Three Kinds of Soldiers
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Empirical
We all collect experiences. They pile up like garage sale fare, and even if one man’s treasure is probably another’s trash, still we love to rummage. One thing always arrests me when I’m pawing through other people’s discards. It’s the pictures of soldiers. Somehow soldiers finally become the pictures they leave behind, whether or not they die young. To have been a soldier in time of war is always to be a soldier of that time, of that conflict. No other image has this kind of presence. Being an Olympian comes close, perhaps, but Olympians compete and fade. Astronauts are set apart, like the legendary explorers. These sorts of people also do something “ultimate,” but you don’t find them on every block. Soldiers dress, pose, and leave their souls inside the pictures.
And then they kill and die on command.
Their officers give those orders. Officers are interesting creatures, and pictures of officers don’t seem to end up in the garage sales and antique stores. In one corner of my mental garage is an untidy pile of past conversations with military officers. My first was a retired intelligence officer, fresh from the war in Vietnam who became a teacher in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps at my high school. The JROTC course had been required in the city school system shortly before my time, but by 1977 it was an ever less popular substitute for PE. That officer did not care for my attitude, and I now see how reasonable his opinion was. Thinking back, I don’t care for it either. But even if he wasn’t interested in being kind, he wasn’t unfair. Age nearly always tolerates youth. It’s a token of contrition we lay at the feet of our former selves.
The rest of that heap holds images and sound clips of other officers, including those who came through the graduate school I attended. There was a professor in our department who specialized in military ethics. Unfortunately, that’s an uncommon niche, so the US military (along with some other allied nations) often sent their promising young officers to our school for graduate education. I knew one Korean and two American officers during my four years there, all of whom went on to distinguished careers as professors and soldiers, and that is also a pretty scarce sort of person, the officer-professor.
One of these officers did not survive the war in Iraq. I had not seen or heard from Ted Westhusing for many years, but I followed his career. I never knew a more determined, even fierce, individual. I reach for comparisons and find none. One of his former professors compared Ted to the infamous Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, but that seems extreme to me. Yet, he was utterly uncompromising and inflexible, closed minded but very smart and not judgmental. Ted was also an intellectual and he was gentle where gentleness was appropriate. He was a captain when I knew him, having come from an assignment as a company commander in the fabled 82nd Airborne Division. He was fluent in Russian, but the Cold War was coming to an end and West Point needed an ethics professor.
In time, Ted became that professor, writing a dissertation on honor and becoming a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy. Like every West Point professor, at least those who aren’t civilians, Ted volunteered for a turn in the second Gulf War. I suppose it is difficult to sit at home in safety while others risk their lives, at least if the military is your life. In June of 2005, with one month left in Iraq, (now) Colonel Theodore Westhusing, professor of ethics at the United States Military Academy at West Point, either killed himself or was murdered. The news was shocking, and he was, at that time, the highest-ranking officer to die in the conflict.
Historians will judge the second war in Iraq to have been unjust, unnecessary, unwise, and financially disastrous for the United States. Andrew Bacevich’s expert assessment in The Limits of Power will carry the interpretive day, if one can judge at this point. If the loyal military lifers and Republican faithful, like Bacevich, are convinced of the foolishness and injustice of that war, the rest of us will follow without much dissent.
As documents gradually appear, widespread corruption (beyond the typical profiteering that comes with every war) will come to light. Some of the guilty will probably be punished. But as memories weaken and witnesses pass, as the world becomes absorbed in taking and making money, Ted Westhusing will become his picture. He must. Otherwise, for what purpose did he die? Many thousands of grieving families have no choice but to cling to those pictures. Can they share a historian’s judgment about the war? Can we? Gaze at the picture and say it was unjust, a waste?
The infamous manifesto of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) says that “we need to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.” That is the reason, if there is one, for Ted’s sacrifice. After all, these signatories are the ones who sent him to Iraq, although he found something other than a friendly situation when he arrived. Theirs is the language of American empire and perhaps empire is not wholly to be despised. Niccolo Machiavelli knew as much about empires as anyone in Western history, and with a thousand years of historical distance from the fall of Rome, he understood some things that world leaders in the present might still appreciate–and of course, he wrote the handbook for the PNAC cabal.
Machiavelli says there are three kinds of soldiers. There are those who serve their own nations for security, for peace, for advancement, and for glory. Call these “Soldiers of Honor.” We all know and admire them. Then there are “auxiliaries” who serve for reasons of overlapping interests, and we could call them “Soldiers of Circumstance.” And then there are mercenaries, who serve the power that can pay, and do so for reasons of their own. Obviously we call them “Soldiers of Fortune.” War has surely changed since the 14th century, but not in every respect. I look at the PNAC verbiage and I look at the picture of Ted. What sort of soldier was he?
