Lost in a Masquerade

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

December 10, 2004

WASHINGTON

Hoooo-rah! Rummy finally got called on the carpet.

Not by the president, of course, but by troops fighting in Iraq. Some of them are finally fed up enough to rumble about his back-door draft and failure to provide them with the proper armor for their Humvees, leaving them scrambling to improvise with what they call "hillbilly armor."

The defense secretary had been expected to go to Iraq on this trip but spent the day greeting troops in Kuwait instead. Even though Pentagon officials insist that security wasn't an issue, I bet they had to be worried not to travel the extra 40 miles to Iraq.

Rummy met with troops at Camp Buehring, named for Chad Buehring, an Army colonel who died last year when insurgents in Baghdad launched a rocket-propelled grenade into Al Rasheed, a Green Zone hotel once frequented by Western journalists and administration officials that is still closed to guests because - despite all the president's sunny bromides about resolutely prevailing - security in Iraq is relentlessly deteriorating.

As Joe Biden told Aaron Brown of CNN about his visit to Falluja, "They got the biggest hornets' nest, but the hornets have gone up and set up nests other places." He said that a general had run up to him as he was getting into his helicopter to confide, "Senator, anybody who tells you we don't need forces here is a G.D. liar."

Rummy, however, did not hesitate to give the back of his hand to soldiers about to go risk their lives someplace he didn't trouble to go.

He treated Thomas Wilson - the gutsy guardsman from Tennessee who asked why soldiers had "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?" - as if he were a pesky Pentagon reporter. The defense chief used the same coldly cantankerous tone and squint he displays in press briefings, an attitude that long ago wore thin. He did everything but slap the kid in the hospital bed.

In one of his glib "Nothing's perfect," "Freedom's untidy" and "Stuff happens" maxims, Rummy told the soldier: "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have."

It wouldn't make a good Army slogan, and it was a lousy answer, especially when our kids are getting blown up every day in a war ginned up on administration lies. Remember when the president promised in the campaign that the troops would have all the body armor they needed?

These young men and women went to Iraq believing the pap they were told: they'd have a brief battle, chocolate, flowers, gratitude. Instead, they were thrust into a prolonged and savage insurgent war without the troop levels or armor they needed because the Pentagon's neocons had made plans based on their spin - that turning Iraq into a democracy would be a cakewalk. And because Rummy wanted to make his mark by experimenting with a lean, slimmed-down force. And because Rummy kept nattering on about a few "dead-enders," never acknowledging the true force, or true nationalist fervor, of the opposition.

The dreams of Rummy and the neocons were bound to collide. But it's immoral to trap our troops in a guerrilla war without essential, lifesaving support and matériel just so a bunch of officials who have never been in a war can test their theories.

How did this dangerous chucklehead keep his job? He must have argued that because of the president's re-election campaign, the military was constrained from doing what it is trained to do, to flatten Falluja and other insurgent strongholds. He must have told W. he deserved a chance to try again after the election.

He had a willing audience. W. likes officials who feed him swaggering fictions instead of uncomfortable facts.

The president loves dressing up to play soldier. To rally Camp Pendleton marines facing extended deployments in Iraq, he got gussied up in an Ike D-Day-style jacket, with epaulets and a big presidential seal on one lapel and his name and "Commander in Chief" on the other.

When he really had a chance to put on a uniform and go someplace where the enemy was invisible and there was no exit strategy and our government was not leveling with us about how bad it was, W. wasn't so high on the idea. But now that it's just a masquerade - giving a morale boost to troops heading off someplace where the enemy's invisible and there's no exit strategy and the government's not leveling with us about how bad it is - hey, man, it's cool.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com