He’s drawn the scorn of the Bush administration and Iraq war supporters for coming out last month in favor of a rapid drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Now Representative John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran known for his closeness to the uniformed military, is drawing the ire of moderates in his own party who worry that his position on Iraq saddles them, again, with a reputation for being soft on defense.
Murtha has kept at his attacks on the Bush administration’s Iraq policies. Last week, he joined forces with Senator John McCain, introducing the House version of a measure banning torture by U.S. personnel. The non-binding measure passed overwhelmingly.
President Bush may not like his call for scheduling an exit, but Murtha says Bush hands out guidelines and timelines all the time, from No Child Left Behind to the deadline for a constitution in Iraq. Unless we give the Iraqis an incentive to protect themselves, Murtha says, we’ll reduce U.S. troops to targets in never-ending conflict.
He spoke by telephone with the Voice from his Capitol Hill office Friday, December 16, the day after Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
Village Voice: Representative Murtha, elections in Iraq went well. Voter turnout was strong. Insurgent groups provided security at some polling stations; violence was minimal. Can you talk about how that event influences your earlier call for drawing down troops from Iraq?
Murtha: It sounds like they are starting to understand what I have been saying for a long time—that you can’t win this thing militarily. There has to be a political victory.
But you have to be careful putting too much stock in elections. When I came back from Vietnam in 1967, South Vietnam had what was considered a historic election. President Johnson said, and I vividly remember this, that this was keystone of his policy: to encourage the growth of the constitutional process of South Vietnam. From that time on, the war in Vietnam raged another seven years, and 38,000 more U.S. soldiers were killed.
The administration keeps saying, ‘We’re fighting terrorists.’ But the Iraqis will get rid of those terrorists. The terrorists and Iraqis are unified against us.
The minute we’re gone, the war will be over.
It has been suggested that you are a cipher for the views of the military, including some of the military commanders in Iraq, who are more restrained in what they say publicly. Can you talk about that and how much your views are influenced by the military?
I talk to military all the time. I said 18 months ago, because of the strains the Iraq war is causing on our military, that we should totally mobilize—e.g. a draft—or get out. A year ago, the military talked to me during this period, and said, We can’t win this militarily.
Now you’ve heard my resolution: redeploy as quickly as possible, consistent with the safety of U.S. troops.
Two former secretaries of defense called me and were not only interested in my position, they thought what I said was right.
I never like to say who they are. . . . I may ask them to say this publicly at some point.
There was a report today about a split among House Democrats over what their position on Iraq should be. There’s a camp led by you and a camp calling for something more moderate.
There are only two positions—the president’s position and my position. Whatever else is in-between. We have 96 congressmen on the resolution [calling for redeployment]. I sent a nine-page letter talking about why I decided to do this, and how strongly I feel about it. They had no hearings. They keep trying to undermine what I’m doing with rhetoric and false resolutions—the resolution on floor today [Friday]—I want them to address this from a standpoint of substance, of experience.
I believe that the policy of the president—total victory—is not a policy. I believe that is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion. And I believe that there’s no end to it, that we will be there 10 to 15 years.
You’ve staked out kind of one extreme of the Iraq debate—draw down now. How have you influenced the debate?
I think this is not about me. This is about the American public. The public has been way ahead of the Congress. The public has been way ahead of the White House. They want a change in direction.
Every time I visited young soldiers in the hospital…they had been hesitant to talk to me. The last few weeks, it’s changed. A young wife of a soldier in the hospital said to me, “My husband was in Iraq twice. He enlisted to fight for America. Not for Iraq.”
Some people have been deployed already three, four times. There’s a critical shortage in special military specialties—a shortage of interpreters, intelligence people, we’re short on special forces, and short on bomb demolition experts.
These are critical shortages in a war situation. Put people untrained, in the wrong situation, and you have a national disgrace. Abu Ghraib ruined our credibility. It’s gone straight downhill. You can’t afford to put people in such a sensitive position unless they are well trained.
What is the role of political fault here? President Bush can come out and say the intelligence was bad and I took us to war over it, but nothing changes.
Who did Bush give the medal of freedom to? George Tenet, the director of the CIA. Now, George Tenet is a friend of mine, but he shouldn’t have gotten a medal of freedom.
We spend more on intelligence than the whole rest of the world. But poor intelligence is not enough to make those kinds of judgments. And it just goes on. They keep mischaracterizing the war. They say Iraq, then they say terrorism. There was no terrorism in Iraq before we went in.
What was the real turning point for you?
I went home in August. All I heard about is Iraq. I come from a patriotic district and a patriotic family. My dad and his three brothers fought in World War II. My three brothers and I served in the Marine Corps.
And when I was home, all I heard from everyone was, what is going on in Iraq? Why are we still in Iraq? What’s the plan?
You were involved in leading a House vote earlier this week on McCain’s anti-torture amendment, a vote that passed.
The president caved completely on that issue. McCain called me. I had already made up my mind, I was going to bring up this resolution. Because four months ago, I met with a young man who had been involved with Abu Ghraib. Congressman Bartlett had brought him to me, and I met with him with Curt Weldon. We listened to him, and he talked about the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and this torture that is going to kill us.
We are so low in poll figures. If we want international help, we are not going to be able to get it.
I just decided then to do it [to push the measure]. And I announced it and McCain called me and told me how much he appreciated it. I said from the very start, I said this country is not for torture. Even the president is not for torture. No torture, no exceptions.