When John Murtha, Democratic Repesentative from Pennsylvania, appeared on our television screens, what he had to say was shocking–an old guard type declaring America must get itself out of Iraq and the war. In 457 words, he stood the country up and made it blink as he told the other of the House of Representatives, “Our military is suffering. The future of our country is at risk. We can not continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interest of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region.”
That was a shock and Murtha himself was a shock, a man from another era, from an America most of us may have heard about but have not visited.
At 73 he has an Irish working-class accent of a kind which has all but died out. It speaks of grit and iron and hard times–and there have been plenty of those in his Pennsylvania Congressional district, where the bituminous coal industry went down when Murtha was a young man and where the steel industry went down when Murtha was a middle-aged man, and in between there were two wars, both of which he signed up for and served in.
Murtha joined the Marines for the Korean War, came back to go to college on the GI Bill of Rights and joined the Marines again for Vietnam. He is a retired colonel in the Reserves, a citizen soldier who stayed close to the armed services in life and in Congress, where for 30 years he has been on committees having to do with defense. When he spoke out last week, it was for love of country and for love of its soldiers.
“I have been visiting our wounded troops at Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals almost every week since the beginning of the war,” he said. “And what demoralizes them is going to war with not enough troops and equipment to make the transition to peace; the devastation caused by IEDs; being deployed to Iraq when their homes have been ravaged by hurricanes; being on their second or third deployment and leaving their families behind without a network of support.” Visiting our wounded men and women once a week for two and a half years–that is not what most members of Congress do on their weekends.
He had a car wash business in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a little city which lost about two-thirds of its population in the course of the last century. It must be a place that inspires more resolution than hope, where people’s dreams are tough and realistic, but not too tough, not impervious. When Murtha spoke in his curiously blunt yet polite manner his eyes watered.
Here is a man comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is and what he has done and he can live with it. He does not explain himself or justify himself or apologize. He does not squirm, he does not wiggle. John Murtha does not display the guilt other Democratic politicians show when they talk about the war and their voting for it.
Over more than fifty years on the battlefield and in the Congress John Murtha has fought and worked. He has combat decorations, a building has been named after him, but his best service may have been this speech. “Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the US cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME!” he shouted.
In an instant, it had become respectable to talk about getting out, to offer plans for ending the war. Other politicians, previously cowed by the threat of being called quitters, began to speak up. On TV it was OK to have guests who said, “End it now.” The spell was broken and Murtha broke it. Of all that he has done, this was his finest moment. Now, for the first time, there is hope the war may soon be over.