Magazine article Salmagundi

American Despair in an Age of Hope

Magazine article Salmagundi

American Despair in an Age of Hope

Article excerpt

On the hot, clear afternoon of June 5, 2005, US Army Col. Theodore S. Westhusing, after meeting with private contractors and a few colleagues, retreated to room 602A of the trailer where he'd been temporarily billeted near the Baghdad airport. The day's meetings had been unusually tense and difficult, their aftermath even worse. There alone, at some point during the next few hours, in that 10 by 38 ft space containing little more than a bed, a bathroom, and a small desk, after scrawling a note to his commanders and family, Westhusing placed the barrel of his Beretta 9 mm pistol behind his left ear and blew his brains out.

Westhusing had volunteered for duty in Iraq with clarity of philosophical purpose. One of West Point's own military ethicists and an Academy Professor in its Department of English, he had never actually served in a war, and this seemed to him a dreadful shortcoming. When the shells began falling in the first Gulf War, Westhusing had been enmeshed in working towards his master's degree in Atlanta. With the second act of war in Iraq (the third act if you count Clinton's bombings and sanctions), Westhusing was determined not to miss his chance to experience war directly, to confirm his ideas of martial virtue, and to sharpen his skills as a scholar and teacher of military ideals. When the opportunity came in 2004, Westhusing jumped at it. Despite a strong cautionary note from his mentor at Emory- also a military ethicist- Westhusing left a comfortable and prestigious academic post as well as his wife, Michelle, and their three young children behind to board a plane for Mesopotamia. Instead, however, of an authenticating experience that would test his mettle and fortify the lines of reasoning woven into the fabric of his life, what Westhusing encountered in Iraq left him desolate. Within a year it would devastate him completely.

Despite his stature- Westhusing was the highest ranking Army officer to have died in Iraq- his death, like today's exploding suicide rate among military personnel, barely registered in the collective American mind. It's stuck with me, however, and in the midst of the pervasive malaise afflicting us during what ironically the 2008 election promised would be an age of hope, I've become convinced that Westhusing's death, the meaning of it, remains more important than ever.

Although I didn't know Westhusing personally, our lives crisscrossed on a number of lines. Like me, Ted (as I sometimes find myself thinking about him), was a philosopher who graduated from Emory University's doctoral program. He took his master's there in 1992, the same year I completed my own doctorate. I know intimately the well-appointed seminar rooms of Emory's Bowden Hall, where the philosophy department is installed, the dark metallic stacks of the Woodruff Library, and the voluptuous Atlanta evenings that settle like a comforter on the towering southern pines and the white-marble, Italianate campus where Westhusing marched, as I did, through Emory's demanding reading list in the history of philosophy. I also worked as a teaching assistant in military ethics for Professor Nick Fotion, Westhusing's avuncular dissertation adviser, and I am familiar with most of Westhusing's other professors. So I know, too, something of the grief and bewilderment that Westhusing's death has left in its wake.

I also know, as it's evident Westhusing did, what it's like to be seized by an idea. I've experienced the intoxicating thrill of a philosophical position wrapping itself around my life like an anaconda, taking possession of every thought, every breath, every gesture, my very identity, as if it had become a physical force literally binding my molecules, my self, together, filling the world as if it were the very atmosphere I breathe. For Ted, so far as I can glean from his writings, the idea that gripped him was inextricably bound up with his life as a soldier, and therefore inextricably bound up with Ted himself. …

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