Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2004 / 2 Teves, 5765

Zev Chafets

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U.S. has the best-equipped military in history, and a G.I.'s ability to challenge the defense | Edward Lee Pitts deserves a Pulitzer Prize. And Thomas Wilson should get a Silver Star.

Pitts is the reporter from the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press who last week infiltrated Donald Rumsfeld's troops-only "town meeting" in Kuwait and planted a question about the insufficiency of defensive equipment in the Iraqi theater.

A Tennessee National Guardsman, Thomas Wilson, served as Pitt's mouthpiece. He stood up and demanded to know if the secretary of defense was aware that some American units had to scavenge for protective armor and what did Rumsfeld plan to do about it.

A Pentagon spokesman initially denounced Pitts and Wilson for breaking the rules of journalistic engagement. But the question hit a nerve and drew cheers from the audience.

Most of these meet-the-secretary events are meaningless morale sessions, but this was different. Wilson's fellow Guardsmen cheered him not only for raising a troubling question, but for having the brass to do it.

Rumsfeld, to his credit, handled the question pretty well. His reply - you go to war with the army you have, not the army you'd like to have - was blunt but honest. So was his admission that no amount of armor will save every single soldier.

Rumsfeld's critics are now assailing him for sounding crass. But a certain amount of hardheartedness goes with his job, especially in wartime. Rumsfeld is in charge of spending American lives in the pursuit of victory. That's a heavy burden. Hand-wringing and false tears don't help.

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Still, there is a limit to even Rumsfeld's candor. The secretary of defense didn't say, as he could rightly have, that the U.S. Army sends its troops into combat with fantastic technological advantages. Anyone who was a soldier even a decade ago marvels at the equipment American soldiers have, from night-fighting gear to computers, from protective Kevlar to state-of-the-art scopes. When the U.S. military goes up against Arab insurgents - or the Iraqi Army - there is simply no comparison.

This is as it should be. War isn't a game. Fairness isn't a goal. On the contrary, the whole point is to gain an overwhelming advantage. Despite its shortcomings, the Pentagon has largely done that job. By any standard short of perfection, American troops are astonishingly well-provisioned and equipped - a fact attested to by the relative ease with which they win their battles.

It's worth remembering, though, that great hardware is not the only explanation for American military superiority. Democracy, it turns out, is not simply the most pleasant form of government. It is also the most ruthlessly efficient - especially in wartime.

Within hours of the Rumsfeld town meeting, the entire American media set up a hue and cry about what's missing in the Iraqi theater. After initial sputtering about a lack of resources, the Pentagon (inspired no doubt by an embarrassed secretary of defense) started talking about stepping up production of armored vehicles at home and greater attention to the safety of troops in the field.

This kind of public-driven improvement doesn't take place in the armies of America's adversaries, which are led by friends and relatives of dictators. Loyalty, not competence, is what counts. Soldiers who ask questions are punished. Soldiers like Thomas Wilson who ask them publicly are shot (if they're lucky). Same for cheeky reporters like Edward Lee Pitts.

Guys like Pitts and Wilson keep the Pentagon and the generals honest. In the end, they are a source of American military strength no less than the extra armored vehicles which will - thanks to them - be moving down the assembly line for Iraq.

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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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