Memorial Day 2016: Westhusing

Westhusing 1When Colonel Theodore S. “Ted” Westhusing died in Iraq in 2005, he was the highest-ranking US military officer to have lost his life in either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom. Most signs point to suicide, just a few weeks before he was due to rotate home, but some evidence suggests, and some believe fervently in this evidence, that he was killed by the American contracted security operatives he supervised. Either way, it was clear that he was distressed by the unethical behavior of his American subordinates and the elite Iraqi police his unit was in charge of training and the failure of his commanders, notably then-Lieutenant General David Petraeus, to heed his warnings about the fraud, waste, and abuse he observed. That Westhusing had written a PhD dissertation on military honor, based on his study of classical Greek philosophy, and that he was on-track to become the head of West Point’s Department of English and Philosophy and thus in charge of the ethical education of military academy cadets adds to the tragedy, the irony, or the poignancy of his story. One read of Westhusing’s life is that his rigid principles made him too brittle to deal with the vagrancies of war. Another is that his death was an important early sign of just how badly the Army was struggling to accomplish its many-sizes-too-big mission to modernize and Westernize Iraqi security forces. A third casts Westhusing’s example as a cautionary tale that the war was destined to chew up, in one form or another, any good man or woman sent to fight it. Personally, I think Westhusing was a victim of a collision between two war-fighting ideologies: an ethical approach predicated on the laws of war that Westhusing believed the 1990s United States military exemplified, and the new brutal, results-oriented way of war, based on targeted assassinations and enhanced interrogation tactics, that the American security contractors and Iraqi secret police were bringing into being.

Westhusing’s death was the story of a moment, but even in its time it did not really grip the American public, who wanted to hear about heroes, not senior officers who cracked up and couldn’t take it any more. They probably wondered if Westhusing didn’t reveal the basic incongruity of academic scholarship and tough-minded warfighting—any major fool might say the two disciplines are incompatible. Perplexed or ambivalent or maybe embarrassed about this ambitious military officer who campaigned for the position that eventually overwhelmed him, many might have also have wondered why he couldn’t have just gutted out a few more weeks, returned to his wife and three children, settled into his comfy and distinguished West Point position, and put the whole mess behind him. That’s what any sane man would do, right, and who’s to say that’s not what any good man might do, too? Westhusing himself described his life’s journey in terms of goodness—his wife Michelle reports that her husband told her she didn’t need to study philosophy because she was, according to him, “already good.” For Westhusing, then, the military built and tested character in defense of what was right and honorable, and not a dismal human endeavor organized around obedience and violence. Duty in Iraq was for Westhusing a chance to meld personal philosophy with on-the-ground experience. He didn’t dream of being a hero, in other words, he was entranced by the idea that being a soldier offered the greatest possible opportunity to be good.

That’s a lot to contemplate, notions as simultaneously naïve, arrogant, and idealistic as those that drove Chris McCandless into the Alaska backcountry (Westhusing took his PhD at Emory in Atlanta, where McCandless studied as an undergraduate, for what it’s worth). Predictably, not many have lingered over them, but a few observers over the years have viewed Westhusing’s life and death in terms of their metaphorical or even dramatic possibility. Los Angeles Times writer T. Christian Miller in Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, Corporate Greed in Iraq (2006) uses Westhusing to frame his exposé of Bush administration fraud and negligence. A West Point classmate of Westhusing named D. Richard Tucker wrote and staged a one-act play titled Duty, Honor, Profit in Seattle in 2008. I haven’t seen Duty, Honor, Profit, but parts of it can be read online. A description on Tucker’s website suggests that his play is not so much an exploration of character under duress, but a criminal procedural: “The Army’s investigation attributed his death to suicide, but a large amount of evidence pointed towards conspiracy and murder. As Ted’s friends attempt to uncover the mystery, they come to even more disturbing conclusions. This is a true story.”

Recently, I’ve learned that US Army veteran John Michael Meyer is bringing towards production a new play called Westhusing in the House of Atreus. The title refers to a cursed royal family in the Greek mythos from which sprung the warriors Agamemnon and Menelaus; Meyer here repurposes the myth to suggest that the American officer corps, or greater military family, in Iraq, led by General Petraeus, was rife with similar treachery and conflict. Meyer’s credentials are interesting: a Ranger-qualified enlisted infantryman who has served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he is completing a PhD in social sciences at the University of Texas. While an undergraduate at Texas (at roughly the same time Kevin Powers and Brian Van Reet were in the UT MFA program—wow!), Meyer’s play American Volunteers (2010)—about US soldiers at war on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—won a distinguished prize. Meyer has staged other plays as well, and he also acts: just a couple of weeks ago I saw him play the part of Neoptolemus in a production of Sophocles’ Philoctetes that revisioned Sophocles’ play as a parable of the plight of contemporary veterans. Meyer tells me he was first alerted to Westhusing’s story by one of Westhusing’s old professors; perhaps Meyer saw something of his own effort to combine serious scholarship and hardcore soldiering writ large in Westhusing’s story.

