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ARLINGTON, Va. — The soldiers of the 343rd Quartermaster Company who refused to drive reportedly unsafe trucks down a dangerous route in Iraq aren’t likely to face severe punishment, one military legal expert said Monday.

Too many troops voiced the same concern, which led to a halt in missions while the unit’s vehicles were inspected, and there is the risk that the incident could become a political football, said Eugene Fidell.

Fidell teaches military justice at Harvard Law School and serves as president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

With the political heat generated over the U.S. military involvement in Iraq, from prisoner abuse scandals to a lack of evidence on weapons of mass destruction, to reports troops were deployed ill-equipped, it’s unlikely the involved soldiers will face harsh punishment or be made examples of, he said.

“Personally, I am quite skeptical if any serious disciplinary action ensues,” Fidell said. “I think probably some people are going to get chewed out, and I also wouldn’t be surprised if the command takes a hit over serious appearance of lack of mission readiness.”

That said, the alleged failure of the reservists to obey a lawful order is “obviously impermissible,” Fidell said. It puts lives at risk, cracks the foundations of military discipline, and can harm morale.

“It may have been an unwise order, but you can’t have people refusing orders. It’s hardwired in military life, particularly in combat elements, and that’s not something [leadership] will tolerate.”

Up to 19 soldiers allegedly refused orders to drive fuel trucks because they had not been serviced and the convoy did not have an escort of armed vehicles for the missions from Tallil air base in southern Iraq to Taji, about 15 miles north of Baghdad.

“Not all of their trucks are completely armored. In their case, they haven’t had the chance to get armored,” Brig. Gen. James E. Chambers, commanding general of 13th Corps Support Command, said during a weekend press conference in Baghdad, according to The Associated Press.

They since have returned to duty, and it was “too early” Sunday to determine if any will face disciplinary action, Chambers said.

Troops have measures in place to appropriately voice concerns, Fidell said.

“People in the field may have information that may not be available to those giving the orders, and you can speak up, provided you do it in an appropriate fashion. In the meantime, you do as you’re told,” Fidell said. “And you always can go up the chain of command, again, provided you do it in an appropriate fashion.”

There is flexibility built into the system, but “disobey a lawful order and do so at your own peril.”

Still, “right there and right now, I’d be quite surprised if we saw any court martial charges,” Fidell said. “You can’t rule anything out, but it’s my intuition. To bring down the wrath of the UCMJ on those people, right before a presidential election in which conditions of this war is an issue, might not be the right politics.

“Whether that kind of politics plays a role and gets communicated to those over there, we’ll probably never know. This is probably an issue those in position of responsibly would prefer not to deal with, and would not want to make it a bigger issue.”

Though still a serious infraction, the fact that so many refused the order lends credability to their assertions, and points to another indicator that the soldiers likely will not face harsh punishment, Fidell said.

“It tends to suggests there was objective merit to their concerns,” he said. “To have one person on a personal idiosyncratic mission is different from having a lot of careered reservists who are really concerned about being asked to something unnecessarily unsafe.”

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