U.S. Rep. John Murtha, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, held a heated town hall meeting in Arlington last week, discussing his plan for the immediate withdraw of American forces and arguing that the war cannot be won militarily.
Last Thursday, more than 600 people packed into the NRECA building in Ballston to listen to Murtha explain how the presence of U.S. forces impedes progress in Iraq and that “staying the course” is no longer a feasible policy.
“The only thing that can unite the Iraqis is the U.S. occupation,” said Murtha, a Pennsylvania Congressman and highly respected Marine veteran who has been denounced by the White House and Republican members of Congress for his controversial stance. “It is time to let Iraqis take over this effort.”
Murtha, who was invited to speak by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), excoriated the Pentagon for not supplying enough body armor to protect American troops and for the slow pace of reconstruction efforts, which he said has fomented greater instability in the country. Earlier in the day, insurgents killed 11 American soldiers and 140 Iraqi residents.
The military has been stretched dangerously thin by the war, and the lack of a clear mission has hurt the Pentagon’s recruiting efforts, Murtha said.
On the same day as the town hall meeting, Marine Gen. Peter Pace accused Murtha of sending the wrong message to troops overseas and adversely affecting recruiting efforts.
“That’s damaging to recruiting, it’s damaging to the moral of the troops who are deployed and it’s damaging to the morale of their families who believe in what they’re doing to serve this country,” Pace said in a press conference earlier that day.
Asked about Pace’s comments before the public forum, Murtha said the armed forces’ recruiting difficulties and the low morale of troops “started before I started talking about these problems.”
IN RECENT WEEKS Murtha has become a catalyst for the anti-war movement and helped ignited a new debate in Washington over the administration’s policies in Iraq.
Many in the audience were soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, or family members of those currently deployed overseas. Most of the speakers lauded Murtha for his proposal, praising him for spurring a national discussion on troop levels.
“People are happy there is finally a debate about this that isn’t an attack on one’s patriotism,” said Jon Powers, an Arlington resident and Army captain who served 14 months in Iraq. “He’s well respected [in the military]. Murtha has the backing to do this. He lays out the facts without rhetoric.”
John Bruhns, who served in an infantry battalion in Iraq for a year and now lives in Falls Church, said he agreed with Murtha that it was time to begin bringing the troops back home.
“He’s right on the money,” Bruhns said. “We’ve become the enemy and the target.”
The most contentious debate of the evening centered on the status of the morale of American soldiers. Murtha said that multiple deployments have taken “a heavy toll” on both troops and their families, and has caused many soldiers not to re-enlist.
Washington resident Garett Reypenhagen, who returned from a tour of duty in Iraq this past spring, said that although his fellow troops were honored to serve their country, some had become disillusioned with the mission.
“Morale is fairly low,” he said. “Deployment in Iraq is fairly miserable. Every soldier wants to get back home and get a life.”
However, not every soldier who spoke at the forum shared Murtha’s views. “The moral of troops is high,” said Army Sergeant Mark Seavey, who fought in Afghanistan. “Troops are going back to volunteer.”
Retired U. S. Army General Louis C. Wagner Jr. accused Murtha of “selling out our soldiers in Iraq,” just as others did during the Vietnam War.
“What is being put out is being used by the insurgents to continue this war,” said Wagner. He added that he hears little in the way of discontent with the military’s strategy in Iraq during his weekly visits with injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In interviews after the forum, several people expressed ambivalence over whether Murtha’s proposal was the best course of action. Emily Theilmann, a college student who returned to Arlington for winter break, said she believed invading Iraq was a mistake, but worried about the unintended consequences of a rapid redeployment of troops from Iraq.
“A quick withdrawal could very damaging,” she said. “Just leaving could stir things up quite a bit.”
DURING HIS SPEECH Murtha said that setbacks in the reconstruction effort, which have been crippled by the deteriorating security situation, have helped fuel the insurgency. Unemployment remains between 45 and 60 percent, he said, and electricity and oil production continue to be below pre-war levels.
“What the people want are jobs and stability,” he said. “What we’re providing is instability.”
One of the most detrimental effects of the war in Iraq is that it has taken resources away from fighting Al-Qaeda, which is expanding across the world, both Murtha and Moran said.
‘The terrorists are going to fan out,” Moran said. “We’re creating more terrorists than we can possibly kill over there.”
Murtha also criticized fellow Democrats for not being more outspoken in their opposition to the White House strategy, saying that those considering a presidential bid had to choose between endorsing Bush’s policies and redeployment.
A more candid assessment of the situation in Iraq by the president in recent weeks has been encouraging, Murtha said. He is also pleased that President George W. Bush met with former Secretaries of Defense and State this past week.
“I think he is getting the message, getting out of the bubble and I hope he will take the advice seriously,” Murtha said.