When Soldiers Say No

New York Times

When Soldiers Say No

New York Times Editorial Board

From the safe vantage point of America, it is scarcely possible to imagine the fears and concerns that spurred 18 Army reservists in a platoon in Iraq to disobey orders to deliver a fuel shipment to a distant airbase in the heart of an insurgent zone last week. Soldiers in combat cannot pick and choose their missions, no matter how grave the risks they are asked to face. Legal direct orders must be obeyed. But those giving the orders and the civilian Pentagon officials running this war also have unshirkable responsibilities. These include seeing to it that all units sent on hazardous missions have the equipment and support they need to accomplish their assignments and return safely.

The particulars of last week’s incident, including claims that the platoon had been ordered out in unsafe trucks and without a proper armed escort, are still being investigated. Relatives testify to the patriotism and bravery of the men and women involved, and they report that the soldiers had told them about earlier, unsuccessful attempts to bring the chronic equipment problems to the attention of commanding officers.

Whatever the facts turn out to be concerning this unit of the 343rd Quartermaster Company, based in South Carolina, it is painfully clear that from the very start of the Iraq war, Pentagon planners have failed to provide enough troops, armor and training to the young men and women who are bravely risking their lives for their country.

It is these soldiers and marines, in both active-duty and Reserve units, who have paid the price for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s flawed vision of warfare on the cheap, which disastrously misjudged the hard realities of occupying Iraq. By stubbornly overriding the Army leadership’s correct professional judgment of how many troops would be needed to secure the country, the Pentagon allowed chaos and resistance to get off to a crucial head start. The catastrophic effects remain with us today.

Since then, despite President Bush’s public pledge “to give our troops everything that is necessary to complete their mission with the utmost safety,” American forces in Iraq have been plagued by crippling shortages of tanks, armored vehicles and spare parts. The Washington Post reported this week that late last year, when Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez was the top military commander in Iraq, he warned the Pentagon that a desperate shortage of spare parts imperiled future combat operations. The situation has improved somewhat since then, but remains badly strained.

When tens of thousands of fresh troops were rotated into Iraq earlier this year, some Army and Marine divisions arrived without their armored vehicles. That faithfully and foolishly reflected the Pentagon’s wishful view that the insurgency was already fading away. A few months later, when fighting predictably flared up again, many of the new arrivals riding in unarmored Humvees found themselves dangerously exposed. New armor was rushed in, but some vehicles, including those of the platoon that refused to ride out last week, remain without it. The thrusting of undertrained reservists into counterinsurgency combat, including supply and support units like the one in last week’s incident, has been another chronic problem in this war.

None of these points lessen the seriousness of uniformed soldiers’ refusal to carry out legal orders. An Army where discipline breaks down can neither accomplish its mission nor protect its own troops. Once the facts have been established, the men and women who refused the mission can expect to be held accountable. It seems far less likely that Mr. Rumsfeld and his civilian associates will ever have to answer for their egregious failures of planning, imagination and leadership.

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