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.
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.
"The 343 QM has ceased normal operations," says Capt. Cathy Wilkinson of the 13th Corps Support Command, which oversees the company. "The command is evaluating which vehicles require armoring [consisting of steel plates which have been designed, fabricated, and installed by the 13th COSCOM soldiers] and will add armor to those vehicles as well as do a period of retraining and recertification on their mission," she said via e-mail.
Brig. Gen. James Chambers, COSCOM commander, said the investigation would last 10 to 14 days. He denied assertions reported by families of 343rd soldiers that the convoy in question carried contaminated fuel or would have lacked armed escort. He said all soldiers have adequate body armor and have trained in convoy live fire exercises, and military mechanics are fitting steel plating on supply trucks. "I can't think of anything we're not doing now," he told a Baghdad press conference.
Yet a soldier with the 343rd based in Rock Hill, S.C., told the Monitor that none of the unit's vehicles - including tractor trailers, tankers, and Humvees - had armor or mounted guns when the unit deployed to Iraq last December. Apart from a 21/2-month predeployment course, the soldiers' training had focused on skills such as testing fuel for contamination and running water-purification systems, rather than combat tasks, he said.
Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. James Helmly says the Army is upgrading reserve forces equipment and increase training on "warrior skills" such as marksmanship, battle drills, and land navigation as they face new dangers in higher numbers in Iraq where front lines do not exist.
The Army is drawing heavily on Reserve forces, which now make up 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and the overwhelming majority of logistics soldiers. Crisscrossing Iraq daily on routes plagued with road bombs and ambushes, they face dangers that approach those of GIs. Some 169 Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers have died in Iraq, with nearly 80 percent killed by hostile fire - a figure slightly higher than for active duty.
In Iraq, COSCOM officials say their 15,000 soldiers - 90 percent of whom are Guard and Reserve - train regularly on reacting to ambushes and also have armored escort for all convoys. "They would not have gone out the gate without the proper escort ... dedicated assets that provide force protection," says Lt. Col. Sue Davidson, commander of COSCOM's 49th Transportation Battalion. Each day, the convoys haul more than 1 million gallons of fuel, 110,000 cases of bottled water, and 24,000 rounds of ammunition.
Yet the dangers are constant, with between five and 20 insurgent ambushes with such weapons as road bombs, small arms, and rockets daily. "We have more problems from interdiction by the enemy than by breakdowns," Colonel Davidson says, adding that she must often redirect convoys or halt them at bases. COSCOM has lost 33 soldiers since February. The 343rd has suffered no casualties.