Personal tragedy appropriated for a political end

“The personal is political”, according to an earlier generation of feminists, and this is an important insight.

But the words also point to a very different phenomenon which is not so laudable. In a highly politicized context — like the ongoing debate over the Iraq war — personal tragedies can be appropriated for political ends.

I am responding to an AlterNet article discussing the suicide of Col. Ted Westhusing, one month before he was supposed to return from a six-month tour of duty in Iraq. The article is based on documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. It sheds much light on the events surrounding Col. Westhusing’s suicide. (Hat tip, Doug’s Darkworld.)

Ultimately the article left a bad taste in my mouth. There’s a sanctimonious “shame, shame” tone to it that I’m uncomfortable with. It treats a family tragedy — Westhusing was 44 years old, married, with three children — as an opportunity to score political points.

This is a subjective judgement, of course, and I can understand why the author took that point of view. Col. Westhusing was no ordinary grunt. He was the head of counterterrorism and special operations under General David Petraeus. As such, he was responsible for training the Iraqi security forces — a hugely important responsibility.

When he committed suicide on June 5, 2005, Col. Westhusing was the highest-ranking American soldier to die in Iraq.

From the suicide note and other information contained in the AlterNet article, I deduce that Col. Westhusing took his life for at least three reasons.

Disillusionment.
Col. Westhusing had high ideals, at least with respect to the war in Iraq. He had a safe civilian job (teaching English classes at West Point) and he accepted his tour of duty voluntarily. He fervently believed it was a just war, being properly executed.

Idealists are the Humpty Dumpties of the world, seated atop their high walls, gambling against gravity. When they fall, it can be devastating. In his suicide note, Col. Westhusing laments, “Why serve … when you no longer believe in the cause?”

Personal failure.
Col. Westhusing was self-disciplined and responsible, used to succeeding at anything he set his mind to. But in Iraq he was inevitably going to fail.

Col. Westhusing was overseeing “Virginia-based U.S. Investigations Services, a private security company with contracts worth $79 million to help train Iraqi police units that were conducting special operations”:

There were ongoing problems with USIS’s expenses. … [Col. Westhusing] received an anonymous letter claiming USIS was cheating the military at every opportunity, that several hundred weapons assigned to the counter- terrorism training program had disappeared, and that a number of radios, each of which cost $4,000, had also disappeared. The letter concluded that USIS was “not providing what you are paying for” and that the entire training operation was “a total failure.”

Westhusing was devastated. Even if the charges were accurate, there was little that could be done. Iraq had no functioning judicial system, and there were questions about jurisdiction in case the contractors were indicted.

There was at least one other issue preying on Col. Westhusing’s mind. The counterterrorism training program was always at risk of being infiltrated by members of Iraqi militias and criminal gangs. Westhusing told a colleague, “I just don’t see a way to resolve this problem.”

The suicide note asks, “Why serve when you cannot accomplish the mission?”

Pride:
There is one phrase in Col. Westhusing’s suicide note that I find objectionable. “Death before being dishonored any more,” he writes. It’s a clear allusion to the slogan, “death before dishonor”, and it’s an attempt to justify his decision to commit suicide.

Too many people see suicide as a noble act. I am biased in the opposite direction, due to several suicides by near family members. In my view, suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness.

Not to go all holier-than-thou here: Col. Westhusing was obviously depressed, and I don’t doubt that I would also contemplate suicide if I were in his place (being predisposed to depression myself).

But I don’t suppose “death before dishonor” sounds very noble to Westhusing’s widow or his children just now. He wasn’t trapped in Iraq: he would have completed his tour of duty in just one month. But then he would have had to return to his former colleagues and admit he had been wrong about the war, and face up to his own failures.

In other words, this is the story of one soldier’s inability to cope with circumstances I wouldn’t wish on anyone. He was disillusioned with the cause, he was failing personally, and the impact on his ego was enormous.

Is there a political message here? Sure. Col. Westhusing puts a personal face on the sordid mess that the war in Iraq has become.

The personal is political: but it’s a personal tragedy first, and a handy illustration of a political point second. Let’s not lose touch with our humanity because of the highly politicized context.

