The series of pointed questions shot at Rumsfeld reflect a consequence of the Pentagon's increasing reliance on National Guard and reserve units to carry out the U.S. mission in Iraq. Almost 45 percent of the 130,000 Army troops there now are drawn from the part-time components. Unlike active-duty troops, Guard and reserve troops tend to be older, more "civilianized" in their behavior and less deferential toward authority.
Some Guard units preparing to deploy to Iraq have been vocal about their morale problems, and an Army Reserve unit already there made headlines in October when it refused to carry out a convoy mission it considered too dangerous. Earlier this week, eight U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Kuwait filed a lawsuit challenging the "stop-loss" policy, which forces them to serve beyond the end of their terms of enlistment.
U.S. troops about to head from Kuwait to Iraq attend a town hall meeting held by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
(Larry Downing -- Reuters)
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Rumsfeld's spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said the meeting was hardly unusual. "The range of questions was quite typical," he said at a Pentagon briefing. "I thought it was a very standard event."
He also said that the question posed by Wilson, the Tennessee Guardsman, was misleading, in that it made it appear that soldiers are being sent into a combat zone in unarmored vehicles. Any Humvees -- the military's jeeplike light trucks -- that lack armor are carried into Iraq atop flatbed trucks and, once there, are used only inside the relative safety of U.S. bases, he said.
The Army is moving to produce as many armored Humvees as it can, he added. In the fall of 2003, there were only 15 made each month, he said, but after the need for more became clear, the rate of production was boosted to 450 a month.
Some military experts agreed with Di Rita in finding the meeting unexceptional. "This is what leaders are supposed to do, meet with troops and get their honest feedback," said retired Army Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, now an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "No one should be surprised when our troops say what they mean; that's what makes the American soldier great."
Likewise, Robert Andrews, a former Pentagon official, said: "This is vintage Rumsfeld. He doesn't talk down to these guys. He talks to general officers the same way."
But some others were more critical. Part of the problem, said Daniel Goure, another former Pentagon official, is that Rumsfeld acts less like a head coach and more like the owner of the football team. "For this reason, he doesn't do well at 'win one for the Gipper'-type speeches," he said.
A transcript of Rumsfeld's meeting with the soldiers is available at www.dod.mil/transcripts/2004/tr20041208-secdef1761.html.