by Jeff Mackler & George Saunders / Dec. 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
On Nov. 17 Pennsylvania Democratic Party Congressman John Murtha proposed on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to “redeploy” the nearly 160,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq within six months. Pandemonium followed.
Murtha is a right-winger to the core on military matters, with 37 years of service in the Marines, retiring from the reserves in 1990 as a colonel, and a Vietnam combat veteran. He is the ranking Democrat on the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.
Murtha had previously presented his proposal in a speech to a closed session of House Democrats—and received a standing ovation. “Our military has done everything asked of them,” he stated, this time on the House floor, at times choking back tears, according to
observers. “It is time to bring them home.”
Perhaps driven by instinct, if not stupidity, outraged Republicans countered the following day with an amended motion to bring the troops home immediately, a maneuver designed to call the Democrats’ bluff and expose them for the posturing and pro-war fakers that they are.
Taken by surprise, the Democrats responded with venomous but empty denunciation. A screaming match ensued, according to The New York Times, reminiscent of the sound and fury often associated with debates in the British House of Commons. Democrats charged over to the Republican side of the hall, shouting insults and crying foul, with perhaps even a hint of physical confrontation.
Aiming squarely at Murtha, Cincinnati’s newcomer congresswoman, Ohio Republican “Mean” Jean Schmidt, spoke of receiving a phone call from an unnamed U.S. colonel in Iraq who asked her to tell the assembled representatives, “Stay the course. Cowards cut and run, Marines never do.” But the charge didn’t stick, as everyone present (possibly with the exception of Schmidt) knew that the 73-year-old and 15-term Murtha was one of their own, with an established 30-year record as an avid hawk supporter of virtually every appropriation to the military ever requested.
Murtha’s “redeployment” proposal initially drew the ire of George Bush, who responded bitterly from China, while Vice President Dick Cheney similarly raised the tenor of the debate, defending U.S. war policy in Iraq.
But the tone of the exchanges soon changed as both ruling-class parties quickly came to realize that the political bomb that Murtha had dropped had more substance than the usual Democrat Party rhetoric criticizing the Republicans for not conducting the war more efficiently. Schmidt later felt compelled to issue an apology to the Purple Heart/Bronze Star
Just a day later, the histrionics subsided as Democratic Party leaders reversed gears and once again marched in lock step with their Republican colleagues. A near unanimous vote against the fake Republican “Out Now” motion followed, with all but three in the hall voting it down. But the Iraq War had once again taken center stage in U.S. politics.
In the days and weeks following Murtha’s Nov. 17 statement both warmongering parties were compelled to press on with their sham debate over a variety of resolutions for a “phased withdrawal” of U.S. troops. Every one of these proposals is designed to assuage the now evident majority opposition to the war and each is replete with language effectively allowing for
U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until the political, military, and economic objectives of America’s ruling elite have been achieved.
But the Republican motion to immediately withdraw from Iraq, however disingenuous, did more in a brief moment to crystallize and simplify the issues involved in the now-failing U.S. imperialist venture in Iraq than the plethora of “phased withdrawal” resolutions now flooding the House and Senate.
With a single “yes” vote, in the eyes of the American people, U.S. troops might have been brought home immediately. All the hoopla about “establishing democracy in Iraq,” or “averting civil war,” would have been swept away forever. This lesson will not be lost on the American people.
While Murtha’s position lost the day in Congress, it signaled a new awareness, if not bipartisan agreement, that the Iraq War was a losing proposition.
Bush: More specialized operations
On Nov. 30, in a speech before the U.S. Naval Academy, President Bush announced his administration’s shift on the war, which The New York Times headlined, “Bush Gives Plan For Iraq Victory and Withdrawal.”
Bush’s tone stood in marked contrast to his previous denunciations of his Democratic “opponents.” He characterized as “sincere” those who he claimed had advocated an “artificial timetable” for withdrawal, while being fully aware that no one had drafted any resolution that did not contain restrictions in its wording so as to make any proposed withdrawal dates
In a change from the past, Bush admitted a series of mistakes in the conduct of the war and a pledge to change the deployment strategy of the U.S. military. Said Bush, “We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.” This was an obvious reference to the fact that U.S. troops have become easy targets for the Iraqi resistance, now operating with the approval of large portions of the population.