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Simen
    Mar 21, 2007 @ 19:46:43

    I don’t think suicide is a noble act, but I don’t think it is the opposite either. There’s a real difference between the “suicide attempt” where one seeks nothing but attention, and the ending of life because of real pain, mental or physical. I don’t see it as anyone’s duty to live for others if they have no reason to live for themselves. Sure, it can be seen as a selfish act, but then again, it’s even more selfish for people to blame the person commiting suicide for not wanting to live for them. People are naturally social animals, but we’re also naturally selfish.

    That said, I completely agree with you that suicide is first and foremost a personal tragedy. Here in Norway, there are very strong conventions on suicide. Ideally, convention goes, it shouldn’t be mentioned at all. This is no doubt to discourage people to make the dead person a symbol or matyr and to prevent further suicides and copycats. For this reason, since suicides shouldn’t be mentioned, “personal tragedy” has almost become synonymous with suicide (likewise, “family tragedy” usually refers to cases where a famil member kills another family member).

    Reply

  2. Knotwurth Mentioning
    Mar 21, 2007 @ 21:05:24

    True that he should not be living for other people, and as such suicide is not necessarily a selfish act. In the light of severe physical torture or psychological trauma, it is quite possible you could see it to justify suicide, although I tend to be of the viewpoint that no matter how negative the situation, it can eventually be rectified. Any wound can heal, any trauma can fade, and suicide is an escape that is, in my mind, a poor choice on the part of the individual.

    However, there is a greater issue here of selfishness. He is, in fact, living for other people; he cannot stand the notion of being dishonored in the eyes of those others. He places the way his personal failure will be viewed by other above and beyond his own life, and as far as I am concerned, that is selfishness. When a person places more importance in how he or she appears to others than in their own life (a life which includes his wife and children), then he is acting in a manner that is not just self-centred, but almost childish. While I accept that he faced a traumatic situation, and one where he would have to own up for having been wrong. But committing suicide over an issue that should instead have inspired shame looks an awful lot like a teenage drama-queen deciding she (or he) is going to stop eating entirely because she’s fat, when it should simply inspire them to stop eating quite so much.

    As for it being personal and not political? No debates there. In fact, the fact that one could politicize it to me seems almost disgusting. I understand the need to have symbols for a cause, but could we not choose something so very personal? I understand focusing on people who are negatively affected by the war, but focusing on a man who commits suicide because he can’t own up to being wrong seems to be a wholly private issue.

    Reply

  3. Mary P
    Mar 22, 2007 @ 10:56:38

    I don’t see it as anyone’s duty to live for others if they have no reason to live for themselves. This is an interesting argument, and carries some weight, particularly for an independent, self-sufficient adult, whose life is connected primarily with other independent, self-sufficient adults. I’m not sure how much weight, but it’s a perspective I hadn’t considered, and I’ll be mulling it over for a while, I think.

    Knotworth comments that committing suicide over an issue that should instead have inspired shame looks an awful lot like a teenage drama-queen deciding she (or he) is going to stop eating entirely because she’s fat, when it should simply inspire them to stop eating quite so much. This echoes my feeling that some suicides seem a perverse sort of self-aggrandizing.

    But is it true that “no one has a duty to live for others”? When one has dependent children, my answer to this is a fervent “YES, they do”. When you have dependent children, you absolutely have a duty to continue living. You brought them into this world; you need to see that they are securely launched into it before you leave.

    We tend to denigrate the concept of “duty” in our culture. There is a place for it; this is one example.

    Reply

  4. addofio
    Mar 22, 2007 @ 10:59:16

    To me, the war in Iraq is itself a prime example of using personal tragedy for political ends. Bush was making noises about Iraq before 9/11; he clearly wanted a war with Iraq, wanted to depose Hussein, for reasons of his own. Given that there was no connection between Al Quaeda (sp?) and Iraq, I believed at the time and still believe that the attack on the World Trade Center was simply used to persuade the country at large and Congress in particular to give him the war he wanted all along.

