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They Didn't Sign Up for Suicide Missions

Rebellion in the Rank

by Col. DAN SMITH

“When America puts our troops in combat, I believe they deserve the best training, the best equipment, the full support of our government.”

So declaimed President George Bush at a campaign rally earlier this month in Manchester, New Hampshire, 10 months after the senior ground commander in Iraq wrote to the Pentagon that U.S. forces in Iraq were “struggling just to maintain . . . relatively low readiness rates” (Washington Post, October 18, 2004).

The letter from Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, dated December 4, 2003, addressed key combat systems such as tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopters. Spare parts were on back-order for as long as 40 days for these critical equipment lines. Moreover, Sanchez noted that U.S. forces were still short 36,000 sets of body armor.

The Pentagon says the shortages, caused by greater than expected intensity of combat operations against Iraqi insurgents and disruption of supply routes from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), have been corrected. But to the extent that the U.S. fought another war – shorter but of higher intensity – in the same area just 12 years ago, the scope of the shortages suggests a failure of adequate logistics planning.

Now there is further evidence that not everything has been “corrected,” as claimed by the Pentagon. Eighteen soldiers from the 343rd Quartermaster Company, a reserve unit that has seen nine months of duty in-country, refused to undertake a fuel re-supply mission because their vehicles were still unarmored and the convoy had not been allocated an armed escort. Unit members also cited poor maintenance and the absence of radios for communicating with their headquarters.

Given the billions the Pentagon annually spends and the President’s pledge, is there an explanation for the conditions that finally impelled these soldiers to refuse an order?

First, it’s important to know that, as with many reserve unitsthat have been sent to Iraq, this platoon of the 343rd Quartermaster Company is not comprised of just young, inexperienced, first term enlistees. The platoon sergeant is a 24-year veteran who served in the first Gulf War. And as already noted, the unit has nine months combat experience in Iraq – a fact that probably tipped the balance on October 13, 2004.

For decades, National Guard and reserve units have been on the second tier (or lower) with regard to equipment. Since the services cannot afford to equip the entire force with every new piece of equipment procured, a “cascade” policy is used. When a new or improved line of tanks, artillery, or trucks reaches a high priority (active duty or “enhanced” reserve) unit, that unit’s equipment is evaluated, refurbished, and then handed off to lower priority (late-deploying or regular reserve) units where the cascade process is repeated over and over all the way to war reserve stockpiles.

The cascade policy is sensible as long as the “normal” condition is peace or there is enough time and money to increase production and distribute modernized equipment to units prior to their commitment to combat. The policy becomes dysfunctional when the units called up to fight are ones whose deployment was never (or almost never) contemplated by logistics planners.

But in refusing an order, these 18 soldiers risk disciplinary action for insubordination, refusing to obey a direct, lawful order, even cowardice. Their sergeant, in keeping with his duty to look after the welfare of those under his command, had expressed his concerns about the state of the unit’s equipment to his officers. Whether they in turn took action presumably will come out in the investigation into the incident ordered by high-level commanders in Iraq.

As the public has learned over the past 18 months, virtually all of Iraq is a battle site sooner or later. Roads are particularly dangerous due to IEDs, which can be buried anywhere and detonated by remote control. U.S. commanders in Baghdad estimate that there may be as many as 100 IEDs still buried along streets in the capital’s Sadr city, which effectively renders certain areas “no-go” ones for U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

Given the Pentagon’s admission of continuing supply problems, the total stand-down of the 343rd Quartermaster Company for a thorough maintenance review, and the quantity of anecdotal stories of families buying and shipping body armor and other equipment to relatives in the combat zone, the military would do well to find any reason to forego disciplinary action against these soldiers.

On first glance, refusing to obey a lawful order when in combat – particularly in an all-volunteer force – just because war presents dangers, is grounds for disciplinary action. But soldiers have a right to be properly trained, led, and equipped by those who send them into battle, at least to the extent that they have a reasonable chance to succeed in carrying out assigned missions. It is as unconscionable to send ill-prepared soldiers into battle as it can be to commit the nation to war – particularly when all other means to settle a dispute have not been completely exhausted.

Duty, that is to say, is a two-way street. In a democracy, citizens who become soldiers do not sign up to commit suicide – even in an all-volunteer army.

Col. DAN SMITH can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org