as the survival instinct
kicks in among the personnel in the conflict zone. Just two suicides
were recorded among US personnel during the entire Gulf war in
the Nineties. What is also unusual about the rate in Iraq, in
comparison with Vietnam, Korea and the Second World War, is that
everyone serving in the all-volunteer forces has already been
screened for their psychological suitability. They have also
been briefed on combat stress and trained to counter any suicidal
feelings, following a rash of military suicides which embarrassed
the Pentagon in the late Nineties.
Puzzling indeed, then, that
an officer pretty much removed from the combat zone, an enthusiastic
career man and devout Catholic, would off himself as he apparently
did last June.
Or maybe not so puzzling. What's
special about this case is that Westhusing was a specialist on
ethics, a West Point graduate who had taken seriously
its code that "a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal - or
tolerate those who do," who had received his Ph.D. in philosophy
from Emory University for a dissertation on the meaning of honor,
and returned to West Point to teach philosophy and English. He
didn't kill himself because of battle stress or feelings of guilt
following his role in a specific firefight. Looks like he put
a bullet through his head because he felt the mission itself-the
I don't mean to idealize him. Anyone receiving special forces
training, serving in Honduras in the 1980s, and becoming a division
operations officer for the 82nd Airborne, based at Ft. Bragg,
N.C., has to have some major ethical baggage as far as I'm concerned.
I think he should have realized before volunteering for duty
in Iraq in the fall of 2004 that the mission involved corruption,
human rights abuses and lying. On the other hand one must admire
his capacity for moral indignation once he saw for himself what
was going on.
Westhusing's assignment in
Iraq was to oversee the Virginia-based USIS, a contracted security
company paid $79 million to train Iraqi police in special operations.
He became aware of charges that USIS had cheated on its contract,
providing fewer trainers than agreed upon to enhance its profit
margin. It had, he was informed, covered up the killings of two
Iraqi civilians and the illegal involvement of USIS personnel
in the assault on Fallujah. He reported these charges, but felt
troubled both by his friendly relations with the USIS management
(although he wrote to his family that he "disliked"
them and felt "they were paid too much money by the government")
and the failure of investigators to find fault with them.
T. Christian Miller, who has
researched this story for the Los
Angeles Times, and has had access to Westhusing's emails
to his family, described the officer's mindset at the time of
his death to NPR:
What worries him most, clearly,
is his feeling that profit has overtaken military values like
duty honor and county in Iraq. In the final note he leaves in
these emails home and these conversations with his friends,
he talks about "I didn't come here to be surrounded by greedy
contractors. I didn't come her to be a part of a mission that's
being corrupted by concerns of money." Things like that.
For me in some ways it becomes
a metaphor for the way that the Iraq War has been fought, which
is to outsource a lot of what's been done to private companies
so that rather than having idealistic soldiers or young bureaucrats
or whatever doing the work in Iraq, you have people doing them
for motives that aren't altruistic and pure but for the bottom
That is to say, the colonel
was just too pure to deal with this corrupt corporate world.
In his LA Times piece
Miller cites a military psychologist, Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach,
who avers in Miller's paraphrase that "Westhusing had placed
too much pressure on himself to succeed and that he was unusually
rigid in his thinking. Westhusing struggled with the idea that
monetary values could outweigh moral ones in war." He quotes
her directly: "Despite his intelligence, his ability to
grasp the idea that profit is an important goal for people working
in the private sector was surprisingly limited. He could not
shift his mind-set from the military notion of completing a mission
irrespective of cost, nor could he change his belief that doing
the right thing because it was the right thing to do should be
the sole motivator for businesses."
In other words, in the military
shrink's best judgment, the deceased ought to have flexibly accepted
the fact that "doing the right thing" should not
be the sole motivator for business! He should not have been
so bummed about the corporate corruption, abuses and lies that
flourish so much in today's Iraq. He shouldn't have taken the
academy code so seriously or had such a limited grasp of the
importance of profit to the private sector in liberated Iraq.
Surely that slipping grasp explains the psychological instability
that led him---"despite his intelligence"---to take
Such explanations take the
puzzling and pathologize it. But that seems unfair to the deceased.
In his dissertation, Westhusing writes he was "born to be
a warrior" which makes me think of the Japanese samurai
whom I've studied in some detail. In Japanese martial society,
up until the nineteenth century anyway, those born to be warriors
maintained a long tradition of honorable suicide. A samurai
would take his destiny into his hands and slit his belly for
various reasons: to avoid capture, to follow his lord in death,
to force an erring superior to reflect and change his ways. Samurai
who had committed all but the most egregious crimes were allowed
to honorably disembowel themselves rather than face the executioner's
axe, crucifixion or other vulgar punishments. Or the samurai
shuffled off this mortal coil, usually unbidden, to wipe out
a defiling stain on his (or her, there being female samurai)
honor. There was nothing nuts about it; it was perfectly rational.
When one couldn't go on with honor, one honorably dispatched
oneself, buoyed into the beyond by the belief that one's progeny
would understand and take pride in the purification.
"I am sullied. I came
to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death before being dishonored
Warrior and scholar, tenured
professor, loving husband and father, too honorable a man to
carry on in his defiling assignment. Maybe not despite
his intelligence, as Breitenbach suggests, but because of
May I suggest we honor Col.
Westhusing by redoubling our efforts to oppose the lying, cheating
and stealing which is the Iraq War? And support the honorable
troops dishonorably dispatched to Iraq by urging them to refuse
to kill on behalf of that private sector whose morality
he came to doubt? And hope that they'll live, looking
forward to another world which is really possible---in which
profit doesn't overtake duty and honor?
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University,
and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author
Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan;
Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan;
Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless chronicle
of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial