Last week, America's troops spoke and their message was clear: They are not getting the support they need from the Bush administration. In a question-and-answer session with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, rank-and-file soldiers told Rumsfeld they needed -- but weren't getting -- armored vehicles, modern equipment, and adequate supplies. Rumsfeld's responses were disgracefully insensitive and condescending. As of today, 6,530 Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan lack adequate protection. Our troops deserve better.
Specialist Thomas Wilson of Nashville told Rumsfeld, "A lot of us are getting ready to move north [into Iraq] 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."
Rumsfeld responded that "You go to war with the army you have ... not the army you might want to wish to have at a later time." But the planning for war in Iraq began in late 2001. In a spin session later in the day, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita conceded that as late as the fall of 2003, the military was producing just 15 armored Humvees a month, less than 4 percent of today's production capacity. According to Di Rita, one quarter of Humvees in war zones today are unarmored. The bottom line: Soldiers in Iraq today don't have armored vehicles because of poor planning, and Rumsfeld refuses to accept responsibility.
Rumsfeld callously attempted to diminish Wilson's question, saying, "If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank, and a tank can still be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee, and it can be blown up." In response, Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran who is now with the soldiers' advocacy group, Operation Truth, said, "Having the armor increases your survivability much more than not having it. For [Rumsfeld] to say that is an indication of how little he understands the dangers of the battlefield."
According to U.S. representative Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), when Rumsfeld visits Iraq he undoubtedly travels in an armored vehicle. Taylor said, "If it is good enough for the big shots, it is good enough for every American soldier." Colonel John Zimmerman, a leader of Wilson's unit, said his troops "could not help fuming at the sight of the fully 'up-armored' Humvees and heavy trucks put on display here for Mr. Rumsfeld's visit." Zimmerman added, "What you see out here isn't what we've got going north [to Iraq] with us."
According to testimony by the Army's vice chief of staff late last year, the military needed 8,400 armor kits for Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush responded by submitting a budget in early 2004 that proposed exactly zero dollars for Humvee armor kits.
The military is preventing thousands of people who have completed their service obligation from leaving the military through the "stop-loss" program. Rumsfeld expressed no regret that poor planning has forced him to keep troops in war zones involuntarily. Rumsfeld called the program "basically, a sound principle" and told the troops that "it will continue to be used." There is so much frustration with the stop-loss policy that eight soldiers are suing the government from their camps in the conflict zone.
When an Army specialist asked Rumsfeld what he planned to do about the disparity in equipment between the National Guard and Reserve and the active-duty army, Rumsfeld seemed taken aback by the question. A murmur spread through the ranks. Rumsfeld told the troops to "settle down," adding, "Hell, I'm an old man. It's early in the morning, and I'm gathering my thoughts here." He then went on to explain that some "element of the Army is going to end up, at some point, with -- you characterize it as 'antiquated' [equipment]."
Which may also be the problem in the office of the secretary of defense. •
Christy Harvey, Judd Legum, and Jonathan Baskin wrote this article for the Center for American Progress.