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.

get well soon, Rep. Murtha.

Slightly buried yesterday under the DADT news was this: “Murtha hospitalized after gallbladder surgery complications.”  The news about the 77-year-old chairman of the Armed Services Committee, whose spokespeople were by this morning refusing to give updates, was regarded mostly as (sigh) political news, exemplified by the head given by Chris Cilizza at The Fix: John Murtha hospitalized, political future in doubt? noting that “Republicans believe Pennsylvania is shaping up as very friendly territory for them.” That’s a hell of a thing to bring up when the man’s not conscious yet.

And the NY Times’ Caucus blog, while playing the headline straight, ended with this odd hybrid sentenc: “The chairman of the House’s defense appropriations subcommittee, Mr. Murtha has been openly skeptical of President Obama’s plan to pour more troops into Afghanistan and is known to be close with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

Only CNN and Fox even mentioned, as one of Murtha’s attributes, that he was the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress. That was back in the throw-the-bums-out election of 1974 — unlike John Kerry, he’d supported the war, though he soon joined forces with Kerry and the emerging veterans’ community by speaking out angrily when Congress denied former deserters the opportunity to upgrade their discharges to honorable. By then, he was already on the committee he now chairs: so that the speech that made him part of my book title came from thirty years of visiting Walter Reed and trying to judge when the price was worth it.

Godspeed and get well soon, Rep. Murtha.

" 'Did you kill anybody?' The answer we were told to write was no"

coffee_strong_logoI’ll write more this weekend about the situation at Fort Lewis, which should concern us all and has already got the attention of Amnesty International. But looking at GI Voice, the newsletter of the Fort Lewis GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong, I was gobsmacked by the following cri de coeur from a young Marine.

The writer, Allen Huck, knows exactly what’s going on. His note speaks to everything we’ve come to understand about soldiers, and these wars. I reprinted in full in case someone who reads this can help. (Feel free to contact Allen directly via Coffee Strong.)

It was “Marine Corps Policy”, I guess. Before leaving Kuwait, we were handed out forms to fill out. Awful things…Did you see a dead body? Did you kill anyone? Did you participate in any sort of war crimes? Ridiculous questions. Especially, since we were never really informed of what exactly war crimes were. Maybe I did. Those thoughts continue to haunt my daily life, and my dreams.

On our return to Kuwait, we were given strict instructions on how we were to fill out these forms.

“Did you see a dead body?” – The guided answer was no.
”Did you kill anyone?” – The answer was also no.
”Do you feel you need immediate help and/or counseling?” – Absolutely not.

The questions went on. And of course, the answers were almost always “no.”

Perhaps this is the reason that PTSD is so rampant as a result of this conflict. Had we been given the help we so sorely needed, perhaps the homeless rates, drug use, domestic violence, and completely shattered lives would not be so rampant. Maybe not, but it sure couldn’t have done additional harm.

When I returned from Iraq, I was forced to fill out one of these questionnaires. I told the truth, and as a result, it disappeared. When I returned home, I went to my commend, and asked for mental health counseling. But in the Marine Corps, requests for mental health were simply not asked for. And so it was denied. As a result of that, I was separated from the Marine Corps indefinitely. I was ostracized by nearly everyone in my unit as “crazy”, which was the most horrible stigma one could be given. I was immediately kicked off base, my ID card was confiscated, along with my base vehicle stickers.

Essentially, I was banned from the Marines for requesting help.

Later on, I received phone calls stating that I was UA (the Marine Corps’ AWOL), and MP’s came to my house to take me into custody. Just about three or four months ago, I received a call that said I was reactivated, and was on the roster to be re-deployed.

My unit was 4th LSB H&S Co. Located at Ft. Lewis.
Their Address is: Fort Lewis
H&S Co(-)4th LSB
Bldg 9690, Box 339500
Fort Lewis, WA 98433
Their Phone is: 253-967-2477

Any help would be greatly appreciated, as they have now refused to take my phone calls, and will not return my letters. My name is: Allen Huck.

To anyone who is willing to help in calling, writing, or anything of the sort, I would appreciate it. This is happening to other good soldiers, and we cannot allow this behavior to continue.

" 'Did you kill anybody?' The answer we were told to write was no"

coffee_strong_logoI’ll write more this weekend about the situation at Fort Lewis, which should concern us all and has already got the attention of Amnesty International. But looking at GI Voice, the newsletter of the Fort Lewis GI coffeehouse Coffee Strong, I was gobsmacked by the following cri de coeur from a young Marine.

