The Army you have

December 10, 2004

SCROUNGING through junkyards to find something -- anything -- that they can bolt onto their trucks and Humvees as makeshift armor is not what American soldiers on their way into Iraq thought they were signing up for. The inability of the United States to provide its troops with the equipment they need -- 15 months into a war that was supposed to last weeks -- is a scandal, for all to see. So why was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld so taken aback Wednesday when National Guardsmen in Kuwait peppered him with angry questions about the sorry state of their gear?

Mr. Rumsfeld is the kind of leader who is blessed with an imperturbable confidence in his own logic. Sometimes this leads him badly astray.

When one of the men asked him about the lack of armor, he got off a perfectly factual but nonetheless jaw-dropping reply: "You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up." So quitcher bellyachin'. What do you need armor for, anyway?

Actually, having enough armor is like having enough troops on the ground -- it would be likely to save lives and improve America's chances of prevailing.

But this is an old way of thinking, and if there's anything Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't like about the U.S. Army, it's the service's stubborn habit of clinging to its old ways. His challenge to the Army is to find ways to win without enough troops, and without enough armor. He calls it "the Army you have, not the Army you might want."

Is he shamed by families sending store-bought body armor to their sons in Iraq? Heck, no. That's individual initiative. Is he embarrassed by the extended tours and stop-loss orders and virtual conscription of middle-aged soldiers in the Reserves? Clearly not.

When winning in Iraq was going to be easy, the troop levels made sense. Now winning in Iraq is not going to be easy: OK, a different paradigm. In any case, it's like collateral damage -- not something a leader in time of war can spend too much time worrying about.

Is he concerned about the soldiers' complaints? He says they're healthy -- but he says even this in a way that tends to diminish their seriousness.

This isn't just soldiers griping. If the United States had a secretary of defense who actually listened, who cared enough to try to build the kind of Army this country might want -- rather than a Pentagon chief willing to bet young soldiers' lives on the premise that more can be done with less -- Iraq might be a far different place today instead of the bloody mess it has become. And nobody in an American uniform would be looking for scrap metal for protection.

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