Bush continued, “We will continue to shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists.”
Here Bush is referring to the need to withdraw U.S. forces from the immediate scene and to substitute bombing raids, missile attacks, or special teams of death-squad killers to hopefully eliminate Iraqi fighters while suffering minimal loses.
The Bush administration’s shift in policy parallels in several ways the position outlined two weeks earlier by Murtha.
What prompted Rep. Murtha to break from the phony debate over phased withdrawal and to call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq in six months? Murtha explained, ‘‘The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It’s time to bring the troops home. … They
have become the enemy.” These words were chosen carefully. Murtha speaks for a well-informed section of U.S. rulers who hope to accomplish by political means what has proven impossible to achieve by military means.
Murtha’s resolution provides that U.S. troops be off-shored, as Murtha says, “just over the horizon,” as in Kuwait or on nearby ships, organized in “action ready” units, and aided by specialized missiles in case the U.S. political message is not well enough understood by the now contending Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and other forces in Iraq.
U.S. majority against the war
A week after his Nov. 17 speech, Murtha said, “The American people are ahead of Congress in recognizing that we must give the Iraqis incentive to step up and seize their own destiny —sooner rather than later—so that our young men and women in uniform will not continue paying such a heavy price for an indefinite period” (emphasis added). Of course, should the Iraqis fail to “seize their own destiny” in accord with U.S. imperialist aims, new justifications for the war may well be found.
Bush’s Nov. 30 speech reveals that he too seeks to essentially remove U.S. troops from the immediate field of battle to both lower the U.S. casualty rate and lend a bit more credence to the wholly justified charge that U.S. troops are a permanent army of occupation. But whether the U.S. can remain in Iraq, or on its borders as Murtha proposes, tactical maneuvers notwithstanding, will be a product of the ongoing struggle in that country, in the U.S., and
Murtha was well aware that almost every U.S. opinion poll indicates that a growing majority of Americans are now opposed to the war and that the war’s continuation can only deepen this sentiment. He feels safe in speaking out for bringing the troops home because he knows a majority share that view.
As he put it, “the American public is way ahead of us.” Indeed, on Nov. 24, Murtha reported that 78 percent of the responses he received to his position were favorable.
And the percentage of the U.S. population that is against the war keeps growing in proportion to the mounting number of U.S. troops being killed and wounded for no “noble cause”—that is, accomplishing nothing, not even for the imperialists’ aims. Murtha himself states that oil and energy production in Iraq are below prewar levels, and the U.S. presence itself is “a catalyst” for the growing “insurgency.”
Murtha reflects the growing pressure from military families against the war, who have suffered the loss of over 2100 of their sons and daughters to date, not to mention the 15,000 or more wounded. Groups like Cindy Sheehan’s Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans against the War, and Veterans for Peace are the tip of the iceberg,
expressing widespread opposition to the war inside the military, active and retired, and among military families.
Murtha understands that the opposition to the war has been driven forward by the now thoroughly exposed lies that were used as a pretext for the intended neo-colonial conquest of the country. The effect is magnified by the expenditure of unending billions of dollars while vital domestic programs are slashed to fuel the military.
Despite the very real political and organizational limitations of the two main organizations of the present antiwar movement, United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER, and despite the absence of a broadly-organized, democratic, national, united-front-type antiwar coalition, hundreds of thousands have nevertheless taken to the streets to oppose the war and to demand, “Bring the Troops Home Now!”
The gap has never been greater between the immediate potential to mobilize what could prove to be decisive forces against the war and the movement’s political weakness, especially its predisposition to subordinate massive power in the streets to reliance on the pro-war Democratic Party.
