When a courageous Army specialist confronted Donald Rumsfeld over the insufficient armor on military vehicles at a "town hall" meeting in Kuwait on Dec. 8, the secretary of defense may well have felt an unpleasant twinge of déjà vu.
Perhaps Rumsfeld recalled (as the reporters accompanying him on last week's trip apparently did not) that he had heard precisely the same complaint at a similar town hall meeting in Baghdad -- seven months ago.
That May 13 assembly was the last stop on a lightning visit to Iraq by the defense secretary that featured a speech at the Abu Ghraib detention camp. Aiming to preserve morale as well as his own job, he was no doubt preoccupied by the prisoner abuse scandal. Critics at home were already demanding his resignation, but the American troops seemed glad to see their civilian chief when he showed up to talk with them at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
In contrast to the strange answer he offered last week, when he provoked a national uproar by snappishly informing the troops that armor doesn't always work, Rumsfeld reacted quite differently last May. Back then, in fact, he offered no answer at all. But there's no doubt he was listening when the issue of inadequate armor came up in Baghdad. (There is also little doubt that, whatever he may think about armor's efficacy against roadside bombs, the secretary doesn't lack for hard protection when traveling in Iraq and Kuwait.)
"I have force protection questions, sir," said a soldier whose name was not identified in a Pentagon transcript of the May 13 town hall meeting.
"You have what?" asked Rumsfeld.
"Force protection," the unknown soldier repeated.
Rumsfeld turned to Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his companion on the Baghdad trip. "General Myers," he said, amid laughter, leaving the general to deal with whatever touchy topics the soldier might raise.
The soldier stumbled and mumbled in his question but the meaning was plain enough: "Sir, my unit, the 2nd Brigade -- (inaudible) -- Cav[alry], we have five out of the six red zones in this country. And with the up-armored Humvees, the new -- (off mike) -- Humvees they're bringing over with the -- (inaudible) -- those doors are not as good as the ones on the up-armored Humvees (inaudible). We even lost quite -- we lost some soldiers due to them, and we're trying to make a change -- (inaudible). The question is, are we going to get more up-armored Humvees?"
In other words, his cavalry unit was going into dangerous places, he had seen his comrades die when their unarmored vehicles were blasted, and he was hoping that more of the better-protected Humvees would be arriving soon. He also asked about vests with protective ceramic plates, which were in similar short supply.
Rumsfeld remained silent, while Myers replied with the kind of uplifting rhetoric that has made enlisted men distrust general officers from the dawn of armed conflict.
"Good points. Excellent points," he said. "You can imagine we spend a lot of time on force protection, and our responsibility, I think, is to ensure we have the resources and protection lines and all that cranked up to get the equipment we need."
Myers continued, telling the soldiers what they already knew: "You do not have all the up-armored Humvees you need. You got about -- around 3,000 out of the 4,400 roughly that they want over here, that your leaders want. Production is ramping up this month. I think it's around 220, 225 per month ... We're trying to get them to you as fast as we can. We understand the difference they can make, and for that matter we're shipping some armor over as well."
That was all well and good -- except that seven months later, of course, American troops in Iraq still don't have the armored transportation they need.
At last week's town hall event in Kuwait, Rumsfeld indicated that the problem was not a question of money or executive will but a limit to what defense contractors could physically produce. As the Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend, the defense secretary was wrong again. Within two days of Rumsfeld claiming the armored Humvees couldn't be built any faster, the Pentagon announced that production will be increased immediately by at least 100 vehicles a month. In a cutting letter to the defense secretary, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who was attacked by Rumsfeld during the presidential campaign, wrote: "I urge you to investigate immediately why troops are going without the equipment they need when American companies say they can provide it."
If his competence matched his confidence, Rumsfeld would not only have investigated but acted months ago to improve "force protection" in Iraq. It is amazing indeed that as the war drags on toward its second anniversary, and as the lack of planning for the occupation continues to take a terrible toll on our men and women along with the Iraqi people, this man remains in the job he has bungled so badly.