Murtha Raises Question of Troop Sentiment on Iraq

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Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) has said that in calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he is passing on the views of military personnel. People on all sides of the debate in Iraq say the military is with them. But verifying such claims can be difficult, since troops are supposed to avoid direct involvement in political debates.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

One of the top Defense Department civilians says he's spoken to the military commanders in Iraq, and he said yesterday the commanders are very optimistic. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the commanders talk to him all the time, and he reports they haven't been asking for any more troops. These may be some of the same commanders who speak to Congressman John Murtha.

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): The military commanders talk to me all the time privately, and what they say privately is not what they're saying publicly.

INSKEEP: John Murtha is the influential Democrat who supported the war in Iraq and then last month publicly called for the US to withdraw. In an interview yesterday on NPR's "All Things Considered," Murtha said he was passing on the views of current and former military personnel.

Rep. MURTHA: I've gotten the message from retired people from all over the country. And this is not up to the military commanders. The military commanders are afraid to say anything. The military commanders are afraid because they'll be fired.

INSKEEP: People on all sides of the debate in Iraq say the military is with them. It is never easy to know who's right, since the troops are supposed to avoid direct involvement in political debates. NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren has been learning what he can about what the troops may be thinking, and he's with us now.

Good morning, John.

JOHN HENDREN (NPR Pentagon Correspondent): Good morning.

INSKEEP: So you spent time in the field with the forces. Do you hear the same kind of complaints that Congressman Murtha says he's been hearing?

HENDREN: I have. And really what you hear in the field, sort of privately in conversation with soldiers, is a little more frank and a little more, I would say, realistic than what you hear often from people in the Pentagon. People on the ground understand that this is a long-term fight. And they're concerned about the speed with which Iraqi forces are being trained, and they'd like to get more US troops out faster. However, doing that, I think there is a general consensus that you can't just pull everyone out now among military officers. However, I think some of them are indeed critical of the pace.

INSKEEP: It is fair to ask, to what extent soldiers are reflecting a strategic concern about the war and to what extent they very understandably want to get home to their own families.

HENDREN: Yeah. You know, I was interested. I looked through some letters in Stars and Stripes, which is a publication a lot of soldiers read. Here's Captain Jeff Pirozzi, who is from Camp Taqaddum in Iraq. And he says, `Don't get me wrong. I enjoy watching Britney Spears on MTV and driving to McDonald's, but do you honestly believe that Sunnis, Shias and Kurds want our Western ideas of entertainment and freedom imposed on them? Think again.' These are people who've often spent nine, 10, 12 months out there, and there's a growing sense of frustration, particularly among those there who have been there on their second tour now.

INSKEEP: Now there's a larger question here and that is the strategic question of whether military officers believe in the strategy they're pursuing, whether they think it makes sense. What do you hear when you call your sources at the Pentagon and elsewhere?

HENDREN: By and large, I believe that the commanders and the military officers who are directing the grunts on the ground out there believe that this is an achievable war, that it's--they can meet the objectives they've set out. Often they're frustrated at the pace of it. However, they're also frustrated with the increasing lack of support that they feel they're getting from Washington. I talked to a general in Baghdad who told me that a congressman came in and complained that they were training Iraqi troops too slowly to replace American troops. And the general turned around and said, `You know, sir, we're happy to get out of here at any time you like, but you might have thought about this before you sent us in.' And I think that sort of reflects some of the frustration that these guys feel.

INSKEEP: And so this is frustration with critics of the war, frustration with the administration, frustration with both?

HENDREN: Well, these are grunts who are out there doing--executing the administration's mission; not people who get to decide exactly what that mission is. And I think their frustration is that they've been given a task and asked to complete it in too short a time.

INSKEEP: John Hendren, thanks very much.

HENDREN: Thank you.

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