There's little doubt that Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post is one of the best writers on the military beat. Three of his books: The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966; Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War and An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 should be required reading for anyone with a remote interest in U.S. military affairs and contemporary history. Mr. Atkinson has a rare gift for capturing not only the sweep of battle, but the personalities of men (and women) who fight our wars.
Those skills are again on display in "Left of Boom," his current, four-part series on U.S. efforts to solve the IED problem in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part three of his package appears in today's edition of the Post. In the installments that have appeared (so far), Mr. Atkinson traces the exponential growth of IED attacks in Iraq that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and the military's efforts to deal with the threat. As the number of bombings increased--inflicting an ever-increasing toll among American troops--the Pentagon implemented a number of initiatives, ranging from complex jammers and overhead surveillance systems, to honey bees.
That's right, honey bees. At one point, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was working on a project to teach bees to sniff TNT or C-4, rewarding them with sugar water when they detected explosives correctly. About $2 million was spent on the "Stealthy Insect Project" before someone realized that it would be difficult to "operationalize" a bee-based detection device.
Researchers held similar, high hopes for a high-powered, directed energy weapon, developed by an Arizona firm, and funded to the tune of $15 million by DoD's Joint IED Task Force. The Buck Rogers device was eventually shelved after it was discovered that the "death ray" would have to be within three feet of the IED to zap its electrical circuits--well within the kill radius of even the smallest bombs.
Atkinson's series does a good job in capturing the dogged determination of the IED task force, and the inevitable frustration that arose from changes in enemy tactics, the failure of promising technologies and meddling by politicians. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a Mississippi Senator proposed that the IED death ray be included in a federal recovery project, because it was being tested and produced in his home state.
The final article in the Post series appears tomorrow, and we'll withhold final judgment until we see it. What's missing from the first three installments are our recent successes against IED networks in Iraq. As we noted last week, the number of U.S. soldiers killed by roadside bombs and VBIEDS (vehicle-borne IEDs) has dropped dramatically over the past three months, while the tempo of U.S. offensive operations has steadily increased.
That trend seems to affirm what many in the fight have known all along: there won't be any "magic bullet" solution to the IED problem, and the best way to prevent bombings is to attack the networks--and individuals--that produce them. In tomorrow's installment, we hope that Mr. Atkinson will highlight those efforts, too.
ADDENDUM: If there's one fault with the series (so far), it would be its limited coverage of our Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Atkinson notes that 50 EOD techs have died battling IEDs, we can't find any mention of an equally salient statistic; more than 40% of the explosive devices planted in Iraq are discovered and neutralized before they can target our troops, largely through the heroic efforts of EOD teams. With the exception of Noah Shactman at the Danger Zone, few journalists have written about EOD techs on the front-lines. It remains one of the most amazing--and under reported--stories of the war.