The current politicized fracas over the renewal of the Patriot Act has reached the boiling point. A filibuster in the senate seeks to draw attention to provisions in the current bill that many Americans see as a stealth attack on civil liberties. The President and his surrogates insist that they have a right to act outside the law in order to respond to new threats of terrorism. Meanwhile the spin doctors in all media outlets are doing their job at dizzying speed. The seasonal message of “Peace on Earth,” routine as we come to expect it, has been drowned out in the past few days by finger pointing and alibi giving. Beyond the posturing on both sides of the congressional aisle and in the White House over the merits of the Patriot Act, we need someone to read the Riot Act to government officials who are more interested in justifying the Iraq War than saving the lives that mount up daily.

Does the date June 23, 2005 have any special significance to you? Will it ever be added to those days that live in infamy for American historians, like December 7 or September 11? Perhaps it should. The lead article in today’s (December 20, 2005) New York Times goes beyond the political rhetoric dominating the airwaves. In a sobering reminder of how stretched the American armed forces have been in Iraq, Michael Moss provides an investigative report about a suicide ramming that took the lives of several Marines, including three women, last summer on June 23. If you have not heard much about this, it is because this is the kind of ugly event the Bush administration is at pains to conceal from the public.

Details matter. Moss describes the tragic event, as it unfolded near Falluja:

“At 7:20 p.m., there was only one car on the road when the women’s convoy left. The marines in the lead Humvee waved the driver of a car to the side of the road and later said that his demeanor had raised no alarms.

The driver waited, they said, for the lead Humvee to pass and then hit the women’s cargo truck, striking just behind the cab on the passenger’s side.
The blast instantly killed the truck’s assistant driver, Cpl. Chad W. Powell, an outdoorsman and third-generation marine from West Monroe, La., and Pfc. Veashna Muy, 20, of Los Angeles, who was in charge of operating a gun atop the cargo truck.

In the back, two of the women, Petty Officer Clark and Corporal Valdez, died within moments, according to casualty reports. Lance Cpl. Holly A. Charette, 21, of Cranston, R.I., the former cheerleader, died three hours later after receiving treatment at Camp Falluja, the records show.”

The obvious culprit here is the suicide bomber. There is no justification for brutal attacks like this, whether against soldiers doing their duty or civilians trying to live a normal life. Suicide bombing is never painless. But Moss’s report raises questions about the conditions under which the Marines have been forced to operate.

“The military sent the women off that day with substandard armor, inadequate security and faulty tactics, and the predictability of their daily commute through one of the most volatile parts of Iraq made them an open target.

The problems mounted in a lethal chain. The cargo truck the women rode in was a relic, never intended for warfare with insurgents, and had mere improvised metal shielding that only rose to their shoulders. The flames from the blast shot over the top. Their convoy was protected by just two Humvees with mounted machine guns. A third was supposed to be there but had been diverted that day by a security team that strained to juggle competing demands. But the Falluja area was so dangerous that the local marine commander typically had four Humvees when he ventured out.
Perhaps most significantly, the security team let the suicide bomber pull to the side of the road as the convoy passed, rather than ordering him to move ahead to keep him away from the women. Marines involved in the operation called the tactic, commonly used, a serious error.”

There is no question, or at least should not be in my mind, that all of these Marines acted as patriots. They obeyed their orders from commanding officers who were trying their best to save the lives of the men and women in their command. But the reason they died is not simply because a suicide bomber drove a car laden with explosives into their truck. The reason many young Americans are getting killed in hideous ways in Iraq stretches back through the chain of command to the politicians who asked our military to do a dangerous job without proper safeguards and recycling those who have served, while the rest of America goes about business as usual. The President and Vice-President, not to mention the many neocon voices that pushed for a war with Iraq before even the September 11 bombing, have brought the United States into a war that cannot be won in conventional terms. Marines in an occupied territory have no visible enemy to confront, Insurgents in Iraq, because they are not recognizable as combatants, continue to whittle away at our troops regardless of a temporary ceasefire on voting day.

There is a better question to ask then who is to blame, especially when we have an administration that invariably blames somebody else. The important question is how many more young servicemen and women, many in their 20s, will die before we eventually pull out of Iraq? How many of them will be killed because they are not adequately protected from suicide bombers or operate substandard equipment not designed for this kind of war zone? We will pull out and the chances of leaving a stable Iraq are meager, given the history of conflict there throughout the 20th century. The actions of these patriots speak louder than all the political talk in Washington and by the experts.

Daniel Martin Varisco