Bob Herbert


Jack Murtha is as tough as they come, but he's seen enough of the misguided, mismanaged, mission impossible war in Iraq to know that it's not sustainable, not worth the continued killing and butchering and psychological maiming of thousands of American GIs.

"I mean, this was a war done on the cheap, and we're paying a heavy price for it," he said in a recent interview.

Murtha is the Pennsylvania congressman, former Marine and traditional war hawk whose call for a quick withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has intensified the national debate over the war. He makes weekly visits to wounded troops in military hospitals, and when he talks about their suffering it sometimes seems as if his own heart is breaking.

"These kids are magnificent," he said. "They've done their duty."

He talked about the former Notre Dame basketball player Danielle Green, a left-handed guard ("heck of a player") who lost her left hand in a rocket attack in Baghdad. And he recalled a young Marine who was trying to defuse a bomb when it exploded. "It blinded him and took his hand off," Murtha said. "It killed they guy behind him."

In congressman Murtha's view, the troops who have displayed so much valor and made so many sacrifices in Iraq deserved better from their leadership here at home.

"We went in with insufficient forces," he said. "We had people in the wrong specialties, people driving trucks who couldn't back trucks up. We had security forces without radios. I found 40,000 troops without body armor."

He has no faith in President George W. Bush's repeated calls to stay the course. "The number of incidents have gone from 150 a week to 772 a couple of weeks ago," he said. As additional U.S. forces have been deployed, casualty rates have increased, not decreased. And his many conversations with GIs have convinced him that American fighting men and women don't have much confidence in their Iraqi allies.

"They don't trust them; that's all there is to it," said Murtha.

The disparagement of Iraqi security forces by American troops was so widespread that Murtha was surprised when one soldier "started talking about how good they are, how much they've improved, and so forth."

It was a miscommunication. The congressman soon realized that the soldier was talking about how much the insurgents had improved; how they had become more sophisticated, and thus "more deadly."

Murtha, 73, is a Democrat who has maintained good ties over the years with Republicans and has extraordinary contacts within the Defense Department and the military. He's a decorated Vietnam War veteran (Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts) who retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves after 37 years of service.

He said he was convinced that there was nothing more the military could accomplish in Iraq. It's the presence of the American troops themselves, inevitably seen by the Iraqis as occupiers, that continues to fuel the insurgency.

"Our military captured Saddam Hussein and captured or killed his closest associates," he said. "But the war continues to intensify."

When he went public with his proposal to pull American troops out of Iraq (he would establish a "quick reaction" force elsewhere in the region, perhaps in Kuwait), he said: "Our military and their families are stretched thin.

Many say that the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment. Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards. Defense budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing, particularly in health care."

Equipment shortages at premier military bases in the United States, including Fort Bragg in North Caroline, are so severe, Murtha told me, "that the troops don't have the equipment they need to train on."

America needs to cut its losses in Iraq. The folly of the Bush crowd and its apologists is now plain for all to see. Murtha is right: The war is not sustainable. Even Republicans in Congress are starting to bail out on this impossible mission. They're worried - not about the welfare of the troops, but about their chances in the 2006 elections.

To continue sending people to their deaths under these circumstances is worse than pointless, worse than irresponsible. It's a crime of the most grievous kind.

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