Sunday, November 20, 2005


(this column will appear in 11-24-05 THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

I grew up just outside Johnstown, Pennsylvania. When I was off in law school in 1974, a former Marine from Johnstown who served in Korea and Vietnam was elected to succeed the venerable Congressman who had died after years of service. The new Democratic Representative was John Murtha. Congressman Murtha went on to chair the House Subcommittee on Defense and became one of the most respected public servants on issues involving defense and the military, frequently being consulted by the first President Bush during the 1991 Gulf War. His character is apparent from a recent encounter he had at a military hospital: he became angry when informed that a wounded American Marine- blinded and having lost both hands- would not receive a Purple Heart because his injuries came from “friendly fire.” Murtha met with the Commandant of the Marine Corps and told him “if you don’t give him a Purple Heart, I’ll give him one of mine.” And they gave him a Purple Heart.

Last week, 73 year old Pennsylvania Congressman John P. “Jack” Murtha made the speech of his 30 year Congressional career. After loyally carrying water for Democratic and Republican administrations alike, after voting in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and after re-affirming that position in 2004, the 37 year veteran of the Marine Corps, who earned a Bronze Star with Combat V and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, addressed the nation on the issue of Iraq, calling for a six month phased pullout of American troops:

“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of us. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq, but it is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region.”

The Congressman’s website posted the speech, which ends with the following, in capital letters: “IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME.”

Within 48 hours, Murtha was called a coward on the House of Representatives by Republican Congresswoman Jean Schmitt of Ohio, who was roundly booed for her incredible blunder. He was vilified by President Bush’s press secretary as a member of the “Michael Moore” extreme liberal left and criticized by Vice President Dick Cheney. His name was prominently featured in Saturday Night Live’s opening skit during a mock Presidential press conference, and he appeared on Meet the Press the next morning.

Although host Tim Russert continually attempted to bait Murtha, he took the high road, refusing to engage in personal attacks on his critics or on President Bush, continually espousing the hope that Americans would begin a bipartisan debate on extracting our troops from Iraq, and predicting that the pullout would occur before the 2006 midterm elections.

Murtha did not come to his position easily or lightly. According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette,

“...before he formed his conclusions and made his speech, he made numerous inquiries of the Bush Defense Department asking what was being done about shortages in body armor and special radio jammers that could prevent insurgents from remotely activating bombs planted to kill U.S. soldiers. [On a recent visit to Iraq], when he flew to his destination, he was accompanied by two Black Hawk helicopters and flanked by two Apache helicopters on either side of his plane.

‘I talked to the commander on the ground and he said every convoy is attacked,’ Mr. Murtha said. ‘So I knew the situation's not getting better.’”

Last year, top American commanders in the region had already noted that American combat operations had made the insurgency worse. On May 9, 2004, The Washington Post reported that Major General Charles H. Swannack Jr., the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, who spent much of the year in western Iraq, responded when asked whether he believes the United States is losing: “I think strategically, we are.”

The Post also reported that Army Colonel Paul Hughes, the first director of strategic planning for the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad who is involved in formulating Iraq policy, said he agrees with that view and noted that a pattern of winning battles while losing a war characterized the U.S. failure in Vietnam. “Unless we ensure that we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically. I lost my brother in Vietnam. I promised myself, when I came on active duty, that I would do everything in my power to prevent that [sort of strategic loss] from happening again. Here I am, 30 years later, thinking we will win every fight and lose the war, because we don't understand the war we're in."

In May of 2005, the infamous “Downing Street Memo” not only revealed that the Bush Administration was fixing the intelligence prior to the war, but also confirmed that the neo-cons running America’s foreign policy had neglected to plan for the aftermath of a successful invasion of Iraq. By failing to provide enough troops to secure numerous ammunition dumps, the Bush Administration in effect armed the insurgency, which was able to simply walk in and carry off explosive ordinance which they have been using to blow up American soldiers and Iraqi civilians over the last two and a half years.

On Meet the Press, Murtha explained he changed his position because not only had there been no progress in the last year and a half, matters were getting worse. He cited the escalating American casualties and the fact that polls showed eighty percent of Iraqis want Americans out, with forty-five percent agreeing that the attacks on Americans were justified. Murtha readily admitted to Russert that his 2002 vote to authorize the President to use force in Iraq was a mistake.

As much as he wanted to support his President, Congressman Murtha could no longer abide a policy which was destroying America’s military, its finances, and its credibility. He told the nation last week that America needs to do the following:

* To immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.
* To create a quick reaction force in the region.
* To create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines.
* To diplomatically pursue security and stability in Iraq.

In Murtha’s speech last week, with tears on his cheeks, he told Americans: “This war needs to be personalized. As I said before, I have visited with the severely wounded of this war. They are suffering. Because we in Congress are charged with sending our sons and daughters into battle, it is our responsibility, our obligation, to speak out for them. That's why I am speaking out. Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home.”

Within three and a half years after Pearl Harbor, America had helped defeat the greatest military powers in the world and freed all of Europe and eastern Asia. Two and half years after the fall of Baghdad, the Bush Administration can’t guarantee safe landings at the Baghdad airport or the safety of travelers on any road from the airport to the American headquarters downtown. So when Congressman Murtha tells America that it is time to bring the troops home, his word should carry a lot more weight than Dick Cheney's, who sought and received five deferments during the Vietnam War because he had "other priorities."