    Knotwurth, I think you’re being a bit hard on the guy. Dishonor is not something I worry a lot about, and clearly not something you take perticularly seriously, but for some people it is the bedrock of their moral thinking. It’s way more than “what will the neighbors think” or “how will it look?” He no doubt didn’t want to be dishounored in the eyes of others–but I’d lay odds that he was even more concerned with not (further) dishonoring himself in his own eyes. Comparing a battle-hardened 44-year-old man to a teenage drama queen only trivializes what is/was not trivial. I think he deserves more respect than that. His reasons for killing himself may not make sense to us–we may not share his values–but I seriously doubt he was just trying to dramatize himself.

    Reply

  5. Simen
    Mar 22, 2007 @ 11:26:28

    In a modern society, providing for children is pretty much taken care of. There is, of course, a significant difference between someone living in poverty and a middle class family. There is also the miserable effect a suicidal parent can have on children. It’s neigh on impossible to say something concrete about suicides in general. The worst effect in a modern society, I would guess, is the emotional strain, not other, more material concerns (it varies from case to case, of course). Living just to prevent sorrow among loved ones is not something I would wish anyone to endure. By that point, the person in question should receive help.

    Reply

  6. Stephen
    Mar 22, 2007 @ 19:22:57

    Simen:
    There’s a real difference between the “suicide attempt” where one seeks nothing but attention, and the ending of life because of real pain, mental or physical.

    Thanks for that observation. I think pain (either mental or physical) can reach a point where the individual is no longer responsible for his actions. It is possible that Col. Westhusing had reached that point. I don’t mean to come across as someone who is heartless with respect to the profound suffering of a fellow human being. But I’ll offer more thoughts on this topic below.

    Here in Norway, there are very strong conventions on suicide. Ideally, convention goes, it shouldn’t be mentioned at all.

    I understand the concern about “copycat” suicides. In some native communities in Canada, there seems to be a culture of suicide, particularly among youth.

    Nonetheless, I strongly believe no topic should be off limits for discussion. Much better for society to own up to the problem, to increase awareness about it, seek to understand it, and to make people alert to the symptoms that someone might be leaning in that direction.

    It seems clear, from the original article, that Col. Westhusing displayed some classic symptoms (e.g. gazing meditatively at his gun) but his military colleagues did not intervene. Why not? Perhaps because military culture doesn’t acknowledge this sort of “weakness” in its midst.

    • Knotwurth:
    He places the way his personal failure will be viewed by other above and beyond his own life.

    Just to be clear, that is my interpretation of the phrase “death before being dishonored any more”. Maybe I read too much into it, but I continue to think pride was a factor here.

    The death of a loved one is always very difficult to deal with, but when the death is a suicide the challenge is multiplied. “Ambivalence” is the word that best describes it: grief for one’s own loss; sorrow for the profound pain of the loved one; and anger, because the person ended his own suffering but thereby caused others to suffer in his place.

    In this case, Col. Westhusing’s wife and children will bear the pain. Of course, we should always be cautious about judging the choices of another human being. This certainly wasn’t the best choice the colonel could have made, but obviously he wasn’t getting the support he needed, either.

    • MaryP:
    When you have dependent children, you absolutely have a duty to continue living. … We tend to denigrate the concept of “duty” in our culture. There is a place for it; this is one example.

    Well said. More on this below.

    • Addofio:
    To me, the war in Iraq is itself a prime example of using personal tragedy for political ends. … The attack on the World Trade Center was simply used to persuade the country at large and Congress in particular to give [Bush] the war he wanted all along.

    I think that’s a valid point. I still don’t think I know why Bush, Cheney, et al. were so hellbent on invading Iraq. But it’s clear that 9/11 had nothing to do with it.

    I’d lay odds that [Col. Westhusing] was even more concerned with not (further) dishonoring himself in his own eyes.

    Again, I think you have a valid insight. However, I still put that interpretation in the general category of pride, and I still see it as an abdication of his responsibilities to his wife and children. (With all the provisos about his misery and his unmet need for help that I’ve expressed elsewhere in this comment.)

    • Simen:
    The person in question should receive help.

    Agreed. If Col. Westhusing had received the support he needed, this tragedy might not have occurred.

    In a modern society, providing for children is pretty much taken care of.

    Are you suggesting that parents are irrelevant? That anyone, or society at large, is an adequate replacement for a dead or absentee parent?

    Our society is oriented to the individual. I agree with that orientation to a very large extent, but sometimes our society carries it too far. That’s where MaryP’s remark about duty comes into play. Col. Westhusing wasn’t free of obligation to others — individual freedom doesn’t trump all other considerations.