The answer to that question explains his death, I believe, even if it does not tell us who pulled the trigger. There is no doubt how Ted saw himself. He was a Soldier of Honor, freely dedicating his life to the demands of his country. He believed he was a born warrior. Before he went to Iraq, he believed (and he argued) that the war was a “just war,” in the formal sense taught by his Roman Catholic Church and as historically defined by world consensus. When Ted’s former professor of ancient Greek suggested in an e-mail that he knew some soldiers who disagreed with the administration about the war, Ted demanded their names and units–I presume he planned to report them. His former teacher and friend declined to provide the information, and that ended all communication between them.
That was Colonel Westhusing. Duty. Honor. Country.
I have come to believe that the work of soldiery requires what William James called “a certain blindness” in those who carry it out. To serve an unjust cause for the sake of duty, honor, or glory is a contradiction, an all too common one. Yet to presume to judge for oneself the justness of a cause when military order demands obedience, well, that cuts to the very heart of military ethics, does it not? When must the call of conscience interrupt the presumption of obedience? Officers, in particular, must know how to think without thinking, and to act on what they have thought about as if they hadn’t thought at all. That is part of what makes them so interesting.
Ted Westhusing trained officers, elite ones. Every cadet in his classroom was there for the sake of the country, and for the sake of honor. He taught them not tactics, not strategy, not logistics, and certainly not weapons. Professor Westhusing taught our future general officers (and that is what they were) the difference between right and wrong, from a military viewpoint. Perhaps no American soldier, indeed, no American citizen, knew more about that subject than Dr. Westhusing. For me, and for many others who know his story, when Ted died, the difference between right and wrong in that war died with him.
At a personal level, being surrounded by the most patriotic among America’s brightest and best, commanding their highest esteem and intellectual respect, as was Ted’s daily context, would surely have crystallized what was already inflexible in his mind. Honor was a matter of remaining on the side of right, and his country was honorable. Therefore his country was right.
There could be no dilemma of conscience once the decisions were made. It didn’t matter which commander in-chief made them. Dilemmas of conscience affect the Soldiers of Honor most deeply. Those soldiers have been easier to find in American military in the past than they are now. These days we draw citizens into military service by appealing to their aspirations for a better material future for themselves, individually.
Historically there have always been those who joined up to escape poverty, or the law, or even a bad love life. It’s nothing new. These Soldiers of Circumstance, however sincere their patriotism may be, don’t aim to sacrifice their lives. Valuing their future prospects brought them to sign the induction papers. These soldiers cannot be the backbone of any nation’s military force. They are, in Machiavelli’s words, auxiliary to those who serve for the higher reasons.
Yet, Ted believed that “in the minds of friend and foe alike, our army is, without a doubt, the best-trained, best-equipped, best-led, and most intelligent of any in our nation’s history. Our soldiers are recognized as the world’s finest.” I defer to his superior understanding of these matters.
Unfortunately, this is the same army that, in the judgment of Ted’s colleague, Colonel Andrew Bacevich (West Point, ’69, PhD Princeton), would be destroyed by Bush’s “immoral, illicit, and imprudent” preventive war, the same war Ted defended. No one ever promised that Soldiers of Honor would always agree. Two years after Ted’s death, Bacevich sacrificed a son to the same war, a young and idealistic first lieutenant who carried his father’s and grandfather’s honorable name. I wonder whether Ted would think Bacevich disloyal. He would not say so if he did, but if I could see only one debate in my adult life, I would like to see Westhusing and Bacevich make their cases for and against Operation Iraqi Freedom, but not until after Ted came home. But I don’t know if it was possible for Ted to come home after the mess he uncovered while attempting to serve his beloved nation.
Part of Bacevich’s objection to the war regarded the use of military power as an alternative to being fiscally responsible at home. His case is complex, but he did not believe it was a genuine war of liberation. The administration tipped its hand, calling it “Operation Iraqi Liberation” (or OIL) in the early days of the war. They might have called it any number of other things, but protecting the “vital interests” of American corporations was certainly on the list of reasons for the invasion. Even if it was a true war of “liberation,” our national troops became “auxiliaries,” one and all, to the national will of the Iraqi people and to the formation of the (initially non-existent) Iraqi Defense Force (IDF).
