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Defiance in Iraq: Orders refused

Reservists who wouldn't make a risky delivery pose a challenge to discipline.

By Ann Scott TysonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2004


Army commanders moved gingerly on Sunday to address a rare and serious case of a US military unit defying orders in a combat zone, seeking to check a disciplinary breakdown while addressing safety concerns common among troops tested daily in ambushes on the roads of Iraq.

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Eighteen soldiers of a South Carolina Reserve unit are under formal investigation, five of whom have been suspended from duty and temporarily reassigned to other units, for allegedly refusing a risky mission to deliver fuel last week, according to military officials.

The incident, unfolding amid an escalation of violence and troop deaths and following other disciplinary crises such as the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, comes at a sensitive political juncture as the war in Iraq continues to dominate the US presidential campaign.

Above all, the case casts a stark light on problems faced by US ground troops in Iraq: Shortages of armored protection, overtaxed National Guard and Reserve units, and increasingly sophisticated attacks by insurgents on supply convoys manned by logistics soldiers with relatively little combat training.

It also underscores the danger for the military that such conditions will produce troubling, if isolated, breakdowns in discipline. In many respects, it's a classic illustration of the delicate line commanders must walk between enforcing order necessary to accomplish the mission while minimizing risks to soldiers' lives.

"This bears all the indications of a unit that has some discipline problems or morale or leadership problems" says a senior Army lawyer on condition of anonymity. "There's a systemic problem, and you don't want to show everyone in theater a harsh response, because that could have a devastating impact."

How US commanders handle the case, which has captured headlines at home and abroad in recent days, "will set a tone throughout the entire unit" as soldiers gauge whether their comrades are treated fairly, says Jeff McCausland, former dean of the US Army War College and now director of the Leadership in Conflict Initiative at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Still, in this case, military lawyers say, some of the soldiers, all from the South Carolina Army Reserves' 343rd Quartermaster Company, appear to have clearly crossed a line. "[The refusal] is pretty unconscionable," says the senior Army lawyer. "This doesn't even come close to being an illegal order."

It was one of the largest-scale incidents he recalled of a unit refusing to obey orders in wartime since 1990, when 67 soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard's 256th Infantry Brigade went AWOL from Fort Hood, Texas, during preparations for deployment to the Persian Gulf. Under military law, soldiers who willfully disobey lawful orders of superior officers in wartime can face maximum penalties of court martial and death.

Still, the military has acknowledged that some of the soldiers who refused to man a fuel convoy from Tallil to Taji south of Baghdad on Oct. 13 raised "valid" concerns, which lawyers say could mitigate their punishment if they cast doubt on the reasonableness of the order. Indeed, senior commanders have ordered the entire 120-man 343rd Quartermaster Company to "stand down" to conduct maintenance and retraining.