Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, the old soldier who looked like and in so many ways was a member of the Democratic establishment of another time, broke with the leadership of his own party and the opposition Republicans at a critical point in 2005 to say it was time to bring the troops home from Iraq.
Murtha was a gruff warrior, with too many ties to defense-industry lobbyists and Pentagon insiders to number. He was the consummate insider, a Democrat who was more a part of the military-industrial complex — for better and for worse — than any Republican. For much of his career, he was a Democrat who was more liked by Republicans than by progressives in his own party.
Ultimately, that’s what made his dissent so meaningful.
It represented a critical crack in the bipartisan consensus that had maintained official support for then-President George W. Bush’s mistaken mission in Iraq, even as the occupation went horribly awry.
That dissent by Murtha, who has died at age 77, opened up a period of high-level wrangling between the veteran congressman and then Vice President Dick Cheney. The fight highlighted the distinction between the draft-dodging "sunshine patriots" of the administration, who spewed empty rhetoric about supporting the troops, and the "winter soldiers" who actually cared about what happened to men and women in uniform.
In many senses, the bitter dispute between Murtha and Cheney was the definitional debate of the Iraq imbroglio. And it was all the more poignant and powerful because the two men knew one another so well.
When Cheney, a Wyoming congressman who had never served in the military and who had failed during his political career to gain much respect from those who wore the uniform he had worked so hard to avoid putting on during the Vietnam War, was selected in 1989 by former President George Herbert Walker Bush to serve as Secretary of Defense, he had a credibility problem.
Lacking in the experience and the connections required to effectively take charge of the Pentagon in turbulent times, he turned to Murtha, a House colleague and decorated combat veteran whose hawkish stances on military matters had made him a favorite of the armed services. "I’m going to need a lot of help," Cheney told Murtha. "I don’t know a blankety-blank thing about defense."
Murtha, a retired Marine colonel who earned a chest full of medals during the Vietnam fight and who has often broken with fellow Democrats to back U.S. military interventions abroad — most notably in Latin America, where Murtha often supported former President Ronald Reagan’s controversial policies regarding El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s — gave that assistance.
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During both the first and second Bush administrations Murtha emerged as a key ally — often, the most important Democratic ally — of the Republican presidents. Cheney frequently acknowledged their long working relationship, describing Murtha in public statements as a Democrat he could "work with."
In the 2004 vice presidential debate, Cheney noted that, "One of my strongest allies in Congress when I was Secretary of Defense was Jack Murtha, a Democrat who is chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee." The vice president was particularly complimentary over the years of the Pennsylvania representatives decision to provide high-profile backing of the administration’s 2002 request for authorization to use force against Iraq.
But the cross-party relationship soured when Murtha, whose concern was always first and foremost for active-duty troops, reached the conclusion that the Iraq occupation had turned into a quagmire where Americans should not be serving — let alone dying.
Typically blunt, Murtha declared in the fall of 2005 that: "The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring (the troops) home."
Cheney’s response to that principled objection by the man he had once begged to help him understand military affairs was to rip into Murtha and other Democrats who had tried to work with the administration. "Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing force against Saddam Hussein," the vice president growled in a speech to the conservative Frontiers of Freedom Institute. In another clear reference to Murtha, Cheney said, "The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory, or their backbone — but we’re not going to sit by and let them rewrite history."
Of course, it was not Murtha but Cheney who was rewriting history — or, at least, attempting to obscure it.
As Murtha noted, he was the one who put on a Marine uniform, took his shots in Vietnam and went on to a long career of working with and defending the military, while Cheney was the one who did everything in his power to avoid serving in southeast Asia and has never been seen as a friend of the men and women who actually fight the wars the vice president so shamelessly — and disingenuously — promotes.
"I like guys who got five deferments and (have) never been there and send people to war, and then don’t like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done," said Murtha, referencing the vice president’s long record of draft avoidance in the 1960s.
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.
Murtha’s call for bringing the troops home and the ensuing tussle with Cheney was a critical turning point in the debate about the war. Even more so, it was a critical turning point in the struggle to expose the George Bush and Dick Cheney for what they were: crude and frequently ignorant ideologues who cared more about pursuing their own agendas than about doing right by America or its soldiers.
Murtha, in contrast, came to be seen then — and will be remembered — as a Marine who, when it mattered most, decided to serving his country rather than defend a corrupt Washington consensus about an unwise and unnecessary war.