The writer, Allen Huck, knows exactly what’s going on. His note speaks to everything we’ve come to understand about soldiers, and these wars. I reprinted in full in case someone who reads this can help. (Feel free to contact Allen directly via Coffee Strong.)

It was “Marine Corps Policy”, I guess. Before leaving Kuwait, we were handed out forms to fill out. Awful things…Did you see a dead body? Did you kill anyone? Did you participate in any sort of war crimes? Ridiculous questions. Especially, since we were never really informed of what exactly war crimes were. Maybe I did. Those thoughts continue to haunt my daily life, and my dreams.

On our return to Kuwait, we were given strict instructions on how we were to fill out these forms.

“Did you see a dead body?” – The guided answer was no.
”Did you kill anyone?” – The answer was also no.
”Do you feel you need immediate help and/or counseling?” – Absolutely not.

The questions went on. And of course, the answers were almost always “no.”

Perhaps this is the reason that PTSD is so rampant as a result of this conflict. Had we been given the help we so sorely needed, perhaps the homeless rates, drug use, domestic violence, and completely shattered lives would not be so rampant. Maybe not, but it sure couldn’t have done additional harm.

When I returned from Iraq, I was forced to fill out one of these questionnaires. I told the truth, and as a result, it disappeared. When I returned home, I went to my commend, and asked for mental health counseling. But in the Marine Corps, requests for mental health were simply not asked for. And so it was denied. As a result of that, I was separated from the Marine Corps indefinitely. I was ostracized by nearly everyone in my unit as “crazy”, which was the most horrible stigma one could be given. I was immediately kicked off base, my ID card was confiscated, along with my base vehicle stickers.

Essentially, I was banned from the Marines for requesting help.

Later on, I received phone calls stating that I was UA (the Marine Corps’ AWOL), and MP’s came to my house to take me into custody. Just about three or four months ago, I received a call that said I was reactivated, and was on the roster to be re-deployed.

My unit was 4th LSB H&S Co. Located at Ft. Lewis.
Their Address is: Fort Lewis
H&S Co(-)4th LSB
Bldg 9690, Box 339500
Fort Lewis, WA 98433
Their Phone is: 253-967-2477

Any help would be greatly appreciated, as they have now refused to take my phone calls, and will not return my letters. My name is: Allen Huck.

To anyone who is willing to help in calling, writing, or anything of the sort, I would appreciate it. This is happening to other good soldiers, and we cannot allow this behavior to continue.

of time warps, and beside-the-point ANSWERs to worlds that can wait

Like the guy in the show above, I can’t believe it: I’m finally out of 1973. Unlike LBJ, I got  out of Vietnam, sort of. (I ended up with a 60,000-word chapter, in a book  that’s only supposed to be 110.000 words total!) I can almost say that I’m in the home stretch on this book, and am starting to frame its end – including scenes I witnessed personally (such as Ron Kovic confronting Colin Powell in 1995, when many thought the latter should be President). Meanwhile, the very lateness of the hour means I’m seeing another phase of the story take shape, as the Afghan war becomes the topic of the hour.The voices of vets like James Gilligan, who  tunneled through Afghanistan before going to Iraq, suddenly seem more urgent to hear.

But first, a little rant, about something that’s none of my business.

The months sunk into the “Vietnam years” made me feel more strongly than ever about trends I’m seeing in some of these newer veterans’ groups — stuff I keep TRYING, in good journalistic fashion, to shut my mouth about so that I can just watch it happen in real time.  It’s about the perpetual dance between dissenting veterans and groups of the sectarian left, for whom the latter are sort of a dream date.

When one young vet blithely proclaimed I could interview him at an event sponsored by World Can’t Wait, I instinctively refused, having grown up avoiding WCW’s sponsor at demonstrations in NY and Washington. I wrote a piece about WCW’s Maoist doppelganger, equally “militant” and equally cloaked in multiple spinoff organizations. Both pour a lot of money and support toward whatever young veterans they can find, support that has likely felt essential and important when the wider world is trying to ignore the wars. But the effect, throughout history, has not always been…. productive.

drillsgtI don’t want to go after those two groups in particular; and I can’t claim to be against military-civilian alliances or the need to look deeply at the power structures that sustain these wars. But witness the collapse of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1975, as narrated by  the late Steve Hassna. I met Drill Sgt, Hassna in the 1990s, and I trust his description of what he  called “The Split”:

A debate started in the organization in mid `72 about the future and what to do when the war was over. By this time everyone knew that, in fact, the war was going to end soon, just not sure when. One train of thought was we “struggle”, (that’s a leftist term, for “fight the good fight”) to see the war end. Then decide what we were all about. The other was, “We need to build an organization for the revolution, be the vangaurd, and all that other crap. Continue the fight against the capitalistic power structure and embrace a Marxist- Leninist analysis for a people’s revolution, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!!

