The recent refusal of at least 18 soldiers in the 343rd Quartermaster Company to go on a perilous mission in Iraq has created a torrent of competing allegations of mutiny and military incompetence. With an election approaching, the Bush administration is now desperately seeking to defuse the controversy.
History has shown, however, that alleged mutinies do not go away easily and that they often reflect deeper problems in a war. For the military, even saying "mutiny" is like crying "Fire!" in a crowded theater. When it first appears, commanders are trained to isolate it and crush it before it spreads. In Roman times, reluctant or mutinous soldiers were punished through "decimation," a word often used incorrectly to refer to total destruction. Generals would "decimate" units by executing every 10th soldier as collective punishment. (In one case, Marcus Licinius Crassus put as many as 4,000 legionnaires to death.)
Yet history has often proved the mutineers to be correct in their judgment of the incompetence or futility of military orders. Indeed, as with the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, the public often comes to not only agree with but to lionize mutineers who opposed tyrannical or self-destructive commands.
The 343rd, an Army Reserve unit, clearly was not facing tyrannical conditions, but the actions of some of its soldiers have raised widespread concerns about military incompetence.
After returning from a four- or five-day mission marred by inadequate or broken equipment, the soldiers were ordered to take a shipment of jet fuel to Taji, a perilous route even for armored and functioning equipment. According to family members and media accounts, many soldiers objected that their trucks lacked essential armor, vehicles were broken down, there was no plan for adequate combat support and, finally, the fuel shipment was contaminated (and thus unusable).They reportedly raised these concerns with their command but were ordered to carry out the mission anyway. It was then that the 18 soldiers refused to go on the convoy.
The incident in Iraq follows other cases of dissension, including the action taken against a National Guard battalion in South Carolina after 13 members went AWOL before shipping out to Iraq. There have been cases of soldiers not returning from leave. Clearly, these are the exceptions rather than the rule in our forces, where morale still seems high and the number of such incidents remains relatively low. (By comparison, in World War II, 2 million men out of a force of 16 million were court-martialed for various reasons.)
Yet even the Pentagon admits that some of the complaints of the alleged mutineers are "valid." After writing about the shortage of body armor in 2003, I was deluged by such complaints from soldiers, including one who recounted how her unit was hanging buckets of rocks on the sides of unarmored Humvees for added protection.
Whereas cowardice is usually a failing of an individual soldier, mutinies involve groups of soldiers and are often more about the commanders than their troops. For example, some of the largest mutinies in history occurred among the French in World War I. After hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in suicidal offensives, French troops began to refuse to leave their trenches. Notably, these troops had served bravely and they did not desert. With mutinies in 50 divisions, the commanders took a lesson from the Romans and selected "representatives" of each unit to be sentenced to death. History proved the mutineers right: The offensives were sheer lunacy by commanders who lacked both talent and compassion.
The U.S. military has always refused to condone defiance of orders except in cases where the orders were unlawful, such as calling for committing war crimes. Soldiers are not allowed to refuse an order because it is illogical or wasteful or wrongheaded or dangerous.
But is that a reasonable position? One French unit in the mutinies of 1917 lost 400 out of 600 men in a single attack -- slaughtered only yards from their trenches. When ordered to attack again, they refused. Technically, they committed mutiny. They were expected to voice any objections but then run directly into German machine-gun fire.
The U.S. military still follows this view by considering the incompetence of an order largely during the sentencing of the mutineers rather than when considering guilt.
Bush officials are now trying to defuse the controversy by emphasizing in interviews such phrases as a "confused situation" and "temporary breakdown." What was a technical mutiny may be downgraded in the interest of politics to a misunderstanding. As in many past mutinies, we seem to be moving toward a symbolic gesture of discipline.
One report says two of the 18 might be selected for punishment to satisfy appearances. It is a result that Crassus would love; two out of 18 is just about right for a good old-fashioned Roman decimation.