Suicide Before Dishonor in Occupied Iraq

I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuse, and liars. I am sullied. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death before being dishonored any more.

Having written a last note, and placed it by his bed in his trailer on a U.S. military base near Baghdad, on the afternoon of June 5, 2005 Colonel Ted S. Westhusing put his 9-mm. service pistol to his head and blew his brains out. He was 44, survived by a wife and three young children.

Quite a number of U.S. troops have committed suicide in Iraq, or upon return home. According to the Washington Times, 24 soldiers’ deaths in Iraq were ruled suicides in 2003, nine in 2004. But the Washington Post reports that “Thirty-one Marines committed suicide in 2004, all of them enlisted men, not commissioned officers. The majority were younger than 25 and took their lives with gunshot wounds, according to Marine statistics.”

How many committed suicide in Iraq it does not say. But war experience is surely linked to the incidence of suicides by veterans who bring the war back with them. Between March 2004 and August 2005 three Special Forces Iraq veterans took their lives after their homecomings.There were a rash of reports about this issue in late 2003-early 2004, but it tapered off and I find no cumulative 2005 statistics about military suicides on line.

In any case. the level has caused official concern and consternation. According to the Post (Feb. 25, 2005):

Military psychiatrists are puzzled by the suicide rate in Iraq, saying that it makes little sense in comparison with those in past conflicts. The accepted wisdom in military psychiatry is that the level of suicides— far from increasing during wars — drops as the survival instinct kicks in among the personnel in the conflict zone. Just two suicides were recorded among US personnel during the entire Gulf war in the Nineties. What is also unusual about the rate in Iraq, in comparison with Vietnam, Korea and the Second World War, is that everyone serving in the all-volunteer forces has already been screened for their psychological suitability. They have also been briefed on combat stress and trained to counter any suicidal feelings, following a rash of military suicides which embarrassed the Pentagon in the late Nineties.

Puzzling indeed, then, that an officer pretty much removed from the combat zone, an enthusiastic career man and devout Catholic, would off himself as he apparently did last June.

Or maybe not so puzzling. What’s special about this case is that Westhusing was a specialist on ethics, a West Point graduate who had taken seriously its code that “a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal – or tolerate those who do,” who had received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University for a dissertation on the meaning of honor, and returned to West Point to teach philosophy and English. He didn’t kill himself because of battle stress or feelings of guilt following his role in a specific firefight. Looks like he put a bullet through his head because he felt the mission itself-the war—was dishonorable.
I don’t mean to idealize him. Anyone receiving special forces training, serving in Honduras in the 1980s, and becoming a division operations officer for the 82nd Airborne, based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., has to have some major ethical baggage as far as I’m concerned. I think he should have realized before volunteering for duty in Iraq in the fall of 2004 that the mission involved corruption, human rights abuses and lying. On the other hand one must admire his capacity for moral indignation once he saw for himself what was going on.

Westhusing’s assignment in Iraq was to oversee the Virginia-based USIS, a contracted security company paid $79 million to train Iraqi police in special operations. He became aware of charges that USIS had cheated on its contract, providing fewer trainers than agreed upon to enhance its profit margin. It had, he was informed, covered up the killings of two Iraqi civilians and the illegal involvement of USIS personnel in the assault on Fallujah. He reported these charges, but felt troubled both by his friendly relations with the USIS management (although he wrote to his family that he “disliked” them and felt “they were paid too much money by the government”) and the failure of investigators to find fault with them.

T. Christian Miller, who has researched this story for the Los Angeles Times, and has had access to Westhusing’s emails to his family, described the officer’s mindset at the time of his death to NPR:

What worries him most, clearly, is his feeling that profit has overtaken military values like duty honor and county in Iraq. In the final note he leaves in these emails home and these conversations with his friends, he talks about “I didn’t come here to be surrounded by greedy contractors. I didn’t come her to be a part of a mission that’s being corrupted by concerns of money.” Things like that.

Miller adds:

For me in some ways it becomes a metaphor for the way that the Iraq War has been fought, which is to outsource a lot of what’s been done to private companies so that rather than having idealistic soldiers or young bureaucrats or whatever doing the work in Iraq, you have people doing them for motives that aren’t altruistic and pure but for the bottom line.

That is to say, the colonel was just too pure to deal with this corrupt corporate world.

In his LA Times piece Miller cites a military psychologist, Lt. Col. Lisa Breitenbach, who avers in Miller’s paraphrase 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.” He quotes her directly: “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. 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.”

In other words, in the military shrink’s best judgment, the deceased ought to have flexibly accepted the fact that “doing the right thing” should not be the sole motivator for business! He should not have been so bummed about the corporate corruption, abuses and lies that flourish so much in today’s Iraq. He shouldn’t have taken the academy code so seriously or had such a limited grasp of the importance of profit to the private sector in liberated Iraq. Surely that slipping grasp explains the psychological instability that led him—“despite his intelligence”—to take his life.

Such explanations take the puzzling and pathologize it. But that seems unfair to the deceased. In his dissertation, Westhusing writes he was “born to be a warrior” which makes me think of the Japanese samurai whom I’ve studied in some detail. In Japanese martial society, up until the nineteenth century anyway, those born to be warriors maintained a long tradition of honorable suicide. A samurai would take his destiny into his hands and slit his belly for various reasons: to avoid capture, to follow his lord in death, to force an erring superior to reflect and change his ways. Samurai who had committed all but the most egregious crimes were allowed to honorably disembowel themselves rather than face the executioner’s axe, crucifixion or other vulgar punishments. Or the samurai shuffled off this mortal coil, usually unbidden, to wipe out a defiling stain on his (or her, there being female samurai) honor. There was nothing nuts about it; it was perfectly rational. When one couldn’t go on with honor, one honorably dispatched oneself, buoyed into the beyond by the belief that one’s progeny would understand and take pride in the purification.

“I am sullied. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored. Death before being dishonored any more.”

Warrior and scholar, tenured professor, loving husband and father, too honorable a man to carry on in his defiling assignment. Maybe not despite his intelligence, as Breitenbach suggests, but because of it.

May I suggest we honor Col. Westhusing by redoubling our efforts to oppose the lying, cheating and stealing which is the Iraq War? And support the honorable troops dishonorably dispatched to Iraq by urging them to refuse to kill on behalf of that private sector whose morality he came to doubt? And hope that they’ll live, looking forward to another world which is really possible—in which profit doesn’t overtake duty and honor?

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: