Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Col. Ted Westhusing -- Why and how did he die?

I have questions.
A few days ago I linked to a video reportedly depicting random shooting of civilian targets in Iraq.
At the time I posed a cynical question: How long (in hours) will it be before talk show hosts figure a way to marginalize the story, attack the messenger(s) and/or justify what the video is depicting?
I have been watching and waiting now for three days and the story seems to have sunk from sight. My link to KOS now has a followup link to an article in the LA Times regarding the apparent suicide of one Col Ted Westhusing. The common denominator is "private contractors in Iraq.
The death of Col. Westhusing is being investigated.
The story seems to have just started.

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upset by one conclusion he had reached: that traditional military values such as duty, honor and country had been replaced by profit motives in Iraq, where the U.S. had come to rely heavily on contractors for jobs once done by the military.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

There is something wrong with this picture. Very wrong.

I have seen other reports of "straight as an arrow" career military types associated with other stories that do not exactly, shall we say, support the official spin that policy-makers or commanders would have them present. But I don't recall anyone ranked as high as Colonel among them. (There may have been a General or two, but at that level I start to think in terms of political ambitions beyond military careers so arguments about policy take on a different implication.)

A lot of media reporters are "embedded" with the military, which turns out to have been a good thing over all. But I don't know how many media types are embedded with the private sector over there. My guess is that there are very few. And the few that may be there might well be in-bed-with rather than embedded with their host entity. I just don't know.

But this I can be sure of: Wars may be about principles, but the dearest principle driving the war in Iraq is the profit motive. Why else do private outfits compete for contracts? Why else do former men and women uniform return in a civilian capacity? How else do we have a "volunteer" army?
Altruism and a desire to have a warm feeling because they are doing good work?
If that is so, maybe we should renew the Peace Corps and send in a bunch of real volunteers.

It's the economy, stupid. That's what I call stuck on stupid.

The death of Col. Westhusing is a tragedy whether it was a suicide or a homicide. Either way he is a casualty of the war that occurred as the result of the corruption of private contractors paid for by US tax dollars.


Kobayashi Maru said...

"...the dearest principle driving the war in Iraq is the profit motive. Why else do private outfits compete for contracts?"

Didn't the hue and cry from the left over private contractors used to be about how cozily uncompetitive they were? (e.g. Haliburton) It doesn't work both ways at once.

And what of the profit motive anyway? I absolutely share your concern about oversight and accountability (an always-good thing that spans political divides). But that hardly leads to the conclusion that people working in profit-making organizations in Iraq under contract to the U.S. are across the board more likely to be going off the deep end (as seems to be the case here) than those receiving their paycheck from Uncle Sam. Atrocities happen in war and they're horrendous. I am not justifying them by any means. But really: what is the evidence for a substantive difference based on what one's paycheck says?

What's at issue here is rule of law, not organizational structure or financal models. Investigate the heck out of these guys. (Goodness knows the reporters over there could get on such a story if they'd stop just reciting the latest bad news and get clever like Michael Yon.)

Don't jump to the conclusion that it all ought to be thrown back into a big government hopper. This is a loooong way away from a mercenary force - much less a My-Lai.

Hoots said...

You put your finger on the problem: oversight and accountability. That's what Col Westhusing was into and that's why he is dead.

I have no problem with profit as a motive. I spent my working career in management squeezing profits from the food business. In fact, reporters, investigative and otherwise, are in it for the money and they do a good job. I hope Michael Yon makes a fortune with his excellent reporting. He is the Ernie Pyle of our generation.

But private security contractors operating outside US jurisdiction have no compelling reason to honor either US laws or social constraints. Neither do the new "Security forces" of the Iraqi authorities. Steven Vincent looked into that corner and he, too is dead.

Westhusing didn't die last week. He died in June. Only now, nearly half a year later, does a reporter sniff around into the story. But the trail is cold, the news is old, and nothing seems to be happening. The video has resurrected questions about Aegis, but guess who is looking into that? They are!

Sorry, but at this point I remain both cynical and skeptical about this war. I still see it as a civil war in which the US has become trapped. And my emails from Abu Khaleel and a few blogs not cut from a template of US admiration lead me to believe that the new Iraqi Security forces supported by the Badr Brigades are a world class, police-state, extra-legal clutch of thugs. I would love to have someone convince me otherwise. But I am still waiting to learn about the humanitarian deeds of newly-trained Iraqi forces.

Kobayashi Maru said...

There is at least a whiff of smoke here. Good for you for following it up, Hoots. I don't agree that this throws the entire mission into question but we can disagree on that and stay focused on the potential corruption and mayhem here. The idea of truly extra-legal, armed folks running amok with no oversight at all is of course very disturbing. But with the exception perhaps of a few major urban riots, we know how to deal with that kind of thing... better than the French anyway. Fully evolved, it's called organized crime. I doubt we're there yet but it's worth investigating.

As for the Iraqi security forces, (and therefore our prospects in the region in general) it's possible to take two views. I'll admit to flopping around on both sides of this.

One view says that Islam, Arabic culture, and longstanding tribal sensibilities make this region and these people poorly suited to policing themselves. The second view says: the Iraqi security forces come from that milieu and therefore do not yet behave up to Western standards, but we should keep expectations high and work over the long term to enculturate them to Western norms of behavior. There are obvious non-liberal implications to any of the assumptions behind the first view, though each of them is tempting, and in the short term has merit. The second view makes sense only with some concerted effort and commitment. Which will cost lives and money.

I don't see any other alternatives in how we view the Iraqi security forces and for that matter the Iraqi people themselves.

Back in August, Pat Santy made a truly remarkable post that I think is illuninating here. I just read it this morning. It doesn't support either view so much as shed light on the depth of the problem of our (or anyone else's) working effectively in that region, not to mention helping it work for the good of its own people (esp. women) and the safety of the rest of us. But it does imply that doing nothing is probably worse in the long run. Her parallels with pre-war Japan are fascinating.

Further on the values/culture theme that I believe is at the root of this, (and if I wanted to yank certain chains), I'd reiterate Ann Coulter's line from 9-13-01 which is starting to sound (to my ears anyway) more strategically sensical every day: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." That and a few million details... :)

Good dialogue. Good post.