Washington, 19 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Army Specialist Amber McClenny is assigned to the 343rd Quartermaster Company and is one of the 18 soldiers being investigated.
Following the incident last week, McClenny was able to call her family in the southern U.S. state of Alabama. She left an urgent message on her mother's telephone answering machine.
"Hey, Mom, this is Amber. This is a real, real big emergency. I need you to contact someone -- I mean, raise pure hell. We had broken down trucks, nonarmored vehicles, and we were carrying contaminated fuel," McClenny said.
U.S. Army Brigadier-General James Chambers says an investigation is proceeding into the actions of the soldiers and that steps are being taken to address concerns about the quality of their equipment.
"Preliminary findings indicate that the soldiers involved expressed concerns regarding maintenance and safety. As a result, I have directed that the 343rd conduct a maintenance and safety stand-down during which time vehicles will be thoroughly inspected and the unit will retrain and certify for their mission. We will also assess armor protection for each of their vehicles and make an assessment to provide additional steel plating if it's required," Chambers said.
Chambers said the results of the investigation may require what he called "other actions." But he added that it's too early in the investigation to speculate on charges or other disciplinary actions against the soldiers.
"This is a single event. It's confined to a small group of individuals who would have had an impact on good order and discipline in the unit. If the investigation bears out any wrongdoing, the appropriate action will be taken to ensure discipline is maintained," Chambers said.
Refusing to obey orders is a serious offense in the military. Other soldiers reportedly completed the mission in question.
James Carafano is a historian who studies military issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy research center in Washington. He said the concerns of the 18 soldiers, even if true, were no reason to refuse to undertake a military supply mission, even in a war zone.
Carafano told RFE/RL that he is reluctant to prejudge the case, but adds that the soldiers are required to obey all orders that are legal and moral. He says the complaints by these troops about the dangers of the mission and inadequate equipment are unacceptable.
"We had lots of people fighting during World War II, in different theaters, that didn't have the latest equipment. [At that time,] we had a tank that was not nearly as good as the Germans' [tank]. No unit has everything it needs all the time. Some units go into battle more equipped than others. Some units go into battle more well trained than others. That's just the reality of warfare. It's not an excuse for not doing your job," Carafano said.
"Hey, Mom, this is Amber. This is a real, real big emergency. I need you to contact someone -- I mean, raise pure hell. We had broken down trucks, nonarmored vehicles, and we were carrying contaminated fuel."
Another possibility is what Carafano calls a "failure of leadership." He says such problems usually occur because military leaders fail to impress upon soldiers the reasons behind a particular operation.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Kenneth Allard also says he is reluctant to prejudge the case. Allard, who teaches military affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, likewise cites a failure of leadership.
But Allard says he believes this failure goes far above the level of company commanders in Iraq. He points out that the soldiers in this case are from the Army Reserve -- civilians who spend weekends in military training.
McClenny's reserve unit and others like it were sent to Iraq when it became clear that the standing U.S. military was not large enough to fight wars both there and in Afghanistan. And Allard tells RFE/RL that many of these units were unprepared for combat, both in training and equipment.
Allard says the problem in the 343rd Quartermaster Company is part of this pattern, previously exemplified by the scandal over U.S. soldiers abusing and torturing prisoners at the Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad.
"I would refer you to Abu Ghurayb. What did that teach us? You had some people that had never been indoctrinated in the Geneva Conventions and how they applied? Come on! That's outrageous when that happens. And yet we see these continuing signs that that is true -- people wanting to do a very good job for their country, and yet they find themselves in the position in which the country is not doing all that good a job for them," Allard said.
Allard said the problem is the policy, set at the highest levels of the U.S. government, of keeping the military small. He says President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appear blind to the need to have more people in uniform.
Bush has said repeatedly that he has given U.S. commanders in Iraq all the troops they have asked for. But Allard says Bush's generals know better than to ask for more troops. He says military commanders keep their jobs by knowing how to sniff out the preferences of their civilian leaders.