- The Washington Times - Monday, December 13, 2004

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If you don’t like the message, as an old spin doctors’ motto goes, knock the messenger. That’s how some people are reacting to the soldier’s question that knocked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld off his game during a town-hall session in Kuwait.

Spc. Thomas J. Wilson, a scout with a Tennessee National Guard unit, wondered out loud why soldiers still have to fortify their canvas-covered Humvees with “hillbilly armor”: scrap metal and ballistic-resistant glass that they dig out of landfills for protection. After a brief moment of stony silence, the comment brought a spontaneous eruption of “hooah!” and applause from other troops.

It also brought a remarkably condescending response from Rumsfeld, who may have become too accustomed to treating reporters like annoyingly curious children to shift gears to a tone appropriate for the combat men and women under his command.

“You go to war with the Army you have,” he said, “not the one you might want or the one you might wish to have at a later time.”

That was a curious comment, considering how much time the Defense Department has had to build up to “the Army we might want” since the end of what the administration calls “major fighting” last year.

Rumsfeld deliberately held down the manpower and support for Iraq against the strong advice of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki and other generals who said that more troops and equipment would be needed. The Army we have is what Rumsfeld wanted, not what the generals said we needed.

Now, Rumsfeld assured the troops, the Pentagon is pushing its suppliers to produce armored vehicles as fast as possible. But his claim brought swift dispute from some of the makers of armor and Humvees. The factories have been running well below capacity, spokesmen said, but the Pentagon had not taken them up on the offers to produce more armored vehicles.

Meanwhile, improvised explosive devices at roadsides — against which our troops could use more armor — have caused about half of America’s casualties.

Yet, Rumsfeld added what may be the world’s least necessary caveat: “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank; it can (still) be blown up.”

Gee, thank you, Mr. Secretary. And happy holidays to you, too.

I don’t know when Rumsfeld will take questions from soldiers again, but the day after you-know-what freezes over sounds about right.

Yet, hard as it may be to criticize Spec. Wilson for raising a question that undoubtedly weighs on the mind of each and every soldier in Iraq, some people are finding ways to criticize the combat newspaper correspondent who, it turns out, had a hand in Wilson asking it.

Edward Lee Pitts, a reporter with the Chattanooga, Tenn., Times Free Press who is embedded with Wilson’s Tennessee National Guard unit, took credit in an e-mail later leaked to Internet sites that after he learned that reporters would not have a chance to question Rumsfeld, he worked on questions in advance of the meeting with two soldiers from the unit.

“I have been trying to get this story out for weeks,” he wrote, “as soon as I found out I would be on an unarmored truck — and my paper published two stories on it. I believe lives are at stake with so many soldiers going across the border riding with scrap metal as protection. It may be too late for the unit I am with, but hopefully not for those who come after.”

In a letter to readers, his newspaper acknowledged that the reporter should have mentioned his role in his reporting, but otherwise, his editors supported him, as they should. He did not deceive anyone. No one forced Wilson to ask the question, which President Bush later agreed was a legitimate question to ask.

Yet, some partisan critics, apparently unable to defend Rumsfeld, attacked Pitts. “He created news in order to cover it,” said conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. “… We found out the whole thing today is a setup.” A setup to do what? Tell the truth?

A Pentagon spokesman, huffed that the meeting was “intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary” and that no one should have “interfered with that opportunity, whatever the intention.” Hey, you want dialogue? You got dialogue!

Here’s a bigger question: Why should reporters have to resort to asking questions through soldiers in order to get an answer and, one hopes, some action from the top brass and the Bush administration on a long-standing problem like vehicle armor?

Our uniformed men and women in Iraq are not whining about this. They courageously take on dangerous missions every day. Afterward, they want to get home safe. The rest of us should support them with something more substantive than flag-waving. That’s not too much to ask.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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