Weight of the World

Are American troops being short-changed when it comes to their protective armor? That depends. Recently, the New York Times reported that, “A secret Pentagon study has found that as many as 80 percent of the marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if they had had extra body armor.” This would seem to settle the issue. Our soldiers and marines could benefit from available technology that the Pentagon is not providing them. Lives are being needlessly lost.

Politicians from across the spectrum, but most notably those mulling fantasies of moving into the White House, were quick to hold press conferences and other photo ops in the days immediately following the break of this story. Predictably, the Pentagon was lambasted for not providing the full protection for our troops that they can. But what gets lost in the rhetoric of more and thicker armor is the issue of weight.

No laughing matter or minor consideration, the burden that soldiers and marines carry on their backs into battle is a major factor in their overall effectiveness. During the initial phase of the invasion, troops sometimes carried loads of as much as 125 pounds. The load is less in the current counter-insurgency operations, as troops, mostly operating out of established bases, no longer have to carry all their equipment with them at all times. However, the load can still reach as much as 80 pounds. Adding armor that covers even more of a soldier’s body may further protect him, but it also adds to the burden he already carries. At some point, consideration has to be made for whether or not all this weight is a detriment to a soldier’s fighting ability.

In fact, this debate has been carried on in militaries around the world for centuries. Trying to find the right balance between weight and effectiveness is often elusive, sometimes arbitrary, and constantly changing. Roman Legionnaires bore packs of 80 pounds. French soldiers during the First World War carried 85. Rangers jumping into Grenada in 1983 packed a whopping 167 pounds. Studies from various militaries have placed maximum loads anywhere from 48 to 72 pounds. What one gathers from the mountain of studies done on the subject is a sense of the enormity of the problem of weight on the battlefield. Weight slows a soldier down, hastens fatigue, and can even lead him to lose awareness of hostile surroundings. Any proposal to add more must come under close scrutiny. Quite possibly, the final say for outfitting should come from the soldiers in the field, who know best what equipment helps or hinders their performance.

The best solution would be to make the more encompassing armor available to units on the ground, but leave it to their discretion whether or not to use it. Nothing new here, as rare is the troop who carries everything they have into combat. Soldiers on quick missions launched in the morning don’t bring along their night-vision goggles, or four days worth of rations, or even all the ammunition they could conceivably pack away. A soldier may find it ideal or even necessary at times to sacrifice the weight of extra armor for increased mobility.

There may have been folly on the part of the Pentagon in making this armor unavailable to our troops in Iraq, but the spectre of maliciousness and incompetence brought up by critics recently is probably unfounded. That being said, our soldiers and marines in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve to be given every opportunity to fight their war in as effective a way as possible. Giving our troops all the options they need (and not overburdening them), for equipment, weapons, and the like, is a good way to ensure they stay sharp.