WASHINGTON - If you don't like the message, knock the messenger, as an old spin doctor's motto goes. That's how some people are reacting to a soldier's question that knocked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld off his game during a town hall session in Kuwait last week.
Spc. Thomas Wilson, a scout with a Tennessee National Guard unit, asked Mr. Rumsfeld why soldiers still have to fortify their canvas-covered Humvees with "hillbilly armor," scrap metal and ballistic-resistant glass that they dig out of landfills for protection. After a brief moment of stony silence, the comment brought a spontaneous eruption of "hooahs" and applause from other troops.
It also brought a remarkably condescending response from Mr. Rumsfeld, who may have become too accustomed to treating reporters like annoyingly curious children to quickly shift to a tone appropriate for the combat men and women under his command.
"You go to war with the Army you have," he said, "not the one you might want or the one you might wish to have at a later time."
That was a curious comment, considering how much time President Bush's Defense Department has had to build up to "the Army we might want."
Mr. Rumsfeld deliberately held down the manpower and support for Iraq against the strong advice of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki and other generals who said more troops and equipment would be needed. The Army we have is what Mr. Rumsfeld wanted, not what the generals said we needed.
Now, Mr. Rumsfeld assured the troops, the Pentagon is pushing its suppliers to produce armored vehicles as fast as possible. But his claim brought swift dispute from some of the makers of armor and Humvees. The factories have been running well below capacity, spokesmen said, but the Pentagon had not taken them up on the offers to produce more armored vehicles.
Meanwhile, explosive devices at Iraqi roadsides - against which our troops could use more armor - have caused about half of America's war casualties.
Yet Mr. Rumsfeld added what may be the world's least necessary caveat: "You can have all the armor in the world on a tank; it can [still] be blown up."
Gee, thank you, Mr. Secretary. And happy holidays to you.
I don't know when Mr. Rumsfeld will take questions from soldiers again, but the day after you-know-what freezes over sounds about right.
Yet hard as it may be to criticize Specialist Wilson for asking a question that undoubtedly weighs on the mind of many soldiers in Iraq, some people are finding ways to criticize the combat newspaper correspondent who, it turns out, had a hand in Specialist Wilson's question.
Edward Lee Pitts, a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter who is embedded with Specialist Wilson's Tennessee National Guard unit, took credit in an e-mail that was later leaked to Internet sites. In his e-mail, Mr. Pitts said that after he learned reporters would not have a chance to question Mr. Rumsfeld, he worked on questions in advance of the meeting with two soldiers from the unit.
In a letter to readers, Mr. Pitts' newspaper acknowledged that the reporter should have mentioned his role in his reporting, but otherwise, his editors supported him, as they should. He did not deceive anyone. No one forced Specialist Wilson to ask the question, which President Bush later agreed was a legitimate one.
Yet some partisan critics, apparently unable to defend Mr. Rumsfeld, attacked Mr. Pitts. "He created news in order to cover it," said conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh. "We found out the whole thing ... is a setup." Setup to do what? Tell the truth?
A Pentagon spokesman huffed that the meeting was "intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary" and that no one should have "interfered with that opportunity, whatever the intention." Hey, you want dialogue? You got dialogue!
Here's a bigger question: Why should reporters have to resort to asking questions through soldiers in order to get an answer and, one hopes, some action from the Bush administration on a problem such as vehicle armor?
Our soldiers in Iraq are not whining about this. They courageously take on dangerous missions every day. Afterward, they want to get home safe. The rest of us should support them with something more substantive than flag-waving. That's not too much to ask.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.