Sunday, April 22, 2007

letters to the impossible

When do we give up on Congress? Doesn’t it seem so apparent that the reason there is such a lack of substance to their debate about the war begins with protection of the party apparatus? It seems we’re dealing with the machine first and our individual representatives second.

In Alaska we have two Republican senators and an at large Republican congressman. Who, if any, are the best to write to? But to qualify the question with “if any” is giving into a form of apathy, the beginning of the slow demise beyond even the cynic’s honest wish to be an agent of change.

The cynic is very much a part of my thinking process though, and thus it’s easy to dismiss Rep. Don Young. I would probably be among those criminally supportive of members in Congress who "are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged” for willfully taking action during wartime that damaged morale and undermined the military

A few weeks ago in the Anchorage airport I watched him strut by wearing a blue shirt with his name stitched below the right shoulder. Was that the decrepit fear of a man who can’t function without his ego? Investing energy debating someone who hasn’t responded to one single letter is matching waste with waste, torturing my mind in an attempt to believe the man has a conscience.

Then there is Senator Ted Stevens, recently awarded the distinction of being the longest serving GOP senator in history. Alaska’s money machine of bridge to nowhere fame, who in November 2005 was still looking for weapons of mass destruction under the desert sand in Iraq, who was one of eight senators who opposed McCain’s 2006 amendment banning torture. Stevens does indeed answer letters, but his staffers remove his trademark arrogance in exchange for nonsense they find under the sand where their heads are buried.

I am down to Senator Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to her seat in 2002 by her father, a long term GOP Senator who most recently might be remembered as having been thoroughly embarrassed by winning only 18% of the GOP vote in the primary when he sought another term as governor. Why would I trust her to be responsive, and more, a person of integrity among the halls of Congress that echoes with their timid fear of being voted out of office?

Am I fooling myself that she might genuinely care? Was her granting the peace community of Juneau the title of patriotic a year ago nothing other than a cheap gesture aimed to disarm our grievances?

I reach a place where the idea of impossible suggests my time would be better invested elsewhere. But the impossible is only free to manage its defining power if I turn away to seek something less. There is always a maybe, a hope, a dream, that just one more attempt may break down the barrier and reveal the purity of the blue sky.

Even here in Southeast Alaska, when the sun does shine, the impossible changes hats and it momentarily seems normal to forget months of clouds and rain and the record 17 feet of snow we had this year. I spent the past few mornings glancing outside my window as the sun’s filtered rays gradually lit up the tall spruce trees. The snow still lingers, but every low growing bush is standing straight and tall and proud now, eager to bud and turn the landscape every shade of green imaginable. In between peeks to Spring’s promise, I thought and wrote amid the internal debate about chasing the impossible.

April 22, 2007

Re: Iraq War & Your letter of March 27

Dear Senator Murkowski

I received your letter of March 27 which included the two page “opinion editorial” that you wrote following a weekend trip to Iraq. While I appreciate your sharing these observations with me, there remain several questions I’ve asked that you have yet to answer.

I offer no apology for the length of this letter. I am forced to reiterate as best as I can each of these matters that I’ve sought your attention on before. And of course, the subject deserves more discussion, and contains more questions and concerns than I can begin to hope to express here.

Training of Iraqi Security Forces

Just last week Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that all the tours of active-duty troops currently in Iraq or preparing to deploy there will be extended from one year to 15 months. And he also indicated that these extensions will likely continue well into 2008. So again I ask the question: where are the Iraqi security forces that the administration supposedly made a priority to train so our troops can come home?

This week the Washington Bureau of the McClatchy News reported that the training of Iraqis is no longer a priority. Citing numerous anonymous sources, reporter Nancy A. Youssef claims that “[m]ilitary planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces.”

A month ago the Texas Observer wrote a lengthy article about Colonel Ted Westhusing who committed suicide in Iraq almost two years ago. Westhusing oversaw the training the Iraqi security forces. Before he took his life, he left a note for his superior officers, including General David Petraeus. He wrote that they were only interested in their careers and provided no mission support, and closed by saying he “cannot support a msn [mission] that leads to corruption, human right abuses and liars.”

When the tour of the 172nd Stryker Brigade was extended and redeployed to Baghdad last July, I wrote you and raised the issue about training of the Iraqi security forces, and also copied you the letter I delivered to Secretary Rumsfeld posing the same question. In both letters I referenced a lengthy and detailed report by former army Lieutenant Joe W. Guthrie which appeared in the American Conservative. He also called the mission a lie, stating “I believed in my mission, and I wanted the Iraqis I was training to run their own country. But this wasn’t an American priority.”

