Memorial Day, Part Two: a Million Victims of Unfettered Capitalism

This anonymous clipping below came in on Memorial Day, regarding an earlier post I made about the suspicious death of Colonel Ted Westhusing in Iraq:

Memorial Day is ours to honor our fallen.............
Ted's Ghost
The Death of Ted Westhusing Leaves a Widening Circle of Sorrow
by Tom Palaima
When the Greek hero Odysseus visits the Underworld in Book 11 of Homer's The Odyssey, he learns that his mother, Antikleia, who was alive when he set sail for Troy, has died and now dwells in the gloomy regions the Greeks called Hades. Odysseus sees her there and, overcome by sorrow, tries to embrace her. She slips away from his grasp but responds to his tearful pleas by explaining, "We no longer have sinews keeping the bones and flesh together, but once the life-force has departed from our bones ... the soul slips away like a dream." Cold comfort for the still-living and long-suffering Odysseus.

My friend, my former student, my scholarly collaborator Ted Westhusing is a ghost to me now. He is a ghost to his mother, his father, his brothers and sister, his wife and three children, his fellow soldiers, his former students at West Point Military Academy, and to the many people who wrote messages in his memorial guestbook ( We all want Ted, flesh and blood, self-effacing wit, plainspoken and honest, dedicated, moral, caring. We want to hear his laughter and feel the warmth of his hello, only matched in how good it made you feel, in my experience, by my late friend Clifford Antone's "Hey there, brother."

I want Ted, not his ghost. And I only knew Ted for three years. I feel the profound grief of his mother and family. Their loss seems to me unbearable, all the more because of the circumstances described so well in Robert Bryce's article (p.28).

In the online guestbook, Steve, an old friend of Ted's from Jenks High School in Oklahoma, writes, a year and a half after Ted's death, that "Ted always made us feel like we were someone special. ... Just the other day, I talked to my children about how important it is to look out for others. When my son was being bullied by a group at school, I talked about Ted and how he cared and looked out for others. It really made an impact on my son. Thanks Ted and God bless you and your family." Ted is somehow still alive in Steve's son.

Imagine the man Steve describes shouldering the overwhelming responsibility of training Iraqi security forces and doing so with no brothers-in-arms around him and, as his "suicide note" makes clear, without the support of his two commanders. One of them, with an irony right out of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, is Gen. David Petraeus, "Iraq's repairman," as Newsweek calls him.

Fierce Dedication
I teach ancient Greek and war and violence studies through the filter of ancient history. I knew Ted Westhusing in both these areas. Ted was 41 years old and a stellar Army officer of almost two decades when he came to UT-Austin in the summer of 2002 to study intensive Greek, five hours a day, five days a week. He needed Greek for his Ph.D. thesis, and he was taking it with graduate students and gifted undergraduates. He reminded me then of Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, who went through Army Airborne School at age 38. Capt. Willard describes Kurtz's Westhusing-like experience in this way: "The next youngest guy in his class was half his age. They must have thought he was some far-out old man humping it over that course. I did it when I was 19, and it damn near wasted me. A tough motherfucker. He finished." As a description of how his fellow students viewed him, Ted would disagree only with the use of the word "motherfucker." I never heard him swear.

Ted was not a natural linguist. But he mastered Greek by long hours and hard work. He later described his experience in the UT alumni magazine, The Alcalde, as being harder than Army Airborne training.

Even in intensive Greek with so many hours of contact, memorable students are rare. The focus is on getting 20-25 students through historical linguistics and then assorted classical Greek literary genres. But Ted's achievement stayed with me. We stayed in touch despite our widely differing views on whether the American military should be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ted invited me up to West Point for five days to lecture to his cadet students on the nature of ancient Greek warfare and ancient Greek attitudes about the morality of warfare. He trusted that I would stay on message and not interject my strong views about Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw there the fierce dedication he had to his cadets and the respect bordering on awe they had for him. I also noticed how he had organized every detail of my five-day visit with scrupulous care.

Ted and I worked together on three other major projects. We were advisers to a Discovery Channel program on war in the Homeric epics. We wrote an article together for London's Times Higher Education Supplement on the value of studying Homer at West Point. And we both gave papers at a conference in St. Louis on the experience of war and the trauma it causes, from ancient Greece to the Iraq war. On all these projects, Ted's sense of values and his fierce belief in moral principles were conspicuous.

When Ted e-mailed me on Dec. 20, 2004, with what he called "twice good news" – that he had been selected for eventual promotion to colonel and had agreed to deploy to Iraq to serve under "a former boss of mine Lt. Gen. Petraeus" – I first responded in keeping with his own excitement about assisting in "the continuing effort to get the Iraqi security forces capable of killing the bad guys themselves and of securing their own country."

