October 20, 2004
On October 13, five soldiers out of 19 in a fuel delivery platoon of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, refused to take their seven vehicles north along the highway that runs from Kuwait to Baghdad. The soldiers complained that the trucks were in poor shape, had no armor and that the fuel they were carrying was contaminated. The entire platoon was relieved of duty and other troops came in and took the trucks, and the fuel, north. The mission was completed without incident. The mutiny, as the media described it, was big news. It shouldnt have been. Such incidents have occurred in every war where American troops have had to drive trucks through dangerous territory. This includes World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, and the Gulf War. In most cases, a senior officer or NCO comes in, has a vigorous discussion with the troops, and the mission is carried out. Sometimes that doesnt work, in which case the NCOs and officers of the unit are relieved, or at least see their promotion prospects evaporate. The army goes by the old adage, there are no bad troops, only bad officers.
The 343rd Quartermaster Company belongs to the 13th COSCOM, a logistics and maintenance organization with some 15,000 troops. In the last six months, the 13th COSCOM has lost 26 troops, and had over 200 wounded or injured. Spend a year working for 13th COSCOM, and you have about a three percent chance of getting killed or injured. Historically, thats a low casualty rate. In World War II, units of that size often suffered that many losses in a single day, and for many days at a time.
But this is now, this is Iraq, and 13th COSCOM is not a combat division, but a combat support organization. However, the war in Iraq is unique. For the first time in military history, the non-combat troops are suffering higher losses than the combat troops. Naturally, the combat troops are better prepared to handle combat than the combat support troops who, historically, rarely get shot at. While the Iraqis are bad shots and lousy soldiers, they are not stupid. They know their chances of surviving are much better if they attack American combat support troops, especially if they are just riding past in a convoy of trucks. Taking on American infantry, especially if they are in armored vehicles, is known to be suicidal.
The army has gone to great lengths to turn the combat support troops, especially those who spend a lot of time on the road, into sort-of-combat troops. Most of the trucks have been armored and equipped with weapons (12.7mm or 7.62mm machine-guns). If a route is known to be dangerous, MPs or combat troops provide escort, which often includes a helicopter overhead. But its up to the officers and NCOs of these combat support units to keep their troops informed about what they are up against. Most importantly, it is the job of the officers to insure that their troops are ready for whatever their job is, especially if it is dangerous. Some of the officers of the 343rd Quartermaster Company failed in their duty, and they are the ones most likely to be punished.
Technically, the troops who refused to get on their trucks and drive north, were guilty of the worst possible crime (for a soldier), cowardice in the face of the enemy and disobeying a direct order. In some armies, officers are authorized to take out their pistols and kill the reluctant soldiers on the spot. During the 1942-3 Battle for Stalingrad, the Russians reported that 19,000 of their soldiers died that way. But thats not how the American army operates. In the last seventy years, only one American soldier has been executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy. In the American army, the officers and NCOs are expected to prepare their troops for the dangerous duties they might face. The system rarely breaks down, and when it does, its not a mutiny.