I recognize that two personal accounts and anonymous sources don’t deliver the verdict of failure or worse, fraud and abuse. But when I wrote to you at the end of January, I also referenced the Iraq Study Group report which revealed that the mission to train and equip the Iraqis was seriously under funded.

At the same time that report was being published, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey predicted that the "Iraqi security forces will reach their goal of 325,000 trained and equipped members" by the end of 2006.

Where are they? The priority of this policy stated by the President and the claims of success are seriously undermined by this evidence. The President’s hiding behind the mantra of supporting the troops is becoming exceedingly hollow nonsense if his primary plan to get them out of Iraq has been failing almost since its inception.

I believe I have a right and an obligation to continue to seek answers from you on this matter, and not just because my son expects to be deployed again to Iraq within the next 12 months.

Under reporting of civilian casualties

Last September I was one of six military family members who wrote to you and urged you to call for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as Secretary of Defense. Our complaint focused on false statements he made to those of us who attended a meeting of families of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. While boasting of early success for Operation Together Forward II, the figures he quoted regarding the count of civilian casualties in Baghdad were later revealed to have deliberately excluded certain types of deaths. In October we again wrote to you seeking answers on this issue.

In my last letter I pointed out to you that the Iraq Study Group chastised the military command for significantly under-reporting the violence in Iraq for the sake of minimizing “discrepancy with policy goals.”

These were real problems. Does the administration and military command in Iraq continue to issue politically motivated reports intended to shield the President from further criticism for the absolute failure this unnecessary and unjust war has been? How am I supposed to accept you weren’t similarly being misled during your visit to Iraq when you can’t provide a direct response to such questions?

US Military Bases in Iraq

Since December 2005, the Juneau People for Peace and Justice have sent three letters seeking your knowledge and formal position on the construction of permanent military bases in Iraq. You have never responded in writing. The only reply was through a statement made to the press by your spokesperson, Kevin Sweeney, after seven other activist groups supported us in the last letter that was copied to the news media this past January. Mr. Sweeney stated that “the United States does have a clear policy regarding bases and military installations” based upon language in the 2007 defense appropriation bill prohibiting any spending on permanent military installations or bases in Iraq.

The language he referred to only applied to the money allocated during the cycle of that budget bill. It is not a policy but merely a temporary stipulation when it is tied to the short term duration of funding legislation. It seems this is the reason the Democrats in Congress included the prohibition of construction of permanent bases in Iraq in the current supplemental legislation. That provision wouldn’t have been necessary if the conviction Mr. Sweeney implied was real. That it isn’t real seems to be the reason why Iraq Study Group called for the President to reject the notion that US seeks to maintain permanent bases. He still hasn’t done so.

Furthermore, our questions were not limited to the issue of policy. We have asked how much money has been spent on the bases already constructed, and for your interpretation of the purpose of those bases as detailed in all the past supplemental budgets approved by Congress. These questions, like the others, remain unanswered.

Our democracy is only as strong as the people it claims to represent. The attitude of far too many politicians, in Congress and in the White House, is that the power of their position grants them the privilege of limiting their responses to their constituency to much less than the full truth, if indeed they respond at all. The result is not a populace sufficiently informed to act as the final check and balance on our government.

The paradox of political power lies in the sharing of truth. We are all better served by honesty rather than incomplete discussion and rhetoric aimed at preserving the strength of one’s position. By empowering the people you serve, you also raise the level of visibility and credibility of those who would oppose you. But that risk is necessary if you are to place the health of our democracy before your personal position as the incumbent representative elected by the people.

Noted psychologist and author James Hillman writes: “The relative weight of work and life, genius and person, haunts one’s life with the feeling of never being able to size oneself up. There is a constant play between importance and humility.”

The first corruption of the human soul occurs when this psychic tension is compromised for the sake of one’s prestige or power. None of us have the answers, and none of us are free from the vulnerability of believing we do unless we strive to hold in check the integrity of our own conscience.

I find it difficult to give any credence to your impressions that a weekend in Iraq gave you a thorough and meaningful understanding the nature of the violence in Iraq. I wonder how many Iraqis you spoke to who consider themselves to be “subjects of a repressive American occupation” as alluded to in the Study Group report. I wonder how you imply to have any better grasp about the nature of the violence in Iraq when they tell us that “our government still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias.” I wonder if you went to Iraq seeking the truth through questions that begin in your conscience or only in a political capacity as a Senator.