I expressed my pride in what he had achieved and my heartfelt good wishes. But later, I wrote that soldiers who had been writing me and sending me images of the effects of suicide-bomb blasts were not "optimistic" about the effectiveness of "Dumsfeld's" strategies. Ted's reply was strong. He felt there was no place for such attitudes and even requested the names and units of my informants. I declined in a way that let the matter drop, but that break stayed with us so that I did not communicate with Ted while he was in Iraq.

The Diameter of Death

I feel now that I let my friend down. Ted's death haunts me. His ghost sometimes flits close enough for me to feel. I have the cards from his memorial service that his mother sent me propped up in my study at home and at my computer in my office in Waggener Hall. It is much too easy to turn any dead soldier into whatever you want him or her to be. I want to remember who Ted really was.

In my opinion, it is good that Ted has become a symbol of the waste of this particular war. Those who want to defend the war can easily say that Ted's moral sensibilities were too inflexible and that war's moral ambiguities produce many shades of gray, while Ted saw things only in black and white. Those who want to condemn the war, as I do, can easily use Ted as a symbol for all that is wrong with our leadership and how this war is being waged. Those choices make dead soldiers into icons, and they also let us blame easy targets, Bush, Rumsfeld, Ted himself, and move on.

We should instead remember what Yehuda Amichai writes in his poem "The Diameter of the Bomb" about the death of a single young woman from a terrorist bomb. The grief from her death radiates outward to affect people on other continents and eventually involve the whole world in a circle of sorrow "with no end and no God."

The conditions of the Iraqi war enclosed Ted in a circle within which he could not feel the tender mercies of his God, nor the saving love of his family and friends. His death is a terrible waste. We should have more than the ghost of this good and honorable man for comfort.”

Colonel Westhusing found himself in a fight with the logic of capitalism and war profiteers. We always hear about the victims of Communism, millions in China and Russia who died for someone else’s utopia, but maybe we need a memorial for those Americans whose ideals got between a profiteer and his money. Theodore Westhusing is one of many, from the Cherokee farmers and merchants harried along the Trail of Tears to the Maryknoll nuns murdered by the crack-dealing, gun-toting friends of Saint Ronald Reagan.

"My God! She makes us die happy." (from One who has Fought and Bled)

A day when so many bloviate about "sacrifice" ought to be a day when we refuse to tolerate waste. Here's a thought for Memorial Day: how about a day of remembrance with, the gods forfend, "nuance"? A day that lets us pause a moment for the men waiting on Little Round Top or in the forest of Ardennes, but also a day when we don't tolerate lies about war, or lie to ourselves about the senseless waste of Fredericksburg or My Lai or the Somme.

The following letter by "A Little Mother" appeared in Britain during World War One, and was widely circulated as genuine. Though now considered the work of a propagandist, the responses praising it appear to be genuine. In
The Great War and Modern Memory (one of those world-shifting books that everyone should read at least once) historian and combat veteran Paul Fussell says the “testimonials earned by this famous letter suggest a society for which the only accurate term would be 'sick'”.

by "A Little Mother"

A Message to the Pacifists A Message to the Bereaved
A Message to the Trenches
(Owing to the immense demand from home and from the trenches for this letter, which appeared in The Morning Post, the editor found it necessary to place it in the hands of London publishers to be reprinted in pamphlet form, seventy-five thousand copies of which were sold in less than a week direct from the publishers.)
Extract from a letter from Her Majesty
The Queen was deeply touched at the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter, and Her Majesty fully realizes what her words must mean to our soldiers in the trenches and in hospitals.

To the Editor of The Morning Post:

Sir,--As a mother of an only child--a son who was early and eager to do his duty--may I be permitted to reply to Tommy Atkins, whose letter appeared in your issue of the 9th instead? Perhaps he will kindly convey to his friends in the trenches, not what the Government thinks, not what the Pacifists think, but what the mothers of the British race think of our fighting men. It is a voice which demands to be heard, seeing that we play the most important part in the history of the world, for it is we who 'mother the men' who have to uphold the honour and traditions not only of our Empire but of the whole civilized world.
To the man who pathetically calls himself a 'common soldier,' may I say that we women, who demand to be heard, will tolerate no such cry as 'Peace! Peace!' where there is no peace. The corn that will wave over land watered by the blood of our brave lads shall testify to the future that their blood was not spilt in vain. We need no marble monuments to remind us. We only need that force of character behind all motives to see this monstrous world tragedy brought to a victorious ending. The blood of the dead and the dying, the blood of the 'common soldier' from his 'slight wounds' will not cry to us in vain. They have all done their share, and we, as women, will do ours without murmuring and without complaint. Send the Pacifists to us and we shall very soon show them, and show the world, that in our homes at least there shall be no 'sitting at home warm and cosy in the winter, cool and "comfy" in the summer'. There is only one temperature for the women of the British race, and that is white heat. With those who disgrace their sacred trust of motherwood we have nothing in common. Our ears are not deaf to the cry that is ever ascending from the battlefield from men of flesh and blood whose indomitable courage is borne to us, so to speak, on every blast of the wind. We women pass on the human ammunition of 'only sons' to fill up the gaps, so that when the 'common soldier' looks back before going 'over the top' he may see the women of the British race at his heels, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.

