Saturday, January 14, 2006

X misses the mark

I like Andrew Exum, and I think he's got some good points but is ultimately off-base in his op-ed in today's Times. First, he says that soldiers are being burdened with too much gear already and argues that we shouldn't bother with trying to improve their armor.
Lost among the politicians' cries for more extensive armor for the troops is the fact that most soldiers, in my experience and based on discussions with many, feel they have enough armor already - and many feel they are increasingly being burdened with too much equipment. And the new supplementary body armor unveiled this week in Washington doubles the weight of the equipment - worn over the torso and, now, the upper arms - to 32 pounds from 16 pounds (for a medium-sized soldier).
For the most part, I agree with that assessment. In Afghanistan, I and many other soldiers I dealt with were already pissed about the amount of gear we carried. Arm coverage is just about the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. You might actually want to do something with your arms.

I will say, however, that more than one soldier (again, myself included) felt that the side panels of the interceptor body armor were too vulnerable and, since IEDs are usually timed to blow into the side of a humveee, that leaves most of a soldier's vital organs exposed to direct attack. (Side panel plates were, we knew, already available in other versions of the IBA.)

But X carries his point too far at the end of his piece:
(T)he American public and its elected representatives don't always understand what military officers and soldiers do: that the safety of individual soldiers must always be balanced against the ability to accomplish the unit mission.

I worry that this timeless lesson is now being forgotten in the interest of minimizing American casualties. "Protecting soldiers," as an Army spokesman told me the other day, "is our No. 1 priority."

Excuse me, but shouldn't winning the war be our No. 1 priority?
Exum is a smart guy and a former Ranger officer, so he should know better than this. The first priority of any commander should be protecting soldiers and not because of any touchy-feely reasons, but because that's how wars are won. As the preface to Army Field Manual 21-75, "Combat Skills of the Soldier," puts it, "Wars are not won by machines and weapons but by the soldiers who use them. Even the best equipped army cannot win without motivated and well-trained soldiers."

This is the point of better and, yes, smarter approaches to soldier protection. Soldiers have been punished for losing or abandoning equipment in wars, even though rifles and humvees and other equipment can be replaced relatively quickly. All you need is money. A soldier is much harder to replace. For that you need a willing, qualified person and the time to train them to fight. These are much more precious commodities.

History is replete with stories of armies which won battles they should have lost. Many of those battles were decided by leadership, true, but others were decided by the skill and experience of the forces which fought them. Still others were lost due to attrition brought on by either enemy contact or sickness. Hell, society as we know it might not exist at all were it not for a virulent sickness which brought down Assyrian troops before they could demolish Jerusalem around 700 B.C. And where would we be if the Nazis had had better protection against the cold at Stalingrad?

Napoleon wrote in a letter in 1813 that "The soldier's health must come before economy or any other consideration." This was the year after he lost two-thirds of his troops to hunger, fatigue, sickness and desertion during his failed Russian campaign. Every soldier's body buried or simply abandoned by the side of the road was also one less rifle to be fired or trained artilleryman to work the big guns.

I have no qualms with Exum admitting the cold, hard fact that soldiers die in wars, but he was a leader of men and should know that we should do everything in our power to keep soldiers as safe as possible. We should do this not only because we value their lives, but because we value victory.

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