I will never forget then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s answer to a question by Army specialist Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, back in December of 2004, nearly two years after the start of the Iraq war.
The setting was a town-hall style meeting Rumsfeld was holding with over 2,000 Iraq-bound troops in a cavernous hangar at a remote desert camp in Kuwait.
Set out on display for Rumsfeld, were a bunch of fully up-armored Humvees and heavy trucks.
The question posed by by Wilson to Rumsfeld was: “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles? And why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?
Wilson was referring to pieces of rusty scrap metal and bullet-proof glass—“hillbilly armor”—soldiers had to scrounge through the local dumps to mount on their vehicles for protection against roadside bombs and other dangers in Iraq.
Wilson was also addressing the well-known, widespread shortages of basic items such as body armor, vehicle armor—bulletproof windshields, Kevlar flooring to protect soldiers against exploding bombs underneath Humvees and trucks—and the like.
Rumsfeld’s answer to this and a related question was: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
I will never forget his answer because it was so wrong and irresponsible at so many levels.
At the most basic human relations level, when addressing troops who are about to go into combat —some of them would sacrifice life and limb—it was, as I said in a letter in TIME, “callous and arrogant.”
Then there is the question why our brave troops were suffering such serious deficiencies in personal protection and other logistics and tactical nightmares in the first place. Why had the Bush-Rumsfeld team not better anticipated the tenacious and violent insurgency our troops would be encountering in Iraq, and the resulting need for better and faster support from back home?
Finally, and at the core of the issue of the Iraq war: If you are going to embroil the nation in an elective war, a “war of choice”—which the Iraq war certainly was—why not first make sure that you have the army you need, fully trained, fully supported, and fully protected, before you go to war.
By the way, remember those fully-up armored Humvees and heavy trucks set out on display for Rumsfeld? According to the New York Times, Col. John Zimmerman, the staff judge advocate for the 278th combat team, said at the time that he and his troops could not help but fume at the sight of those Humvees and trucks. “What you see out here isn’t what we’ve got going north with us,” he said.
Why am I dredging up “old” history?
I believe there is a saying that tells us that those who ignore history—no matter how recent—are destined to repeat it.
I believe that our nation is fortunate to have as successor to Donald Rumsfeld, a man—a Republican— who does not intend to repeat Rumsfeld’s “history.” A man who, should our nation ever need to go to war again, will have the army we want already in place. A man, who, as we speak, is already molding the Army—and the Air Force and the Navy—to more effectively fight the two wars we are already involved in and to be able to handle any other “contingencies.”.
Of course that person is Robert Gates, the only Secretary of Defense in U.S. history to be asked to remain in that office by a newly elected President.
It is the Robert Gates who late last week supported the President’s controversial decision to replace the Bush proposed, ground-based missile defense system in Europe with a more flexible, more effective sea-based system.
Gates had recommended the European system to Bush in 2006. However, when intelligence estimates changed, Gates changed accordingly. Gates, a former CIA director said:
I probably am more familiar with the risks of over-reliance on intelligence than anybody, because I’ve seen how often it’s wrong…If the intelligence is wrong, and the Iranians develop a capability sooner than the intelligence is saying, this architecture gives us a better chance of being able to cope with it than the [previous program], just because of the new technologies that are available that give us more flexibility.
An example of using new data, new intelligence and new thinking to make sure we have the army we want when we need it, and of not being afraid to butt heads with politicians, generals and pundits who disagree with you.
Another example of butting heads was Gates’ very unpopular decision to cancel the F-22 fighter program.
Gates outlined his defense philosophy in a January-February Foreign Affairs article, “A balanced Strategy—Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age.”
Here are excerpts from his introductory paragraphs:
The defining principle of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy is balance.
The strategy strives for balance in three areas: between trying to prevail in current conflicts and preparing for other contingencies, between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance and maintaining the United States’ existing conventional and strategic technological edge against other military forces, and between retaining those cultural traits that have made the U.S. armed forces successful and shedding those that hamper their ability to do what needs to be done.
No wonder Secretary Gates is already being called “the most radical Secretary of Defense in generations.”
Democracy-project.com tells us that in an upcoming article in the October 2009 Wired Magazine issue, Robert Gates is portrayed as “the most radical secdef in generations, upending the politics of national security, scrapping the traditional ways gear gets to troops, and defying the military-industrial complex.”
Democracy-project also says:
There’s some interesting stuff in [the upcoming article], like the fact that what differentiates Gates from other Secdefs is that he doesn’t let the wars of the future distract him from winning the wars of today. Gates is critical of the Pentagon because it’s a department that “principally plans for war. It’s not organized to wage war. And that’s what I’m trying to fix…
Gates is also tearing up the Rumsfeld playbook of military transformation, which was based on the ridiculous notion that you go to war with the Army you have. No, Gates says: You wage war with the enemies you have, not the ones you wish you had. Enough of the bloated weapons systems, we’re going to build tools for the men on the ground, against the enemies they are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sorry if that doesn’t help us win some hypothetical war against Russia or China.
Whether you agree or not with Democracy-project, the Wired Magazine article on Gates should be very interesting.
Image: Courtesy truthdig.com