It was his outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq and subsequent libels against Marines who fought a confusing engagement in Haditha that riled war supporters and caused many in the military to despise him. Some saw his opposition to the war as a political ploy to gain favor with liberals in Congress to buttress his failed campaign for majority leader. Others believe he saw the effect of the war on the nation’s readiness, and the toll it was taking on individual soldiers who repeatedly went back to Iraq or were prevented from coming home due to the “stop-loss” policy. Either reason is plausible given Murtha’s history.
His criticism of the Marine action at Haditha is less justifiable. Murtha took to the floor of Congress to angrily denounce the Marines involved in the incident, saying that they had killed the civilians in “cold blood.” He based this conclusion not on any official report on the incident from the military, but on an article in Time.
Charges were eventually dropped against seven of the eight Marines, one of whom sued Murtha for defamation. The suit was dismissed because of Murtha’s congressional immunity.
This was a curious attitude from Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran to be elected to Congress.
He joined the Marines in 1952 after quitting college to enlist. Following his stint with the Second Marine Division, Murtha left the Corps in 1955 and finished college, opening a small business in Johnstown.
As a reservist, he volunteered for active duty in 1966, serving as a S-2 intelligence officer in Vietnam. He was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star during his tour of duty, which ended in 1967. He was also awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal following his retirement from the reserves in 1990.
Is it possible that Murtha’s Vietnam experience colored his attitude toward the Haditha Marines? Perhaps he was too quick to believe the worst because of similar incidents that had occurred in Southeast Asia. We’ll never know. Murtha never apologized for slandering the Haditha Marines by accusing them of murder before any evidence had been presented.
As late as early 2005, Murtha opposed bringing the troops home from Iraq. At that time, he told 60 Minutes:
A premature withdrawal of our troops based on a political timetable could rapidly devolve into a civil war which would leave America’s foreign policy in disarray as countries question not only America’s judgment but also its perseverance.
Following the Democrats’ triumph in 2006, Murtha introduced a resolution calling for a “redeployment” of combat troops in Iraq. He briefly became the object of considerable derision when he suggested that the troops could be redeployed to Okinawa. “We can redeploy there almost instantly,” Murtha offered.
Questions about Murtha’s sudden change of heart on Iraq dogged him to the end of his life. It was a sad chapter in the story of a brave Marine who served his country well, but in the end succumbed to the fate reserved for those who place a premium on congressional sinecure and forget that serving the people does not mean aggrandizing oneself at their expense.