Military recruitment is sagging
A Nov. 23 article by former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich (Common Dreams.org), entitled “The End of The War,” discusses other factors weighing heavily on military specialists like Murtha. The antiwar movement’s growing counter-recruitment efforts and the war’s exposure as a fraud have taken a toll on the military’s capacity to recruit new cannon fodder. “All told,” says Reich, “the military has failed to fully staff over 40 percent of its combat and non-combat specialties.”
Reich continues, “The military is offering signing bonuses up to $30,000 for jobs in high demand. You can get up to a $150,000 cash bonus for re-enlisting if you’re with the Special Forces. And all recruits are eligible for up to $50,000 to offset the costs of higher education and up to $65,000 to pay back college loans. Not to mention generous housing, child care,
and health benefits.”
“According to a new report from Congress’s General Accounting Office,” says Reich, “the Pentagon is falling far behind its targets for recruiting and re-enlisting soldiers for vital combat
positions—including as few as a third of the Special Force soldiers and intelligence specialists it aimed for last year.”
“Why?” asks Reich. His answer is to the point: “According to military experts, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is scaring many potential recruits away. Even though only a portion of our 1.4 million active-duty personnel serve in a war zone or hardship area, the job of a soldier seems far more dangerous these days.”
Murtha, a previous advocate of reinstituting the draft, might have changed his position on this issue as well. Reich argues, “Don’t expect the White House and Congress to reinstate the draft. That would bring public hostility for the Iraqi War to the boiling point,” precisely what Murtha seeks to avert.
Murtha’s well-known close connections to the military establishment have likely informed him that the war, conducted in its present form, is not winnable. The across-the-board hatred among Iraqis for the American army’s ceaseless bombings, torture, oppression, stealing of resources and failure to make a dent in restoring Iraq’s near defunct infrastructure is at a
high point. Among Iraqis, 80 percent or more want an end to the occupation—and this is according to a poll taken by the British occupation forces.
Murtha all but stated outright on National Public Radio on Dec. 1 that his sources in the military believe that the U.S. army itself is broken and that the war cannot be won. He declined to cite the top commanders from whom he had gathered his facts, but no one was willing to challenge him to come up with names.
“U.S. troops are the common enemy”
A factor accounting for Murtha’s turnaround is a recognition that the social and political consequences to pay at home are rapidly rising, as indicated by the majority revulsion against the government’s handling of the events surrounding the Hurricane Katrina
catastrophe—where billions were diverted from levee repair to finance the Iraq War and where U.S.-paid mercenary organizations in Iraq were transferred to New Orleans to terrorize Black residents on whom the label “looters” was placed to justify indiscriminate murder.
A significant portion of the opposition to the war is a reflection of the Iraqi people’s determined fight against the occupation, despite the terrible costs of such resistance. They are fighting a guerrilla war against the most powerful military in the world, with all its computerized technology of destruction, yet their fight is having a profound, worldwide impact.
Murtha puts it this way: “Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. U.S. troops are the common enemy.… “I believe with a U.S. troop redeployment, the Iraqi security forces will be incentivized [sic] to take control. A poll recently conducted shows that over 80 percent of Iraqis are strongly opposed to the presence of coalition troops, and about 45 percent of the Iraqi population believe attacks against American troops are justified. I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis.”
Of course, Murtha uses the false term “insurgency” for what is actually a national resistance to an attempt at renewed colonial conquest of a population that won its independence from de facto British rule with the 1958 revolution against King Faisal.
Iraq has been an independent country since 1958. It nationalized its oil wealth and made significant progress in building an infrastructure and improving economic conditions for much of the population, despite the fact that Iraq’s history since independence has been precarious—subject to major U.S. military, covert (CIA), and diplomatic influence. Iraq’s independence has been circuitous and dictator-filled, but still it was independence, and
the majority of Iraqis want their sovereignty back.
A Nov. 21 Arab League-sponsored conference in Cairo attended by the three main Iraqi factions (Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd) agreed on demanding a “timetable” for U.S. withdrawal and asserted that resistance to occupation is “legitimate.”
