Tuesday, November 29, 2005
A disturbing story in the LA Times today about the apparent suicide in Iraq of Col. Ted Westhusing, a professor of philosophy at West Point and military ethicist who volunteered to go to Iraq and found himself unable to reconcile his own sense of the meaning of military honor and the reality of the war-for-profit perspective of the private contractors he supervised.
A Journey That Ended in Anguish
By T. Christian Miller, Times Staff Writer
"War is the hardest place to make moral judgments."
Col. Ted Westhusing, Journal of Military Ethics
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.
So it was only natural that Westhusing acted when he learned of possible corruption by U.S. contractors in Iraq. A few weeks before he died, Westhusing received an anonymous complaint that a private security company he oversaw had cheated the U.S. government and committed human rights violations. Westhusing confronted the contractor and reported the concerns to superiors, who launched an investigation.
In e-mails to his family, Westhusing seemed especially upset by one conclusion he had reached: that traditional military values such as duty, honor and country had been replaced by profit motives in Iraq, where the U.S. had come to rely heavily on contractors for jobs once done by the military.
His death stunned all who knew him. Colleagues and commanders wondered whether they had missed signs of depression. He had been losing weight and not sleeping well. But only a day before his death, Westhusing won praise from a senior officer for his progress in training Iraqi police.
His friends and family struggle with the idea that Westhusing could have killed himself. He was a loving father and husband and a devout Catholic. He was an extraordinary intellect and had mastered ancient Greek and Italian. He had less than a month before his return home. It seemed impossible that anything could crush the spirit of a man with such a powerful sense of right and wrong.
On the Internet and in conversations with one another, Westhusing's family and friends have questioned the military investigation.
A note found in his trailer seemed to offer clues. Written in what the Army determined was his handwriting, the colonel appeared to be struggling with a final question.
How is honor possible in a war like the one in Iraq?
[ . . . ]
After a three-month inquiry, investigators declared Westhusing's death a suicide. A test showed gunpowder residue on his hands. A shell casing in the room bore markings indicating it had been fired from his service revolver.
Then there was the note.
Investigators found it lying on Westhusing's bed. The handwriting matched his.
The first part of the four-page letter lashes out at Petraeus and Fil. Both men later told investigators that they had not criticized Westhusing or heard negative comments from him. An Army review undertaken after Westhusing's death was complimentary of the command climate under the two men, a U.S. military official said.
Most of the letter is a wrenching account of a struggle for honor in a strange land.
"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."
Fil and Petraeus, Westhusing's commanding officers, declined to comment on the investigation, but they praised him. He was "an extremely bright, highly competent, completely professional and exceedingly hard-working officer. His death was truly tragic and was a tremendous blow," Petraeus said.
Westhusing's family and friends are troubled that he died at Camp Dublin, where he was without a bodyguard, surrounded by the same contractors he suspected of wrongdoing. They wonder why the manager who discovered Westhusing's body and picked up his weapon was not tested for gunpowder residue.
Mostly, they wonder how Col. Ted Westhusing — father, husband, son and expert on doing right — could have found himself in a place so dark that he saw no light.
"He's the last person who would commit suicide," said Fichtelberg, his graduate school colleague. "He couldn't have done it. He's just too damn stubborn."
Westhusing's body was flown back to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Waiting to receive it were his family and a close friend from West Point, a lieutenant colonel.
In the military report, the unidentified colonel told investigators that he had turned to Michelle, Westhusing's wife, and asked what happened.
Read the whole thing, though don't expect it to get much clearer.
In his house in R'lyeh dead Jeffy lies dreaming
Who tore open the soul of the world to feast upon its essence? NOT ME.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
Follow the bouncing ball.
1. On November 17th, Democratic Congressman Jack Murtha calls unequivocally for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
2. In subsequent days, among other ugly incidents, a Bush administration ally calls Murtha a coward on the floor of the House, and V.P. Cheney says Murtha is "losing [his] memory and [his] backbone."
3. Today, at an Arab League "preparatory reconciliation conference," representatives of the newly-elected Iraqi government propose a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and go on to say that Iraqi insurgents have a "legitimate right of resistance" that justifies targeting U.S. troops.
4. Here's the punchline - the withdrawal plan advanced by Iraqi leaders was apparently proposed to the Iraqi government by . . . wait for it . . . the U.S. government.
There are differences between Murtha's craven surrenderism and the Bush administration's brilliant strategic redeployment - for one, Murtha wants out at the earliest "practicable date;" which he says could be as soon as 6 months, and the plan floated today in Cairo calls for withdrawal by November '07, a year before the '08 presidential election. I guess the difference between bold, steady leadership and gutless cutting-and-running is 18 months and an "R" in front of the name.
