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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Truth From the Troops

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A37

Our troops in Kuwait, on their way to Iraq, spoke truth to Donald Rumsfeld this week. They make you very proud to be American.

When defense secretaries and presidents give pep talks to our men and women in uniform, the troops often serve as extras whose heroism is supposed to rub off on the politicians. But at their town hall meeting with Rumsfeld on Wednesday, these men and women, many of them National Guard and reserve troops, threw away the script.


Donald Rumsfeld in Kuwait on Wednesday. (Gustavo Ferrari -- AP)

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These heroes did more than any politician or journalist could to challenge the administration's smug presumption that its optimistic predictions were a sufficient basis for planning the war in Iraq. They forced the entire nation to confront deep flaws in the administration's approach.

"We've had troops in Iraq for coming up on three years and we've always staged here out of Kuwait," Spec. Thomas Wilson told Rumsfeld. "Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromise[d] ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don't we have those resources readily available to us?"

God bless Wilson's military comrades: At that moment they applauded his courage and his cry of alarm.

When Rumsfeld asked Wilson to repeat his question, the airplane mechanic with the Tennessee Army National Guard expanded on it with rough-and-ready poetic flair. "We're digging pieces . . . that's already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat," Wilson said. By the way, the question was no less legitimate even if Wilson got help from a reporter in framing it.

Rumsfeld rambled his way into a line that will long stand as an emblem for the administration's casual attitude toward a war it had the freedom to wage on its own schedule. "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld said. "They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Excuse me, but if the United States was going to embark on one of the riskiest and potentially most consequential military engagements in our history, was it too much to ask our politicians to make sure that the military was adequately prepared and equipped before they started the war?

And since members of the Guard and the reserves are being asked to do so much, shouldn't they get the equipment they need? Thus did a specialist from the 116th Cavalry Brigade ask about "shortages and antiquated equipment that National Guard soldiers . . . are going to roll into Iraq with?"

Rumsfeld replied that he had been told that "the Army is breaking its neck to see that there is not a differentiation as to who gets what aged materials in the military, in the Army, as between the active force, the Guard and the reserve." Well, that's either true or it's not. We may now find out, and it took this young specialist to force the American media to cover an issue that clearly irks many of our fellow citizens who find themselves in the line of fire.

A staff sergeant from Fort Bragg, N.C., put on the table an issue that cries out for national debate -- and, yes, national outrage. The "stop-loss" orders that force our men and women in uniform to stay in the service long after they have fulfilled the terms of their enlistments amount to a backdoor draft, no matter how you cut it. The sergeant certainly suggested that.

"My husband and myself, we both joined a volunteer Army," said the sergeant, nicely inserting that word volunteer to make her point sharper. "Currently, I'm serving under the stop-loss program. I would like to know how much longer do you foresee the military using this program?"

Rumsfeld seemed to ask: What's your beef? "The stop-loss has been used by the military for years and years and years," he replied. "It's all well understood when someone volunteers to join the service." Which did not explain that the administration's failure to anticipate just how tough this war would be is what's forcing the military to rely so heavily on stop-loss orders to keep up our troop strength.

Say this for Rumsfeld: At least he publicly engaged challenges from the rank and file. How often has President Bush been held accountable? Certainly not by a supine Congress. And the president slipped through the election by scaring us to death about his opponent's national security skills. Maybe a few brave soldiers will shame the rest of us into confronting the powers that be with the questions our leaders should have faced all along.

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