From Real War to the Political Fray

Iraq veteran runs for Congress
By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Like John Kerry, Democrat Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran running for Congress in Bucks County, Pa., is straight out of central casting: earnest, clean-cut, a lawyer, an officer in war.

But while Kerry was the poster boy for veterans who came home to denounce the war they fought, Murphy is reluctant to criticize: “I’m not anti-war. I’m not pro-war,” he says. “I’m pro-troops.”

Eight Iraq war veterans have run or announced runs for political office across the country, according to the two major parties. Although all but one are Democrats, none has spoken out against the war or stated support for a troop withdrawal.

They have set themselves apart from many Vietnam veterans with their measured tone about the conflict that forged them _ and their early interest in electoral politics. The Vietnam generation, political analysts say, was often more interested in protest than political bids, and those who ran did so angrily.

“More veterans are thinking of running for office, for starters, and they’re taking a different attitude toward the job on top of that,” says Donald Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re more engaged. They’re more interested in trying to transform policy.”

So far, no Iraq veteran has been elected to Congress, despite two high-profile runs last election cycle, in Virginia and North Jersey. Though the Iraq veterans lost to incumbents, they were welcomed by the public in a way that soldiers returning from Vietnam were not.

Kerry theatrically cast away his war medals, but Murphy, 31, and his peers have been able to highlight their military experience. One, Democrat David Ashe of Virginia, encouraged voters to “send a Marine to Congress.”

Murphy, who won a Bronze Star as an 82d Airborne Division captain in Iraq, works it as well. He led veterans’ outreach for the Kerry campaign in Philadelphia and, during his own fledgling campaign, has often appeared at public events with soldiers and veterans. A picture of him with a 6-year-old Iraqi orphan wearing his helmet and a grin appears on his Web site.

Although he hasn’t served in the military, U.S. Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick _ the incumbent whom Murphy would challenge in 2006 if he wins the Democratic primary _ traveled to Iraq with a congressional delegation over Memorial Day weekend.

His chief of staff, Michael Conallen, said that Fitzpatrick works hard to address the concerns of veterans, a key constituency numbering 60,000 in the district. He said Murphy’s military service, while commendable, does not give him an edge.

Murphy said that crowds had received him by standing, clapping and pledging support.

“There’s been a conscious effort to separate the war from the people who are fighting it” this time, Kettl said.

Just as there has been a shift in attitudes to soldiers since Vietnam, there has been a shift in the tone of veterans who would be politicians.

“A lot of Vietnam veterans came back sad and bitter, highly disillusioned and not wanting to engage,” Kettl said. “Many had a hard time with people … calling them baby killers. It took some time, half a generation, for them as a group to make their stamp on the process.”

The rage of that earlier generation has been sandpapered.

Murphy, for one, criticizes the Bush administration for the way it has conducted the war. There aren’t enough troops on the ground, and many of their vehicles lack armor and technology to defuse roadside bombs, he says.

But he will not denounce the actions of U.S. troops _ or the war itself. Anti-war groups have approached him to speak at their events. He declined.

Little children have asked him, since his return, whether he killed anyone. He deflects the question: “I tell them being in the military isn’t about killing people. It’s about bringing peace to people who don’t have it and bringing them a better life.”

Murphy says he believes his troops helped more than they hurt in Iraq.

During seven months in Baghdad, he saw many damaged lives. He spent most of his time as an Army lawyer, weighing whether those lives had been damaged by the United States in a manner meriting payment.

One Iraqi after another came before him to be compensated for destroyed property or dead relatives. One man bared the chest of his 10-year-old daughter, burned during a U.S. bombing campaign, to make his case.

Murphy heard more than 1,600 cases under the Foreign Claims Act, a World War II-era law that allows the United States to pay if its forces are negligent, except in combat scenarios.

“We make amends,” he said.

In one out of five cases, he did. Murphy paid out $200,000 total.

And he helped arrest and prosecute a revered Shiite cleric, a lieutenant of rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr, for hoarding weapons in a mosque. The local council had warned that there could be an uprising if U.S. and Iraqi forces arrested him.

Despite the objection, they did arrest him in October 2003. Eight people were injured during the ensuing clash. But zero shots were fired into the crowd, Murphy said.

“That was a testament to the discipline of our troops over there,” he said.

Murphy’s stint preceded some of the moments that, for some, have come to define the war negatively. He left Iraq before the mutilated corpses of four Blackwater guards were hung from a bridge near Fallujah; before businessman Nick Berg was beheaded; and before the pictures of naked, abused prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison were publicized.

Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan analyst based in Washington, said veterans who ran last year were constrained.

“You had to be very delicate in the last cycle,” he said. “You didn’t want to be seen as disloyal and not supportive of the troops. … People who served in Iraq or Afghanistan don’t want to go out on a limb too far until they see how it ends.”

A poll of soldiers and their families conducted before the last election, by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that 55 percent of those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan thought the war had been worth it.

Murphy is still one of them _ despite the procession of ruined lives, and despite the moments when U.S. troops did fire into crowds of Iraqis.

“It’s never the intent. It’s part of what happens. … It’s war,” he said. “Those are things you deal with for the rest of your life and are not easy to talk about at a dinner party or on the campaign trail …

“I feel I’ve done everything I could to change the world for the better in my time in Iraq.”

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