Congress heard Wednesday from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Testimony by the servicemen, who said morale among U.S. forces remains high, provided an opportunity for lawmakers from both parties to praise U.S. soldiers, but was also an occasion for some to express concern about military losses in Iraq, which recently passed the 1,000 mark.
When U.S. servicemen and women who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan appear before congressional committees, they usually portray American fighting forces, their objectives and conduct, in positive terms.
In Wednesday's hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, soldiers from the Army and Marines, painted a picture of proud military units required to fight one minute, and rebuild the next.
Colonel Michael Linnington is a former brigade commander with the 101st Airbone Division.
"My brigade performed a wide range of operations, from war fighting to stability and support operations, often conducting both within blocks or hours of each other," he said. "It was not uncommon for my soldiers to be rebuilding schools and medical clinics during the day, and conducting foot patrols at night, or fighting insurgents in one part of town, while assisting elections in another. In all of these operations, our soldiers performed magnificently, with courage, dedication, selflessness, compassion and respect for the Iraqi people that made me very proud to be their commander."
Lieutenant Colonel Bryan McCoy was a former Marine commander in Iraq, among the first to enter Baghdad. He referred to the challenge U.S. troops faced in switching from combat operations to more "ambiguous" security and stability operations.
"These young men, in many cases, were last year's high school seniors," he added. "They instinctively knew what to do, and demonstrated great compassion on a people that had known only terror and fear. The effect of their efforts was electric. To see the faces of the tormented [Iraqi] people, many who had never known anything but being ruled by Saddam and his brutal regime, was overwhelming. As we gained their trust, nearly every adult or child had a story to tell about they had personally suffered under Saddam."
As this and other testimony made clear, Wednesday's committee hearing was also another opportunity for the military and lawmakers to highlight positive accomplishments in Iraq, as well as attempt some "image repair" several months after controversy first developed over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by some members of the military.
Republican Congressman Joel Hefley, who chaired the hearing, sought to keep the focus on positive accomplishments of U.S. troops in Iraq:
"Thirty years ago, a generation of Americans fought in another foreign war. Because the war was controversial, some people who opposed it sought to tar all Vietnam veterans with the crimes of a small handful," said Mr. Hefley. "We can't allow that to happen again."
That comment appeared to be aimed directly at Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry, whose statements in congressional testimony decades ago about U.S. military atrocities during the Vietnam war have been used by congressional Republicans and other groups opposing Mr. Kerry to question his qualifications to be president.
Against the background of the reports of 1000 U.S. military deaths in Iraq, the hearing also provided an opportunity for one House Democrat, Congressman Ike Skelton, to renew concerns about Bush administration handling of Iraq.
But in doing so, Mr. Skelton also repeated his conviction that the United States needs to stay the course in Iraq.
"This number represents 1000 families who have paid the highest price for the war in Iraq," he said. "When the price is this high, what exactly do we have to show for the sacrifice of our sons and daughters? But we made a commitment and I have maintained from the beginning that we must see that commitment through."
Nevertheless, Mr. Skelton referred to recent U.S. military deaths in Fallujah, saying it appears the United States may not be learning such lessons.
Republican House lawmakers used speeches Wednesday to highlight what they call U.S. military successes in Iraq and Afghanistan, echoing statements by the Bush campaign that these have also helped prevent further terrorist attacks in the United States.