Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
In Iraq, a Humvee – the modern military’s jeep – is involved in an enemy action or a serious fender bender or rollover almost daily. Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz’s command has experienced 13 Humvee rollovers, resulting in 17 of his soldiers dying. “Nine of the deaths occurred in the last 90 days,” he says.
Gen. Metz says that most rollovers occur when “the driver has lost control of the vehicle.” In a letter to his unit, he summed up other causes, such as “aggressive driving, lack of situational awareness, rough terrain, poor /limited visibility, adverse traffic conditions, improvised configurations and failure to wear seat belts.”
Amen on the aggressive driving. If bad guys are firing rockets and automatic weapons and blowing off mines left, right and center, no one in his or her right mind would drive on the most dangerous roads in the world the way we oh-so-carefully drive by a parked police car on the freeway. As longtime guerrilla-war veteran retired-Lt. Col. Ben Willis puts it, “The MO would be to put the pedal to the metal.”
The problem is that the soft-skinned Humvee was conceived as a light utility truck – not a close-combat vehicle. “The Humvee is horribly thin-skinned and underpowered,” says Army veteran Scott Schreiber, who drove one for six years. “It should be used in roles that don’t call for armor. If the role calls for armor, it’s simple: Use armor.”
At the end of World War II, I was in a recon company in Italy. We started with armored cars – M-8s – but as Terrible Tito’s terrorists started using roadside mines and staging ambushes similar to the mean stuff going down in Iraq, our leaders quickly got rid of those thin-skinned suckers and put us in light tanks – M-24s. Within a year, as the guerrilla war with Yugoslavia heated up, we were given Sherman tanks – M-4s – with their even-thicker armor protection. And when a blown mine or ambush slapped shrapnel or slugs against the sides of our 36-ton tanks, we sat safely inside those steel walls, with our weapons turned full-bore on the enemy. Our armor protection gave us the critical edge our troopers should have today.
But here we are in Iraq after 15 bloody months still welding steel plate onto Humvees. Sure, our soldiers gain a tad more protection, but it also turns the vehicles into rollover queens because it shifts their center of gravity.
Meanwhile, we have the Pentagon spending billions of dollars on irrelevant gold-plated fighter aircraft and on the lightly armored Stryker – a vehicle that is not battle-tried and that the Army has placed in relatively safe northern Iraq. Not to mention the thousands of potentially lifesaving armored personnel carriers – M-113s – left over from the Cold War gathering dust in depots.
What’s further wrong with this picture is that Iraq has excellent steelworkers and first-class machine shops that could be put to good use upgrading captured Iraqi equipment into armored vehicles capable of protecting our warriors while also securing our long, exposed supply lines.
Our modern generals might give a lot of lip service to protecting the force, but any way you cut it, what’s going on in Iraq is criminal. Clearly there’s a disconnect. The brass need to spend less time in their luxurious lakefront palaces and get down on the ground with the troops. Maybe then they’ll develop a greater sense of urgency about what’s really needed on those killer roads the same way the 88th Division commanding general, Maj. Gen. Bryant E. Moore, did with us back in Italy and then again in Korea – where he was eventually killed as a corps commander leading from the front.
And maybe our lawmakers should stop by Walter Reed hospital and get some firsthand skinny from the terribly wounded being treated there about what a death wagon the Humvee has become from the way it’s presently being used.
“How many soldiers and Marines need to be maimed or killed by roadside bombs before Congress will get off their tails?” Mary Martino rightfully asks. “My son is serving his country with honor and pride in Iraq … and has the right to expect that his country will do whatever it takes to protect him in his duties.”