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By Jake Whitney
In May 2005, Colonel Theodore Westhusing, a West Point professor of English and Philosophy who was serving in Iraq, received an anonymous letter. It was written by someone on the staff of USIS, the military contractor that Westhusing was overseeing. It alleged the company was ripping off the U.S. government and engaging in serious abuses -- including murdering unarmed Iraqis and bragging about it. The anonymous writer said that the corporation's top goal in Iraq (the company was being paid to train Iraqi police) was to make as much money as it could while doing as little as possible.
Westhusing initially refused to believe the charges, asserting that he had witnessed nothing of the sort. But over the following days, Westhusing became increasingly withdrawn. He would make angry statements implying that the anonymous writer was telling the truth after all. On June 5, after a heated argument with USIS staff members, Westhusing walked back to his trailer near the Baghdad International Airport and shot himself in the head.
"I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human right abuses, and liars," his suicide note read. "I didn't volunteer to support corrupt, money-grubbing contractors, nor work for commanders only interested in themselves. I came to serve honorably and feel dishonored."
Westhusing had, in fact, been preoccupied with the concept of military honor for a long time. In his scholarly writings, he held the soldier to a lofty standard, asserting that he should strive to remain honest and benevolent, and his supreme goal was "to protect the system of justice to which the citizens of his community owe their allegiance."
In "Breach of Trust," Andrew Bacevich's new book about the relationship between Americans and their military, Westhusing exemplifies Bacevich's warrior ideal. A scholar and citizen-soldier (he voluntarily left his professorship for a six-month stint in Iraq), Westhusing believed that as execrable as war was, there were moral and immoral ways of waging it. Bacevich asserts that America's current brand of warmaking has never been more immoral, and Westhusing's demise represents the consequences -- to the soldier and to the nation.
Over the last forty years, Bacevich's thesis goes, the American public has become completely disengaged from its military. Whether by design or happenstance, this disengagement has been a tremendous boon to warmakers and profiteers. With little say from the American people, a state of perpetual war has ensued in which privatization and corruption have flourished on an unprecedented scale.
Bacevich pinpoints Nixon's elimination of the draft as the watershed moment on our path to civic-military decay, but he levels his accusations at other places, as well: the Bush-Obama War on Terror, hawkish intellectuals, military contractors, and our narcissistic culture.
The elimination of the draft transferred responsibility for war from the people to Washington, D.C. With no fear of having to fight, the vast majority of Americans could shrug off war as somebody else's business. "The state now owns war, with the country consigned to observer status," Bacevich declares.
While he has made this argument in the past, as have others (he quotes a fiery speech from General Stanley McCrystal in 2012 calling for a reinstitution of the draft to give every community "skin in the game"), Bacevich has never made it this effectively. What sets Bacevich apart is that he's neither a polemicist nor a partisan.
There is a problem, though. His solutions are politically untenable and completely unrealistic.
Although the original sin was Nixon's, Tricky Dick is not Bacevich's chief target here -- nor is Bush, Obama or anyone associated with the "military-industrial-Congressional complex." It is the American people.
At its core, "Breach of Trust" is a plea for Americans to take responsibility again -- for their nation's defense and a lot of other things. Bacevich laments that a broad, insidious apathy has taken hold of the American citizenry, and it has extended from war to other issues, such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, and the failures of our criminal justice system.
Relegating the defense of our country to others is a symptom of our growing selfishness, he asserts, and he flips the Occupy slogan on its head, saying that the 99 percent of Americans who don't serve in the military have abdicated their responsibilities.
"A people who permit war to be waged in their name while offloading onto a tiny minority responsibility for its actual conduct have no cause to complain about an equally small minority milking the system for all its worth," he writes. While the superrich justify their exploitation of the 99 percent through acts of philanthropy, "with a similar aim, the not-so-rich proclaim their undying admiration for the troops."
It is this parroting of support for the troops that really gets under Bacevich's skin. He detects a tacit agreement whereby citizens divert their gaze from anything the troops do -- or is done to them -- as long as their support is granted. Rarely does this support amount to more than bumper sticker slogans.
In light of the fact that Bacevich presents his argument in such stark moral terms, it's surprising (and disappointing) that he doesn't tackle the condition of "moral injury." This is a newly recognized disorder that some psychiatrists are using to explain the psychic scars many recent veterans have returned with. Moral injury is defined as separate from -- and even more painful than -- PTSD in that it focuses on feelings of guilt and shame as opposed to the constant feeling of threat that PTSD engenders. Soldiers afflicted with moral injury feel they've done something so terrible they cannot be absolved. Watching fellow soldiers die, killing civilians, even guarding prisoners have been mentioned as causes.
Some veterans have even cited the types of wars America has been fighting recently -- insurgencies where the goals are nebulous and the outcomes indecisive -- as a root cause of moral injury.
Compounding the issue is this disconnection between veterans and citizens. Americans may give lip service to our warriors' "heroism," yet these same warriors are essentially discarded after the fighting is done. Cut off from society, they are left alone to deal with overwhelming guilt. Soldier suicides have skyrocketed in recent years.
If Bacevich's omission of moral injury is surprising, the degree to which he attacks war profiteering is even more so. Bacevich began his writing career in rightwing publications such as The Weekly Standard and National Review, and although his critiques of American militarism eventually alienated him from many on the right, he still considers himself a conservative. In recent years, however, his attacks on mass consumerism and unchecked capitalism have shown an increasingly progressive bent, never more so than here. He shreds the privatization of war as a sign of distinct moral decay, and begins the book with an illustration of corporate exploitation of the troops at a Boston Red Sox game. "In the corporate world," he blasts, "supporting the troops offered just one more way to sell product."
To his credit, Bacevich doesn't just criticize, he offers answers. The problem is that his answers are -- in our current political climate, anyway -- unachievable. That's not to say they are bad ideas. We need to start paying for wars, he says. True, but the vicious fight over the mere repeal of the Bush tax cuts showed how difficult that would be. His other main solution, to institute a mandatory program of national service -- with some choosing the military and others tending to the environment, the elderly, the poor, or joining the Peace Corps -- is even more unlikely.
Bacevich himself realizes this. Change is unlikely, he admits, "not only because those wielding power in Washington oppose any change in the status quo, but because the American people can't or won't make the effort." Why? Because change consists of "collective obligation. That's something a culture in thrall to celebrities, geeks and warriors cannot abide."
Here he returns to his implication that narcissism may be our undoing. When I interviewed Bacevich in 2010 for Guernica magazine, he attached this narcissism to the way in which Americans define freedom.
"What we call the American way of life is premised on expectations of a very high level of personal mobility," he said. "American freedom as we understand it requires lots of cheap oil. Therefore, in order for us to make a serious effort to wean ourselves from this ever-growing dependency would require us rethinking American freedom -- revising the American way of life."
In "Breach of Trust," Bacevich asserts that by instituting a program of national service, Americans would be forced to choose what the American way of life really means. If the steady stream of wars fought in our name -- so many of them over oil -- are worth continuing, then Americans should be prepared to contribute to those wars. If, on the other hand, Americans decide that we don't want to die for, or send our sons and daughters to die for, Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya or Iran or Beirut or Grenada or Panama or Somalia or Haiti or Bosnia or any other place we've intervened since the adoption of an all-volunteer fighting force, then we could choose a different path.
As Bacevich puts it: "Either choice -- real war or an alternative conception of freedom -- would entail a more robust definition of what it means to be a citizen."
Jake Whitney is a journalist based in New York. In addition to contributing to The Progressive, Whitney's work has appeared in The New Republic, The San Francisco Chronicle, Playboy, and Guernica.