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An American Death: Col. Ted Westhusing

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The apparent suicide of Col. Ted Westhusing, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, resonates with loss, tragedy, and meaning. He was a professional ethicist, specializing in the concept of a soldier's honor, who was assigned to supervise a civilian military contractor in Iraq. Col. Westhusing saw everything he believed in trashed by civilian leadership that understood neither ethics nor honor, under a Republican government that disrespects and mistreats its military. Sound like a facile interpretation? Then listen to the facts.

Westhusing, reports the Times, "was one of the Army's leading scholars of military ethics ... His dissertation (for a Ph.D. in philosophy) was an extended meditation on the meaning of honor." Once in Iraq, Westhusing received an anonymous complaint that the contractor he oversaw, USIS, had been cheating the government - and that it concealed gross human rights violations to protect its contracts.

Writes the Times:

"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especially upset by one conclusion he had reached: that traditional military values such as duty, honor and country had been replaced by profit motives in Iraq, where the U.S. had come to rely heavily on contractors for jobs once done by the military."

But then, it comes from the top, doesn't it? Dick Cheney still holds that infamous Halliburton stock, and the scandal-plague contractor still pays him a six-figure income. Halliburton employees have been found guilty of fraud in Iraq, fraud investigations against the company itself are ongoing, waste and mismanagement are rampant -- and meanwhile Cheney challenges others ... on ethics. Irony is not supposed to be a great soldier's strong suit.

Col. Westhusing's devotion to the military and its mission seemingly had no place in the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld Pentagon. In fact, a military psychologist made his ethical stature and devotion to honor sound like a mental disorder. "Despite his intelligence, his ability to grasp the idea that profit is an important goal for people in the private sector was surprisingly limited," wrote Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach, reducing a lifetime of integrity to a clinical dysfunction. Shades of the USSR ...

And yet ... no wonder Lt. Col. Breitenbach saw Col. Westhusing's values as a medical condition. His commitment to completing the mission - to serving the country over making a profit -shows a notable detachment from the reality that is today's Pentagon. Sen. Patrick Leahy's attempts to pass a law preventing excess corporate war profiteering and fraud has been blocked by Republicans for several years now - with the aid and support of Sen. McCain and the other "mavericks" in the GOP.

Coincidentally, the Times article on Col. Westhusing's death was published during the same week that an amateur video was released showing military contractors' employees apparently killing Iraqi civilians at random. The video, which appears to have been filmed and assembled by the perpetrators, shows a variety of "gross human rights violations" being conducted while the Elvis Presley version of "Mystery Train" plays in the background.

The Administration supporters who rush to their defense when its war crimes are pointed out- as I did here - usually say "There you go again, Mr. Liberal, accusing the military of war crimes." Let me say it again: I don't accuse the military of these crimes, but their leadership. Time and time again these leaders order soldiers to do what is wrong, then turn on their own troops and accuse them of crimes when it becomes public.

This week's case in point: The burning of Muslim bodies - a violation of Islamic law - followed by a propaganda broadcast. This was clearly a psy-ops operation, albeit a clumsy one. Or are we to believe that they just happened to burn the bodies, because it was hot outside, and then just happened to broadcast the fact - in Arabic? To cover their own asses, the top brass issued reprimands to the soldiers who were following their orders. Rather than maintain silence, once again this Administration turned on America's men and women in uniform - and blamed the rank and file for their own bad decisions.

Great men and women like Ted Westhusing have dedicated themselves to the defense of this country, only to see the military they love treated like an ATM by greedy non-combatants like Dick Cheney - and as a fantasy camp for draft dodgers like G. W. Bush.

Each suicide is a unique tragedy. A depressed person - and Col. Westhusing's sleep disruptions and loss of weight are consistent with severe depression - collapses into his or her own soul, becoming a black hole from which at last no light can escape. There is always more to the story than any outsider can ever know. Ted Westhusing - soldier, Catholic, intellectual, human being - deserves more than any news report or essay can give.

As I wrote in "The Souls of Soldiers," when good people are ordered to do bad things they - as well as their victims - are made to suffer. For those who see the wrong being done and cannot stop it, there is yet more suffering. For Col. Westhusing, the suffering is over. He stood for something Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice will never understand: Honor. May he rest in peace.

A Night Light