December 10, 2004
The American Secretary of Defense was holding one of his frequent town hall meetings with troops this week. A soldier in the audience, at the urging of an imbedded reporter, asked why there wasnt more armor and bulletproof glass for trucks. Rumsfeld said, in effect, that the stuff is being produced as fast as possible. The subject of unarmored trucks in Iraq is an old one, as is the massive effort the army has made to armor its vehicles and protect the troops from ambush and roadside bombs. But for whatever reason, the media jumped on this old story and turned it into a politicians nightmare. You cannot be against providing the maximum possible protection for American troops in combat. For the soldiers themselves, protection is a too much aint enough issue. Its literally a life and death matter.
But theres more to it than that. The story that has not made the headlines is the casualty rate in Iraq compared to previous wars. Iraq has the lowest casualty rates of any war in American history. Theres no mystery to that. Better protection, in the form of bullet proof vests, protective goggles, plus UAVs for spotting ambushes and robots for dealing with roadside bombs, better tactics, leadership and training, have all combined to keep the casualties down. But not down to zero. American troops are still getting killed over there. And if you just drove a truck through an ambush, or near a roadside bomb, your answer to; do you need more protection? would be yes.
So why isnt there more protection? There is no correct answer. Its the perfect situation for a journalist. No matter what the Pentagon has done, is doing or promises to do, they dont really have an answer. But after a few weeks, the media and politicians will find another target and move on.
Meanwhile, there are some interesting angles to this that wont get much, or any, attention. One is the fact that non-combat troops, for the first time in history, are taking nearly half the casualties. Normally, the combat troops (mostly the infantry) take 90 percent of the casualties. Even in Vietnam, where there were a lot of places where you had to run convoys through bandit country, the infantry still took over 80 percent of the casualties. The main reason for the big change in Iraq is that the infantry are much better trained and equipped than they were in Vietnam, while the non-combat troops are not as well prepared for combat as they were in Vietnam. The all-volunteer army led to a bunch of reforms that created the current crew of high performance combat troops. That means that American infantry do their work very well, killing more of the enemy and taking fewer casualties. But for the non-combat troops, the situation is worse. In the 1990s, responding to Congressional demands that women be given more opportunities in the army, men and women began doing their basic training together. Traditionally, basic training, in addition to the training, was used to see who could not handle the stress, and, if need be, get them out of the military. Troops who break down in the chaos of combat get themselves, and others, killed. In the days of the draft, this process often led to some interesting games played by people who didnt want to be there in the first place. But anyone who went through basic remembers seeing one or two guys who didnt finish because they, well, couldnt handle it. The army knew they were in trouble with basic training watered down so women could handle it, but they came up with a solution. Recruits who signed up for combat jobs went to a special, all male, basic training. This version was old school, and strived to make sure only people who could handle the combat stress, went on to become infantry. Meanwhile, the mixed basic (basic lite) was composed of non-combat troops. But many others who should have stayed civilians, instead went into an army job. The real problem here was that basic lite also failed to instill an appreciation for the importance of discipline. By the last 1990s, company commanders in non-combat units were going nuts with the growth of disciplinary problems. This extended beyond people not showing up for work on time or not following orders. Rifles were not cleaned, or fired accurately during annual weapons training. People didnt take convoy training seriously. For the brass, it wasnt a high priority problem, and the captains were told to cope as best they could. And they did, until 2003. All of a sudden, thousands of non-combat troops were in a combat zone, and they made a lot of mistakes. The possibility of death tends to get peoples attention, it always does. The non-combat troops got more training and more equipment. Companies that made gear for armoring a few hundred BMWs a year suddenly got orders for thousands of kits to armor hummers. Troops in Iraq scrounged armor and did it themselves. It was the old American can-do attitude, helped along by the risk of getting killed if you dont.
But there as another problem. A large number of reserve troops were called up for Iraq duty. Now the reservists had joined with the understanding that they would go to active duty in the event of a major emergency, and would stay on active duty, along with everyone else, until the war was over. But Iraq was not World War 3. It was a little war, and reservists went over to Iraq for a year or so and went back to being civilians. But because Iraq was a dangerous place for non-combat troops, the army had to provide months of additional training to make sure the reservists had a fighting chance. Additional training centers were set up in Kuwait. Sometimes reservists were rushed over without the additional training, but the army knew that was dangerous, not just for the reservists, but for the careers of any officer caught doing that too often. Many of the reservists were proud to serve, but some, reflecting the electorate back home, did not agree with the war and didnt believe they should be there at all. Journalists loved these guys, as they were a constant source of good tips on stories the brass could not defend themselves on. That just kept the officers on their toes.
Meanwhile, basic training was beefed up, and thousands of trucks were armored, even though this meant that many of them wore out prematurely (usually suspensions and engines) because of all the additional weight in places the vehicles were not designed to handle it. In Iraq, most of the danger was concentrated on a few roads and areas. Units operating there got priority for armored trucks and escorts. There were casualties, but many, many more were avoided because of all the protective measures. Moreover, some of the safe areas occasionally got unsafe. If you were driving through the well protected Green Zone of Baghdad, in an unarmored hummer, and a mortar shell landed next to your vehicle, you would get hurt. If you had been in an armored hummer, you probably would not have been hurt. But the regularly attacked routes get priority for the armored hummers and larger trucks. Most troops understand that. In a combat zone, its usually bad luck or inattention that will get you into trouble, more so than lack of equipment. Out on the road, you are taught that sharp eyes and quick reflexes are more likely to keep you safe than just piling on more armor. Most roadside bombs are discovered before they are set off. Most ambushes do more damage to the ambushers than to their targets.
But ask a G.I. driving down those roads regularly how much protection he needs, and he will say more. You cant defend the soldiers commander, or Secretary Rumsfeld, in a situation like this. However, were not talking warfare here, but media relations and politics. So when you get asked a question for which there is no correct answer, the only alternative is to admit youre wrong, proclaim that you will do better, and wait for it all to blow over.