Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Did Colonel Ted Westhusing, a philosopher and 'military ethicist' kill himself in Iraq?

I was born in an Army family and I have been hearing of military operations and wars and battles and death since my childhood. As a teenager I was fascinated by the manner in which the American press covered the Vietnam war. And also by how this coverage affected the American public and people all over the globe. Photographs in magazines like Life hit me hard. I still remember the photograph of a young Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack by U.S. Air Force planes. The My Lai massacre is quoted as a classic example of military brutality or of U.S. brutality depending on one's political and ideological affiliations. Films like 'All Quiet on the Western Front', 'Apocalypse Now', 'Saving Private Ryan' and 'Platoon' made viewers, including me, think of the cruelties of war. I had always found it strange that politicians or generals could issue commands and thousands of men would go to do battle, to kill the enemy and, very often, get killed themselves. This is something which will always remain an unsolved mystery for me. "Why do men kill?", "How do they manage to justify it?", "Is there a just war?", "How does an Air Force pilot feel after dropping thousands of kilograms of bombs over civilian areas?".... some of these questions may seem extremely silly. But these were issues I gave thought to when I was in my teens. I can't say that I have found the answer to all these questions. As a young child I was convinced that like my father I too would have to join the Army and I may have to kill or, worse than that, get killed if my luck were not with me. I admired the world heavyweight boxing champion Mohammad Ali for refusing to serve the US Army in Vietnam. I also admired the philosopher Bertrand Russell for congratulating Ali for his defiance and courage. I was a bit wary of activists who sided with the communists. I was convinced that nobody was right in this war. I admired the Vietnamese for the manner in which they fought back.

Recently I happened to read of a Colonel Ted Westhusing of the US Army who had a doctorate in philosphy and was serving as an instructor in the U.S. Army's West Point Academy. He had volunteered to go to Iraq so as to understand war better. He wantred to be a better teacher to the cadets he was helping to train. But his disillusionment with the way the U.S. Army was behaving in Iraq grew and he was found dead one day, his service pistol by his side. Did he commit suicide out of total disillusionment? Or was it not a suicide? He was most certainly disgusted with private contractors from the US who were doing a job once done by the U.S. Army i.e. training Iraqis in military duties. He was disturbed by the stories of cruelty and human rights violations he had heard. These were acts of cruelty committed by U.S. citizens on unarmed Iraqis. He may have suddenly realised that the emperor wore no clothes and the revelation may well have driven him to commit suicide. Many may be surprised that he wanted to investigate the question of virtuous conduct in war with special reference to the conduct of the U.S. Army and military. Virtuous conduct in war is what chivalry is all about. But can there be chivalry in a system which drops yellow coloured food packets and yellow coloured cluster bombs? Did the US Governemnt under Richard Nixon think of virtuous conduct when the Pakistani Army was conducting a genocide in erstwhile East Pakistan? The American public was against the Pakistanis. George Harrison conducted a concert for Bangladesh. Joan Baez's 'Song of Bangladesh' shook up the whole world with its lyrics describing the cruelty of the Pakistani Army.

Need Ted have died? Let us hope that the US Government and the U.S. Army learn something from his death. But it does look like nobody will learn anything. The world will continue to function as before. Wars and dishonourable conduct in war will continue to occur. Fanaticism of one kind will be countered by fanaticism of another kind. Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Kurds in the eighties but at that time he was not called a villain by the governments of the West even though human rights groups all over the world had protested. There are newsreports of thousands of Iraqi soldiers being buried alive in their trenches during the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. was accused of doing this as it did not want man-to-man combat between U.S. soldiers and Iraqis. Thousands of civilians died in the 9/11 airplane explosions. Islamic fundamentalists who are very keen to use Western technology were convinced that they had to kill unarmed civilians for what they claimed was a just cause. Pakistan has been bleeding India with low intensity conflicts in Punjab and Kashmir for over two decades now. They are convinced that they are doing this for the good of Indian Muslims. The same Pakistan has disowned thousands of Bihari Muslims stranded in Bangladesh who swear allegiance to Pakistan.

One remembers Krishna's advice to Arjuna at Kurukshetra before the battle began. But unfortunately we live in Kaliyuga - the dark age. The age which has no heroes, the age which has only villains.
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p.s. A must-read link to an article in the LA Times:

Courtesy (Arts and Letters Daily)