Politics & Policy

Distinguished Disservice

In honoring Murtha, the Navy insults its own.

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.”

#ad#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.”


Having singled out two misdeeds by the military in three years of warfare, Reid recommended the solution: congressional hearings. “During the Clinton years, the House Government Reforms Committee issued 1,052 subpoenas,” Reid said. “How many do you think they’ve (the Republicans) issued regarding Abu Ghraib or Haditha? Zero.” While 40 investigators were drawing up court-martial charges against a dozen Marines, Reid’s contribution as the leader of the Senate was to recommend a circus.

Inevitably, the administration was blamed for Haditha. The New York Times editorial page said: “It will not do to focus blame narrowly on the Marine unit suspected of carrying out these killings and ignore the administration officials, from President Bush on down, who made the chances of this sort of disaster so much greater by deliberately blurring the rules governing the conduct of American soldiers in the field.”


To be sure, the tactics used at Haditha were a disgrace to the Marine Corps. Due to execrable leadership, a squad that had fought valiantly in Fallujah acted like a street gang, recklessly shooting and pitching grenades, failing to tend to those they had wounded and killed, heedlessly bounding among houses, entering rooms without backup, endangering themselves and civilians, and tragically killing women and children.

To any trained infantryman, the conduct was inexcusable. Inexorably, the mills of American military justice ground exceeding fine. Investigating officers with decades of command experience reviewed the evidence against each squad member and the officers above them. The tactics and the command leadership were faulted. One by one, preliminary trials roughly equivalent to grand juries proceeded, with the press reporting the testimony of each witness. What emerged was a tableau of mass confusion and chaos, not of cold-blooded calculation. Four cases proceeded to court-martial on charges that included dereliction of duty resulting in negligent homicide.

Terrible tactics, yes. Horrible judgment, yes. But Haditha was not “cold-blooded murder.” It did not deserve Murtha’s savage excoriation. Empathy should not cloud judgment or excuse wrongdoing. To kill a child by firing blindly or, in a rage, to execute unarmed men and women is a criminal act meriting punishment and dishonor. But the world of an infantryman is unlike any other, and a soldier’s actions during battle are hard to judge from the outside looking in, despite Murtha’s concluding the opposite.

Civilian casualties are inevitable, even in high-tech, standoff warfare. President Bush initiated the war in 2003 by authorizing a massive air strike against Dora Farms, outside Baghdad, because one CIA agent said Saddam was there. Civilians were injured and killed; Saddam was not there. In 2006, Israeli aircraft bombed a housing complex because Hezbollah rockets were believed to be there. Thirty-seven children died in that bombing.

The infantryman does not stand off. He must make instant, difficult choices in the heat of battle. He opens the door, enters the house, and is often posthumously praised. He must resist the sin of wrath when fighting an enemy who hides among compliant civilians. Those of higher rank must resist the sin of pride, lest they act impulsively in ordering air attacks because they are far removed from the gore of battle.

Military historian Max Boot has written, “The most important military unit in the emergence of modern states was the humble infantryman.” Of all who have served our country, the humble foot soldiers have sacrificed the most for the rest of us. In the Iraq War, fully 75 percent of Army and Marine infantry left the military after their four-year tours. They received no pension, a tiny educational stipend, and no transferable skills.

They had each other; they were their own tribe. All they wanted — all they took away with them after four years — was praise for their valor and service. They wanted to be able to say, “I served at Fallujah” (or Mosul, or Baghdad), and be respected for their dedication. The publicity heaped on Haditha unfairly tainted that recognition.

The press devoted more attention to Haditha than to any other incident in four years of war. The New York Times alone ran 34 stories about Haditha. Vanity Fair won a Pulitzer Prize for describing what supposedly happened without divulging a single source — months in advance of the pre-trial hearings. The press and the congressman used each other. Murtha, an ordinary pork-barrel politician, became a household name.


When exhaustive investigations did not support the charge of cold-blooded murder, the press slunk away — dismissing Haditha with one-paragraph stories. Nor, having built Murtha into an icon, did the press hold him to account for his reckless charges and self-serving political agenda.

Having done a fine job in its initial reportage, Time later acted like a rueful judge, running a story entitled “Who Will Be Punished for Haditha?” “TIME first brought the incident and its contradictions to light,” the magazine wrote, “contributing to the loud public debate on the deployment of the U.S. military in Iraq. The trouble, however, has been with coming up with a prosecutable case against the Marines involved.”

The trouble was not the military justice system; we will never know beyond a reasonable doubt what occurred. The trouble was that Haditha was used as a weapon in “the loud public debate on the deployment of the U.S. military,” transforming a tragedy into a metaphor.


No army fighting an insurgency has ever performed with more honor and self-imposed restraint. The British in southern Ireland executed prisoners in retaliation; the French in Algeria imposed collective punishment; Americans in Vietnam relocated villages and designated “free-fire zones.” In Iraq, the coalition imposed rules of engagement and rigors of self-criticism without parallel, in a savage war where the enemy survived by hiding in civilian clothes.

In World War II, the U.S. lost 6,000 Marines on Iwo Jima in a long and heated battle that was strategically unnecessary and poorly planned. Back then, our nation quietly accepted mistakes and highlighted valor; today, we quietly assume valor and highlight mistakes. There were no heroes from Iraq, because neither the press nor the administration brought them to the fore. Inside the Marine Corps, the best-known hero was First Sgt. Brad Kasal, seen on a thousand posters walking out of the House from Hell soaked in blood, pistol in hand. On Google, there were 700,000 returns for the query “killings at Haditha.” There were 30,000 for “Kasal.”

In WWII, valor was highlighted a hundred times more often than criminal or tragic acts. In fact, the press did not report a single instance of American troops shooting women or children, in a war a thousand times more violent than Iraq. Similarly, there was not one official report of soldiers shooting prisoners of war or men suspected of being guerrillas. Ken Burns in his 15-hour documentary on World War II devoted less than one minute to a story about 25 Germans who were gunned down. One minute out of 900 minutes.

The military balance between errors and valor has shifted tremendously since WWII, when 161 American soldiers were executed for crimes such as rape and murder, and soldiers from nearby units had to witness the hangings as a means of spreading the word. Had today’s press and politicians like Murtha covered those hangings with the outrage and lack of balance applied to Haditha, we would pay no reverence to “the greatest generation.” The press and the politicians do not determine what we think, but they do determine what is presented to us to think about.

The attention heaped on Haditha shows the dark side of America in the 21st century. Many Americans do not believe we should be “the strongest tribe” and will turn against their own in the blink of an eye. When a single deed of tragic negligence receives vastly more attention than a hundred deeds of valor, the country is diminished. Courage, Aristotle wrote, is that virtue that makes all other virtues possible. We depend on volunteers to man our thin red line. By the tone of our criticisms, we can undercut our own martial resolve. If we as a nation lose heart, who will fight for us?

Murtha did a great disservice to the military and the nation, and never apologized. The secretary of the Navy did a disservice in honoring Congressman Murtha.

– Bing West, a former combat Marine and former assistant secretary of defense, is the author of The Strongest Tribe and four other books on counterinsurgency.  His most recent NR article is “‘The War That Has to Be Won,’ in the April 6 issue.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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