February 20, 2007

Colonel Murtha – can you spell Vietnam?

An edited version of this article appeared on MSNBC Hardball Hardblogger

According to recent remarks by Representative John Murtha, he intends to cripple President Bush’s “surge” plan in Iraq by placing numerous restrictions on how money can be spent, stating, “They won’t be able to do the deployment. They won’t have equipment, they don’t have the training and they won’t be able to do the work. There’s no question in my mind. We have analyzed this and there’s no way this can be done.”

Perhaps the colonel – Murtha is a retired US Marine Corps reservist – has forgotten the lessons we Vietnam veterans learned the hard way. You cannot prosecute a war effectively with interference from Washington. What he proposes, labeled the “slow bleed” by Murtha's opponents, is exactly the type of interference and micromanagement we faced 40 years ago in Southeast Asia.

During that conflict, there were so many conditional rules of engagement and outright restrictions on the use of military power that our forces were not only fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, but the bureaucracy inside the Beltway as well. For example, for years we were not permitted to bomb North Vietnamese targets north of 20 degrees north latitude – even when the North Vietnamese Air Force built an airfield just north of the line.

When President Nixon finally unleashed American airpower in December 1972 (Operation Linebacker II), Air Force, Navy and Marine aircrews brought North Vietnam to its knees in a matter of days, only to be called off before delivering the final blow. Contrast that to the Gulf War. President Bush gave the Pentagon the mission – defend Saudi Arabia and liberate Kuwait – and let them execute it.

Mr. Murtha wants to restrict how specific monies can be spent, how troops are trained prior to deployment, how the services determine rotation policies and manage their retention programs, etc. He wants to require that the Defense Department allow combat veterans to have at least one year stateside before returning to the combat zone. An admirable goal, but these are decisions best left to those prosecuting the war. Marines normally deploy for seven months – are they expected to also wait one year before redeployment? Where does this end – will the Pentagon have to clear each troop movement with Congress?

The congressman also wants to prevent the services, particularly the Army and Marine Corps, from using the Stop Loss program, a program that allows the services to retain members on active duty to the full extent of their enlistment contract (the contact includes a reserve portion). In other words, he wants the military to stop using a legal, authorized force management tool.

In a surprising statement, Mr. Murtha called for the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo (not sure what that has to do with Iraq) and the bulldozing of the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib. Can we assume he will allocate funds to build a new terrorist prison in his congressional district? As for Abu Ghraib, shouldn’t we allow the Iraqis to decide what to do with their facilities?

All of this boils down to congressional (political) micromanagement of the Defense Department’s conduct of a war – all the things he no doubt complained about (or should have) when he was a Marine Corps officer.

Congratulations, Colonel – you propose to do to the troops in Iraq what the Johnson and Nixon administrations did to us in Vietnam. I hope it doesn’t turn out the same way.