When he came home from Vietnam, John P. Murtha had two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and -- unlike many other vets -- no desire to protest the war.
After he won a U.S. House seat in Pennsylvania in 1974, he became one of the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, using his position on the House Appropriations Committee to help lavish the armed forces with money. And when President Bush decided to wage war on Saddam Hussein, perhaps no Democrat was a firmer ally.
So it sent a jolt through Congress on Thursday when Murtha stood before a bank of television cameras and announced tearfully that he had decided it was time to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. And not soon. Now.
“Our military’s done everything that has been asked of them. The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily,” he said. “It’s time to bring the troops home.”
As troop casualties have mounted, a small number of senators and House members of both parties have begun to urge their colleagues to demand an Iraq exit strategy from the administration. But of those, only Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) was willing to say the deployment should begin soon.
Murtha, 73, put himself firmly out in front of his colleagues by calling for the withdrawal to start now -- a process he estimated could be completed in six months.
“I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice: The United States will immediately redeploy -- immediately redeploy,” Murtha said. “No schedule which can be changed. Nothing that’s controlled by the Iraqis. This is an immediate redeployment of our American forces because they have become the target.”
Congressional anxiety over the war has risen as public support for the war has plummeted in recent polls. This week, the Senate adopted a resolution urging that Iraqis take more control of their country during 2006 to hasten the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. And Murtha’s dramatic announcement was likely to intensify the debate.
The administration and GOP congressional leaders quickly denounced his proposal.
A statement issued by the White House as Bush was traveling in Asia described Murtha as “a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America.” It continued: “So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The eve of an historic democratic election in Iraq is not the time to surrender to the terrorists.”
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he was saddened by Murtha’s about-face.
“Rep. Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run,” Hastert said in a statement, using a phrase other Republicans -- including Bush -- have adopted in characterizing calls for withdrawal.
Hastert added: “To add insult to injury, this is done while the president is on foreign soil.”
Democratic leaders praised Murtha’s courage in taking an unpopular position but stopped short of endorsing it.
“Two-and-a-half years after the president said ‘mission accomplished,’ we still don’t know what the mission is,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “So the focus really shouldn’t be on Mr. Murtha. It should be on the president of the United States and his failed policy there.”
Murtha appeared unfazed by the furor he caused. A former carwash owner from a region of western Pennsylvania once dotted with coal mines and steel factories, Murtha is famously iconoclastic, charting his own course with little regard for what others think.
He tends to give reporters the brushoff. He has trouble keeping his eyes focused on a TV camera lens. To his colleagues and constituents, the power he wields over the defense budget as ranking Democrat of the defense appropriations subcommittee -- and the defense projects he sends home to his district as a result -- more than make up for any lack of polish.
It wasn’t polls that convinced the former Marine drill instructor that it was time to change course in Iraq, he explained in an interview. It was his weekly visits to wounded troops in Washington-area hospitals.
“Let me tell you something: We’re charged, Congress is charged, with sending our sons and daughters into battle. And it’s our responsibility, our obligation, to speak out for them,” Murtha said. “That’s why I’m speaking out.”
In a 30-minute news conference, Murtha repeatedly told stories about wounded troops. He spoke of a Seabee, paralyzed from the neck down, surrounded by his wife, mother and three children, all crying because he would be immobile for life; of the father of a wounded Marine, himself a veteran, who sought the congressman’s help to bring a second son home from the war; of a soldier who lost both hands because he was hit by shrapnel from a bomblet dropped by U.S. troops.
That soldier’s mother complained that her son was ineligible for a Purple Heart because the attack was “friendly.”
Murtha, choking up, recounted that he met with military officials. “I said, ‘If you don’t give him a Purple Heart, I’ll give him one of mine.’ And they gave him a Purple Heart.”
Murtha has traveled frequently to Iraq, and he was especially disturbed by what he observed during a recent stop there. He said he looked at the U.S. military’s criteria for withdrawal and decided no progress was being made. In his view, living conditions were worse for Iraqis than before the war. And instead of seeing U.S. troops as liberators, Iraqis consider Americans the enemy, he said.
U.S. troops “don’t deserve to continue to suffer,” Murtha said. “They’re the targets. They have become the enemy.”
Murtha responded angrily when asked about Republican senators who asserted that during their stops in Iraq, no troops had called for withdrawal.
“The soldiers aren’t going to tell you that,” Murtha sputtered. “They’re proud of their service. They’re looking at their friends. We are here. We have an obligation to speak for them.”
Asked about Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent attacks on Democrats who have questioned whether the administration misused intelligence in making the case for invading Iraq, Murtha sarcastically noted that neither man had been in combat.
“I like guys who’ve never been there that criticize us who’ve been there,” he said. “I like that.”
Referring specifically to Cheney, he said: “I like guys who got five deferments [during the Vietnam War era] and have never been there and send people to war, and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done.”
Murtha, who is well over 6 feet tall, walks with a shambling gait that doesn’t mask a Marine’s bearing. He enlisted in 1952, during the Korean War; joined the Marine Reserves after his discharge from active duty; and reenlisted during Vietnam. He was in the Reserves until 1990, retiring as a colonel.
In 2004, he was honored by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation for a lifetime of service to the corps. His military credentials and longtime focus on defense matters give him an authority that few Democrats in Congress enjoy on issues of war and peace.
“John is one of the most respected members of the body and certainly the most respected member of the Democratic Party on national security matters, so judgments of his should never be taken lightly,” said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa).
Murtha supported President Reagan’s incursions into Central America in the 1980s. During the first Persian Gulf War, which most Democrats and many Republicans opposed, Murtha was a fervent supporter of then-President George H.W. Bush. He recalled the former President Bush nostalgically in comparison with the current administration.
“This outfit doesn’t want to hear any suggestions. It’s frustrating,” Murtha said. “And the troops are paying the price for it.”
Despite the respect for Murtha expressed by many GOP lawmakers, his words appeared unlikely to cause many to reconsider their support of the administration’s Iraq policies.
“I still think on balance most Republicans are going to continue to support the president,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). “I don’t think you can just simply pull out of Iraq.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) said: “I respect John personally, but I disagree totally with his position.”
Murtha won plaudits, however, from Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), one of the few congressional Republicans who has publicly challenged the administration over Iraq. “When you have a man of the stature of John Murtha calling for immediate withdrawal, that’s a pretty heavy hit,” Jones said.
In Murtha’s home district, initial reaction to his withdrawal proposal appeared cautious.
Chip Minemyer, editor of the Tribune-Democrat newspaper in Murtha’s hometown of Johnstown, Pa., said: “I think everyone is being kind of guarded in how they react. They don’t want to come off sounding like they don’t agree with the congressman, but they also don’t want to throw up their hands with Iraq like they’re quitting.”
At least one of Murtha’s Republican constituents, state Sen. Don White, said Murtha’s comments gave him pause about the situation in Iraq.
Calling Murtha “probably the only political hero I’ve ever had,” White said: “Chief of staffs, secretaries of Defense, presidents all come and go, but that guy’s been looking after the troops for 30 years. And when he makes a statement like this, I’m very concerned.”
Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti and Emma Vaughn contributed to this report.