Monday, November 28, 2005

The Death of Honour

via DailyKos, this depressing story about a suicide in the US Army:
WASHINGTON — One hot, dusty day in June, Col. Ted Westhusing was found dead in a trailer at a military base near the Baghdad airport, a single gunshot wound to the head.

The Army would conclude that he committed suicide with his service pistol. At the time, he was the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.

The Army closed its case. But the questions surrounding Westhusing's death continue.

Westhusing, 44, was no ordinary officer. He was one of the Army's leading scholars of military ethics, a full professor at West Point who volunteered to serve in Iraq to be able to better teach his students. He had a doctorate in philosophy; his dissertation was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor....

When Westhusing entered West Point in 1979, the tradition-bound institution was just emerging from a cheating scandal that had shamed the Army. Restoring honor to the nation's preeminent incubator for Army leadership was the focus of the day.

Cadets are taught to value duty, honor and country, and are drilled in West Point's strict moral code: A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal — or tolerate those who do.

Westhusing embraced it. He was selected as honor captain for the entire academy his senior year. Col. Tim Trainor, a classmate and currently a West Point professor, said Westhusing was strict but sympathetic to cadets' problems. He remembered him as "introspective."...

But amid the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he told friends that he felt experience in Iraq would help him in teaching cadets. In the fall of 2004, he volunteered for duty.

"He wanted to serve, he wanted to use his skills, maybe he wanted some glory," recalled Nick Fotion, his advisor at Emory. "He wanted to go."

In January, Westhusing began work on what the Pentagon considered the most important mission in Iraq: training Iraqi forces to take over security duties from U.S. troops.

Westhusing's task was to oversee a private security company, Virginia-based USIS, which had contracts worth $79 million to train a corps of Iraqi police to conduct special operations....

Then, in May, Westhusing received an anonymous four-page letter that contained detailed allegations of wrongdoing by USIS.

The writer accused USIS of deliberately shorting the government on the number of trainers to increase its profit margin. More seriously, the writer detailed two incidents in which USIS contractors allegedly had witnessed or participated in the killing of Iraqis.

A USIS contractor accompanied Iraqi police trainees during the assault on Fallouja last November and later boasted about the number of insurgents he had killed, the letter says. Private security contractors are not allowed to conduct offensive operations.
You can guess where this might be going, I'm sure. Westhusing very quickly became disillusioned about what was really going on in Iraq:
At a meeting the next morning to discuss construction delays, he seemed agitated. He stewed over demands for tighter vetting of police candidates, worried that it would slow the mission. He seemed upset over funding shortfalls.

Uncharacteristically, he lashed out at the contractors in attendance, according to the Army Corps official. In three months, the official had never seen Westhusing upset.

"He was sick of money-grubbing contractors," the official recounted. Westhusing said that "he had not come over to Iraq for this."...

Then there was the note.... "I cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars. I am sullied," it says. "I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored.

"Death before being dishonored any more."

A psychologist reviewed Westhusing's e-mails and interviewed colleagues. She concluded that the anonymous letter had been the "most difficult and probably most painful stressor."

She said 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. This, she said, was a flaw.

"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," wrote Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach. "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."

One military officer said he felt Westhusing had trouble reconciling his ideals with Iraq's reality. Iraq "isn't a black-and-white place," the officer said. "There's a lot of gray."
God, this makes me sick. I'm sure that Lt. Col. Breitenbach is a bright person and all, but how rotten is your soul when an officer kills himself, and your response it to say "he didn't get it - greed is good!"

I'm not one of those people who thinks the Army is a factory for churning out good citizens - indeed, I'm largely in agreement with Wonderdog when he says
All that need be said on this one is that the only person I've met who murdered his own mother in cold blood was a soldier. The only person I've ever met who offered to kill someone's landlord, for pay, over a rent dispute was a soldier. And the only person I've ever met who got a buddy to beat up his pregnant girlfriend in the hope of inducing a miscarriage was a soldier, as was the buddy who did the deed. As a matter of fact, I've never personally met a violent criminal who wasn't a soldier, and that's to say nothing of the minor crooks.

It's time to put a stake through the heart of the myth that the army builds fine citizens. It builds soldiers. They come out with the character and integrity they brought in.
That said, there are people like Col. Westhusing who do bring in ideals of honor and respect to the military, and take it very seriously. Iraq is doing to the US Army what Vietnam did 30 years ago - eating it whole, from the inside. It's frankly bizarre that the United States has managed to ruin its army, rebuild it, and ruin it again all in less than 35 years. You'd think that institutional memory would last longer than that.

In all the biographies of Schwarzkopf, Powell, and other Gulf War commanders, one of the messages that comes through clearly is the desire of all the officers who lived through Vietnam not to repeat that mistake - most famously pronounced in the Powell doctrine.

Well, Powell may not have led the US in to this war, but he lent his considerable moral authority to it. Top members of the US armed forces have all followed their orders rather than tell the Commander in Chief what he needs to hear - that this war is a disaster, and it's killing the Army. True, this would destroy an officer's career - if he said it privately, he'd probably be fired. If he said it publicly, at the very best he'd get the Fox News treatment - and he might commit a crime, I'm not sure what legal restrictions are placed on high commanders.

The commanders are failing their troops. Lower ranks can't leave - the stop loss orders prevent that. And they can't speak out against the chain of command. What America needs, if it's going to preserve a functioning army, is some sense of bravery - some sense of honour - at the top.

Let's just say I'm not holding my breath.

1 comment:

Bianca said...

A Military Rant

It can't surprise anyone that the US military stamps out all that is good, heroic, and admirable in its recruits and rewards behaviour that one would think would be below the ideals of military service.

The recruiting techniques used by the US armed forces end up attracting the wrong kind of people to create a truly honourable military. Then every recruit is put though basic training, which is nothing more then psychological reprogramming that warps people rather than makes them ethical soldiers. In fact, I would argue that basic training as it is today does nothing to create good soldiers and everything to create unbalanced individuals.

Once basic training is done a soldier has at the very least four years of having to follow orders regardless of logic. This is NOT how to create an exemplary citizen. It's a pretty good way to create people who are ethically-challenged and/or mindless followers, though.

It's a problem from the top, but it's also a problem from the bottom as people like Westhusing don't normally enlist as they're put off by the practices of the military on a whole... and when people like him DO enlist they often become disillusioned and depressed.

This is not to say that there aren't good people in the US military, there most definitely are, but there aren't enough and the ones that are there aren't given the encouragement to believe that what they're fighting for is right. Here's exactly what happens when honourable people are forced to do dishonourable things.