Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked at a Pentagon news conference to comment on remarks by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Marine Corps veteran who has become a leading voice in Congress advocating an early withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Pace was asked specifically about an ABC News interview this week in which Murtha, 73, said if he were eligible to join the military today he would not, nor would he expect others to join.
"That's damaging to recruiting," Pace said. "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 are doing to serve this country."
Pace called the news conference to discuss his weeklong trip to Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region. He said he found good troop morale and a "quiet confidence" that U.S. efforts in Iraq were on the right track. He added that Murtha's comments were among the first things he heard about upon returning Tuesday.
Military officers usually are reluctant to get drawn into political debates, but Pace said Murtha's remarks about recruiting are relevant to his responsibilities as Joint Chiefs chairman.
Pace praised the congressman's record but criticized his remarks.
"When a respected leader like Mr. Murtha, who has spent 37 extremely honorable years as a Marine ..., 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," Pace said.
In a statement released Thursday, Murtha said: "The military had no problem recruiting directly after 9/11 because everyone understood that we had been attacked. But now the military's ability to attract recruits is being hampered by the prospect of prolonged, extended and repeated deployments; inadequate equipment; shortened home stays; the lack of any connection between Iraq and the brutal attacks of 9/11; and — most importantly — the administration's constantly changing, undefined, open-ended military mission in Iraq."
Later Thursday, Murtha said Pace and the military are trying to blame him for recruitment problems because he disagrees with their policies.
"They're frustrated by this mission," Murtha said before a town hall meeting on Iraq in Arlington, Va., hosted by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
"Peter Pace told me this last night: They know militarily they can't win this," Murtha said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others at the Pentagon, including Pace, have said repeatedly that victory in Iraq will not be achieved by U.S. forces defeating the insurgency militarily but rather by U.S. forces providing the Iraqis the military, political and economic wherewithal to overcome the insurgency.
During the Pentagon news conference Thursday, Pace also predicted that the Saddam Hussein loyalists and other Iraqis who comprise the great bulk of the insurgency will increasingly give up, now that Iraq has approved its own constitution and held elections.
Pace said he believes the violence, which flared anew Thursday on one of the bloodiest days in Iraq in months, will abate as more Iraqis become convinced that the December elections will produce a representative government that will improve their lives.
"As they see their own government providing a way ahead that all of their citizens can understand as progress for their country, ... those who are fighting against the government right now who are Iraqis will more and more lay down their arms and decide to become part of the future of Iraq and not the past," Pace said.
In describing the continuing violence, Pace pointedly referred to terrorists and the al Qaeda network, rather than the anti-government Iraqis who are believed to comprise more than 90 percent of the insurgency.
"I do believe that over the course of the coming year that violence will subside," he said.