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Our 'Best Equipped' Army? Baloney!

By Mark Shields
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page A27

In the three years immediately after Pearl Harbor, the United States, a nation of 132 million people with a gross domestic product of less than $100 billion, produced the following to win World War II:

• 296,429 aircraft.

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• 102,351 tanks.

• 87,620 warships.

• 372,431 artillery pieces.

• 2,455,694 trucks.

Compare those heroic achievements with the current dismal supply record as the U.S. war in Iraq is fast approaching its third year and the United States, now a nation of nearly 300 million with defense spending in excess of half a trillion dollars:

• Only 5,910 of the 19,584 Humvees that U.S. troops in Iraq depend on are protected with factory-installed armor.

• More than 8,000 of the 9,128 medium and heavyweight trucks transporting soldiers and supplies in that war zone are without armor.

Because of the incompetence or indifference of this nation's civilian leadership of the war, Americans in Iraq are living with an increased risk of death.

All the official transcripts of White House signing ceremonies for every defense spending bill, all the presidential proclamations for Veterans Day and every prepared statement by the secretary of defense before a congressional committee include the same stock phrase. U.S. troops are invariably referred to as "the best trained, best equipped" ever. Best equipped? To call today's American troops in Iraq the "best equipped" is more than an exaggeration; it is bilge, baloney and cruel.

An America coming out of the Great Depression somehow found the leadership and the will to build and deploy around the globe 2.5 million trucks in the same period of time that the incumbent U.S. government has failed to get 30,000 fully armored vehicles to Iraq.

The Bush administration has appropriated $34.3 billion on a theoretical missile defense system -- which proved again this week to be an expensive dud in its first test in two years, when the "kill vehicle" never got off the ground to intercept the target missile carrying a mock warhead -- but has been able up to now, according to congressional budget authorities, to spend just $2 billion to armor the vehicles of Americans under fire.

Nobody has been more persistent in holding the Pentagon and the White House accountable than maverick Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. "When I visit Iraq," says Taylor, "I ride around in an armored vehicle, and I am sure the secretary [of defense] does as well. That should be the single standard: If it is good enough for the big shots, it is good enough for every American soldier."

The armor is truly a matter of life and death, as the Mississippi congressman explains: "Half of all our casualties, half of all our deaths and half of all our wounded are the direct result of improvised explosive devices [IEDs, or homemade bombs]." But when Washington officials visit Iraq, their traveling security includes not only heavily armored vehicles but also radio-signal jammers, which can disable the IEDs.

What makes Taylor authentically angry is the inexcusable failure of the U.S. brass -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he names -- to provide radio jammers (which cost $10,000 each) to the fewer than 30,000 U.S. military vehicles in Iraq.

How many U.S. vehicles are now equipped with jammers? The Pentagon insists the figure is classified. According to Taylor, the number is "minuscule." But because he is offended by visiting corporate chief executives and deputy assistant secretaries of weights and measures getting better protection than Marine lance corporals and Army privates, Taylor would not appreciate the fact that funds for the jammers have probably already been dedicated to underwriting the next failed missile defense test.

"A jammer costs about $10,000, and it probably costs about $10,000 to bury a dead GI. I believe Americans would rather spend the $10,000 to prevent the GI's funeral being held." Gene Taylor is right. Every American has a moral obligation to make certain that the nation's troops truly are the world's "best equipped."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company