The Iraq Study Group expressed a true and absolute necessity that we “deserve a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric ... Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people.” Yet I receive neither after writing or contributing to more than a dozen letters to you with substantive questions and valid concerns during the past year.

I trusted you would invest your integrity in a sincere effort to search for truthful answers to these questions. I expect you to offer an honest defense of your position. If your responses are avoiding the subjects rather than engaging with us in these serious issues, then it seems you’re being led by politics, not your conscience which would be guiding you to seek an end to funding further failure.


Rich Moniak


forhoneoandtrust said...

A Man Of The Utmost Honor...................................

It's old hat by now, that the Iraq war is going dismally, that the Bush Administration is huffing fantasy gas, that the very idea of trying to create a new American-style democracy in the current-day Middle East is worthy of Neil Simon at his caustic funniest.

What's unexpected, though, is for a shadow of real honor to arise from such a dismal swamp.

I'm not talking about the sincere efforts put forth by our military personelle every day in Iraq, in the service of what they hope will be a chance for that country to climb out of its abyss. Rather, I'm talking about the sacrifice of one particular, outstanding example of the virtues we ask of our soldiers.

I'm talking about Colonel Ted Westhusing, who took his own life in trailer 602A in Camp Dublin, in Bagdad, Iraq, on June 5th, 2005. He was 44 years of age, and was survived by a wife and three young children. I only recently learned of his story here .

Why does a suicide merit such lauds? Because the readily evident integrity of the man himself was only too obviously what drove him to it. Ted Westhusing was a graduate of West Point, and subsequently an instructor there, and took seriously what the academy teaches its cadets: that a cadet and officer will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do. He believed that the Iraq war was for a just cause, and trusted his commanders (including, needless to say, the Commander In Chief) to have only the most honorable motives for the actions they took and commanded.

Such principled devotion to duty commands respect from anyone, of any persuasion. I happen to have believed from the start that this war was an ethical abortion to put Augusto Pinochet's pocket purges to shame; but I'm from military stock, and recognize a hero when I see one. Colonel Ted Westhusing was one such.

And just where is the heroism in suicide?

Lets start with a couple of observations. First, a soldier - any soldier of any rank - is beholden to his commanders, no matter what the issue at hand, and must follow their orders. No one understood this better than Ted Westhusing, who had inculcated cadets in these principles. If a soldier takes issue with his commanders, he has a very limitted pallet of options. He can express his reservations to the commanders in question, given that they give him permission to do so; or if that permission is explicit or implicit in the mandate that accompanies his defined position.

If the issue is urgent enough, he can go over his commanders' heads to the next level of command, but he had better damn well be right when he does so; or he'll be guilty of operating outside of the chain of command - and there are precious few offenses that are worse than that, in the armed forces.

Finally, he can refuse to follow orders that he judges are illegal - but again, he had better be right in his judgement. One of the first things you give up, when you sign up, is the right to judge for yourself what's right or wrong. In a nutshell, that's why I never signed up. Westhusing did, and I can't fault him for it. The military won't work, if everyone in it is free to exercize their conscience.

It was his conscience that drove him to take his own life. He could not countenance what he saw happening around him - the way that Iraqi commanders treated the war effort as just another occasion for graft and bribes and theft; and the way American contractors took it all in stride, and looked the other way as war materiel disappeared into thin air; ultimately, as we know, to re-appear in hands not at all friendly to the American effort.

It's not clear, but I would assume that Westhusing made efforts to inform his commanders of the situation, and met with a wall of intentional ignorance. His suicide note says as much.

Given this, his options were starkly clear. He could rotate home (only a month away, at the time of his suicide) and remain silent, as his oath of service demanded; but such a choice would in effect condone the corruption he was witness to. He could violate his oath and go outside of the chain of command, to aprise someone of the situation; but that would put him in the wrong nearly as much as those he sought to expose. Or he could do the only honorable thing a soldier can do, when faced with a dilemma like this.

The only acceptable excuse, for a soldier not performing his defined duty, is his death.