This sort of thinking really gave most of the members in VVAW a headache, and many left in disgust. This type of thought train was coming from VVAW members and non-veterans working in the organization who had adopted that Marxist analysis. The one thing to remember is that these people were coming into VVAW to push their special agenda. They were not there to stop the war, they were there to advance their political thought. Everything from the R.U.(Revolutionary Union),R.S.B (Revolutionary Student Brigade),Venceremos, October League, S.W.P.(Sociallist Workers’ Party), CPUSA (Communist Party United States of America) and last but not least, the one, the only,the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party). Though small in numbers, they were able to get into positions of power that would let them set VVAW policy….

The ANSWER prototype was no better, at that point still working on defending Stalin and weeding out “revisionists.” Of course, back then the FBI was watching all this – having installed an impressive set of informants by then. And the FBI was also tracking the WCW precursor the Revolutionary Union, as the latter instructed its Midwest “cadre” that ““veterans are potential revolutionary force” and advised its cadre “to link up with veterans” in the “fights . . . against the Veterans Administration for benefits” because they could use any Washington demonstrations to “begin to realize our goal of linking the veterans’ struggle with the overall anti-imperialist movement.” Not to actually secure any veterans benefits, mind you; not to heal the hole in vets’ hearts or figure out why so many were sick. It was all about the “movement.”  Finally, Hassna continues:

1975wintersoldier_banner

In 1973 VVAW got a new name, and a whole new set of headaches. Now it was VVAW/WSO, VietNam Veterans Against the War/ Winter Soldier Organization. The addition of WSO meant that non veterans could join and be in positions to set policy. The left played on the guilt and pain that members had from the war. We (members) had to embrace Marx and bare our souls to our crimes against humanity. Meetings turned into political education classes, with criticism/ self-criticism periods thrown in to help us move forward for the revolution. Do I need to say how much of a royal pain in the ass all this was? On top of all this, there were people who took this crap seriously.

As you see above, they  even changed the banner on the group’s newsletter, to strongly resemble the Chinese flag.

I’ve read more scholarly accounts of this entire evolution from less folksy sources; check out tthe three major histories of the VVAW to a 1975 dissertation on the G.I. movement by a rather conservative Chicagoan who points out that the sectarian left had “different priorities.” More crucially, he added, the emphasis on “hating the brass” prevented them from making common cause with the officers who agreed with them.

No way to know whether the future for today’s rapidly-morphing soldier-dissent will play out similarly. But nothing I’ve learned in the past year has  made me feel, personally, any different from when I first saw Garett Reppenhagen, a man I respect hugely, first appearing at a podium with ANSWER streamed at the front.

I shouldn’t care about this, as a writer. There’s a lot of Yeatsian  circle-the-gyre energy to all this. But as someone who sees  the need for clear opposition to war and values the role of the soldier/vet, I do care. As the need to counter Obama-as-LBJ grows stronger, the fastest way to bury that voice in the margins is  to dress it in such ridiculous  clothing. Luckily, there are whole swaths that are already steering clear; I’ll watch as quietly as I can, to see what happens to the rest.

poetry friday a day early

cause that’s how it feels sometimes.


The Author to her Book
Thou ill-form'd offspring of my feeble brain, Who after birth did'st by my side remain, Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true, Who thee abroad expos'd to public view, Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge, Where errors were not lessened (all may judge). At thy return my blushing was not small, My rambling brat (in print) should mother call. I cast thee by as one unfit for light, Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight, Yet being mine own, at length affection would Thy blemishes amend, if so I could. I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw, And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw. I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet, Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet. In better dress to trim thee was my mind, But nought save home-spun Cloth, i' th' house I find. In this array, 'mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam. In Critics' hands, beware thou dost not come, And take thy way where yet thou art not known. If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none; And for thy Mother, she alas is poor, Which caus'd her thus to send thee out of door.

call it love or call it reason

More flotsam from my life-on-Mars phase:

I didn’t know this video existed, until now. I wish I had a clip of Ochs’ performance at the first Winter Soldier (two years later than this TV appearance) but this is good enough  for now. Knowing that the vets in Detroit heard Ochs’ anthem, just before four days of hearings on war crimes, makes me feel more certain than ever that I chose the right title for the book.