Friday, December 10, 2004

The tipping point?

If U.S. forces in Iraq turn the tide of insurgents now wild in the country and manage to pull off the precarious, dangerous support role needed to ensure the election scheduled for seven weeks from now, they may have one man to thank -- and it's not Rumsfeld or Bush. One outspoken Army specialist from the Tennessee National Guard asking one direct, forthright question may have done as much to tweak the outcome of the war, or at least its execution from an American perspective.

Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point" speculates on how one small seemingly insignificant thing can shift the tide of battle in a variety of actions and endeavors. In events as distinctly different as an influenza outbreak and the renascence of Hush Puppies footwear, Gladwell explores the ways one seemingly minor event cascades into the wider world with unanticipated results.

In 1953 Army Secretary Joseph Welch broke the back of the McCarthy witch hunts with his refreshingly distilled query, the tippoing-point question everyone in the country wanted to ask the bibulous senator from Wisconsin: "At long last, have you no sense of decency?"

And on Dec. 8, at a hangar in Kuwait, where about 2,300 soldiers awaited deployment to Kuwait, Spec. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee National Guard got up and asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a direct question: "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?"

The question, a potential by-extension embarassment of the commander-in-chief, wasn't ignored or coolly met with cleared throats and murmurs. The 2,300 soldiers assembled there gave a slow-building, lusty shout in response -- the soldier's way of saying "that's a very good question. Perhaps the secretary would enlighten us. At length."

It would be walking out on a long limb to suggest a soldier's question was the start of the great unraveling of the U.S. military effort; in all probability the soldier will be gently if icily admonished about being quite so direct with the Secretary of Defense and how such actions tend not to be good for one's career arc in the military.

But it's out there: the seed of an idea that at least some of the 150,000 American forces in country do not feel secure; the idea that some of that insecurity originates with concerns over their weapons and armor, rather than life in the hell on earth of a war zone they inhabit, dangerously, every day.

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