How Safe Are Our Troops?

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MUHAMMED MUHEISEN / AP

TARGETS: Insurgents have attacked Humvees with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. At least 120 armored Humvees have been destroyed in combat in Iraq

Among Washington elites, Donald Rumsfeld is the undisputed master of the press conference: a dexterous debater who undresses interrogators with a mix of septuagenarian folksiness and alpha-male swagger. That skill has helped Rumsfeld deflect blame for the mismanagement of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and keep his job as Defense Secretary for George W. Bush's second term. But when Rumsfeld fielded questions last week from soldiers preparing to move from Kuwait into Iraq, he finally met his match. Army Specialist Thomas Wilson, 31, asked the Secretary why soldiers are being sent to war in humvees and trucks so vulnerable that troops must forage for "rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat." Many of Wilson's 2,300 comrades in the hangar were applauding in agreement.

Wilson, it turns out, had crafted the question with the help of a reporter embedded with his unit. It was Rumsfeld's response, though, that instantly ignited a firestorm. "You go to war with the Army you have," Rumsfeld told Wilson, "not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." While the Bush Administration has been criticized for its refusal to acknowledge the scale of the dangers in Iraq, Rumsfeld's comments, however unintentionally, conveyed something far more disturbing, a seemingly blithe disregard for the welfare of troops. "You can talk like that to a congressional committee or a reporter," says retired four-star


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Army General Barry McCaffrey, "but not to a soldier who's extremely concerned about the safety of himself and his buddies." Rumsfeld compounded the gaffe by adding that "you can have all the armor in the world in a tank, and a tank can be blown up." On Capitol Hill, Democrats ripped Rumsfeld for his insensitivity. "By that logic," says Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, "we should send our troops into battle on bicycles."

The exchange between Wilson and Rumsfeld was the most public airing of a concern that has spread among soldiers serving in Iraq and their families as the death toll has climbed: Is the U.S. sending troops into the line of fire without the means to protect themselves? The Pentagon has treated reports of equipment shortages — troops' hammering sheet metal onto humvees or asking their families to send bulletproof vests — as isolated kinks in the military supply chain. But last week, in response to Specialist Wilson, military officials were forced to acknowledge an unsettling reality: the U.S. has nowhere near the number of armored humvees in Iraq required to adequately protect troops from the insurgents' weapon of choice, the improvised explosive device, or roadside bomb. Of the 19,389 humvees in Iraq, 5,910 are fully armored, while an additional 9,134 are outfitted with less effective, bolted-on armor. But that leaves 4,345 humvees without any armor. These "naked" humvees are supposedly confined to U.S. bases, but they remain vulnerable to mortar attacks. It's no wonder that among those who have served in Iraq, there was widespread support for Wilson's grievance. "I'm glad it's getting attention," says a recently returned Marine who was injured by an improvised explosive, "because it will save lives. I'm sure of it."

The shortage of armored humvees is a parable for the miscalculations that have plagued the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. Given that it was a war of choice for the U.S., the typical soldier's reasoning goes, the Pentagon had plenty of time and money to make sure the troops had everything they needed. But John Keane, the Army's No. 2 officer during the war, told TIME last week that "we did not anticipate fighting an insurgency in Iraq, and that's the truth of it." As the rebellion escalated in late summer 2003, the Army didn't have the armor it needed to protect U.S. soldiers during messy nation building. "In terms of the equipment strategy," says Keane, who retired in October 2003, "that changed everything."

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