John Murtha's Johnstown
Published on Monday, December 5, 2005 by The Nation
John Murtha's Johnstown
by Katrina vanden Heuvel
 

If you want to better understand how public opinion on the war in Iraq has reached a turning point, visit Johnstown in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district. It's a socially conservative, blue-collar district whose once thriving steel mills now languish. Bush lost the district by only 8,000 votes in 2004 and John Murtha has represented it for 16 terms. One wouldn't expect to find rising opposition to the war here.

Yet, after Murtha's courageous and emotional statement on Thanksgiving eve insisting it's time for US troops to come home within six months, his constituents seem to be siding with him in increasingly large numbers.

Given the district's large veteran population and conservative political tendencies, a surprising number of constituents -- including veterans -- expressed virtually unqualified support for Murtha's newly-stated position that the Iraq conflict has no military solution.

A Vietnam veteran said that he felt, "like Murtha, [that] we should stop [the war] and bring them home and get them out of there." One Army veteran of World War II applauded Murtha's candid assessment of the absence of progress in Iraq, saying that American soldiers should have pulled out of Iraq "a long time ago." The Tribune-Democrat listed the results of an unscientific poll on its website revealing that 63 percent of respondents supported Murtha's arguments that we should withdraw from Iraq within six months while 37 percent disagreed with their Congressman's position.

While polling for opinion in Murtha's district is hard to find, a slew of articles, editorials, interviews and other commentary has appeared in state and local papers and wire services to suggest that public opinion is trending in Murtha's direction across not just his district but also his entire state.

"Many constituents side with Murtha on troops leaving Iraq," one Knight Ridder News story said. The Tribune-Democrat declared: "Murtha's stance on troops generally wins support at home." The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced: "Johnstown stands behind Murtha in wake of his call for Iraq exit."

Indeed, phone calls flooding Murtha's main district office in the aftermath of his announcement ran about two-to-one in favor of Murtha's position, Murtha's district director said. Murtha's constituents know him so well that they instinctively trust his judgment and instincts especially on matters of war and peace.

Another factor at work is that at least some of Murtha's constituents have also reached the conclusion that Bush Administration strategy in Iraq has failed, that military victory is not achievable and that the best thing is to withdraw as soon as possible. A few people called Murtha's office and called him a "traitor." For the most part, though, his constituents "in west Pennsylvania signaled weariness for the war," Knight Ridder reported. "It's a conservative area. But we don't support this particular war," one veteran interviewed in Johnstown's American Legion Hall told a reporter. "Most of the people around here are in accord with [Murtha] on this [war]."

Sure, "not everyone in Johnstown is comfortable with Mr. Murtha's new role," David S. Cloud wrote in the New York Times a few days before Thanksgiving. For example, the head of the local Republican party is "kind of perplexed" about Murtha's about-face. "If we would leave right now, I think al-Qaeda's people would be more winners than losers," a Vietnam Veteran told Johnstown's local paper, the Tribune-Democrat, in voicing his opposition to Murtha's new antiwar stance.

But if the editorial pages of the Tribune-Democrat, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Post-Gazette are indicative of the mood in Murtha's district and the state, it's fair to conclude that Pennsylvanians are now opposed to President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq. In Johnstown, the local paper's editorial page urged those defending Bush's war to "hear Murtha out" and argued that the combat "has gone on far too long." The Inquirer's editorial page faulted Murtha's critics for smearing the former Marine while the the Post-Gazette's page explained that Murtha's declaration that the US should pull out "linger[s] in the air with authority" and should not simply be dismissed out of hand.

The growing disillusionment with the war has many roots, including the large costs to the state's communities. In September, five Pennsylvanians died in a single day in a roadside bombing near Ramadi. As of late September, 104 Pennsylvanians had died in combat in Iraq, and the state ranks third behind only Texas and California in the number of fatalities for any single state.

Pennsylvania has also been financially hurt, spending some $10.1 billion of its money to pay for the Iraqi conflict. With over 3,200 of its National Guardsmen serving in Iraq, the state has the highest per capita deployed of any state. The result: Pennsylvania is poorly equipped to handle the kind of natural disaster that hit Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this year.

Murtha's not a lone hawk turned against the war, either; other hawks have had changes-of-heart on Iraq reminiscent of his recent conversion. North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones, who has many military bases based in his district, (and coiner of the "freedom fries" phrase) announced this past June that he had decided that our troops should leave Iraq. Jones even joined Dennis Kucinich and Neil Abercrombie, two leading members of the Progressive Caucus in sponsoring a resolution urging Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq beginning in October 2006. Like Murtha, Jones has seen up-close the devastation of the war on his district's communities and families.

The turning point for Jones came at a funeral for a Marine who left behind a wife and three kids, when Jones heard the Marine's widow read her husband's last letter. Jones said: "This was an event in my life that it actually had spiritual ramifications, because I became part of the family. I was emotional, and I think from that day, my feelings have evolved. I mean, we have to defeat terrorism. I just think that we have achieved the goals in Iraq, and maybe it's now time to consider what we need to be doing down the road."

Jones has displayed pictures of US fatalities in the hallway outside his office. "When I think about what happened in Vietnam -- we lost 58,000 -- I wonder, 'Wouldn't it have been nice if, two years into the war, some representatives would have said, 'Mr. President, where we going?'" Jones explained.

Murtha, of course, has reached similar conclusions about the absence of progress in Iraq and about the mounting human costs of our failed strategy. Murtha, for instance, keeps track of how many of his constituents have died in Iraq (13) and frequently visits the wounded recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center.

One of his constituents, the New York Times reported, is Private Salvatore Ross Jr., who lost part of his leg and is now blind because of a landmine explosion. Murtha helped the soldier receive special treatment at John Hopkins Medical Center, and the Times reported that Murtha "arranged a ceremony in Private Ross's hometown, where he received a Purple Heart."

Murtha is a compelling figure: The first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, he has been a good friend to the military for decades, and he is the furthest thing from a dove in the US Congress. The Washington Post referred to Murtha as the "Democrats' soldier-legislator." It seems clear that Murtha is close to those in the military who understand this occupation is unwinnable. Because of who he is, what he stands for, Murtha has served his nation well in demanding an end to a reckless war.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor of The Nation.

2005 The Nation

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