It was a Maalox moment for Donald Rumsfeld. At a forum held with U.S. troops in Kuwait who are headed to Iraq, the barrage of friendly fire soon scored a direct hit when a scout with the Tennessee National Guard, one Specialist Thomas Wilson, rose, and, his voice confident and clear but with an undertone of bafflement, asked:
"We’ve had troops in Iraq for coming up on three years and we’ve always staged here out of Kuwait. Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromise ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?"
The official Pentagon transcript of this exchange indicates "Applause" in brackets, but it was more like a roar. Rummy was clearly taken aback. It looked to me like alarms were going off in his head:
Incoming fire! Man battle-stations! Fall back and regroup!
"I missed the first part of your question," said the secretary of defense, who had parried the pointed inquiries of Senator Robert Byrd, and given the platoons of the press corps the shock-and-awe treatment, yet had been caught flat-footed by this steely-eyed kid. "And could you repeat it for me?"
This was a soldier, not some slumping reporter, and Specialist Wilson, standing ramrod straight, showed not the slightest sign of awe as he repeated his question with shocking clarity:
"Our soldiers have been fighting in Iraq for coming up on three years. A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us north."
Translation: Why the f*** are you sending us out here to get our butts blown off, you stupid s.o.b.?
Rummy’s answer, when it came, was curt and more than a little contemptuous: After launching into an explanation of how it’s "not a question of money," or the will to do it, but a question of "physics" – perhaps the supply of armored vehicles was caught in some alternate dimension, possibly the Twilight Zone or Bizarro World – he lashed back with this stinging rebuke:
"As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
Translation: Screw you, soldier – and that goes for the rest of you, too.
Neither Specialist Wilson nor any of the soldiers suing to end the "stop-loss" programs that effectively conscript them for the duration are explicitly questioning the wisdom or justice of the war – but their complaints all stem from the tactics employed by the War Party to get us into the Iraqi quagmire in the first place. Wilson’s question about the lack of armor relates directly to this, because, in the rush to war, there was no time to amass the kind of equipment and personnel necessary to deal with the aftermath of our inevitable "victory."
The War Party had to get those troops in there quickly, before the rationale for war was exposed as a series of outright lies. It was only a matter of time, after all, before the "secret" of Saddam’s empty arsenal got out, and UN inspectors got in. The neocons’ prewar mythology – Saddam’s nonexistent links to al-Qaeda, his phantom nukes, his drones that threatened to rain death down on American cities – had a short shelf life, and the idea was to sell it at any price. Their whole edifice of lies was being undermined by war critics in both parties, and most especially in the government itself. There was no time to properly armor the convoys that would take our troops into battle – only time to wish them Godspeed, and good luck.
Rumsfeld has even devised a theoretical construct that covered over this giant hole in our war strategy: this is the much-vaunted "transformation" of the American military. This Rumsfeldian hobbyhorse is supposed to inaugurate a leaner, meaner, lighter and more flexible killing machine, more akin to a rapier than the old broadsword method employed by practitioners of the archaic Powell Doctrine. The long-discarded idea promulgated by our departing secretary of state – that one must attack using overwhelming force, utilizing superior numbers and technology to win a lasting victory – lost out as our foreign policy became more brazenly belligerent. Powell’s strategic vision is incompatible with the principle of "preemptive" warfare – which requires a whole new military doctrine. This is Rumsfeld’s task, which he intends to finish before he rides off into the blood-red sunset, and what it means is the "transformation" of what had been the army of our old republic into an imperial fighting machine.
As it turns out, the individual components of this revamped machine are outfitted with less armor, given less preparation, and are expected to take more casualties. In the post-9/11 era, the risks are high because the stakes couldn’t be higher: it’s the new reality.
Or so they say. But if you want to know the real story behind the armored Humvee [HMMWV] problem, and the proposed "solution" that Rumsfeld and his crew are working on, then read this shocking account by Jason Lefkowitz of the key role played by the politics of military procurement policies in this whole shameful affair.
