Defense & National Security

Ugly Reporting Wrongs Rumsfeld

It may not have been conscious sabotage of the defense secretary, but it’s hard to believe otherwise.

Nowhere was the media’s irresponsibility on the Iraq conflict more acutely demonstrated than in the barrage of ugly news reports on Donald Rumsfeld’s exchange in Kuwait with Spc. Thomas Wilson, an exchange that is still reverberating across the country.

Those who pay close attention to the news are almost certainly familiar with the reported encounter. Spc. Wilson, an airplane mechanic with the Tennessee Army National Guard, asked the secretary an important question: “. . . A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up . . . to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper armament [sic] vehicles to carry with us north.”

Out of Context

Virtually all the newspaper, magazine, radio, and TV accounts wildly misrepresented what happened next. As the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks “reported”–and his piece was wholly representative of the media in general–”Rumsfeld replied: ‘As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Rumsfeld, as the media would have it, was blowing off the deepest concerns of our men and women about to be placed in a deadly situation.

This observer–along with a number of other pro-Bush, but not necessarily pro-war or pro-Rumsfeld conservatives I talked with–was also initially outraged upon first hearing the exchange endlessly repeated on radio and TV, and then reading the account in cold print. How could the secretary have been so callous? Why hadn’t he told these soldiers what the Defense Department was doing to improve matters?

Any parent with a kid at risk in Iraq would have been fully justified in demanding Rumsfeld’s head for such cold-blooded remarks. Rumsfeld, according to the media’s portrayal, was telling the troops to “suck it up” and casualties be damned. No wonder his reported remarks caused such a furor.

But the official transcript of the Kuwaiti townhall meeting with the troops, as last week’s HUMAN EVENTS reported, reveals an entirely different story.

The first words out of Rumsfeld’s mouth in response to Wilson were not what the media either said or implied or disclosed in film clips. They were, instead, words of encouragement. Rumsfeld dwelt at length on how much progress the military was making in solving the problem that began materializing a year ago August when the enemy started using explosives to blow up thin-skinned Army vehicles normally used in the rear of the combat zone. Nor was the secretary caught off guard by the question, as the media has suggested. Here, in fact, is how Rumsfeld immediately responded–all 94 words worth–to Spc. Wilson’s now famous query:

    “I talked to the general coming out here about the pace at which the vehicles are being armored. They have been brought from all over the world, wherever they’re not needed, to a place here where they are needed. I’m told that they are being–the Army is–I think it’s something like 400 a month are being done. And it’s essentially a matter of physics. It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter on the part of the Army of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it.”

Then Rumsfeld launched into an explanation of why there weren’t as many armored vehicles as the conflict now warranted. “As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate they believe–it’s a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously–but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment,” said Rumsfeld.

“I can assure you,” he continued, “that General Schoolmaker and the leadership in the Army and certainly General Whitcomb are sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that would be desirable for it to have, but they’re working at a good clip. . . . [T]he goal we have is to have as many of those vehicles as is humanly possible with the appropriate level of armor available for the troops. And that is what the Army has been working on.”

Does this sound like the media’s grotesque portrait of Rumsfeld?

Those friends of mine who had been furious with the defense secretary for his apparent indifference to the soldiers’ life and death concerns were stunned as to how they had been misled when I read them the transcript. They were not upset that the question had been prompted by an embedded reporter, Edward Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, for the query, judging from the positive reaction of some of the troops, was clearly a legitimate one.

But they were hot under the collar–and still are–at having been hoodwinked by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and radio and TV networks as to Rumsfeld’s response. The Post, in fact, repeated the distortion two days in a row–December 9 and 10–when it had to know better. Even NBC’s Tim Russert–the toughest, but fairest news moderator in TV–showed the distorted film clip of Rumsfeld’s answer four day’s after his town hall meeting.

The issues of Time and Newsweek that hit the newsstands this past week were still misreporting the Rumsfeld-Wilson exchange. Time: “It was Rumsfeld’s response though, that instantly ignited a firestorm. ‘You go to war with the Army you have,’ Rumsfeld told Wilson, ‘not the Army you might want . . .’” Newsweek: “Rumsfeld’s initial response [to Wilson's question] was testy: ‘You go to war with the Army you have,’ he barked.” On December 15, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol–nearly a week after the print media had twisted Rumsfeld’s reply–unleashed a jeremiad against the Defense secretary, using the essentially false quote as his launching pad.

Doesn’t anyone look at original transcripts anymore?

Rumsfeld talked to about 2,300 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and civilian laborers at Camp Buehring in northern Kuwait. Contrary to media suggestions, the troops were warm and receptive. The gathering frequently cheered and applauded the defense secretary, as he praised the troops and informed them how important their mission was. They cheered and applauded his remarks in response to their questions, gave him standing ovations and crowded around him for 45 minutes shaking his hand and snapping his picture after he had briefed them. His appearance was also broken up with good-natured laughter. These soldiers were clearly not acting bitterly or ready to mutiny. Those who read the complete transcript of Rumsfeld’s appearance as well as the briefing for reporters by Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb will have a far different understanding of what occurred than if they choose to rely on the news accounts.

Gen. Whitcomb, commander of the Third Army and Coalition Forces Land Component Command, has major responsibility for ground operations in Iraq. He explained to reporters the day after Rumsfeld’s meeting with the troops that the U.S. was in the process of mass-producing armored Humvees, from 30 per month last August to “over 400 per month” currently. He described how the military, in 10 sites in both Kuwait and Iraq, has been systematically adding armor “to existing unarmored vehicles” and using other measures to make the vehicles safer. Of some 30,000 “wheeled vehicles” in the area, Whitcomb allowed, fewer than 8,000 are not armored currently, but many of those are not being deployed in dangerous areas and there is an effort to fix them as well.

None of this is essentially disputed.

Fog of Journalism

Whitcomb then boasted: “I can tell you that the last full brigade that deployed into Iraq about six weeks ago, the 256th Infantry, almost a thousand wheeled vehicles . . . had some level of armor protection on it. . . . Our goal in what we’re working towards is that no wheeled vehicle that leaves Kuwait going into Iraq is driven by a soldier that does not have some level of armor protection on it.”

Why aren’t they armored in the first place? In former wars, these vehicles were normally deployed in the rear areas. The Humvee, as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf notes, “was never considered an armored vehicle to begin with,” but the insurgents have unleashed a new tactic that the Pentagon has clearly been grappling with in a serious way.

Americans know the Iraqi situation is dicey. The military is conflicted as to how many troops are needed and whether the situation is worsening or, as some believe, is essentially contained in the Sunni triangle. Our knowledge of what’s happening is certainly clouded by the fog of war. But what about the fog of journalism? How can Americans–especially decision-making Americans in Congress and elsewhere–comprehend what’s happening when the journalistic community relentlessly spreads what amounts to a wretched lie about what our government is doing?

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