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A Democratic hawk's battle against war

Rep. Murtha, a Vietnam vet, is calling for an Iraq pullout. But party mates seem less willing to join him on the limb.

October 29, 2006|Tim Jones | Chicago Tribune

JOHNSTOWN, PA. — Rep. John P. Murtha, the gruff Marine and Vietnam War veteran, remembers Sen. George S. McGovern, a decorated World War II bomber pilot, barnstorming the country in 1972 as the Democratic presidential nominee, calling for the pullout of all American troops from Vietnam.

"I did not agree," Murtha said, firmly embracing a diplomatic nicety.

But now Murtha, a 32-year Democratic veteran of Congress and one of the best friends the Pentagon has in Washington, is on the campaign plane to dozens of congressional districts, echoing a McGovern-esque call to get the U.S. out of Iraq.

"The spin from the White House is that there will be chaos if we pull out. It's chaos now, for Christ's sake," Murtha said. "This is the most important issue in the election. You can't solve any other problem unless you solve the war."

"And they call me unpatriotic," Murtha said, shaking his head.

Next month's midterm election will be a test of national tolerance for the war and could, as polls suggest, negatively affect the chances of Republicans maintaining control of Congress.

The war has already eroded support for President Bush, whose approval ratings are between 35% and 40%. At least 96 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq so far in October, the highest monthly toll in nearly two years, and there are rumblings that a change in strategy could come soon.

Though polls suggest that a majority of Americans think it was a mistake to invade Iraq, the 74-year-old Murtha is leading an almost singular political charge to bring the troops home. Eleven months after Murtha stunned Washington with a call to withdraw from Iraq, there is no boisterous band of incumbent Democratic brothers joining the old Marine against the barrage of cut-and-run and defeat-o-crat charges.

The Democratic troops may be with Murtha, but they're kind of hard to see right now.

"It took a long time to realize that George McGovern was way ahead of everyone else," he said.

As McGovern, who won only one state in the 1972 election, will testify, being ahead of everyone is not necessarily an essential ingredient in successful election campaigns. And that may explain why Murtha, a prolific bring-home-the-bacon pol who ran unopposed in this mountainous, southwestern Pennsylvania district two years ago, is not only being challenged but is having his military and patriotic credentials called into question.

In Johnstown, a dark, one-time steel producing center that proudly wears it wounds from the great flood of 1889 and remembers its war dead with several prominent public memorials, the war has cleaved the city, much as it has the country.

Recent dueling rallies on successive days alternately praised Murtha as a profile in courage and defender of the troops during one and a traitor in the other.

There is little to suggest that Murtha is in serious trouble. 'We've turned the Swift Boats into shrimp boats," said Murtha's chief of staff, John Hugya, a former Marine colonel who has two daughters serving in the military.

The complexity of Iraq war public opinion bears a strong resemblance to Vietnam, 34 years ago. In a late September Gallup Poll, 37% said pull the troops out of Iraq now.

In February 1972, the Gallup Poll had 40% supporting immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. The majority in both polls favored a mixture of solutions, including a slow withdrawal and staying the course.

"If you're looking to the American public for guidance on Iraq, you don't really get it .... The public doesn't have its own solution," said Frank Newport of Gallup Poll. "Right now you see the same kinds of issues as in Vietnam."

Yet the Iraq war, with its persistent casualties and few hopeful glimmers, is the foundation for argument that things simply haven't gone right under Republican leadership. Only two years ago Bush and the Republicans rode the war and security arguments to victory.

As Democrats sense Republican vulnerability on Iraq , they are speaking out more forcefully, but still with no consensus as to when and how the U.S. should leave.

Divisions in Johnstown, from the benches in Central Park to the booths of the old Coney Dog restaurant on Franklin Street, reflect the polarized arguments, as well as the more nuanced positions when people -- even those who think the war was a mistake -- ponder what should be done now.

Andy Mikolaj was an infantryman during World War II. "I know what war is," the 86-year-old Mikolaj said on a brisk fall afternoon.

"World War II was a necessity. These two are not," he said, referring to Vietnam and Iraq,

Two blocks away at a flower shop, owner Stephen LaPorta was shocked by Murtha's call to pull out and outraged that Murtha would condemn Marines accused in the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha.

"Coming from a Marine, you wouldn't think he'd be trashing his own kind," said LaPorta, adding that he has voted for Murtha before, but won't this time. "He's helping the enemy, and I think he's cutting and running."

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