Friday, December 17, 2004

Question Authority

Guest post by John R. Guardiano

To the media, it was a dramatic revelation of Bush administration hypocrisy and incompetence: A lowly American GI courageously speaks truth to power, thus showing that the emperor has no clothes. But to this Marine veteran of the Iraq war, the hullabaloo over Army Spc. Thomas J. Wilson's question reveals far more about media bias, prejudice and ignorance than it does about the U.S. military and Iraq.

Spc. Wilson asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld why, nearly two years after the start of the war, his unit still has too few "up-armored" humvees. The media were surprised that an enlisted man would ask so direct and pointed a question of the Pentagon's highest official. I wasn't.

I enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve after Sept. 11, 2001, and served in Iraq in 2003. Throughout boot camp, combat training and subsequent preparation for war, my instructors always stressed the importance of independent thinking and initiative. Obviously, when you're in the middle of a firefight, you cannot--and must not--second-guess split-second command decisions. However, when preparing for war, thoughtful and considered questions are not only tolerated; they are encouraged--even demanded, I found.

As one of my combat instructors told us: "Marines, you're more likely to die from someone doing something stupid than because the enemy is skilled and ingenious. So make sure you've thought things through and that everyone's on the same page. Be polite. Be tactful. But don't be afraid to ask questions."

I soon discovered that this command to think and to ask questions wasn't mere rhetoric. I was serving with the First Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment at an abandoned pistol factory in Al Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Every three weeks or so, we were visited by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who was then commanding the First Marine Division in Iraq.

Gen. Mattis is a Marine's Marine, a true warrior who speaks bluntly and candidly, without being bound by the constraints of political correctness. For well over an hour, on a routine and regular basis, the general would gather together his Marines and field questions. Nothing was out of bounds. The event was entirely democratic and thoroughly American--though marked by standard military etiquette and respect for rank. Thus, newsmen and commentators who fear "retribution" against Spc. Wilson haven't a clue as to what the U.S. military is all about. Spc. Wilson asked a tough but fair question; however, for any U.S. serviceman who's ever been to war, this was hardly surprising.

Nor does his question demonstrate, as some have argued, that the Iraq war was ill-conceived or poorly planned. War is, by its very nature, surprising and unpredictable; it forces us to adapt and to be innovative. Armchair "experts" notwithstanding, the fact is no one anticipated the Baathist-Sunni insurgency, certainly not the U.S. military. We all expected to knock off Saddam Hussein and his elite Republican Guard and then head home in time for the July 4 celebrations. That's why, when I deployed to Iraq in 2003, I traveled throughout the country in a standard canvas humvee with no special armor. Nor did I have any special body vest or protection.

I thought nothing of this at the time and still don't. My team went as far north as Baghdad, but we were situated mainly south of the Sunni Triangle, in predominantly Shiite Iraq. Throughout our entire time there, the Iraqis welcomed us as liberators. We were well prepared for the threat as it then existed and as we understood it.

But when my old Marine Corps reserve unit redeployed to Iraq in September, it did so with fully armored vehicles, new sappy plated vests and special goggles--all designed to protect against shrapnel and improvised explosive devices. That's because the unit was deploying to Fallujah, and the threat there was different from what we had faced in southern, Shiite Iraq.

This type of change and adaptation has occurred in all wars from time immemorial. It reflects not poor planning but the unpredictable nature of war. That's why the Defense Department has been moving quickly to up-armor its humvees, producing nearly 400 such vehicles a month, up from 30 a month in August 2003, according to Army Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb.

The U.S. military ultimately wants 8,100 up-armored humvees versus the nearly 6,000 such vehicles that it has currently, Gen. Whitcomb told reporters last week. Moreover, according to the Army vice chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the military long ago embarked on a "Manhattan-like project" to remotely jam IEDs with radio sensors.

If you're an American soldier or Marine whose life is on the line now, clearly that's not good enough. On the other hand, it simply isn't true that U.S. military leaders have callously ignored the troops' request for up-armored vehicles and other protective equipment. In fact, most of our troops in Iraq have up-armored vehicles, and units there take force protection quite seriously.

Delays ought to be blamed on the military bureaucracy, which Secretary Rumsfeld has been trying to reform. Indeed, that's what military transformation--a Rumsfeld priority--is all about. Yet, many of the same people who are most vociferously denouncing the lack of up-armored humvees in Iraq also fight military reform tooth and nail.

Example: When the Army decided last winter to cancel development of its Cold War relic Comanche helicopter, Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, immediately took to the barricades. "It simply doesn't make sense to pull the plug on the Comanche," Mr. Dodd said. "Obviously, this will not be an easy fight, but I intend to work with other members of the Connecticut congressional delegation to seek to retain the Comanche as part of our military arsenal."

It didn't seem to matter to Mr. Dodd that the Comanche was a $39-billion boondoggle that the Army didn't want because the aircraft isn't suitable for 21st-century urban warfare. Nor did Mr. Dodd seem to care that much of the displaced Comanche money would be used to equip existing Army helicopters with new countermeasure systems necessary to neutralize the ubiquitous threat posed by rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired missiles, and man-portable air-defense systems, all of which are omnipresent in Iraq.

Yet Mr. Dodd, who has never been a champion of big defense budgets, now has the chutzpah to lecture Mr. Rumsfeld about the need to "spare no expense to ensure the safety of our troops, particularly as they confront a hostile insurgency and roadside bombs throughout Iraq." Mr. Dodd says Mr. Rumsfeld's response to Spec. Wilson--"You go to war with the Army you have"--is "utterly unacceptable. Mr. Secretary," he writes, "our troops go to war with the Army that our nation's leaders provide."

Quite true--and Mr.. Dodd is one of those leaders.

Nor does the entire hullabaloo concerning up-armored humvees show, as some commentators contest, that U.S. troops lack confidence in their military and civilian leaders. The reality is that troop morale is consistently high.

Of course, American soldiers and Marines yearn to come home; it is not in our nature to colonize or occupy a country. By the same token, however, most U.S. troops take understandable pride in a job well done. They are pleased to have the historic chance to serve and to practice, in a real-world operation, that which they have been training for all these many years. That's why re-enlistment rates are high.

As U.S. Central Commander Gen. John Abizaid told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" Sept. 26: "The constant drumbeat in Washington of a war that is being lost, that can't be won, of a resistance that is out of control, simply does not square with the facts on the ground." In fact, the vast majority of Iraq is not a war zone; it is peaceful, tranquil and doing surprisingly well. I refer specifically to the Shiite south. The Kurdish north, too, is doing relatively well, despite the recent upsurge of violence in Mosul.

"So is this fight in the Middle East worth fighting?" the general said to Mr. Russert. "Absolutely," he said. "In my mind, and in the minds of our young people that are out here fighting and sacrificing, it's absolutely worth it."

Of course you won't hear any of this in many news articles or broadcasts. The media long ago decided that its job was to put a negative slant on all things Iraq. Truth is, as they say, the first casualty of war.

Mr. Guardiano is an Arlington, Va.-based journalist who served in Iraq in 2003 as a field radio operator with the U.S. Marine Corps' Fourth Civil Affairs Group.