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The proposal of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation's John P. Murtha (D, PA12) to begin immediately to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq hangs on one central argument: that our militarymission in Iraq has been accomplished, that further progress in Iraq must be made by political and diplomatic, and not military, means.

The point may be hard to discern in the firestorm of controversy his remarks last Thursday created. Especially in the midst of a "meltdown" of congressional proceedings Friday night, as one veteran Washington reporter called it, "the likes of which I have not seen in my 21 years of covering Congress."

Murtha's proposal should not have been such a surprise. From the congressman's perspective, he had made some of the same arguments very publicly last year about the prosecution of the war in Iraq, and asked the administration then for a timetable for withdrawal. He hasn't seen one. So, now, here's his.

"His" carries particular weight, just because of its source. Decorated combat Marine colonel, with service in Korea and Vietnam. A total of 37 years of service to the Marine Corps and reserves. A 16-term congressional leader, ranking member of the defense appropriations subcommittee. A hawk who has spent 32 years developing deep contacts and working relationships within the Department of Defense.

Murtha's delegation colleague Sen. Arlen Specter (R) put it this way: "I have enormous respect for John Murtha. I've known him for more than three decades, and he's very knowledgeable. And when Congressman Murtha says something, people listen - including Arlen Specter."

Murtha's congressional colleague and the representative of our neighboring 7th District, Curt Weldon (R), felt compelled to preface his disagreement with the proposal: "Jack is a giant when it comes to tackling tough issues facing our uniformed men and women. His remarks about our troops in Iraq should not be criticized or used for political fodder."

The proposal had power also because no fact about the war and its consequences for men and women in uniform seemed to escape his comment. Pre-war intelligence. Lack of preparation. Too few troops. Multiple deployments. Lack of materiel. Defense budget cuts. Shortfalls in staffing domestic bases. Decline in recruitment. Old equipment. The consequences of escalating costs of deployment on a ballooning budget deficit. Some 2,079 Americans dead in Iraq, as of Thursday. Over 15,500 wounded. An estimated 30,000 Iraqi civilians dead. Reconstruction efforts crippled by internal security issues.

But his most compelling accounts were those of his (famously, weekly) visits to Walter Reed Army and Bethesda Naval Hospitals. Stories with a bottom line: "what demoralizes them [wounded veterans] is not the criticism. What demoralizes them is going to war with not enough troops and equipment to make the transition to peace."

The central point: the military has done all that it was asked to do. That it cannot do more. Especially in a context in which our military presence faces not just political objection but religious ones as well.

A continued military presence cannot quell insurgency; it may fuel it.

Perhaps the most-quoted phrase from Murtha's speech is that "the war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It's a flawed policy wrapped in illusion." Its referents are narrow: the "flawed policy" is policy about the war; "illusion" is his characterization of military deployment.

His proposal is no retreat, a walking away from a problem. He suggests a continued military presence near and around Iraq, and a "quick reaction" force of Marines within reach of all Iraqi communities. Just, no force inside Iraq. The current force, he contends, can be withdrawn in six months.

It seems that there is support for this view from others among the most affected. A Johnstown newspaper conducted a round of interviews with Murtha's constituents in the 12th. "Surprisingly," Coleen Freyvogel wrote on Friday, "veterans of the armed forces seemed - if anything - more likely to agree with the congressman than does the population at large."

Then comes support for Murtha from Operation Truth, a group formed by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a group which has lobbied for troops on active duty in Iraq - OpTruth was important in winning congressional appropriations for more body armor and fully-armored vehicles for those deployed in Iraq: "We applaud Congressman Murtha for having the courage to stand up in front of the nation and offer his honest assessment of the war in Iraq.... His decision today to ask the tough questions is a tribute to his patriotism."

Decades from now someone is going to see the significance of what we now find simply ironic, that the party which had chastised the other guys for proposing to use the military for "nation-building" in Bosnia were using troops to now build their own in the Middle East.

The argument then was that the military should not be used as a police force, nor in roles civilians should play in rebuilding.

That's Jack Murtha's argument now. "Our military is suffering. We cannot continue on the present course."

That's the central issue with which we will have to contend over the next months. In that regard, the last word here should belong to the veterans of Operation Truth:

"We, the Veterans of this war, continue to believe that the debate over whether to stay the course or pull out immediately is a false choice.... We seek a better way to help ensure the long-term stability of Iraq that focuses on attainable goals for our troops, while establishing a responsible timeline to bring them home. Only in this way can we serve the wellbeing of the troops and preserve America's standing in the world."

G.E. "Skip" Lawrence can be contacted at forskip@comcast.net.

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