Defeated by Defeatism: Why Jack Murtha is Wrong

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 2005

As everyone knows, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-PA) initiated a fierce debate last Thursday when he launched a scathing attack on Bush’s Iraq policy, which he labeled ’’a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” and called for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha claimed that such a timetable would provide the Iraqi government with an added incentive to have their own security forces take control of the conflict.

Murtha’s voice on this issue is important because he is a Democratic “hawk,” a vanishing breed indeed, who as a long-time friend of the Pentagon, voted for the Iraq war. A decorated Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where he was wounded twice and awarded a Bronze Star, he is the top Democrat on the House appropriations defense subcommittee, widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his grasp of military issues.

According to Murtha, ’’the U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It’s time to bring the troops home… They have become the enemy.…It is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering, the future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region.”

Of course, Murtha’s actions may be more symbolic than substantive. Murtha has been a critic of U.S. policy in Iraq for some time despite his vote to authorize the war. He also supported Howard Dean as DNC chairman and joined Nancy Pelosi in May 2004 in labeling the war “un-winnable.”

But there is no need to attempt to discredit Murtha this way. The fact is that his resolution fails according to the very reasoning that one would expect from a Marine Vietnam veteran and a member of Congress “widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his grasp of military issues.”

Announcing his proposal last Thursday, Murtha said that “Iraq can not be won ’militarily.’” He continued:

I have concluded that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress.

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 of the Sunnis, Saddamists and foreign jihadists. I believe with a U.S. troop redeployment, the Iraqi security forces will be incentivized to take attacks against American troops are justified. I believe we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis.

I believe before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free. Free from United States occupation. I believe this will send a signal to the Sunnis to join the political process.

But if the United States were to take Murtha’s advice, the outcome would be precisely the opposite of what he desires. He only needs to recall what happened in Vietnam.

After 1968, the situation in Vietnam was very similar to the one that prevails in Iraq today. Trends were moving in the right direction for the Americans and South Vietnamese. The United States had changed its strategy after Tet 1968, scoring significant military successes against the North Vietnamese while advancing “Vietnamization.” These successes helped stabilize the political and economic situation in South Vietnam, solidifying the attachment of the rural population to the South Vietnamese government and resulting in the establishment of the conditions necessary for South Vietnam’s survival as a viable political entity.

The new strategy was vindicated during the 1972 Easter Offensive. This was the biggest offensive push of the war, greater in magnitude than either the 1968 Tet offensive or the final assault of 1975. While the U.S. provided massive air and naval support and while there were inevitable failures on the part of some South Vietnamese units, all in all, the South Vietnamese fought well. Then, having blunted the communist thrust, they recaptured territory that had been lost to Hanoi. So effective was the combination of the South Vietnamese army’s performance during the Easter Offensive, an enhanced counterinsurgency effort, and LINEBACKER II—the so-called Christmas bombing of 1972 later that year—that the British counterinsurgency expert, Sir Robert Thompson concluded US-ARVN forces “had won the war. It was over.”

But as Bob Sorley has observed, while the war in Vietnam “was being won on the ground… it was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress.” First, the same sort of domestic defeatism that is endangering our effort in Iraq today impelled President Nixon to rush to extricate the country from Vietnam, forcing South Vietnam to accept a cease fire that permitted North Vietnamese Army forces to remain in South Vietnam.

Second, the Watergate scandal changed the makeup of Congress, which, in an act that still shames the United States to this day, then cut off military and economic assistance to South Vietnam. Finally, President Nixon resigned over Watergate and his successor, constrained by congressional action, defaulted on promises to respond with force to North Vietnamese violations of the peace terms. Only three years after blunting the communist Easter Offensive, and despite the heroic performance of some South Vietnamese units, South Vietnam collapsed against a much weaker, cobbled-together communist offensive. And South Vietnam ceased to exist, consigning millions of souls to communist tyranny and weakening the United States for a decade.

How did the North Vietnamese Communists pull this off? In 1990, North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, confirming what he has written in his own memoirs, told Stanley Karnow that “We were not strong enough to drive out a half-million American troops, but that wasn’t our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war.”

Murtha should know this history; the Iraqi insurgents certainly do, as illustrated by a passage in a letter from al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri to Iraqi insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, dated July 9, 2005. In this letter, Zawahiri reminds Zarqawi that the war does not end with the expulsion of the American from Iraq. The danger is that the Americans might cut and run before Zarqawi is ready to fill the vacuum.

The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam—and how they ran and left their agents—is noteworthy. Because of that, we must be ready starting now, before events overtake us, and before we are surprised by the conspiracies of the Americans and the United Nations and their plans to fill the void behind them. We must take the initiative and impose a fait accompli upon our enemies, instead of the enemy imposing one on us, wherein our lot would be to merely resist their schemes.

Murtha’s proposal would validate Zawahiri’s belief that the United States is irresolute and weak and that the Americans will take the first opportunity to “run.”

Murtha wants the Iraqis to bear more of the responsibility for their own security. But this is already happening. As I wrote earlier this month,

Coalition forces are able to apply simultaneous force against the insurgent strongholds and, more important, to stay in the area because many Iraqi units are now able conduct combat operations with minimal U.S. support. In a Pentagon press briefing on Sept. 30, Gen. George Casey, the U.S. ground-forces commander in Iraq, pointed out that the number of U.S.-Iraqi or independent Iraqi operations of company-size or greater had increased from about 160 in May to over 1,300 in September, and that US-Iraqi or independent Iraqi operations now constituted some 80 percent of all military operations in Iraq [emphasis added].

The increasing number of capable Iraqi units means that the Iraqi government can begin to extend the writ of the Iraqi government to Al Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni Triangle. For instance, the recently completed Operation River Gate has established a substantial Iraqi government presence in Haditha, Haqlaniyah, and Barwana, three former insurgent strongholds along the Euphrates River.

A pullout now would reverse this very favorable trend.

Finally, it is very clear that Murtha has been moved by the soldiers he has visited who have been wounded in the war and by the plight of those who have lost loved ones in Iraq. But those of us who respect his grasp of military affairs expect him, unlike members of the press, to be able to place casualties in strategic context. He dishonors the sacrifice of
these men by treating them as victims rather than the heroes they are. We owe it to the American soldiers who have been killed or wounded in Iraq and the Iraqis who have fought to create a new state to see this effort through to the end, preventing a replay of the disgraceful episode three decades ago when the U.S. Congress betrayed and abandoned our South Vietnamese allies.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.