Rumsfeld's armor cracking fast

Published December 10, 2004 8:15PM (EST)

The armor shortage problem for U.S. troops in Iraq continues to dominate the headlines. Here's more from the Times on the scope of the problem:

"Congress released statistics Thursday documenting stark shortages in armor for the military transport trucks that ferry food, fuel and ammunition along dangerous routes in Iraq, while President Bush and his defense secretary both spoke out to defuse public criticism.

"The House Armed Services Committee released statistics showing that while many Humvees are armored, most transport trucks that crisscross Iraq are not. The committee said more than three-quarters of the 19,854 Humvees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait carry protective armor, which can vary in quality. The most secure are factory-armored Humvees, and the Pentagon has received only 5,910 of the 8,105 that commanders say they need. But only 10 percent of the 4,814 medium-weight transport trucks have armor, and only 15 percent of the 4,314 heavy transport vehicles."

So how many Americans consider it acceptable to have their sons and daughters serving in Iraq while banking on a 10-15 percent chance of not getting blown up? The dearth of armor for transporting U.S. troops -- and Rumsfeld's response as to how the Pentagon and the troops should handle it -- is, of course, the key issue here. Although we can't say we're shocked that the right wing has focused on a little red herring of a story regarding an embedded reporter who purportedly encouraged Army Spc. Thomas Wilson to raise the subject during Wednesday's forum with Rumsfeld in Kuwait.

Rush Limbaugh huffed that the alleged coaching by the reporter was "a setup" and amounted to "cheap theatrics." Meanwhile, the editors of National Review Online, who also scoffed at the "planted" question, are going with a Nixon-style "mistakes were made" absolution for Rummy's team:

"Is it frustrating that only 400-something up-armored Humvees are being produced a month? Yes. Some combination of the contractors' manufacturing capacity, the congressional-funding process, and the complexity of the military's contracting system are responsible. We wish the Pentagon leadership had more vigorously applied its creativity to this problem."

Maybe "some combination" of Pentagon leadership will come up with the necessary creativity to fix the problem going forward. According to Bloomberg news, Armor Holdings Inc., the sole supplier of protective plates for the Humvee military vehicles used in Iraq, said it could increase output by as much as 22 percent, or 50 to 100 more vehicles per month, with no investment. The company says it's simply awaiting an order to do so from the Army. And that's in spite of Rumsfeld's saying Wednesday that the Army was working as fast as it could -- and that supply is dictated by "a matter of physics, not a matter of money."

While the right-wing chorus ducks the real issue, even U.S. soldiers who are wary of the media storm swirling around Rumsfeld seem glad that it has exploded onto the front pages. U.S. Army sergeant and blogger Chris Missick, who attended the Rumsfeld event in Kuwait, says he felt there was "definitely a sense of exaggeration" in the initial AP wire story and ensuing media coverage about the gathering being a contentious gripe session between Rummy and the troops. Still, he says, "I do think Spc. Wilson is justified in asking such a question. It is a serious issue, and if logistics or 'physics' is the obstacle from accomplishing the tasks of up-armoring vehicles to add to soldier safety, then we need to do our best to overcome that obstacle."

Rick from Virginia posted these comments in response to Missick: "I'm not understanding the stance taken by [Sean] Hannity or Limbaugh on this story. Seems they focused on how wrong the reporter was in getting Spc. Thomas Jerry Wilson to ask Rumsfeld a tough question. I frankly don't get what the reporter hulabaloo is about or why fellow conservatives are focused on it. The bigger question is the question posed by Wilson. What can be done to ensure that our soldiers are better protected and how quickly can it be done? That should be the focus."

It's encouraging to see that at least a few conservatives get it.

As do a number of Democrats in Congress, some of whom are calling on President Bush to hand Rummy marching orders out of Washington. In a letter sent to the defense secretary, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut called Rumsfeld's remarks on the issue this week "unacceptable." In reference to Armor Holdings untapped capacity, Rep. Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, "Even more outrageous than sending soldiers into combat without the proper protective equipment is offering them false excuses. Secretary Rumsfeld has lost the last of his credibility. President Bush should dismiss him immediately.''

"Secretary Rumsfeld has still not done what is necessary -- which is his highest duty -- to protect our troops to the greatest degree possible," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said on Capitol Hill. "No CEO in America would retain a manager with so clear a record of failure, and neither should President Bush."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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