As Murtha puts it, “The perception of occupation in Iraq is a major driving force behind the insurgency.” But it’s not just a “perception.” Foreign, colonialist occupation is real, and the Iraqi resistance fighters, however desperate and flawed some of their tactics may be, are taking a heavy toll on the occupation forces. Murtha observed that since the Abu Graib torture
revelations, U.S. casualties have doubled, and attacks on U.S. occupation troops have increased from 150 a week to over 700 a week.
Military wants mobility worldwide
It is certain that Murtha is not against war. Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi, who initially backed away from Murtha and opposed his proposal, reported on Nov. 30 that she now agreed with Murtha’s position that U.S. troops should be withdrawn “as soon as practicable.”
Murtha is worried that U.S. imperialism won’t be able to fight other wars for its predatory needs if it’s tied down in Iraq. He believes that the increasing likelihood of a disaster for U.S. policy in Iraq requires a shift in tactics.
He doesn’t mention Latin America, but those who follow world events understand that revolt against two centuries of U.S. (and European) economic and military domination is spreading rapidly across that continent. U.S. troops are deployed in Colombia, Ecuador, and Central America. The United States has recently established a base in Paraguay—near the border with Bolivia, where a mass movement and general strike nearly toppled a U.S.-backed and corrupt government last May and June, and where elections in December may bring into office a government that could defy corporate, financial, and military dictates from Washington.
Above all, the revolutionary process in Venezuela is deepening. U.S. imperialism fears the further development of a Cuba-Venezuela alliance based on revolutionary politics that challenge capitalist prerogatives. Such a development could provide a base and a headquarters for the encouragement of revolutionary anti-capitalist struggles not only in
Latin America but everywhere in the world.
While U.S. imperialism finds its military mired in an increasingly unwinnable war in Iraq, it is hampered in its desire to deploy its forces to derail or crush the revolutionary upsurges in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. Driven by the terrible poverty of the urban and rural masses—victims of a worldwide capitalist system that is incapable of providing for these people’s most elementary needs, and constantly threatened with the imposition of new “structural adjustment” austerity programs—the Latin American masses pose a continuing and powerful challenge to the world capitalist status quo.
In short, John Murtha, the new voice of a more cautious and rising wing of America’s ruling rich, is worried about U.S. imperialism’s ability to maintain its domination elsewhere in the world, having gotten bogged down and “overcommitted” in Iraq. He says, “…we have other threats that cannot be ignored. We must be prepared to face all threats. The future of
our military is at risk. Our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say that the army is broken.”
Murtha prefers, rather than an outright defeat in Iraq, a tactical retreat to try to buy time for
secret negotiations with Iraq’s own ruling-class elements over the division of the spoils. And with the time bought, some U.S. troops could be redeployed to adjacent areas while others would be freed for assignments to other hotspots where imperialist domination is being challenged.
While the U.S. antiwar movement must not defer to Murtha’s clever rhetoric, it can learn from the very revealing debate under way. The potential to force the U.S. to totally, immediately, and unconditionally withdraw from Iraq has never been greater. Such a victory would afford the Iraqi people their fundamental right to self-determination, maximizing the possibility of an outcome that meets the needs of the broad masses of Iraqi workers and peasants.
The United States and other imperialist nations have propped up virtually every dictatorship on earth. Without imperialist intervention, the oppressed people of the world would likely have disposed of their tyrants long ago. They may well have a major opportunity to do so once again.
The construction of a broadly based movement to realize this goal is within our reach. In the interim, the two major U.S. antiwar coalitions—International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice—have called for nationwide actions on the weekend of March 18 to demand immediate withdrawal from Iraq. All who support a world of peace and social justice should help build these local and regional activities.
If we are successful in forcing the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, as the antiwar movement was during the Vietnam War era, the ability to send troops elsewhere will be severely restricted. The Vietnam Syndrome will become the Iraq Syndrome, thereby opening the way for U.S. working people to better organize to defend their own interests against the capitalist assault under way at home.