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Hawks attack those who dare to speak up


ATLANTA -- Since November, when Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania began calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, he has been under fire from hard-core conservatives. Like every combat veteran before him who has come to question the pretext for war or its prosecution, Mr. Murtha has been denounced as a traitor, a coward, a defeatist and a liar.

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan called Mr. Murtha's stance on withdrawal a "surrender to the terrorists." And, of course, the 38-year Marine veteran has been swiftboated: Critics have questioned his two Purple Hearts, on no grounds whatsoever.

In mid-May, Mr. Murtha put himself in the firestorm again when he revealed details about apparent war crimes committed by Marines in Haditha, Iraq, last fall. "Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them. And they killed innocent civilians in cold blood," Mr. Murtha said.

While news organizations had cast doubts on early battlefield reports that blamed civilian casualties in the Nov. 19 incident on an incendiary device planted by insurgents, Mr. Murtha was the first congressman to publicly lend credence to reports of atrocities.

High-ranking military officials have since acknowledged two separate investigations of the incident: Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell is looking into the initial battlefield reports, while the Naval Criminal Investigation Service is investigating the 24 civilian deaths. The NCIS probe may lead to homicide charges, according to reports.

However, it's Mr. Murtha's outspokenness, not the alleged atrocity, that is roiling the conservative blogosphere, where some correspondents continue to cast him as a cowardly ally of the French, if not a traitorous aide to al-Qaida.

If the peculiar ability to accept only rosy scenarios and optimistic forecasts about Iraq were limited to armchair hawks, it would hardly matter. But that same intentional blindness permeated the White House, the Pentagon and the ranks of neoconservative cheerleaders in the months before the invasion. More than anything else, the unwillingness to hear even thoughtful criticism from military experts led to the bungled preparations and inept strategies that have left Iraq on the brink of civil war.

Colin L. Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force was tossed aside. Experts on rebuilding, counterinsurgency and stabilization were all ignored - as if their cautious advice somehow suggested they were not appropriately enthusiastic about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Vice President Dick Cheney vetted the names of team members in line to go to Iraq to oversee the reconstruction, weeding out most with real expertise and replacing them with political yes men who agreed with his assessment that the invasion would be a cakewalk. Planning for difficulties was interpreted as defeatism.

By now, even President Bush has been forced to peek out of his protective bubble into the reality-based universe. In late May, standing beside British Prime Minister Tony Blair - both men politically battered by the continuing chaos in Iraq - Mr. Bush acknowledged mistakes in tone, apologizing for the cowboy rhetoric he had used in the early months of the war. He also admitted that the Abu Ghraib abuses have tarnished our image abroad.

But the president's henchmen are still sent out to question the patriotism of the war's critics. While acknowledging the Haditha investigation, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, disputed Mr. Murtha's claim that Marines are overstressed. "I totally reject that," he said.

Well, General Bargewell may not. According to published reports, the Army general is likely to conclude that, among other things, troop training has been flawed, with too much emphasis on traditional combat against an identifiable, uniformed enemy and too little training for counterinsurgency.

If Marines were found to have committed atrocities at Haditha, those acts will require the gravest sanctions.

But there is plenty of blame to go around. It ought to be shared with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney and every member of Congress who voted to give the president authority to go to war; with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose arrogance and incompetence allowed the insurgency to grow ever more deadly; and with every armchair hawk who, even now, denounces patriots such as Mr. Murtha as cowards or traitors.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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