Letting Down the Troops

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 29, 2004

Not long ago I interviewed a soldier who was paralyzed from injuries he had suffered in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Like so many other wounded soldiers I've talked to, he expressed no anger and no bitterness about the difficult hand he's been dealt as a result of the war.

But when I asked this soldier, Eugene Simpson Jr., a 27-year-old staff sergeant from Dale City, Va., whom he had been fighting in Iraq - who, exactly, the enemy was - he looked up from his wheelchair and stared at me for a long moment. Then, in a voice much softer than he had been using for most of the interview, and with what seemed like a mixture of sorrow, regret and frustration, he said: "I don't know. That would be my answer. I don't know."

We have not done right by the troops we've sent to Iraq to fight this crazy, awful war. We haven't given them a clear mission, and we haven't protected them well. I'm reminded of the famous scene in "On the Waterfront" when Terry Malloy, the character played by Marlon Brando, tells his brother: "You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit."

The thing to always keep in mind about our troops in Iraq is that they were sent to fight the wrong war. America's clearly defined and unmistakable enemy, Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, was in Afghanistan. So the men and women fighting and dying in Iraq were thrown into a pointless, wholly unnecessary conflict.

That tragic move was made worse by the failure of the U.S. to send enough troops to effectively wage the war that we started in Iraq. And we never fully equipped the troops we did send. The people who ordered up this war had no idea what they were doing. They were wildly overconfident, blinded by hubris and a dangerous, overarching ideology. They thought it would be a cakewalk.

In May of 2003, President Bush thought the war was over. It had barely begun. Many thousands have died in the long and bloody months since then. Even now, Dick Cheney, with a straight face, is calling Iraq "a remarkable success story."

One of the worst things about the management of this war is the way we've treated our men and women in uniform. The equipment shortages experienced by troops shoved into combat have been unconscionable. Soldiers and marines, in many cases, have been forced to face enemy fire with flak jackets from the Vietnam era that were all but useless, and sometimes without any body armor at all. Relatives back home have had to send the troops such items as radios and goggles, and even graphite to keep their weapons from jamming.

One of the most ominous signs about the war is the growing disenchantment of the troops. They've spent too much time on the most dangerous roads in the world without the proper training, without up-to-date equipment, without the proper armor for their vehicles and without the support they feel they should be getting from their Iraqi allies.

The Times's Edward Wong, after a series of interviews with marines in the Sunni-dominated city of Ramadi, wrote:

"They said the Iraqi police and National Guard are unhelpful at best and enemy agents at worst, raising doubts about President Bush's assertion that local forces would soon help relieve the policing duties of the 138,000 American troops in Iraq. The marines said they could use better equipment from the Pentagon, and they feared that the American people were ignorant of the hardships they faced in this dessicated land."

Several members of an Army Reserve unit refused a direct order to deliver fuel along a dangerous route in Iraq a couple of weeks ago. They said their trucks were not armored and were prone to breaking down. An example of the kind of catastrophe they were seeking to avoid came just a week later, when 49 unarmed and otherwise unprotected Iraqi soldiers were attacked and killed in cold blood in a remote region of eastern Iraq.

This has been a war run by amateurs and incompetents. Whatever anyone has felt about the merits of the war, there is no excuse for preparing so poorly and for failing to see, at a minimum, that the troops were properly trained and equipped.

The United States has the most powerful military in history, yet it is bogged down in a humiliating quagmire in a country that was barely functional to begin with. We've dealt ourselves the cruelest of hands in Iraq. We can't win this war and, tragically, we don't know how to end it.