People who Died: Now Murtha, too (UPDATE Two)

Murtha endorses another whistleblower, a year after the "Murthquake."

Three obituaries inside a week or so: first the World War II-vet peers Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger, only one of whom became a dissenter. Now Murtha, of the Vietnam generation but only a dissenter much later, who I sort of pre-eulogized last week when he went into hospital. Respect to CBS News for not playing politics with the obit notice.

I’ll add more to this when I see how people react.


6:32 p.m. OK, the news blips have gone from not-shocked-quick-notices to something more nuanced. The President’s statement was actually pretty elegant saying a lot in very few words:

He was a devoted husband, a loving father and a steadfast advocate for the people of Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years. His passion for service was born during his decorated career in the United States Marine Corps, and he went on to earn the distinction of being the first Vietnam War combat veteran elected to Congress. Jack’s tough-as-nails reputation carried over to Congress, where he became a respected voice on issues of national security.

The Washington Post’s obit noted that Murtha also exhibited that tough-as-nails approach to the president’s new “budget freeze,” noting that “He has to come to us,” meaning Congress.  Their full coverage includes a slide show and a range of responses.

The announcement that has replaced Murtha’s Congressional site gave more details on his military background, for the curious:

He learned about military service from the bottom up, beginning as a raw recruit when he left Washington and Jefferson College in 1952 to join the Marines out of a growing sense of obligation to his country during the Korean War. He earned the American Spirit Honor Medal, awarded to fewer than one in 10,000 recruits. He rose through the ranks to become a drill instructor at Parris Island and was selected for Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. He then was assigned to the Second Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In 1959, Captain Murtha took command of the 34th Special Infantry Company, Marine Corps Reserves, in Johnstown. He remained in the Reserves after his discharge from active duty until he volunteered for Vietnam in 1966-67, where he served as the S-2 intelligence officer for the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division and received the Bronze Star with Combat “V”, two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Upon his retirement from the Marine Corps Reserve in 1990, he was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal by the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

It was Sam Stein, at Huffington Post, who got to the reason why Murtha ended up in my book title, saying that “the Johnstown native forever cemented his legacy during a mid-November afternoon in 2005 when he went public with his skepticism about the course of the Iraq War.” Calling that day “the Murthquake,” Stein adds:

It is rare that a political figure can literally re-chart the course of his political party. But in coming out for an immediate troop withdrawal, Murtha gave his Democratic colleagues the cover they needed to express their own reservations about the war. Those who worked closely with the congressman at the time — both on and off the Hill — credit him with elevating Iraq on the Democratic platform and in turn putting the party in a position to benefit from the wave of anti-war sentiment that swept the 2006 elections.

“John Murtha showed us how to be strong,” adds MoveOn’s  Tom Matzzie. Click here for some delicious footage of Murtha  refusing to back down when chicken-hawks abused him.

For anyone who doesn’t remember, here’s what happened that November day in 2005:

The flashbulbs started the moment Rep. John Murtha approached the podium. Despite all legislative business, on the last day before the 2005 Thanksgiving recess, the House press room was packed and the cameras on. CNN had even cut into its regular programming. The dais was lined with American flags.

Murtha looked around briefly as he took the stage. A beefy man with sharp blue eyes and brilliant-white hair parted on the side, the former Marine colonel wore a gray business suit, not his uniform or his medals. His colleagues, and the press corps, were already aware of his Bronze Star, his Purple Hearts, and his Silver Star. It was why they were there.
This wasn’t Russell Feingold or Nancy Pelosi, whose opposition to the war had been steadfast from the beginning. This was the first Vietnam veteran ever elected to Congress, a well-known hawk from the part of Pennsylvania often nicknamed “Alabama,” who prided himself on working behind the scenes with both Republican and Democratic Presidents. He’d been in the inner circle during the Persian Gulf War and voted to authorize military action against Iraq. What was he about to propose?
Murtha took a deep breath and summoned the spirit of his mentor and fellow Irishman, Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill, who had famously told Lyndon Johnson that the Vietnam War had gone horribly wrong. He knew this president wasn’t, likely, listening. But he hoped his fellow members of Congress were.
“The war in Iraq,” he began, “is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” He blinked as the flashbulbs went off.
There was no whispering, no side conversations in the pressroom. Only Murtha, who was about to introduce a resolution calling for withdrawal of troops from Iraq “as soon as practicable,” spoke passionately and slowly, blinking back at the cameras as if daring them to tell him to stop.
By the end of the speech, Murtha had named the presence of coalition troops as a source of the insurgency, and gone into more detail about troops who’d lost limbs in Iraq – “These are marvelous people!” — only to be hounded by bill collectors on their return.
“The future of our military is at risk. Our military and their families are stretched thin. Many say that the Army is broken. Some of our troops are on their third deployment. Recruitment is down, even as our military has lowered its standards. Defense budgets are being cut. Personnel costs are skyrocketing, particularly in health care. Choices will have to be made. We can not allow promises we have made to our military families in terms of service benefits, in terms of their health care, to be negotiated away.” Murtha took a breath, looking as weary as the soldiers he was describing.
The flashbulbs hadn’t quite stopped before the political response began. As Murtha arrived at the House floor, ready to introduce his resolution, Democrats burst into applause. Republicans glared; a newly elected Ohio representative, Jean Schmidt, who had just been nearly beaten in her solidly Republican district by a young Iraq veteran, took the floor and gave Murtha a message from “a Marine I know” (who turned out to be a far-right state legislator). “Cowards cut and run, but Marines never do.” The response echoed that directed at John Kerry, both in the 2004 campaign and back in 1971, when the recent Navy lieutenant stood before a Senate committee and asked, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

The words above are actually mine, written nearly four years ago; at least some of them will end up in the book. I’m so sorry we never got to talk (we were working on an interview date when he got sick) but there’s no question he belongs there. If there’s a non-rogues gallery for “my” soldiers in heaven, he’s sharing a beer with Ambrose Bierce and explaining to William Sloane Coffin that his scorn in the 1970s was nothing personal.

Wednesday, Feb. 1o – Last update: I can’t leave out John Nichols’ remarkable obit for The Nation. He describes the moment how Murtha, long an ally of Bush I, won against the chicken-hawks when he changed his mind.

The clearest evidence that Cheney really did not “get it” when it comes to defense policy was his decision to take on Jack Murtha. The draft dodger who had admitted that he “(didn’t) know a blankety-blank thing about defense” looked the fool when he picked a fight with the Marine he called in to help him understand military matters.

America had a chance to choose between Cheney and Murtha. And as the results of the 2006 and 2008 election cycles (in which Murtha became a key campaigner for Democratic challengers) confirmed, they chose to side with the old soldier, as opposed to the old armchair general.

Nichols also pointed out that Murtha was also beginning to sour on Obama’s Afghan policy, too. For that reason alone, this loss is huger than many know. Semper fi, sir.

I still want to hear the song below a few more times.

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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