    If I don’t want the responsibility of living for others, I shouldn’t marry and I certainly shouldn’t have children. Even then, I might have aging parents or ill siblings. “No man is an island”, as John Donne famously said. We benefit greatly from being part of a society. Do we owe nothing to anyone in return, no matter how much we have received from them (e.g. our parents)?

    Moreover, a man who fathers children has voluntarily embraced responsibility — duty — toward others. Personally, I’m a divorced man with children. I have a legal obligation to pay child support. I can’t just walk away from that obligation. Nor do I particularly resent it (though I sometimes fantasize about other uses to which I might put the money!). I don’t want to evade this responsibility; any man who does so is behaving immorally.

    Living just to prevent sorrow among loved ones is not something I would wish anyone to endure.

    I’m not eager to condemn Col. Westhusing, who presumably acted out of genuine misery and desperation. But the solution to Col. Westhusing’s pain was, change his circumstances. I’m not willing to ignore the fact that he could have completed his tour of duty in one month instead of ending his life.

    He still would have had a big hill to climb before he would have put the experience behind him. But he might have returned to a loving home and a civilian life, including the very healthy responsibility of rearing children. Presumably he would have found healing over time — the human spirit is amazingly resilient.

    Reply

  7. Simen
    Mar 22, 2007 @ 19:52:21

    Are you suggesting that parents are irrelevant? That anyone, or society at large, is an adequate replacement for a dead or absentee parent?

    Our society is oriented to the individual. I agree with that orientation to a very large extent, but sometimes our society carries it too far. That’s where MaryP’s remark about duty comes into play. Col. Westhusing wasn’t free of obligation to others — individual freedom doesn’t trump all other considerations

    Parents are very relevant. They’re relevant in an emotional sense, and because they’re an important part of childrens’ development. What I meant was that the more material concerns – putting food on the table, clothes, and so on, are pretty much taken care of. If a parent dies, the children and remaining parent won’t be immediately pushed down into poverty. Emotional poverty, certainly, for a time, but not in terms of material goods.

    So, the biggest loss isn’t income or status, but rather the loss of a loved person and an important character in children’s development. Can this role be filled by society? Over time, to a degree, yes. But not in the immediate time after a suicide. It can be filled, but it can never be replaced.

    It’s strange that you’d bring up our society as particularly centered on the individual. When I talked about society filling the role of a dead parent, I was speaking very much on the group level. This kind of group responsibility for children is very common among indigenous peoples.

    You can say that when you marry and have children you put a duty on yourself. But despite our superior intelligence and foresight, we can’t see everything that might happen down the road. Like you yourself said, there comes a point where a person is no longer responsible for their actions to the same extent as they would have been had they been in a sane state of mind. If you think that there is a duty involved here, I would suggest that people around the person has an equal, if not bigger duty to intervene before it gets to the point where a person is unable to account for his or her own actions.

    Reply

  8. addofio
    Mar 22, 2007 @ 21:04:36

    Interesting differences in perspective based on what country we live in croppping up here, I think. In the good ol’ USA, children are routinely “pushed into poverty” because of parental divorce, let alone death. Perhaps not so in Norway or Canada, but happens here on a regualr basis. Probably not likely to happen to Col. Westhusing’s family, given his position–I’m talking generalities here.

    Also, the USA and Canada may be more individualistic, culturally speaking, than Norway (I confess to a great deal of ignorance abot Norway though, so correct me if I’m wrong.)

    The issues surrounding the discussion of suicide are beyond me–too many complexities.

    Reply

  9. Stephen
    Mar 23, 2007 @ 00:15:53

    • Simen:
    It’s strange that you’d bring up our society as particularly centered on the individual. When I talked about society filling the role of a dead parent, I was speaking very much on the group level.

    A bad juxtaposition on my part. But your core position was, “I don’t see it as anyone’s duty to live for others if they have no reason to live for themselves.”. Hence my leap to individualism vs. a relatively other-centered perspective.

    But I should say thanks for bringing a provocative perspective to the table. I’m genuinely glad that you spoke out in support of Col. Westhusing’s decision, to offset my critical stance.

    Reply

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