- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

The nation’s highest ranking military officer yesterday pointedly criticized Rep. John P. Murtha for saying that if he had the choice today he would not join the U.S. military.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs chairman, said such remarks hurt both recruiting and morale at a time when American troops are fighting terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and a decorated Marine in Vietnam, has called for a quick pullout of all troops from Iraq in a war that he says is not winnable. He has labeled the U.S. Army as “broken” because of recruiting shortfalls and equipment shortages. In an ABC News interview aired Monday, Mr. Murtha agreed with a statement that young people today are justified in not joining the military.

The Pentagon has responded tamely to both criticisms, but Gen. Pace yesterday delivered a more forceful response during a press conference to review his weeklong trip to the war zones.

Mr. Murtha’s remark, Gen. Pace said, is “damaging to recruiting. It’s damaging to morale of the troops who are deployed, and it’s damaging to the morale of their families who believe in what they’re doing to serve this country.

“We have almost 300 million Americans who are being protected by 2.4 [million] volunteer active, Guard and reserve members. We must recruit to that force. When a respected leader like Mr. Murtha, who has spent 37 extremely honorable years as a Marine, fought in two wars, has served the country extremely well in the Congress of the United States, when a respected individual like that says what he said, and 18- and 19-year olds look to their leadership to determine how they are expected to act, they can get the wrong message.”

He said young people should be encouraged to join, not shun, the military, “especially when we’re in a war where our enemy has stated intention of destroying our way of life.”

Asked on ABC’s “Nightline” whether he would join today, Mr. Murtha answered, “No.” Then asked whether the “average guy out there who’s considering recruitment is justified in saying, ‘I don’t want to serve,’ ” Mr. Murtha said, “Well, exactly right.”

During his press conference, Gen. Pace said that whether Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, seeks further troops reductions this year will depend largely on how many Iraqi army battalions can take the lead in fighting insurgents. Troop levels are scheduled dip to 130,000 in March, from a base force of 138,000.

“I do believe that over the course of the coming year that violence will subside,” he said.

The military reported that seven American troops were killed in Iraq in the past two days.

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