Hillbilly Armor

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(HOST) Last week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld addressed a crowd of soldiers at a military base in Kuwait, and he fielded some very tough questions about armor, and the lack of it, in Iraq. Commentator Philip Baruth was fascinated by what Rumsfeld said in response – and what he didn’t say.

(BARUTH) Last week Defense Secretary Rumsfeld visited a military base in Kuwait, and he asked the soldiers for tough questions. And he got a few. Why, a soldier wanted to know, were companies still – this late in the game – being sent into the war-zone with inadequately armored trucks? Why were soldiers being forced to protect their vehicles with scrap metal scavanged near the battlefield, what the troops call hillbilly armor?

Rumsfeld hesitated – a profoundly disturbing silence. And when he answered, it was vintage Rumsfeld: he pointed out that no matter how much armor you put around a Humvee or a tank, it can still be blown up. Which is true, of course – but also entirely beside the point. The troops weren’t demanding safety guarantees; they were demanding better odds.

But what struck me more than anything was the answer that Rumsfeld didn’t give: he didn’t blame the lack of armor on John Kerry. Three months ago that was standard operating procedure at all levels of the Bush administration. Any discussion of body or vehicle armor produced one unified talking point: that John Kerry once voted against an 87-billion-dollar supplemental spending bill that included some funding for troop equipment. Kerry had his reasons for voting against the 87 billion, but they got lost in the shuffle.

For millions of Americans, it became John F. Kerry’s fault that troops were dying in Iraq from otherwise survivable wounds. It was Kerry’s fault that parents were pricing Kevlar on Ebay.

It was an utterly deceptive argument, of course. That 87-billion-dollar supplemental passed, after all, and became law. Kerry’s symbolic vote, as one of a hundred senators, had no effect whatsoever. But the Bush team’s message – that Kerry was anti-armor – was devastating, and it protected Bush where he was weakest, because he and Donald Rumsfeld had had all the money they needed for armor, and they’d had a year or more to plan the invasion of Iraq. And for unaccountable reasons, they did not plan for a guerrilla insurgency.

Still, ironically, the armor-issue itself served as hillbilly armor for the Bush campaign throughout the 2004 election.

So there was Donald Rumsfeld last week, answering the tough questions. And he would have been laughed out of the Middle East if he had mentioned John Kerry’s name this time around. Suddenly there was no one to answer for the consistent and dangerous lack of armor but Donald Henry Rumsfeld. Sometimes when the buck stops, it makes a sound piercing enough for the entire world to hear.

But as the news media replayed the incident, the word “armor” began to sound stranger and stranger to my ear, as though we’d regressed historically somehow, as though we were talking about Roman legionnaires, or knights on Crusade, rather than twenty-first-century American kids trying desperately to earn their way through college.

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