Late addendum: I should make clear - point four is based on Juan Cole's translation of a story in Al-Hayat, a newspaper I know nothing about. Cole is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies and someone with a lot of experience, to be sure, but it is still hearsay, and I have not seen the story confirmed elsewhere. This doesn't mean it's not true, but I think it's worth a caveat emptor.
Monday, November 21, 2005
Well, it is the holiday season, and things have settled down a great deal here in the sausage mines, but as we begin this curtailed holiday week, I am experiencing a zenlike detachment from politics and the external world. In my mind, I am already snoozing gently in front of the television, 4:00 Thursday afternoon, ice cubes melting quietly into my disregarded Macallan, shoes off, listening to the football game. Not so good for the productivity, thinking this way, but not bad for the soul.
As to current events, who can say. I haven't had much time to read the papers or the blogs, so all I know is what fifteen minutes of CNN can tell me. Apparently we have either killed or not killed Zarqawi in a raid in Mosul. My money is on not, just because we have been through this so many times before, but who knows. I surely hope so - Iraq needs signposts of progress, something to toss onto the other side of the scale with the daily drumbeat of explosions and disruption. I was certainly encouraged that the Iraqis found a political solution to the 11th-hour crisis over the Constitution; flawed as it is, it remains as a proof that the three sides can, if necessary, forge a political compromise, and bring along enough people to make it law.
Will it hang together? Who knows. All I'm saying is that before, they didn't have that signpost, that certainty that it could be done. Now they do. Killing the nominal head of "Al Qaeda in Iraq" would be another such signpost. Whether Zarqawi really is the central figure he is made out to be is almost irrelevant; he is perceived by many to be a prime mover of the insurgency, and every day he eludes capture reinforces a feeling of lawlessness, a sense that the situation is not under the control of either the new Iraqi government or of the U.S. forces standing behind it.
Killing him would be another step on the way, would provide support for the argument that the smart move for a citizen of Iraq now is to buy in, to get involved now in supporting a democratic Iraqi nation, rather than waiting, scared, in your apartment and waiting for the Americans to leave so life can get back to normal. In such a dangerous environment, it is perfectly reasonable to need a reason to believe in a better future. Otherwise, why would anyone join the police, or the army? Sure, to get a paycheck, but if you believed that there was no way that the new government was going to last, you wouldn't join even for that, as you would expect your new employer to implode, and you would be marked for death as a collaborator.
In other words, in order to even consider joining the Iraqi police, you must believe that there is at least some chance that the government will not fall. Considering how essential police and army recruiting is to (a) a stable Iraq, and (b) the US ever getting the fuck out of there, I sincerely home that he(Zarqawi) is dead.
As for the political side here, I don't have much to say. No surprise that Bush and Cheney used Veteran's Day to lie about their records and vilify their political opponents; not even really worth commenting on. The fact is, it will probably work; the passage of time is the most powerful political force in this or any country, carrying us downstream with an inexorable finality, and these signal charges against the president are even now receding from us, fading back into the political wallpaper. Only fresh revelations or charges will suffice to keep the facts of this presidency in the front of the public's brain.
There is a consonance between this point and the point about Iraq above - time moves us along, and signposts must occur with some regularity in order to create momentum towards any overarching social outcome. Otherwise, potentially galvanizing events just become memories, irrelevant to what is in front of us right now. To hopelessly mix and abuse metaphors, history may grind slowly, sometimes so slowly that it seems that everything is caught in an extended, hideous present. But the future coalesces back into view, and time reasserts its control over imagination, when people can hear the clicking of the mill.
Warning label generator via Amygdala.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
Ummm... The post below has already generated three emails from people asking if I can really review their internet histories just because they visit this site. So, just for the record, it was a joke. I can't do that. Yet.
Saturday, November 05, 2005
I know that it may seem that I too often rely upon the device of cutting entire Fafblog posts and pasting them up here in lieu of actual content. This is, however, not the act of lazy plagiarism that it at first appears. You see, sophisticated tracking software that comes free with the Blogger application allows me to monitor the internet habits of every visitor to my site, and upon reviewing your traffic histories, I have come to several important conclusions:
(1) For grown adults, you people are spending entirely too much time at SpongeBobWorld.
(2) At least half of you are from India or Pakistan, and I really don't get that. Seriously, I look at a list of your visited sites and they are all in phonetic Punjabi except for Short Hope Unfiltered (Taaja taaja khabarnaama! Daler Mehndi! He's the Badshah of Banghra!). I dunno what's up with that.
