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Originally published Tuesday, December 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The leaders we have, not the ones we might want

Will someone explain to me what in the world is going on in Iraq? Our troops are now digging around in trash heaps looking for chunks of metal they can use to improvise armor to...

Special to The Times

Will someone explain to me what in the world is going on in Iraq? Our troops are now digging around in trash heaps looking for chunks of metal they can use to improvise armor to protect their vehicles against small-arms attacks.

We are not talking about troops whining because they want another dozen $10-million-a-pop missiles or better satellite-guidance systems. These are grunts in the field getting shot at who are picking around in junkyards for chunks of metal they can weld on whatever tin-can war equipment the Army is passing out these days.

When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked why U.S. forces were being sent into action with insufficient protection, Rumsfeld told the soldiers, in effect, to stop whining about all those shrapnel holes in their inadequate military vehicles.

Rumsfeld, in what has to shake out as one of the most cold-blooded, disaffected statements by anyone about the war, told the people risking their lives, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have."

Rumsfeld and his Pentagon buddies, who are safe behind nice, fat desks, want the troops to go out and fight despite the fact that the behind-the-lines people did not do their job. They did not plan adequate armor protection and issued the troops equipment that even under the most minimal of battlefield conditions will get them killed.

The troops know it because they are in the middle of the fighting. They have seen explosives penetrate the inadequate armor and kill their buddies. That's why they are searching trash piles for protection. The real trash pile is in Washington, D.C., and could use a good picking over.

I was a platoon leader in the 101st Airborne in Vietnam. When we got into bad fights, it was always terrible and frightening. But in the back of our minds, we always knew we were fighting against people with inferior equipment and weapons.

We knew if we could fight long enough, stay alive long enough, our weapons and technology would help us win. Both sides fought with courage in that war, but our equipment and weapons were the best. Now we have soldiers in the field with fighting vehicles that wouldn't even stop a bullet unless soldiers glued some junkyard trash on the sides.

I am a veteran. I was not asked to risk my life and fight for my country using second-class equipment and pieces of glued-on trash. Has this country forgotten how terrible war can be? Has our military leadership been sitting in their offices so long that they forgot what bullets and bombs can do to human flesh? Or worse, they remember and no longer care?

Perhaps worse than lack of adequate equipment is lack of adequate troops. This administration has been very loud telling anyone who will listen that we will stay the course. From the looks of things, what that means is the soldiers who happened to be enlisted at the time the war was started will be forced to continue fighting until America gets tired of the bloodshed. That's because there are no new troops to send in to relieve those doing the fighting.

Reserve and National Guard soldiers make up 45 percent of U.S. troops in Iraq. The so-called Pentagon "stop-loss" orders are forcing soldiers to continue fighting beyond the limits of their enlistment. President Bush said there would be no draft, but it does not take a brain surgeon to figure out that if we do not have enough soldiers in our regular and part-time forces combined, new soldiers will need to be found somewhere.

An Army Reserve unit in Iraq refused to carry out a convoy mission it considered too dangerous. Eight U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Kuwait filed a lawsuit challenging the "stop-loss" policy. These people are not cowards. They are soldiers at the sharp end of the stick who are trying every way they know how to tell America that the desk-jockeys are sending them into battle without appropriate equipment, without enough troops, and getting soldiers killed unnecessarily.

We went through this in Vietnam and should have learned to ask questions and hold our leaders accountable. Get the heat off those risking their lives and start questioning the Pentagon and administration officials responsible for this nonsense.

Steven W. Simpson is a writer and editor. He teaches at the Mercer Island High School alternative school, Crest Learning Center, and publishes a weekly online education newsletter, Ed.Net (www.edbriefs.com).

Write him at simpson@edbriefs.com

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