WASHINGTON – Soldiers always gripe. But confronting the defense secretary, filing a lawsuit over extended tours and refusing to go on a mission because it’s too dangerous elevate complaining to a new level.
It also could mean a deeper problem for the Pentagon: a lessening of faith in the Iraq mission and in a volunteer army that soldiers can’t leave.
The hubbub over an exchange between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and soldiers in Kuwait has given fresh ammunition to critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy.
It also highlighted growing morale and motivation problems in the 21-month-old war that even some administration supporters say must be addressed to get off a slippery slope that could eventually lead to breakdowns reminiscent of the Vietnam War.
For thousands of years, soldiers have grumbled about everything from their commanders to their equipment to shelter and food. But challenging a defense secretary to his face is rare. So is suing the military to keep from being sent back to a combat zone.
“We are seeing some unprecedented things. The real fear is that these could be tips of a larger iceberg,” said P.J. Crowley, a retired colonel who served as a Pentagon spokesman in both Republican and Democratic administrations and was a White House national security aide in the Clinton administration.
“The real issue is not any one of these things individually. It’s what the broader impact will be on our re-enlistment rates and our retention,” Crowley said.
Several Iraq-bound soldiers confronted Rumsfeld on Wednesday at a base in Kuwait about a lack of armor for their Humvees and other vehicles, about second-hand equipment and about a policy keeping many in Iraq far beyond enlistment contracts. Their pointed questions were cheered by others in the group.
The episode – the questions and Rumsfeld’s testy responses were captured by television cameras and widely reported – did not raise new issues. Complaints about inadequate protection against insurgents’ roadside bombs and forced duty extensions have been sounded for months. But not so vividly.
President Bush and Rumsfeld offered assurances that the issues of armor and equipment were being dealt with, and that the plainspoken expression of concerns by soldiers was welcome.
“I’d want to ask the defense secretary the same question,” Bush said, if the president were a soldier in overseas combat. “They deserve the best,” he added.
The display of brazenness in Kuwait came just two days after eight U.S. soldiers in Kuwait and Iraq filed a lawsuit challenging the military’s “stop loss” policy, which allows the extension of active-duty deployments during times of war or national emergencies.
In October, up to 19 Army reservists from a unit based in South Carolina refused orders to drive unarmored trucks on a fuel supply mission along attack-prone roads near Baghdad, contending it was too dangerous. The Pentagon is still investigating the incident.
“Tensions obviously are rising,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
“The fact is that you do need now to consider how to change the force structure: the role of the reserves, the role of the actives. Troops are being deployed in continuing combat under what are often high risk conditions for far longer periods than anyone had previously considered or planned for.”
When the war began in March 2003, the troops were predominantly active duty military. Today, National Guard and Army Reserve units make up about 40 percent of the force.
The growing restiveness of U.S. troops in the Middle East echoes a drop in optimism at home that a stable, democratic government can be established in Iraq. A new poll for the Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs shows that 47 percent of Americans now think it’s likely Iraq can establish such a government, down from 55 percent in April.
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