The lack of armored Humvees is estimated by Newsweek to account for a full 25 percent of American casualties. The Pentagon proposes to solve the problem by introducing the Stryker, an armored vehicle that the Army’s chief weapons tester concedes will bust apart when hit with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). This is how they intend to make up for the lack of armored Humvees – and, by the way, why didn’t they have enough? Surely the Pentagon planners anticipated some degree of hostility from those who resented the occupation enough to resist – right?
Remember, it was supposed to have been a "cakewalk," according to one of our more fatuous neocons, and this lighthearted spirit permeated the public utterances of warmongers everywhere. Baghdad was to have been only the first of several falling dominoes, as the peoples of the Middle East rose up to urge us on. How many times were we assured that, once we signaled the Yanks were coming, the Iraqi people would run out into the streets and shower us with rose petals on the road to Baghdad?
The truth about our unpreparedness is starkly illustrated in the remarks of General Mark P. Hertling, assistant division commander of the 1st Armored Division, who explained to Newsweek why our troops are tootling around Iraq in lightly-armored Humvees. American soldiers are expected to travel through hostile territory in little more than glorified jeeps that "were never designed to do this" because "it was never anticipated that we would have things like roadside bombs in the vast number that we’ve had here."
"Why aren’t there more armored HMMWVs in-theater?" asks Lefkowitz: "Because the Pentagon didn’t anticipate that HMMWVs would operate under enemy fire." Why, after all, would anyone fire on their own liberators?
The architects of this war fervently believed their own propaganda – the only problem being that the Iraqis didn’t.
The armed forces of an empire are continually in motion: At any moment, vast armies must be dispatched halfway around the world: this is what it means to be "flexible." But one must also be flexible about a rising casualty count: an imperialist foreign policy requires military action that is necessarily rushed, inefficient, and wasteful – of material resources and human lives.
It’s all part of the great "transformation" that is supposed to be taking place not only in the military but also in the civilian realm. Inured to the stench of death, we must soldier on in the name of what George W. Bush calls the "global democratic revolution" – and if American GIs in Iraq have to rummage through garbage to improvise armor, then so be it. If they are sitting ducks for terrorists worldwide, and handicapped by faulty (albeit high-priced) equipment – well, it’s all for a good cause.
That’s the question that is going to be on lots of minds as the war drags on, while the costs of empire become readily apparent, and not just on the home front. Roman emperors feared nothing so much as their own Praetorians, and a hint of that seemed to flicker across Rumsfeld’s face as he parried a second sharp question, uttered respectfully enough by a soldier from the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Armored Cavalry Brigade, who asked Rumsfeld what was being done “to address shortages and antiquated equipment” suffered by National Guard soldiers on their way to Iraq. The New York Times reports:
"Mr. Rumsfeld seemed taken aback by the question and a murmur began spreading through the ranks before he silenced it. ‘Now, settle down, settle down,’ he said. ‘Hell, I’m an old man, it’s early in the morning and I’m gathering my thoughts here.’"
But why should they settle down when they’re being sacrificed on the altar of an obscenely overweening ambition? How will they react when they begin to understand that they’re being used as pawns in a bigger game that has nothing whatsoever to do with hifalutin’ notions of "democracy" and "human rights" – and everything to do with making the world safe for Israel and fattening the wallets of entrepreneurial policymakers such as Richard Perle and former CIA director James Woolsey?
Telling them to "settle down" may not be enough.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
In a story headlined "Reporter Planted Rumsfeld Questions With Soldiers," Matt Drudge reports that Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Edward Lee Pitts "coached soldiers to ask Secretary Rumsfeld questions!" (exclamation in original). But nobody had to "plant" anything, as not only Pitts’ own reporting but plenty of others, like Newsweek, had recorded the soldiers’ reaction to the armor situation. It has only been little over a month since a whole platoon refused to go out on a convoy for this very reason.
Rather than blame the subversive activities of a single reporter, the War Party would do better to go after the real "culprits," senior military commanders like General Eric Shinseki, General Anthony Zinni – and, behind the scenes, Colin Powell – who warned that we would lose the peace in the rush to war.
And so we have – and now the rank-and-file are beginning to know it, too.