The reinforcements of women are, therefore, behind the 'common soldier'. We gentle-nurtured, timid sex did not want the war. It is no pleasure to us to have our homes made desolate and the apple of our eye taken away. We would sooner our lovable, promising, rollicking boy stayed at school. We would have much preferred to have gone on in a light-hearted way with our amusements and our hobbies. But the bugle call came, and we have hung up the tennis racquet, we've fetched our laddie from school, we've put his cap away, and we have glanced lovingly over his last report, which said 'Excellent'--we've wrapped them all in a Union Jack and locked them up, to be taken out only after the war to be looked at. A 'common soldier', perhaps, did not count on the women, but they have their part to play, and we have risen to our responsibility. We are proud of our men, and they in turn have to be proud of us. If the men fail, Tommy Atkins, the women won't.

Tommy Atkins to the front,
He has gone to bear the brunt.
Shall 'stay-at-homes' do naught but snivel and but sigh?
No, while your eyes are filling
We are up and doing, willing
To face the music with you--or to die!

Women are created for the purpose of giving life, and men to take it. Now we are giving it in a double sense. It's not likely we are going to fail Tommy. We shall not flinch one iota, but when the war is over he must not grudge us, when we hear the bugle call of 'Lights out', a brief, very brief, space of time to withdraw into our secret chambers and share with Rachel the Silent the lonely anguish of a bereft heart, and to look once more on the college cap, before we emerge stronger women to carry on the glorious work our men's memories have handed down to us for now and all eternity.
Yours, etc.,


"Florence Nightingale did great and grand things for the soldiers of her day, but no woman has done more than the "Little Mother", whose now famous letter to The Morning Post has spread like wild-fire from trench to trench. I hope to God it will be handed down in history, for nothing like it has ever made such an impression on our fighting men. I defy any man to feel weak-hearted after reading it...My God! she makes us die happy." (One who has Fought and Bled)

"The "Little Mother's" letter should reach every corner of the earth--a letter of the loftiest ideal, tempered with courage and the most sublime sacrifice." (Percival H. Monkton)

"I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the "Little Mother's" beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over." (A Bereaved Mother)

This would all be academic and quaint were it not that we again live in a time when to question the morality of any war is apparently a breach of good manners on television, though every other subject is fit for company. After all, as Dr. Johnson cynically observed, "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea", and the war lovers have bullied almost every journalist and politician in the United States into seeing things their way. In 2008, it is better to throw a hundred soldiers into a meat grinder than to question those patriots' wisdom in sacrificing themselves For the Benefit of Mother War, that sow who eats her own babies. Me, I'll leave the last word to a “shell-shocked” Siegfried Sassoon:

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardors while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops "retire"
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses, blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

... Like the old man in Twain’s The War Prayer -- of whom the crowd declared “there was no sense in anything he said”-- Sassoon’s friends had to conspire together to have him declared mentally incompetent, in order to save him from being shot for treason.

The Mandate of a Mad Heaven, or the Whim of a Malign Thug

My friends find me almost mute about the earthquake in China, odd considering my interest in Chinese history, and my need to alert the world to the fall of the smallest sparrow. The best coverage has been that of Melissa Block on NPR, a story I'm sure she would rather have lived without seeing. This was a sad case of being the right person in the wrong place at the right time: Block and Robert Siegel were in China for the Olympics, and Block herself was interviewing a Chinese Christian about his flock in the west of China when the towers began to shake. The next day she had to watch mothers and fathers identify the bodies of their dead children, and on into the night with rain falling and candles flickering around small bodies as families burnt offerings for the dead, paper money and incense and firecrackers, and paper toys if they had them, in the old tradition. This was not ambulance chasing; just being there and bearing witness. Siegel himself was covering a makeshift emergency rom where the doctors had gone days without sleep, mentioned his own daughters safe at home, and learned that the doctor he was interviewing, up to his elbows in another patient, had lost his twenty-six-year-old daughter in the quake. Who must do the difficult things? goes the proverb, He who can.

