Columns » Deborah Mathis

Rumsfeld doesn't get it

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I must confess that I fail to see the quality in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that endears him to so many observers, including some reporters. One of the elders in the Bush administration, Rumsfeld is said to possess a certain charm, partly because of his frank and confident communicative style. From what I’ve seen of him, however, he has too often come off as brusque, rather than frank, cocky rather than confident. Maybe you have to be there. I would like to hear how Rumsfeld’s admirers would explain last week’s performance before 2,300 American soldiers in Kuwait. The defense czar went to give a pep talk — a laudable thing — but might have gotten more than he bargained for in the Q&A that followed. “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” asked Army Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th Regimental Combat Team. “You go to war with the Army you have,” Rumsfeld responded after a while. “You can have all the armor in the world on a tank and it can be blown up.” Well, do say. The exchange left my jaw tight. How dare a man who bore much of the responsibility for young men and women being in harm’s way — and for who knows how long — how dare he be so dismissive. It is only testament to the troops’ dedication and respectfulness that they didn’t give Rumsfeld the bum’s rush for his reply. I suppose it passed for candor in some quarters, but to my ears, it had the same condescending, platitudinous ring as “life is not a bowl of cherries.” As if the men and women fighting one of the wildest, most understocked and most understaffed wars in U.S. history need to be told about making do with what they have. Or as if they didn’t know that no armor provides 100 percent security. The administration and its disciples have been consistent in characterizing opponents and challengers to the war in Iraq as bad for troop morale. Fortunately, a good number of the service members over there — and their families here — seem to understand the distinction. You can hate the policy and still love the people who are forced to enact it. If there is a failure in supporting the troops, it falls on Rumsfeld’s watch. While risking their lives and their livelihoods, the army of the world’s only superpower, and antagonist of the Iraqi war, shouldn’t have to rummage the trash to piece together a fighting machine. If what Spc. Wilson said was true, the U.S. government owes him better equipment. If what the Defense Department says is true — that the Feds are busting their buns to turn out more top-notch equipment — Rumsfeld owed Wilson a better answer. That does not mean a dishonest or disingenuous one. It does mean a more sympathetic one. The man in the nice business suit, surrounded by a cadre of security and comforted by the thought of a gassed-up jet waiting to whisk him back to civilization, needed to say something that showed he gets it. Yes, that he feels their pain. Military brass like to say that “hope is not a strategy” for winning war. They might want to remind their civilian leader that neither is charm — or whatever that mysterious “it” is that makes Rumsfeld popular.

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