In search of armored Humvees and an exit plan

The Democrats must shout from the rooftops that Bush and Rumsfeld have betrayed the troops they claim to be supporting.

Published December 16, 2004 7:01PM (EST)

If there is one thing Democrats should have learned from Karl Rove during this year's election, it is the value of relentlessly attacking -- day in and day out -- your opponent's perceived strength.

Well, from now until Congress is asked in January to vote on the next $80 billion the president wants for the war in Iraq, not a day should go by without Democrats shouting from the rooftops that the White House is shamefully betraying the very troops it so vociferously claims to be supporting.

Last week, one brave soldier's question opened the door on this scandalous subject. Now it's up to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi -- and all citizen-activists who have learned what a difference they can make -- to kick the door in, and force the media to spend some of the precious oxygen consumed by Scott Peterson's sentencing and Bernie Kerik's nanny on the dangerous mess in Iraq, with first on the list the deplorable treatment of the young men and women we've sent there.

Some, like Sen. Joe Biden, have begun making the case. "This was a war of choice, not necessity," said Biden last week. "Why is it that, 20 months after Saddam's statue fell, our troops still don't have the protection they need?" He's right, but these kinds of pointed attacks have been scattershot. To really make a difference, the loyal opposition desperately needs to mount a concerted and impassioned assault on Bush's bankrupt Iraq policy.

And the ammunition at its disposal is devastating.

For starters, as Army Spc. Thomas Wilson pointed out to the shockingly-still-in-office secretary of defense, our troops continue to have their lives put in jeopardy due to a lack of properly armored vehicles. Indeed, half of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq might still be alive if these basic tools of a modern army were available.

Let me repeat that: Half of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq might still be alive if only our troops had been properly equipped. What's more, one of the companies that makes the protective plates for the Humvees used in Iraq said last week that it could easily have increased its output -- if only the Pentagon had asked. Remember how often on the campaign trail the president trotted out his surefire applause line, promising, "I'll make sure our troops have the best. They deserve the best"? Maybe he was referring to the quality of their funerals.

Then there is the deceitful way his administration continues to underreport the number of injured and ill soldiers, leaving as many as 15,000 off the Pentagon's official casualty count because their wounds -- including spinal injuries, bone fractures, heart problems and mental disorders -- were not the result of enemy fire. Eighty percent of these soldiers were injured so severely that they never returned to their units -- but, to the Pentagon, they are not even worth counting.

As for the injuries they are willing to tally, the numbers tell a chilling tale of suffering. For instance, American soldiers in Iraq are having their limbs amputated at double the rate of previous wars, while Army suicide rates are soaring, up 40 percent in the past year.

Some of the latter can, no doubt, be traced to the lack of a clear purpose guiding our troops. "That," says Iraq war vet and Operation Truth founder Paul Rieckhoff, "is the most basic tool a soldier needs on the battlefield -- a reason to be there." And it can't help morale to have the administration repeatedly invoking stop-loss orders (many just in time for the holidays) and turning decades of Pentagon policy on its ear by calling on troops to serve multiple tours of duty overseas.

The situation doesn't get much brighter once the troops finally make it home. Twenty percent of the nearly 28,000 Iraq war vets who have sought help from the Veterans Administration were diagnosed with a mental disorder, including major depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, emotional numbness and violent outbursts. And, stunningly, Iraq war vets are already starting to turn up at our nation's homeless shelters, the first drops of what homeless-vet advocates fear could become a deluge.

The rotten cherry on top of this disgusting sundae? Reports that wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital are asking for donations because the government refuses to pay for their long-distance phone calls. Feel like talking to your loved ones while you recover from a wound you received fighting for your country? Not unless you can get someone to give you a handout. That is, if you still have a hand to put out. Yet here was Rummy claiming: "We're focused on the power of saying 'thank you' to people. And not just 'thank you' to the troops, but also their families." As long as it's a local call.

The time has come to stop being cowed by accusations that criticizing the war is the same as criticizing the troops and to start speaking the truth: Tens of thousands of young American men and women are having their lives destroyed because of the Bush administration's willful negligence.

As Sen. Biden said, this was a war of choice -- and the president chose to wage it before our forces were properly equipped for battle. Convinced that the people of Iraq would, in the words of Paul Wolfowitz, "greet us as liberators," the administration wildly miscalculated. The original war plan estimated that we'd have as few as 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2003. Instead, as we head into 2005, the White House is pushing troop levels to 150,000 -- the highest since the invasion.

All because the president refuses to course-correct. Which is, after all, the only reason Rumsfeld still has a job. Iraq is Bush's signature offering to the world -- and firing Rummy would be like McDonald's deciding to pull the Big Mac off its menu.

Instead, the president continues to operate in a fog of denial, serving up rosy assessments of the mayhem he has unleashed. Just last week he held fast to the notion that the Iraqi insurgency is the result of "the few people in Iraq that are trying to stop the march toward democracy." Even the Pentagon puts the number of insurgents at 20,000, while the British military estimates that it's closer to 40,000 or 50,000 (and that's on top of the 24,000 Iraqi rebels who have already been captured or killed). I guess it depends on what your definition of "few" is.

For a more clear-eyed judgment on Iraq, I suggest the president turn away from the mirror and the small circle of yes men and women he surrounds himself with and listen to Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. "We were unprepared for what we are facing in a post-Saddam Iraq," said Hagel. "But too many of our leaders in this administration were going around the country reassuring Americans our troops had everything they wanted. Certainly the Congress was passing a lot of money to make sure they had everything they wanted."

So where exactly has the $150 billion we've already spent in Iraq gone -- if not to "make sure our troops have the best"? It's a question that Democrats in Congress should demand an answer to before they rubber-stamp an additional $80 billion for Iraq right after the president is sworn in for his second term.

The loyal opposition needs to finally start opposing this administration's most catastrophic failure -- and make it clear that standing up to its delusions and incompetence is standing up for the truth.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

MORE FROM Arianna Huffington

Related Topics ------------------------------------------