Ironically, Ted Westhusing was assigned to oversee the private military contractors USIS who were hired by the US government, and paid by you, the American taxpayer, to train the Iraqi Defense Force. The US military, along with its “coalition of the willing,” became uninvited auxiliaries to a non-existent national army. I wonder what Machiavelli would say about the wisdom of that. Further, the Bush administration hired mercenaries to raise and train that force, and then placed its leading expert on ethics and honor “in charge” of the mercenaries.
In a way, it makes sense. Put the ethicist, the guy you can really trust, where the violations might most likely occur. Admittedly, it would not be a comfortable role for a soldier who sees himself as dedicated wholly to the protection of the Homeland and to its people–not necessarily to its economic interests. But no one ever said the mission of such a soldier would be easy. So Ted arrived in Iraq in a dual consciousness that was soon to become a double bind, and finally a triple bind. Here was a soldier of honor asked to do the work of an auxiliary in-country, tasked with managing mercenaries.
Machiavelli notes that “auxilliaries may be excellent and useful soldiers for themselves, but are always hurtful to him who calls them in; for if they are defeated, he is undone, if victorious, he becomes their prisoner.” This was the dilemma of the IDF and the provisional government in Iraq. If the auxiliary forces are not invited by a legitimate power, and yet they also have no intention of annexing the territory to their own, the credulity of every thinking person becomes strained: if these are not simple invaders, what is their mission?
Thinking people can tolerate ambiguity.
“Flexible” people, those who are willing to see duty as something to be balanced with other interests, have an easier time with this sort of vagueness than those who place the value of honor ahead of their own lives. Professors are usually flexible, but not professors who are Soldiers of Honor, like Bacevich and Westhusing. For them, the war had to be either right or wrong. Interestingly, mercenaries are flexible in about the same way professors are. Ted found corruption, “money grubbers,” and he tried to report them. Such was his nature. He found a command chain that didn’t want to know about the abuses of his mercenaries.
Mercenaries have a viewpoint too, but they are a little harder to locate in my sheltered world than Soldiers of Honor and Circumstance. I wanted to ask a mercenary about Ted’s story, so I found one. I will call him “Jack.” He is a thirty-six-year-old son of the heartland, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom, and other actions, and a contractor for a private military company (other than USIS).
Jack did two tours in Iraq, including Fallujah and the Surge, and also serving under Ted’s immediate superior, an obscure Lieutenant General and former West Point professor who was then in command of operations in northern Iraq. His name was David Petraeus. Jack holds Petraeus in very high regard, and Jack knew of Ted Westhusing, but did not know him personally. As Jack said, “they would beam in the big brains for seminars and sessions. I’m sure I saw Westhusing there.”
I wanted to know whether Jack thought Ted was murdered. Jack warned me not to make assertions about it. “The current [Obama] administration doesn’t want these things to be known. They’ll come after you. You’ll be investigated. Your taxes will be audited. It’s better to stick with questions and speculations.” All right then; general questions about mercenaries for the mercenary (he doesn’t mind being called a mercenary). So I say, “Jack, don’t mercenaries pose a threat to civilians as well as to the Soldiers of Honor and Circumstance? They only care about money, not about people.”
“Not at all. You should look at the research of Ian Murphy. Private military companies are far less likely than UN troops to commit human rights violations. We are task-oriented and we are cheaper than doing things in house. We like well-defined missions with clear parameters. The few certainties we can get our hands on, we value that above everything else. What’s my target? Where, when, and how much collateral damage can be tolerated? We go in, we do the job, we get the fuck out. We do what we have to do to get what we know we need. It is diametrically opposed to the accepted mentality, but it is true. We get stigmatized as dirt-bags, but you won’t find anyone more idealistic than me.”
Like Ted, Jack feels he was simply born to be a warrior. “I tried to be an artist, I’ve tried other things. I am not good at those things. I have been a soldier since I was a child. It’s what I’ll always be. The volunteers who were in the Second Gulf War, they all wanted to be me–better pay, greater freedom. I eat what I want when I want. I do the job I agreed to do. They get those kids when they are young, when they don’t understand the world. I was seventeen when I joined and I didn’t understand what it was about. You get through it. The vast majority of mercenaries are vets; you should go through the interview. ‘Where have you been? What unit were you attached to? What are your thoughts about this or that weapon or tactic?’ If you haven’t been there, you’re not in. But one mistake as a mercenary and your career is over. You’ll never work again. But I do it for the sake of being here, with my kids. This is heaven.” He indicates a peaceful, sunny Midwestern day. “No one shoots at me here.” He smiles.
