Twenty years ago I was the staff director of the Democratic Study Group, an organization that among other things provided research to members of the House of Representatives. By 1990 we had expanded our subscriber base to more than 30 House Republicans and every Democrat in the House except one. The hold out was John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania. I offer this information simply to point out that Mr. Murtha and I disagreed on a great many things over the decades we knew each other. At the same time, I am deeply troubled by the negative tone of some of the coverage of his passing. Simply put, it does not take full measure of the man.
Jack Murtha fervently believed that the people of his district elected him to go to Washington and find a way to make their lives better. He recognized that the severe economic challenges facing that district required extraordinary efforts from the outside if they were to be solved, and he was in no way shy about using his position and skill as a legislator to try to make that happen. But Murtha was not the father of earmarking on appropriation bills, and he did not preside over the major growth in that practice that has led to recent controversies. In fact, earmarking in the defense bill tripled during the eight years after he gave up the chairmanship of that subcommittee in 1994.
Murtha did take pride in helping his district, but there was so much more to him and his career than that. He was a former military commander who continued to believe when he reached the pinnacles of power in Washington that “if you take care of your troops they will take care of you.” Murtha worried more on a day-to-day basis about the well-being of our men and women in uniform than anyone I have ever known. He went into the field at every opportunity permitted by the legislative schedule to go to military bases and forward deployed areas around the world. He ate lunch in mess halls, visited dental clinics, inspected enlisted housing accommodations, and talked to servicemen and women about arrangements to get home to their families and the quality of education their kids were getting in military schools.
I remember looking for him at the end of an 18-hour day in which we flew from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Prince Sultan Air Base in the Arabian Desert and then on to the deck of the aircraft carrier Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. At 11:30 at night it was 100 degrees Fahrenheit on the Lincoln, and Murtha was well into his second hour of a session in the enlisted mess, talking to a packed house about problems in the military health care system—a discussion that later led to a number of the changes contained in the current Tri-Care program.
It was his concern for the ordinary kids being sent through training and shipped off to the far reaches of the world that made him focus on whether or not what we were asking them to do made sense. He was not afraid to ask people to give up their life for their country, but he was appalled when he thought that sacrifice was being asked for missions that were poorly thought out or downright foolish.
He visited the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2002 knowing that preparations were already underway for the invasion of Iraq. He was deeply troubled by what he saw and severely doubted the arguments put forward about why the invasion was necessary and what it could be expected to accomplish. When the decision over the Iraq invasion was put before Congress that fall, he weighed the arguments carefully and in the end let his friendship and respect for Vice President Dick Cheney overcome his strong misgivings. Murtha knew that the evidence presented to him did not support Cheney’s contention that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States, but he did not believe Cheney would mislead him on an issue of such critical importance.
Murtha was deeply angry when he returned from Baghdad the following summer. The weapons inspectors were finding little evidence of the “imminent danger” that Iraq was supposed to represent, and the occupation was in total chaos due to lack of planning and wildly unrealistic expectations about the options we would face in a post-Saddam Iraq. Worst of all, the Pentagon’s effort to provide troops with the equipment necessary to perform their mission and protect themselves to the extent possible was in shambles.
Murtha found—despite assurances to the contrary from the ambassador and the generals ensconced in the Green Zone—that a large portion of the troops did not have body armor, that available technology to detect improvised explosive devices was not being deployed, and that little serious effort was being made to shield the undercarriages of military vehicles from the blast of IEDs. He called Cheney, Rumsfeld, and anyone else he could reach to tell them of his findings and to get their a– in gear.
That fall, Congress passed a military supplemental that earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars for body armor, and up-armored Humvees and IED detection equipment. Murtha grilled the brass at every hearing about the progress in procuring and shipping the equipment and returned to the field frequently to see if it was getting into the hands of the front line soldiers.
Murtha broke openly with the vice president and the Bush administration over their Iraq policy shortly after the supplemental passed. There was a mutual sense of betrayal. Murtha was bitter for three reasons: the misinformation he was provided as to the reason for war, the lack of a post-invasion strategy, and the total disregard for the troops left sitting in the desert in the wake of a failed post-invasion strategy. The White House for their part felt that a favored member of the opposition party had suddenly transformed into one of its worst enemies.
Murtha worked to transform Iraq policy to provide the military with an achievable mission while reducing our troop commitment and limiting the loss of life.
The White House responded by trying to “Swift Boat” Murtha. Numerous allegations about their old friend suddenly began appearing on conservative websites. A U.S. Attorney in western Pennsylvania began digging into Murtha’s past. The “Swift Boat” organization actually held an event in Murtha’s district. He took his lumps but never swayed from his goal of working to ensure that what we were asking of the troops on the ground was doable, and that if achieved, would provide a victory commensurate with the sacrifice that they being asked to shoulder.
Jack Murtha did not represent Johnstown, Pennsylvania the way you might represent Montgomery County, Maryland or Westchester County, New York. He was a big, burly, rough-cut guy who fought hard for people who desperately needed help. At the same time, he made the often-difficult life of those who serve in our nation’s armed forces a little less severe. He made those who committed our troops to harm’s way think a little harder about whether the mission was worth the sacrifice, and he made military planners look more carefully at whether the task assigned could be achieved with the resources being committed. He did so even when it required him to speak truth to power and accept the wrath that resulted.
A country that treats its servicemen fairly and humanely is a better country. It is also, according to Murtha’s logic, a safer country. For both we should be grateful to the service he gave.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who once served as a staff director on the House Appropriations Committee.