Westhusing was the sort who took this sort of question seriously. He was literally driven to fall on his sword. Given who he was, I don't think he overtly used his death to try to subvert the corruption he saw around himself, but saw it as the only honorable way to refuse to participate in the corruption himself. He doubtless hoped that his action might have a beneficial effect; but remember, he addressed his suicide communication to his commanding officers, leaving the outcome up to them. And he knew pretty well where they stood, already.

I don't know what I would have done, but in his place I hope I would have had the courage to do what he did. He had everything to live for, but no honorable way to live for it. And for him, honor was everything. If he had accepted the corruption of all he held dear, he would have been a broken man; he certainly could not have gone back to West Point to teach more cadets about the virtues of honor, as he had intended when he took the Iraq appointment. He could not have faced his growing children, and taught them that there are more important principles than personal survival, if he himself had sacrificed his principles on that altar.

This was a man of principle, one of a sadly vanishing breed. He was of the lineage of the devoted Samurai who, like him, could only express their displeasure at their lord's will by spilling their entrails on his tatami.

Colonel Ted Westhusing's suicide was not an act of cowardice; was not a failing of imagination, or a sin of hubris, or a mistaken bid for twisted immortality. It was the only honorable option left, for a man to whom honor was life. It was the only message he could leave his young children, to show how a man should make a choice, when there are no choices left to make. It was the only way he had to show America that there are things more important than gain; more important than profits; more important than the sadly twisted sort of patriotism that will support a leader when what he advocates is evil.

It's time to end the madness.

What sort of leader is George W. Bush, if he needs such offerings of blood? What sort of man makes jokes about WMDs under his desk, when good men and women are dying for his arrogance? Dying for the profits of his friends? What kind of world are we making, where such men are king?

Bush, Cheney, and Rove took something beautiful, the trust and honor of America's service-men and -women; and made it into something ugly, perverted, and now despised; to suit the hegemonic imperative of their obscenely aquisative fellow-travelers. The world is their oyster, and they don't care where, or in whose eyes, the fragments of shell fly.

Government for the people is anathema to them, as is the very concept of an honorable peace and security for all the world's people. Only endless war will serve their agenda of endless profit. They have shown themselves for what they are; and what they are can only be rejected, by all who call themselves human.

They must be vomitted from the gut of humanity; before humanity dies of the poison.

I'll leave the last words to Colonel Ted Westhusing, of honored memory:

"Life needs trust. Trust is no more for me here in Iraq."

Rich in Juneau said...

Although I would disagree that death was his only alternative, I also submit to the truth that I can’t judge Col. Westhusing for not seeking another that I perceive does exist.

I can trust that he deeply held the values he learned as a cadet, although learned here I imagine more as bonding to traits deeply ingrained in his innate character. Seeing the corruption around him must have been emotionally and intellectually torturing for him. But in the words “not to tolerate” corruption isn’t there a suggested alternative to risk the other acts, to go above his superior or refuse to obey.

It’s wrong of me to compare Westhusing story to the refusal of Lt. Watada to deploy to Iraq. No comparison is fair, nor ethically sensible from the safety of my seat as distant witness to the culmination of so much corruption of so many ethical and moral principals. But as I can’t judge Westhusing for not seeking an alternative, I must not also judge Watada for choosing one and not following Westhusing’s path.

That the “military won't work, if everyone in it is free to exercize their conscience” raises this question. Should it work as it’s defined if Westhusing response is the only one of honor? Doesn’t that grant leaders, corrupt or not, more direct power over life and death to over those who they command?

Or does the problem originate with the politician’s grip on the commander in chief’s sword? Is it wise to place that power in the hands of a person whose rise to the top followed the political path, in a person who never had or can’t sustain the cadet’s idealism?

Does this question the idea of civilian leadership and suggest it’s wrong? Or does it merely address the reality that every idea has a shadow, that no system devised by humans to avoid corruption is free from becoming corrupted?

We are all human, and all capable of becoming engaged in our own sense of purpose which taints our vision of truth and politicizes our efforts and directions. The truth has no allegiance to a military officer, but an officer, as for us all, must find allegiance to it.

Those with eyes on the general’s stars are no different than a civilian pursuing elected office. The ego seeks to lead. The soul on the other hand leads quietly by example and may be called to lead by others.

Both Westhusing and Watada are heroes as I see it. Only they could define the choices the saw before them. Serving isn’t about the personality or prestige it delivers. They didn’t pursue personal gain, and by choosing an allegiance to higher ideals, they both are leading to the truth through our conscience. What else is there?

by Rich in Juneau