Every so often, a high-profile Washington figure gets himself or herself into trouble by inadvertently revealing what he or she really thinks. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knows. In a town where candor can be a crime, he's a repeat offender.
His latest score came in a Pentagon news conference Thursday when he revealed a new Rummy-ism: "People are fungible." My dictionary says "fungible," which is pronounced with a soft "G" as in "sponge," refers to something that can be satisfactorily replaced, either in part or in whole, with some other part or quantity of similar value.
"Oil is fungible," experts say, in arguing why no country or cartel can quite corner the market on it. If the price is too high in one place, you can buy it someplace else and the price in the first place will come down in order to compete.
Now, Rumsfeld wants you to know, our troops are fungible, too. His bold pronouncement came during an exchange with a reporter in a news conference during which Rumsfeld announced that about 20,000 American troops are about to have their tours in Iraq extended for at least three months.
The reporter wanted some clarification about the rosy scenarios of Iraqi success that Rumsfeld painted in his opening statement: "You said that the challenge in Fallujah is being contained and that the situation in the South is largely stabilized," the reporter said.
"And I wonder, if that is the case, why ... is it necessary to keep extra troops in Iraq for 90 days?"
"Well, it is - the reason it is contained is because we have the extra troops there. That is self-evident," Rumsfeld said, showing a little irritation. "Come on, people are fungible. You can have them here or there. We have announced the judgment. It is clear. You understand it. Everyone in the room understands that we needed additional - the commander decided he'd like to retain in-country an additional plus or minus 20,000 people and that is what we are doing."
People are fungible? Like so many replaceable parts? Perhaps in Rumsfeld's former-corporate-CEO mindset they are. But, in the world where most of us live, this ranks as his least fortunate comment since, oh, early last year.
That was when he said during another news conference that the 11 million Americans (including me) who were drafted during the Vietnam years "added no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time, because (of) the churning that took place. It took (an) enormous amount of effort in terms of training - and then they were gone."
Yup, we were "gone," all right. Some of us left in better shape than others. Of the more than 58,000-plus Americans who died in Vietnam action, more than 20,000 were draftees. Rumsfeld, who served three years on active duty as a Navy aviator in the 1950s, later apologized for the slight. Poor Rummy. People keep tripping him up by actually paying attention to what he says.
His vocabulary seems to reveal the mindset of a corporate efficiency expert, focused in an era of "downsizing" on reducing the "head counts" of "full-time equivalents" and their pesky benefit packages.
Now he is under more pressure. He admits that the fighting and casualties in Iraq are much higher in recent weeks than he expected a year ago. President George W. Bush says the administration will send enough troops to "get the job done," but our troops are getting stretched mighty thin as it is. To their everlasting credit, our troops are putting a brave public face on their private heartache, although a popular graffiti in Iraq these days proclaims an uncensored version of "'One weekend a month,' my (rear end)!" a pointed reference to the well-known promise made by National Guard recruitment ads.
There's a war on. Besides, as our secretary of defense says, our troops are "fungible." Take it from me, Mr. Secretary, they're not "fungible" to their families.
Clarence Page is a syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist based in Washington.
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