August 6, 2007:
There's a growing demand, from
troops and combat commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, for permission to go into
action wearing less armor. The helmet, protective vest and bullet proof plates
add up to a bulky ensemble that restricts movement, and adds over twenty pounds
to what the infantry are carrying. The troops know, from experience, that there
are situations were lightness and flexibility are more critical than being
partially bulletproof. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) commandos have long
had the option of wearing less, or no, armor. SOCOM planning can take into
account the need for speed and flexibility, but for regular combat units,
commanders risk their careers if someone is killed or wounded because they were
not wearing all their body armor.
What irritates the troops is that they know some
guys have been hit because they were slowed down by the armor. The bulk of the
protective vest makes it difficult to climb in and out of vehicles, or
buildings (going through a window, or across rubble). In situations like this,
that extra few seconds getting around, gives the enemy an opportunity to get a
shot off, or toss a grenade. But these problems mean nothing to the politicians
and media pundits back home.
SOCOM is able to fight off the politicians and
media, partly because most of their operations are secret (no media allowed.)
It's not that the media wouldn't love to rake SOCOM over the coals for "sending
troops into combat without body armor," but they just haven't had a good
opportunity yet. When this does happen (it's not a matter of if), SOCOM will
trot out the stats and testimonials from stern combat veterans about how they
know best. That might even work.
Over the last two decades, the marines and infantry
have become better trained and more capable. These troops are increasingly
using the same exotic equipment, and techniques, as the elite SOCOM commandos.
This is a development that has not made much of an impression on the
politicians and media. This is largely because "conventional wisdom" changes
very slowly. The conventional wisdom still thinks of U.S. soldiers as unwilling
conscripts, even though there's been an all-volunteer force for 35 years. The
media is beginning accept that volunteer angle, but is slow in getting into all
the ramifications. One of those is the need to respect the professional
judgment of the troops. If that means appreciating why some operations should
be undertaken without body armor, then let them do it. This change of attitude
won't happen anytime soon. Jumping on generals because a bad decision led to
casualties is too good a story to pass up, true or not.