Of all the problems in Iraq, few seem as insoluble as that of improvised explosive devices. We have spent more than $10 billion, an enormous sum even these days, in an unsuccessful campaign to defeat these weapons, but IEDs, not gunfire, still account for the large majority of American casualties.
Some time ago, the Department of Defense launched an exceptionally well-funded initiative whose sole objective is the neutralization of the IED problem. We must have lots of idle talent with too much time on its hands, because the project is headed by a retired four-star general, a very high rank indeed, and perhaps this alone reflects how intractable the Pentagon finds the problem. Awkwardly called the “Joint IED Defeat Organization,” it is notable principally for its failure to defeat the IED threat.
These devices are employed in ambush. Although a successful ambush requires planning, it is the least sophisticated of all military missions: guess where the enemy will be, plant the bomb, detonate when the enemy gets into the kill zone.
In Iraq, explosives are shockingly easy to obtain, and we managed to assist the insurgents by failing to control or destroy the tons of ordnance stockpiled by Saddam. The bad guys merely took all they needed.
The devices themselves require some training to assemble, but this is not brain surgery. Merely wrap explosive material in detonation cord, then attach an electric blasting cap, a battery and a trigger. Embed ball bearings or some other type of debris in the explosive material, and you markedly increase the devastating effect of the explosion. It is not even difficult to produce a device that can defeat armored vehicles: employ a simple penetrator conveniently supplied in quantity by Iran.
You don’t have to be in the area to detonate the weapon, and the explosion can be triggered by a tripwire, or remotely by a cell phone, or even by a sensor that is sensitive to movement in the vicinity of the bomb. Nevertheless, the enemy likes to hang around to watch, often recording the events for posting on the Internet, or to detonate another IED when a second American contingent arrives to help the first.
The tragic irony should escape no one: the world’s most powerful, technologically advanced nation finds it impossible to neutralize the most technically unsophisticated weapon imaginable.
But the ubiquity of these deadly devices is not solely the result of their simplicity. The enemy needs access to the roadside to plant the devices, and the ambush has to remain undetected until the IED is detonated.
When I was in combat in Vietnam, my unit walked into ambushes from time to time…but never on a road. Early in his training, every soldier learns that you never travel a road or a trail until it has been secured in all directions to the maximum effective range of your weapons. Well, if it’s a violation of such a basic principle, why are we still doing it?
Recently, I asked this exact question of veteran officers with multiple tours in Iraq, and their replies were identical: not enough troops. Clearing and securing roads are labor-intensive exercises. To be sure, we are using technology to substitute for some of the labor, and we do defeat many IEDs in place before they can do harm, but there is really no operational excuse for driving into an ambush. If a vehicle has become the target of an IED, it means that security has been forsaken for expedience. As long as our troops drive along roads that have not been properly secured, some of them will be killed and maimed by IEDs.
So, if we don’t like taking casualties from IEDs, the solution is to follow the guidance inherent in a gag told by the wry comic Groucho Marx.
He went to his doctor because raising his right arm above his head was very painful.
“Doc,” he said, raising his arm, “it hurts when I do this.”
His doctor said, “Don’t do that.”
Jack Jacobs is an MSNBC military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.