The Lisbon earthquake and tsunami back in 1755 was one of the events that fed the Enlightenment and led people like Voltaire to question the blinkered praise of a merciful God:
Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!

"If God's up there," Dr. Lecter tells Clarice Starling about church collapses, in his role as the demon who always puts a little bit of truth in the lies he tells, "He just... loves... it." And Voltaire's Candide watched the tsunami murder the innocent while the wicked bobbed like corks, and forever after considered themselves as blessed by God. If ever you wonder how the Bush administration sleeps at night, there's your answer: their friends and children didn't die, and yours did.

One of the early commentators on the Chengdu tragedy mentioned the "Mandate of Heaven", an ancient homily that says every dynasty in China survives only so long as it has the clear approval of the Powers that Be-- that is, so long as a dynasty keeps winning, then God must approve. The fellow who mentioned the Mandate caught some flack later on, usually along the line that China is a modern country now and doesn't believe in such superstition any more, but I think they missed the point he was making. The influence of natural disaster on the Mandate of Heaven has always been a practical one: regimes that do a good job of coping with natural disasters do well, and those who fail to take care of the people in a crisis soon find the ship of state beset on all sides by a sea of angry humanity. Apparently, the Chinese regime is doing the best anyone could ask for, for its own people at least (although one wishes the political wing would use its influence in Burma to kick the Myanamar generals' ass up around their ears). In Chengdu, the complaints and anger have been directed at lax building codes and local corruption that led to collapses, while the government in Beijing is still very much in charge.

Beijing says it wants to rebuild in two years, and probably means it, which would be rather ironic, considering the clusterfuck that the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism visited on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast after a couple of hurricanes. Here's a prayer for Sichaun Province, and keep a prayerful eye on friends near San Francisco and Saint Louis on the San Andreas and New Madrid fault lines. There's enough old Baptist left in me to wonder if some worse thing, some greater sorrow, was avoided, but Portugal's prime minister probably said it best in 1755, and quieted the philosophers and the preachers: "We will bury the dead and take care of the living."

How to be Invisible While Defending the Constitution

A woman in California, Wendy Gonaver, was hired as an adjunct professor at the University of California in Fullerton, but refused to sign the loyalty oath that's still part of the orientation package for new hires.

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.”
Gonaver says she has no problem with the Constitution, but saw the oath as coercive and therefore contrary to the Constitution it was meant to protect. No tickee, no washee, and without signing that last piece of paper (a more humane bureaucrat might have shrugged, slipped the unsigned paper into Gonaver's folder and worried about it later) they wouldn't give her the keys to the classroom.

It might have been a tempest in a teapot, except for California history, where the oath has been used as a club to enforce conformity. In 1950, thirty-one professors who refused to sign-- there was no other complaint against them-- were fired. It was ongoing protest against this McCarthyism on campus that led to the Free Speech Movement in Berkely and the subsequent social protests of the early Sixties.

There comes a time, even for the orneriest contrarian, when you have to ask yourself which points are worth arguing. I might have issues with some aspects of the laws of gravity, but if I question every point of existence, I turn into Brian Wilson and never get out of bed. When I had to sign one of these for a previous employer in the state of Michigan; I just shrugged, assumed it was a holdover from the McCarthy era, crossed my toes and signed the thing. I have no problem defending the Constitution against its enemies, since most of them are domestic anyway and there's very little travel involved. If the people who demand a show of loyalty are themselves enemies of the Constitution, they're asking me to sign an oath that calls for their own destruction. It's like Daffy duck insisting, "Shoot me NOW!" Mental reservations? Evasion? You bet, but I'm not stupid enough to tell them that. I needed a job.

The wise fool Nasrudin and his followers were walking through a crowded marketplace when a student asked Nasrudin, "what do you mean by the concept of "invisibility"? Just as Nasrudin was about to answer, they were surrounded by heavily armed soldiers-- there was another religious pogrom in progress, with the government intent on ferreting out unbelievers.

The soldiers pointed their weapons at the Sufi literature under Nasrudin's arm, and their leader demanded, "What's that you've got there?"

"A piece of atheistic trash, which I now burn," Nasrudin answered without a pause, and he ripped the book to pieces, set fire to the pages, and stomped on the ashes.

After the soldiers had left, Nasrudin turned to his students and said, "That's what I mean by invisibility."

The Whitewashed Tomb That Is Mike Huckabee

There was a noise offstage while Mike Huckabee was speaking to the National Rifle Association this week. "That was Barack Obama," Huckabee said. "He just tripped off a chair. He's getting ready to speak and somebody aimed a gun at him and he — he dove for the floor."

"I'm not sure Senator Obama or Senator Clinton really get it," the Reverend Huckabee said.