In bestowing the navy’s highest civilian medal, the Distinguished Public Service Award, upon Rep. John P. Murtha (D., Pa.) last month, the secretary of the Navy acted as a supplicant — an accountant happy to be given funds and disinclined to question the source. The secretary (Donald C. Winter, a Bush administration holdover who has since left the job) demonstrated that he did not understand his official role as a leader when the country is at war. Murtha smeared the reputation of a generation of Marines, and to reward him alongside several other members of Congress for earmarking funds served to exonerate the congressman, who never apologized for besmirching the honor of our fighting men.
The story is plain enough. In May of 2006, military investigators recommended court-martial trials for seven Marines involved in the killings of 24 Iraqi civilians after a Marine was killed in the violent town of Haditha. Marine generals went to Capitol Hill to alert the key committees about the forthcoming trials and, after being briefed, Representative Murtha held a world-famous press conference.
“They killed innocent civilians in cold blood. They actually went into the houses and killed women and children,” Murtha thundered. “But I will not excuse murder. And this is what happened. There’s no question in my mind about it.”
As a leading advocate for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Murtha advanced his own agenda by acting as judge and jury. Instead of counseling restraint, other politicians opposed to the war attested to Murtha’s credibility. “What I know is here is a guy who served our country,” Sen. Barack Obama said at the time. “I would never second guess John Murtha . . . he’s somebody who knows of which he speaks.”
Murtha typifies the type of politician the mainstream press ordinarily despises — a man who flaunts his power, cuts backroom deals, and inserts earmarks into appropriations bills that funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to special interests, which favor him with campaign contributions. Murtha has abused his office as chairman of the Defense Subcommittee on Appropriations to slip into the 2009 defense bill $176 million in earmarks — a record in the House. Instead of excoriating Murtha for sleazy politics, the mainstream press praised him because it suited their purposes. By labeling him a “Vietnam veteran” and gushing about medals awarded for vague wounds and even vaguer acts of courage, the press implicitly endorsed Murtha’s charge of cold-blooded murder.
Haditha was presented as an example of the moral degeneration of American youths thrust into an immoral war. “We’ve, frankly, been there so long that we’re going to see quite a few of these incidents,” Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) said, again without waiting for a trial.
Due to Murtha’s outburst, Haditha captured worldwide attention. In The Atlantic and in my book The Strongest Tribe, I laid out the terrible, tragic confusion of what happened at Haditha, based on interviews with both Marines and Iraqis who were present that day. That made no difference to the mainstream press. The fact that two investigations were ongoing about Haditha and the truth wasn’t known mattered not a whit, as commentators leaped to conclusions. The publisher of Harper’s magazine, for instance, wrote an op-ed that took the prize for vitriol, comparing the Marine Corps unfavorably with the perpetrators of the 1968 My Lai massacre. “It was the Army, after all, that got caught at My Lai,” John R. McArthur wrote in the Providence Journal. “Contemporary Marines are, if anything, more dangerous to civilians than the Army, because of the way they’re juiced up. . . . Now the Marines seem to have their own My Lai, and I’ll bargain that the murders in Haditha were unexceptional events in the dirty war we’re fighting in Iraq.”
Like Mr. McArthur, European and American columnists gloatingly linked Haditha to My Lai. In Newsweek, columnist Eleanor Clift wrote her own obituary for the war. “Members of Kilo Company apparently didn’t attempt to distinguish between enemies and innocents . . . killing as many as 24 civilians in cold blood.” Clift wrote. “The systematic execution of civilians, including women and children, evoked memories of Vietnam, another war that had soured. Lt. William Calley led his platoon into the village of My Lai . . .”
In fact, by any measure, Americans in Iraq were restrained in their use of firepower. An article in Foreign Affairs estimated that the civilian casualties inflicted by American forces in Iraq were one-ninth the total inflicted by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. The My Lai massacre was on a scale ten times larger — and back then, the high command had looked the other way. My Lai, in turn, was dwarfed by the Philippeville massacre in Algeria in 1955, when the French army killed between 1,000 and 10,000 Arab civilians in a single afternoon. Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.), the Democratic leader, chose to link Haditha to Abu Ghraib, besmirching the troops while seeming to praise them. “Raging in Iraq is an intractable war,” Reid said. “Our soldiers are fighting valiantly, but we have Abu Ghraib and Haditha — where 24 or more civilians were allegedly killed by our own.”