Why Can’t We Provide Even Basic Protection for Our Troops?

On Aug. 18, 2004, President Bush was in campaign defense mode as he stood in a Boeing factory in Pennsylvania and championed the vast $50 billion missile defense system that he ordered deployed before it has been fully tested.

“We say to those tyrants who believe they can blackmail America and the free world, ‘You fire, we’re going to shoot it down,’ ” said the president. “I think those who oppose this ballistic missile system really don’t understand the threats of the 21st century. They’re living in the past. We’re living in the future. We’re going to do what’s necessary to protect this country.”

On Dec. 8, 2004, Specialist Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard, who lives in the present, doing what is necessary to protect this country by living in harm’s way each day in Iraq, put a secretary of defense in defense mode. The guardsman told the secretary that soldiers are so lacking in basic armor that they are scrounging through landfills for rusty metal and bulletproof glass to help keep themselves safer.

“Why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” asked Wilson. His words prompted clapping and cheers from many of the 2,300 soldiers; but only a non-answer from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose defensive posture was basically that war-is-hell and it’s not his fault.

Wilson’s words should have put the president in defense mode as well; but no one in the White House press corps ever thought to ask Bush the key question of why he sent his troops into war without the basic armor they need to protect themselves. The reporters apparently forgot that they are covering the place where the buck stops.

It was the chief executive and commander-in-chief who made the choices to spend billions of bucks to put still-unproven defense missiles in the ground while putting soldiers on the ground in Iraq without basic armor.

BULLETIN! BULLETIN! We interrupt our regularly scheduled column with this news just in from the Pentagon:

February 14, 2005 _ The U.S. missile defense system suffered its third straight test failure Sunday night. An interceptor rocket failed to launch from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific _ allowing the target rocket that had been fired from Kodiak, Alaska, to continue on is course, unscathed, until it splashed down in the Pacific near Wake Island.

This has been a season of discontent, not to mention embarrassment, for the officials at the Pentagon’s new agency that is in charge of seeing if this thing can work, now that it is already being deployed.

In 2002 President Bush made his pet project a top priority by elevating the old Ballistic Missile Defense Organization to agency status, which is a big deal in the bureaucracy, and giving it a new name: Missile Defense Agency. Since then, its mission and track record indicate that it would be more aptly named the Defense Agency of Ready, Fire, Aim! (See also: Defense Agency of On Your Mark, Go, Get Set!)

“It’s as if Henry Ford started up his automobile production line and began selling cars without ever taking one for a test drive,” said David Wright, a senior official of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization that has been critical of the program and especially the rush to deployment, as quoted in The New York Times. He said it was “irresponsible and potentially dangerous” for officials to say the unproven system is a reliable defense.

The good news, said the agency spokesman, is that the problem was an on-the-ground malfunction: something told the interceptor to abort, so it did. The bad news, of course, is that if this had been a new secret missile launched by North Korea and armed with its no longer secret nuke, it could have been a catastrophe.

The good news on that is that U.S. intelligence experts assure us that North Korea doesn’t have a missile that can reach the United States, not even Hawaii or Alaska. The bad news on that is that this intelligence comes from the experts who assured us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, there is also belated post-deployment good news of sorts for Wilson and all others in Iraq whose country left them to scavenge for armor. Bush this week asked Congress for $82 billion in supplemental war spending that was not in the budget he just sent to Capitol Hill. It contains $3.3 billion for armor for trucks and other vehicles.

Far too late, the president is doing “what’s necessary” to protect the troops he sent to fight – equipping them with basic armor that can give them the best possible chance to come home alive.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)