Saying no

October 19, 2004

REFUSING to obey an order in a war zone is a serious business, and when an entire platoon declines to carry out a mission it's hard to consider it anything other than a mutiny. A breakdown in military discipline -- which is apparently what happened when an Army Reserve unit in Iraq refused to deliver a fuel shipment from Tallil air base near Nasiriyah to Taji north of Baghdad -- is a serious breech of the Army's effectiveness as a fighting force. Soldiers at war can't pick and choose which orders they'll follow.

Yet the Army -- so far -- seems to be moving cautiously in the case of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, and, judging by accounts of the incident relayed by relatives of the 19 soldiers involved, it's little wonder. They argue that the unit was ordered to drive unarmored tanker trucks through especially dangerous territory without air support, and with only small arms for defense. Moreover, they say that the soldiers in the unit knew that the fuel had been adulterated by oil and was worthless -- in fact, hazardous to helicopter crews that would be using it. The Army denies this.

But these are serious and potentially mitigating factors. Investigators should determine whether commanders in fact ignored reasonable doubts about the quality of the fuel, and whether they negligently ordered a convoy to go to Taji with inadequate protection. These should be answerable questions -- but there is more going on in this case.

First, there is the issue of long and unprecedented deployments for both the Army Reserve and the National Guard. Thousands of men and women in uniform in Iraq are serving in a way they never imagined when they signed up, leaving families and jobs behind for up to a year at a time. Is their training adequate?

Second, there is the matter of equipment. Throughout this war, American troops in the field have been insufficiently supplied, lacking everything from rations to body armor to armor plating for their vehicles. A large measure of blame for this must lay with the Pentagon planners who cavalierly ignored the possibility that the war in Iraq might not be over in a few weeks' time.

If morale was faltering in the 343rd, all blame should not lie with the soldiers in the trucks. Likely culprits might also include the rosy predictions at the war's outset -- against which the current reality looks all the worse -- and the usual problem of boneheaded officers. To be sure, the commanders of the 343rd may have had good reasons for insisting on the convoy, but if they didn't communicate that necessity effectively, that in itself was a failure in leadership.

Mutiny -- if that's what this was -- cannot be countenanced. But the sitdown by the soldiers in the 343rd strongly suggests that the Army has a problem in Iraq, one that's bigger than the fears of 19 men and women and one that needs to be addressed quickly and forthrightly.

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