Politics & Policy

From Mare Island to Tallil

Will the Army prosecute mutineers?

On October 13, 18 soldiers from a platoon of the 343rd Quartermaster Company in Tallil, Iraq refused to follow orders to take a convoy of fuel trucks down “Main Supply Route Tampa.” The convoy left hours later, other soldiers filling in for the refuseniks. As it began, it was a small matter. But what the Army does in disciplining the soldiers involved isn’t. When the members of the 343rd joined together to refuse to carry out their orders, as it appears, they committed a crime that must be punished quickly and severely.

According to various reports, one of the refuseniks, Spc. Amber McClenny, told her mother in a panicky call that she and her pals had refused to carry out orders because it was a “suicide mission.” Amber told her mom they had been ordered to drive broken-down trucks carrying “contaminated fuel.” Ricky Shealey, whose son is another of those who refused, reportedly said that commanders ignored complaints about broken-down trucks. According to a statement by Brig. Gen. James Chambers, commander of the 13th Corps Support Command (of which the 343rd is a part), “…the soldiers involved expressed some concerns regarding maintenance and safety.”

Pentagon sources said that, “Initial indication is that the soldiers scheduled for the convoy mission raised some valid concerns and the command is addressing them.” In short, it currently appears that the Army is going easy on this bunch. Why would they? That statement about “valid concerns” contradicts other key information from the same sources. If the concerns were valid about safety or maintenance, then how was the convoy mission accomplished within a few hours by other soldiers and apparently with the same trucks?

The Army now says that all 18 soldiers implicated have been returned to duty. None have been demoted or arrested, and a preliminary investigation is ongoing. The 343rd has been ordered to stand down–i.e., relieved of duty–while its vehicles are inspected. The investigation may go on as long as ten days or two weeks. The seriousness of this incident can hardly be overstated. By now, every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman in Iraq has heard about it. What the Army does in response will reverberate through the force, and well into the future.

Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) says that, “Any person subject to this chapter who…with intent to usurp or override lawful military authority, refuses, in concert with any other person, to obey orders or otherwise do his duty…is guilty of mutiny,” a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. There are very few past incidents such as this, but they should guide the Army in handling this one.

Mutiny is extremely rare in the U.S. military. In my research, I haven’t discovered a single incident of it in the history of the Marines or the Air Force. In the Army and Navy it is something that is fortunately quite rare. One reason for the rarity is that in the past, these incidents have been dealt with by throwing the book at the mutineers. The Army has to deal with this one with great speed and severity. There is a good example to follow. The Army should act as the Navy did in 1944, in what may be the most comparable incident: It’s remembered as the “Mare Island Mutiny.”

During World War II, many of the tasks soldiers are now relieved of by contractors or equipment required hundreds of men to handle. Loading ammunition onto a ship was one of them, and it wasn’t safe to do. In August 1944 more than 250 black sailors–still serving in segregated units–refused to load an ammunition ship at the Naval Ammunition Depot at Mare Island, California. It was dangerous work. Another black unit suffered a huge number of casualties only a month before in the explosion of another ammo ship in nearby Port Chicago. These sailors believed that their unit was being asked to take risks that others–whites–weren’t.

More than 200 of these sailors returned to work when threatened with courts martial, but 50 did not. Those 50 were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Then-NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall appealed in their behalf to the Navy secretary who released the men about three years later. (This case was one of the incidents that finally caused the Navy to desegregate.) The Mare Island sailors had a legitimate gripe and that didn’t save them from courts martial. From everything we know now, the refuseniks of the 343rd haven’t the slightest justification for refusing to obey their orders.

It is hard to understand the Army’s soft, cautious approach. It’s talking about reviewing the soldiers’ complaints, inspecting vehicles, and issuing denials that the fuel the trucks were carrying was contaminated. But to have a mutiny, even a mini-mutiny like this one, indicates serious problems in the unit concerned. BGen. Janis Karpinski–the absentee commander at the Abu Ghraib prison–was relieved of duty for her inattention to what was going on there. Here–as in Abu Ghraib–attention should focus not only on the platoon leader and company commander but also on the Army generals running the show.

There seems to be a pattern here. Too much distance between Army commanders and the soldiers out doing the tasks the generals order. Col. Douglas MacGregor (USA, ret.) told me that, “When British fought in Malaya [in the early 1950s, at the height of the communist insurgency there] Sir Gerald Templer compelled his brigadiers to walk/ride on patrols with troops once every two weeks to share the danger and see the true state of affairs on the ground. Army general officers need to do the same.” Apparently, they aren’t in places such as Tallil. If they aren’t–and commanders are the same kind of absentee leaders as Karpinski was–their heads should roll.

But what of the troops? Soldiers who serve–in peace, far less in war–can’t be permitted to pick and choose among their orders to decide which they care to obey on any given day. The only question is whether the order was lawful. If the order doesn’t require the soldier to commit a crime under the law of war or the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and if the order is within the authority of the officer who gives it, there’s no choice in the matter. It is apparent that these soldiers have committed one of the most serious crimes any soldier can commit. On Monday, one report said that the Army was thinking of prosecuting only the leaders of the Tallil mutiny. That would be wrong. Terribly wrong.

The only way to deal with this is to charge all who refused the order with mutiny (or some lesser included offense to which they may plead guilty) and throw them in jail or at least out of the Army with a less-than-honorable discharge. Let’s not hear about the maintenance schedules of the trucks. Let’s not hear about why they should have been given better armor, faster trucks, or tanks or air cover. They are soldiers, and this is a war.

NRO contributor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think.


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