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Published: Friday, 12/10/2004

An unpleasant encounter

HE WAS caught off guard. But the reaction of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to blunt questions from soldiers spoke volumes about what is wrong with the U.S. military occupation in Iraq. He stammered, he asked one Iraq-bound GI to repeat his question, and he answered serious inquiries about equipment shortages on the front line with the equivalent of just make do.

"As you know, you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time," was Mr. Rumsfeld's response.

But it was the choice of the Bush Administration to go to war in Iraq. It was the responsibility of the Bush Administration to make sure the tens of thousands of U.S. forces it sent into battle half a world away were prepared for whatever contingencies the conflict would bring.

They failed in that responsibility and American soldiers are paying the price with their lives. And, said one researcher at a Washington defense think tank, the troops fighting and dying on the multiple front lines of Iraq are increasingly frustrated with the "unclear and unending" nature of their catastrophic mission.

Yet their frustration, expressed pointedly to Mr. Rumsfeld during his visit to Kuwait, caught the Pentagon chief by surprise. He can't possibly be unaware that soldiers are literally risking life and limb by driving convoys with unarmored Humvees or those half protected by rusted and salvaged scrap metal.

Spec. Thomas Wilson, whose Tennessee National Guard unit is scheduled to roll into Iraq soon, was cheered by fellow soldiers when he asked the defense leader, "Why don't we have those resources [protective armor] readily available to us?" The answer is -oops-huge miscalculations by the administration about what would happen in Iraq after the U.S. got rid of Saddam Hussein.

Besides shortages of body armor and armored vehicles for soldiers pinned down regularly by insurgents, Mr. Rumsfeld and the wartime president he reports to surely understand growing troop distress over the U.S. Army's strategy to stretch the tour of duty for some of its overextended troops.

The "stop-loss policy" that has already prevented thousand of solders from leaving the military at the end of their voluntary service commitments is being actively fought in the court with soldier lawsuits. It is not what many say they contractually agreed to when they enlisted.

And so it goes. The feel-good glow of "Mission Accomplished" is gone for an administration that rushed to war ill prepared and is now caught off guard by the bloody post-conflict insurgency and the understandable concerns of Americans forced to fight it.



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