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The Army Overreacts

Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page B06

IN THE HEAT of combat, good soldiers follow orders and react quickly to accomplish the mission. But the best soldiers, while fulfilling those paramount obligations, also think and perhaps see problems that may be impeding the mission's success. Capt. Oscar R. Estrada did exactly that when he wrote his on-the-ground observations as an Army Reserve civil affairs specialist, observations that appeared in The Post's Outlook section in June. How can the Army win hearts and minds, he asked, if it also must shoot at Iraqis while trying to fix a water treatment plant? His views were anguished and perceptive, highlighting the Americans' dilemma: that because U.S. troops are so often under attack while trying to help rebuild and stabilize the country, they often have to respond with firepower that further inflames anti-American sentiment. Indeed, as reported by The Post's Thomas E. Ricks, Capt. Estrada's views are shared by some senior military officials who say a less visible U.S. Army presence might lower anti-American hostility; most units are seeking to lower their public profile.

But Col. Dana J.H. Pittard, who commands the combat team overseeing Capt. Estrada's unit, angrily labeled the article as "aiding the enemy" and, as first reported in the Army Times, summarily transferred him to a remote post near the Iranian border, thereby denying him a scheduled leave and forcing him to postpone his wedding.

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What a mistake. It's true that soldiers don't have the free speech rights civilians do -- they can't release confidential information or personally attack senior military leaders, which would harm the ability of the team to do its work. But Capt. Estrada wasn't doing those things; rather, he was raising legitimate questions, and his article did nothing to aid the enemy. He cleared his article with his immediate commanding officer before it was published. An Army spokesman says he should have known to get approval from a public affairs officer too. But soldiers have been encouraged by commanders to send letters to their hometown newspapers about how successful they are in rebuilding and how they're welcomed by smiling children; surely, then, it should be appropriate to send newspapers letters about possible flaws in U.S. strategy.

The U.S. mission in Iraq will be helped, not hurt, if people on the ground can flag problems as they arise without fearing reprisal. It's a shame that in this case the Army didn't realize that.

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