I’ve read a draft of Westhusing in the House of Atreus and loved it. Not only is much of the dialogue in remarkable blank verse, but Westhusing’s last days are plausibly imagined by Meyer and so too is his effort to place Westhusing’s thoughts and acts in the context of the Greek traditions of philosophy, tragedy, and military service that meant so much to him. Meyer also skillfully envisions rich stage roles not just for Westhusing but for secondary characters: General Petraeus, Michelle Westhusing, two contractors who work for Westhusing, his department head at West Point, a female interpreter, and a female military lawyer. The result is not a fawning portrait or vindication of Westhusing, but something even better:  an assessment in full of his complex and often contradictory impulses, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Here’s to hoping that Westhusing in the House of Atreus makes it to the stage and succeeds in bringing the problems presented by Westhusing into sharp public focus while also telling us much about the man and those closest to him at the end of his life. One issue is that of how we remember military suicides as we honor the nation’s war dead on Memorial Day and throughout the year. I’m magnanimous on the point, for reasons personal as much as abstract. I didn’t know Westhusing in his last days, but I served a tour with him at West Point in the 1990s, where, among other things, he and Michelle were my family’s sponsors when we arrived, helping us choose quarters and making us feel welcome. Later, we played countless hours of basketball and touch football together as members of our department teams. On the “fields of friendly strife,” Westhusing was our fearless captain, and off the field, he was the funny organizer of much merriment, so it’s hard for me to imagine why later in life he would either kill himself or inspire another American to kill him. He could sometimes be aloof, lost in the realm of philosophical thought and his exalted dream of what being an officer meant, but there were many more moments of generosity, good cheer, and wit, and his love for Michelle and their children was clear and strong. I had the chance to meet his high school basketball coach and his family, and it was obvious they adored Westhusing and viewed him as something of a crown prince, which pretty much all of us did, too. Without doubt, Westhusing felt that not just his philosophy but his identity were stained during his short unhappy overseas tour; I’m with Michelle, who, when asked why her husband died, tersely replied, “Iraq,” but feel the story’s reach is also longer and more complicated. What I can state safely, and I’m sensing Meyer agrees, is that Westhusing did not have to die and the world would be a better place if he hadn’t, which, speaking of stories writ large, is basically true of every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine whose life ended in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The greatest tribute paid by a nation to its war dead on Memorial Day is recognition that they, when called upon, fought and gave all, which inspires determination to fight for what’s right in the rest of us. The greatest hope expressed is that those who lost their lives in war did not do so in vain; unfortunately, the deplorable circumstances of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make it hard to cherish that hope in regard to the roughly 7,000 Americans who died in them. But Memorial Days also give the living a chance to remember and honor fighting men and women lost in war as individuals, almost all whom died while young and by their lights trying to be good and do good, and now their lives over long before they fulfilled their potential to become even better people and improve the lives of others. RIP Memorial Day 2016 those with whom I once served and who later died either in Iraq or Afghanistan: Ted Westhusing, Joe Fenty, David Taylor, and Bill Hecker. Also, members of Camp Clark, Afghanistan, units with whom I served in 2008-2009: John Blair, Kevin Dupont, Alex French, Peter Courcy, and Jason Watson. Finally, former students Dennis Pintor, Todd Lambka, Brian Freeman, and Taylor Force.

West Point, NY. Picture taken May 30, 2016, by John Nelson.

5 thoughts on “Memorial Day 2016: Westhusing”

  1. Good post on a tragic topic. Sad, small world. Dennis Pintor was attached to my battalion and we served together at Camp War Eagle. I didn’t know him well but he had a great reputation, and from what I could tell, his death devastated his unit, which was already hard hit. RIP.

  2. Dennis Pintor was a student in my junior writing class, where we read literary accounts of “the hero,” beginning with Gilgamesh. He was smart, pleasant, and calm, so it’s not hard for me to imagine that he turned out to be a squared-away and trusted officer. As I remember things, he sat next to and was pals with Dan Browne, who later represented the US in two Olympic games as a distance runner and was equally amiable and sensible.

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