(3) You folks are not reading nearly enough Fafblog. I simply don't understand this. It's linked over there to the left and everything. What's so hard? Shape up, or I will convert this site to a Fafblog mirror site and solve the problem that way.
With that said, we bring you....We Are All Torturers Now
Recently the Vice President has come under fire for attempting to legalize torture for the CIA. While this would certainly make things more convenient for the CIA, who happen to be Definitely Not-torturing prisoners already in a secret network of Definitely Not-gulags, one is inclined to wonder at the moral implications of making torture available to this select clique of the intelligence elite, of essentially setting the Central Intelligence Agency above American, international, and moral law. Upon considering it, we must reject this notion: torture, after all, should be the legal right of everyone.
As an instrument used only on the evil people who utterly deserve it, torture has proved an invaluable and ethical tool in fighting terrorists and witches alike. If anything, America could use more torture: with an overstretched military weary and embattled in the long slog of Iraq, it's clear that the War on Terror needs more torturers on the ground. America's torturers can be lost in the line of duty, too - carpal tunnel from lengthy waterboarding sessions, head injuries from tripping over human pyramids - and if the United States doesn't keep a steady supply of trained torturers to replace these weary heroes, how can it expect to maintain the best and brightest organized rape squads in the world?
It is deeply disappointing then, that Mr. Cheney is willing to allow only the CIA to utilize this vital anti-terror tool. Indeed, given the recent explosion in global terrorist activity, America needs as many torturers as it can get to track down this mysterious new wave of Islamist recruits. Torture shouldn't just be the tool of the CIA or even the armed forces. It should be the legal right - no, the duty - of every American citizen.
It's time to combine the good old-fashioned tradition of American volunteerism with the brand new traditions of forced sleep deprivation and genital electrocution. Fund non-profit torture charities, both secular and faith-based. Support neighborhood watch groups with an eye toward torturing local terrorists. Offer scholarships to college students who pledge to spend four years torturing abroad with the Peace Corps. Parents should get their children involved: bring them to work at the Soviet-era prison camp for a day; teach mandatory waterboarding classes at school. Even more critical than building the torture corps itself is the simple feeling of solidarity that participating in torture generates: an involved America is a strong America.
To some this idea will seem quaint, but defending one's homeland is no idle matter, and America needs every helping hand it can get - as long as that hand is turning a thumbscrew.
Hmm. This post is pretty random, but I'll just leave it as it is - I gotta get back to work. Aaaaaaaaand scene.
Friday, November 04, 2005
A hasty drop-in post to refer you to this interesting post by Kevin Drum. The basic point is to raise the possibility that unions, in the end, provide greater workplace stability:
Arbitration over employment disputes may have been frustrating for everyone involved, but the goal of the union was always to get someone's job back, and both sides knew they had to keep working together regardless of the outcome. This prevented routine disputes from descending into all-out war. Today, with unions in decline, arbitration is no longer available to most workers and has been largely replaced by scorched earth style litigation, in which the goal is compensation, not a job, and both sides are motivated to fight to the death on the most explosive possible grounds.
Now, certainly those on the right may respond that the relative predictability and "routine-ness" of union arbitrations is the same iron quiet that prevails in any authoritarian regime, but that feels to me like yet another of these right-wing arguments aimed at some noumenal, platonic target that has nothing to do with anything, and serves only as a fig leaf to provide intellectual and moral cover for what they really want, which is to bust unions because they cost business a lot more than low-wage, minimal-benefit employees.
Drum quotes a post by Timothy Burke, who quotes his father, a long-time, management-side negotiator:
Even my dad thought some strikes were legitimate, and that unions were an important institution. Near the end of his life, he was sometimes bothered, in fact, by the waning of the union movement: my sense was that he preferred arbitration with many union leaders to some of the kinds of workplace litigation he was increasingly involved in. I once saw a videotape he did for non-union workplaces about how to handle drives to unionize, and he went well beyond explaining what their legal obligations were: the first and last thing he said, I recall, was that any employer who thought that a lack of a union was a license to squeeze his employees was going to get a union and he was going to deserve every consequence that followed from that.
Management may have largely won the great union wars, but it's important to remember that once the initial violent stages of the struggle were over, it transitioned into a long, cold war, in which detente had largely been reached. As increasing global competition changed the rules, that detente could no longer function across the economy, in every unionized industry. Strong and effective unions winning big wage packages and generous pensions may well be functionally impossible in industries such as airlines and the automotive industry. But the above suggests (but, as it is anecdotal, does not prove) that where the union model can still be very relevant is in the managing of workplace disputes and the guarantee of working conditions. Without the union process, it's the wild west, and there are costs as well as benefits to management in that kind of landscape. I (and Democrats in general, I think) need to think a bit more about this stuff.