“One excellent way to show your concern for wounded veterans is not to make so many of them,” noted The New York Times in an editorial yesterday. The Times was praising the appointment of General Eric Shinseki to head the Department of Veteran’s affairs. But meanwhile, another national paper was concerned with another lumbering bureaucracy—the one that supplies the veterans-to-be.

On Monday, USA Today got hold of a Pentagon Inspector General’s report explaining that, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Department of Defense knew that roadside “Improvised Explosive Devices” (IEDs) were a major threat to troops in the field. The Department also knew about a class of vehicles—Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks—most likely to defend soldiers from this threat. But the Department didn’t fund the MRAPs, and even balked at urgent requests for them from commanders facing mounting casualties from IEDs—which have since become the number one killer of US troops in Iraq.

The Pentagon report was a response to a damning investigation by Marine science advisor Franz Gayl, which USA Today’s Peter Eisler and Tom Vanden Brook wrote about in February. Gayl made the astonishing claim that 700 US troops had died needlessly in IED attacks because the Marine Corps had delayed acquisition of MRAP vehicles. Because MRAP trucks sit high on V-shaped hulls, they can deflect the blast of buried bombs that explode under the vehicles. Armored Humvees are protected only on the sides, and they sit lower, closer to the impact of buried bombs. Insurgents took heed even if the Defense Department didn’t—buried bombs became much more prevalent on Iraq’s roads as the insurgency grew.

The reports by Gayl and the Pentagon Inspector General officially ratify concerns USA Today had raised publicly since at least 2007. It was USA Today’s Vanden Brook who, in April 2007, reported that not a single Marine had died in more than 300 IED attacks on MRAPs in Anbar province in 2006. (The Marines then had about 100 such vehicles in Anbar province, used primarily in bomb disarming missions, and wanted 3,000 more.)

The Marines did not release the number of deaths involving Humvees, but Vanden Brook reported an average of less than one injury per attack on an MRAP, versus an average of two injuries, including deaths, in attacks on other vehicles. At the time, the Pentagon’s own records showed that IED attacks were responsible for 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, then only four months into his tenure, noticed the report and declared the MRAP a top Pentagon priority at a news conference in May 2007.
USA Today followed up that July with an eight-reporter investigation into what military leaders had been doing with well-known information about the MRAPs’ superior safety record before Gates embraced the vehicle. The answer, it turned out, was not much. The paper catalogued reports dating back to 2003 on the MRAP, and concerns about armored Humvees, all of which “went up the chain of command and withered.” In one example, Marine officials stopped processing an early 2005 request for more of the vehicles from a Marine commander in Anbar province, then the seat of the insurgency. The commander wrote that the Marines “cannot continue to lose … serious and grave casualties to IED … at current rates when a commercial off the shelf capability exists to mitigate” them.
The Pentagon had other budget priorities, and, besides, no one expected the war to last much longer. By May 2005, Dick Cheney was ready to declare the insurgency “in its last throes,” the paper pointed out.

Indeed, the vehicles could cost up to $1 million per truck (as opposed to $14,000 to put armor on a Humvee). But globalsecurity.org, a source for security news, somewhat ghoulishly notes that replacing troops in an all-volunteer force is yet more expensive than purchasing MRAPs. Official statistics indicate that the financial cost for care and replacement reaches $500,000 for each enlisted casualty—the cost is one to two million dollars for officers. “This meant the average light tactical vehicle with one officer and four enlisted personnel was protecting 2.5 million dollars of the [Defense Department’s] budget… The argument that ‘we can’t afford armored vehicles’ has been said to be specious.”

Given the stupendous loss of life that can be traced to military leaders’ sluggishness on MRAPs, USA Today’s vindication in the form of the Pentagon Inspector General’s report (which was due out yesterday but is so far only in summary format (pdf)) can’t feel very good. But USA Today has been doing its bit for the troops, and its reporting has helped save lives. If only the Pentagon had done its job so well.

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Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review