What John Murtha really meant.

Military analysis.
Nov. 21 2005 5:50 PM

What Murtha Meant

We're leaving Iraq anyway. At least he's got a plan.

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I've sat down with the former secretary of the Army, four distinguished officers who served in combat, and we've come up with a plan which we think will work.

Murtha also told Russert, with only slight exaggeration, "There's nobody that talks to people in the Pentagon more than I do."

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This is the key point. It is worth noting that most of the leaks about impending troop withdrawals have come from military sources. This is because the military, especially the Army, realizes that the current troop levels cannot be sustained for another year or two without straining the Army's resources to the breaking point—and without quite possibly breaking the Guard and Reserves.

As has been much-noted, Murtha is a conservative Democrat, a respected hawk, a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He well remembers how that war tore apart not just the nation but the Army, and he doesn't want to see that happen again. In addition to the impassioned (and, by all accounts, genuine) comments in his speech about the desperate straits of our wounded soldiers and their families, Murtha also said this:

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. … Choices will have to be made. … Procurement programs that ensure our military dominance cannot be negotiated away. … Much of our ground equipment is worn out. … We must rebuild our Army. Our deficit is growing out of control.

Murtha and the former Army secretary and officers who helped him craft this plan no doubt recall the legendary line by Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the former Army chief of staff—that we went into Vietnam to save the country, and we got out to save the United States Army.

The Army recently announced that it will no longer call up the Individual Ready Reserves for duty in Iraq. The IRRs are retired—in many cases, long-retired—soldiers, who, by contract, are obligated to re-enter the force if called back to arms. This announcement is as clear a sign as any that, whatever George W. Bush and Richard Cheney might say about the likes of Murtha, they too know the troops are coming out. For without the IRRs, the Army will be unable to sustain the present levels for much longer.

It almost doesn't matter whether withdrawing or redeploying the troops is a good idea; it's simply going to happen because there is no way for it not to happen (short of a major act of political will, such as reviving the draft or keeping troops on the battlefield beyond reasonable endurance). This is what Murtha meant when he told Russert, "We're going to be out of there, we're going to be out of there very quickly, and it's going to be close to the plan that I'm presenting right now." (There are political reasons for this near-inevitability, as well. When Murtha predicted we'd be mainly out of Iraq by 2006, Russert asked, "By Election Day 2006?" Murtha responded, "You—you have hit it on the head.")

So, the pertinent question becomes: What is the best way for redeploying? In other words, by what timetable (whether one is explicitly announced or not), after what political and military actions? How many U.S. troops should be left behind, and what should they be doing? Where should the others be redeployed, and under what circumstances will they move back into Iraq? Do we have any realistic strategic goals left in this war (one big problem in this whole fiasco is that the Bush administration never had any from the outset), and how do we accomplish them?

There's a very serious debate to be conducted in this country—not only about the future of our involvement with Iraq, but also about the use of force, the response to threats, the war on terror, the shape of the Middle East. John Murtha's proposal leaves open a lot of questions, but—seen for what it really says, not for how it's been portrayed—it's a start.

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