Jack has a very quick mind, great powers of recall, but for me, a conversation with him is like entering a parallel universe. But then, I haven’t worn the uniform. “You can’t stand on the laurels of your grandparents until you’ve put on the uniform yourself. You can’t claim their honor. If you haven’t taken fire for your ideas, you don’t know what your ideas are. People who haven’t been in the military think it’s complex. But it’s simple. Beans, bullets, and band-aids. You’ve got to have bread, you’ve got to have lead, and you’ve got to have meds. These are bad guys we go and get. I wish the world was different, but it’s not. You have to have people like me. Get me there, let me put steel on the target and get me out.” I wonder what Ted would say about Jack’s ideas about honor, and his ideas about ideas.
Jack says that the Soldiers of Circumstance and the Soldiers of Fortune work together surprisingly well. “But you can’t create the cohesion until the tension comes to a certain point. You won’t really have faith until you have nothing else left.” Jack’s picture is one in which the mercenaries have specialized skills, experience, and motivation, and they show the Soldiers of Circumstance what it means to be professionals.
Unlike the friction I imagined, Jack says there is mutual respect.
On the other hand, Jack holds the service contractors beneath contempt. Halliburton and other corporations who feed the military, who supply it with toilet seats and thumb-screws. “That’s where the waste is. That’s money for Dick Cheney.” Jack has no respect for either political party and identifies himself as a Libertarian and a supporter of Ron Paul. He’s one kind of soldier, an ancient kind of soldier. Ted Westhusing was given the task of managing people like Jack as they created a professional army from those who signed up for the job. I have no doubt that many of those Iraqi citizens were Soldiers of Honor, some were Soldiers of Circumstance, and some were Soldiers of Fortune. And when one considers the situation, could uninvited auxiliaries really teach honor to those whose homeland they were occupying? Would it not be more honest to have Soldiers of Fortune teach the Iraqi volunteers to be professionals?
This was not a matter of honor, after all, it was about survival, and the Soldier of Fortune is flexible about everything but that. If you were such a volunteer, would you want Jack or Ted to teach you the ropes? This viewpoint was unacceptable to Ted Westhusing, but David Petraeus seems to have understood it a little better. Ted felt unsupported. The one thing redacted from the suicide note Ted allegedly wrote was a name, with the following sentence reading “You are only interested in your career and provide no support to your staff.” Ted was on David Petraeus’s staff.
The Army ruled Ted’s death a suicide. Many people did not believe it. Before researching this, I did not. But I don’t see how he could come home. His own code would have obliged him to take what he had learned about corruption and waste all the way to the top. He would have had to testify against his superiors, and I think he would have had to admit that the war was unjust and dishonorable.
The suicide note that he either did or did not write said “death before dishonor.” That was the triple bind: Ted could not stay in Iraq and be dishonored, he could not come home and be dishonored, and he could not commit suicide and be dishonored. Maybe he didn’t take any of those courses. Maybe he did. But he was surely depressed. As his beloved wife said, “I’ll know what happened to Ted when I see him in heaven.”
Heaven. That’s the Midwestern United States on a sunny day, with your kids, isn’t it? Apparently the hierarchy at West Point disagreed with the Army’s findings too, since I think it is not the usual practice to bury such suicides on campus, where Colonel Theodore Westhusing rests among the honored dead, laid there with full military honors. David Petraeus left Iraq to attend the service. Michelle Westhusing says she wishes he hadn’t attended.
I know nothing about these matters, but it does seem to me that Petraeus has gotten the glory, and I know that Jack respects him. I don’t know what kind of soldier he was, but I do know he directs the CIA these days, and I feel that Niccolo would advise me that a wise man speaks carefully on such subjects.
Jack says that the US government made a Faustian bargain when it invaded Iraq. Machiavelli says that “he who holds his State by means of mercenary troops can never be solidly or securely seated. For such troops are disunited, ambitious, insubordinate, treacherous, insolent among friends, cowardly before foes, and without fear of God or faith with man; so that in peace you are plundered by them, in war by your enemies.”
I think Ted would agree. When Jack saw this quote he said that there is a very real difference between the mercenaries of Machiavelli’s day and our own. And those who made the deal with the Devil, those who designed the Project for the New American Century, those who put Ted in the triple bind, those men certainly read The Prince. There was no way out of Iraq without putting officers in Ted’s position. Ted, and everything he stood for, was the price America paid for that dishonorable war. As his widow said, “Iraq killed Ted.” For me he has become his picture. It wasn’t worth it. I wish I could argue that point with him. Maybe in heaven.
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