Friday, November 18, 2005

Murtha's War

Like John Kerry and a number of others, I don't want to hear any bad-mouthing of Jack Murtha. Murtha represents in Congress a district in the hardscrabble mountain country out around Johnstown, some of the poorest Appalachian terrain in Pennsylvania and not far from where Flight 93 went down.

An excellent column on the political war over Iraq by Dale McFeatters at Scripps Howard sums him up like this:

Murtha, a Democratic congressman of 31 years' standing from central Pennsylvania, is an ex-Marine, decorated Vietnam veteran, a respected House expert on military issues and close enough to the leadership of the uniformed military that he is believed to often speak for them in Congress. He is not a grandstander or even considered particularly partisan.

That is why he stunned Washington — and quite possibly changed the Iraq debate for the better — when he called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and listed his reasons for doing so.

He is said to visit wounded service personnel every week at Walter Reed Army Hospital or Bethesda naval hospital. He doesn't have "absolute moral authority" (a phrase lifted from Maureen Dowd's hagiography of Citizen Cindy). But he has the considerable authority of a man who's been to war (two Purple Hearts, Bronze Star) and who loves the U.S. military for the right reasons -- the people in it.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan replied to Murtha's public demand for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq like this: "Congressman Murtha is a respected veteran and politician who has a record of supporting a strong America. So it is baffling that he is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."

Which is a technically accurate description of what Murtha said, and it also is a cheap shot. It's entirely the wrong way to characterize Murtha. It's the kind of thing that erodes any thoughtful person's respect for this White House.

To see a hawk come out strongly against a war is not "baffling" at all, if you spend enough time getting to know veterans, or if you happen to be one. When they come out against a war while the shooting and dying is still going on, you better believe it's after the most difficult reflections. But if they do, they're going to come out strong against it.

You've either been through the grind of combat or you haven't. If you have, you always will see and feel war more intensely. Paradoxically, veterans look back on their wartime experiences as the best and worst things they ever lived through. War is hell. And the comradeship and love of a group of men fighting through it together is one of the most powerful experiences life offers.

In some ways, they simply are different from the rest of us. Their experience forever sets them apart. For instance, I have seen precious few World War II veterans go through the sort of public and private hand-wringing many Americans feel about the decision to use A-bombs on Japanese cities in 1945. I don't think any of the World War II vets I know or am related to ever lost a wink of sleep over it.

I just finished reading E.B. Sledge's superb account of his service with the Marines in the Pacific in World War II. His first Marine Division lost 7,665 men on Okinawa. That's certainly an undercount, since it doesn't list the many men he describes who got thrown into the lines without proper training and were mowed down by the Japanese machine guns before their names ever were officially on the muster rolls.

The survivors were still on Okinawa, talking grimly of the coming invasion of Japan, when news arrived of the atomic bombs and then the surrender.

We received the news with quiet disbelief coupled with an indescribable sense of relief. We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures assigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.

... War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indellible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades' incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other -- and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.

Until the millenium arrives and countries cease trying to enslave others, it will be necessary to accept one's responsibilities and to be willing to make sacrifices for one's country -- as my comrades did. As the troops used to say, "If the country is good enough to live in, it's good enough to fight for." With privilege goes responsibility.

And with the privilege of sending men to war goes responsibility, too, and probably no one except mothers feels this more strongly than combat veterans. Their patriotism is great. But so is their wrath at seeing young men sent to suffer and die if they believe the sole cause is the political advantage of a few who stay home.

Or, worse, for the financial gain of industrialists. That was what so stung yet another great Marine from Pennsylvania (and a distant relative of mine), Smed Butler, as he looked back on World War I. It is the inevitable outcome of war that some men get rich and some men get dead, and in neither case are the outcomes fair.

Butler was so incensed by this that he became an outspoken non-interventionist in the '30s. He spoke on the same platform as Charles Lindbergh. Butler was as true a Marine and as honest a patriot as you can find. There was nothing underhanded about him.

He made a plaintive appeal to American mothers:

If you let this country go into a European war, you will lose this democracy, don't forget that. As you stand by your boy in bed, he is safe, but here is another picture. It may help you to build up resistance against all this propaganda which will almost drown you.

Somewhere in a muddy trench, thousands of miles away from you and your home, your boy, the same one that is sleeping so sweetly and safely in his bed with you on his side, is waiting to "go over the top." Just before dawn. Drizzling rain. Dark and dismal. Face caked with mud and tears. So homesick and longing for you and home. Thinks of you on your knees praying for him. He is frightened to death, but still more scared the boy next to him wil discover his terror. That's your boy. Stomach as big as an egg. I know, I've had that sensation many times.

Do you want him to be the next unknown soldier?

The Unknown Soldier had a mother, you know, and a father. He didn't just appear out of the air.

Do you want your boy, tangled in the barbed wire, or struggling for a last gasp of breath in a stinking trench somewhere abroad, do you want him to cry out: "Mother, Father, why did you let them do it?"

That was in 1939. He advised America to unilaterally demilitarize Alaska and Hawaii, pull our fleet back to stateside bases, and do nothing to aid France and Britain against Hitler, not even sell them supplies.

Are WE to blame because Hitler built himself a great hair-trigger war machine that crushes everything in front of it? Are WE responsible that England and France did not build a machine to stop him? Are WE culpable in any way because Hitler started before the other side was ready? Provided Britain and France really want to stop Hitler, are WE to make up for their failure to prepare to do so by sticking out OUR neck?

You can easily see now what a disaster his proposals would have brought down on America had they been heeded. Nobody hates war more than a warrior who has been through it. But in our imperfect world, that doesn't make him a proper policy-maker.

Butler also was an early advocate of the chickenhawk meme, and he proposed constitutional amendments he thought would make aggressive war impossible. Before ordering a conscription, the government would have to redice all national wages, including (especially) those of munitions executives, to the rate paid to the soldiers in the ranks. As another step, war could be declared only after a "limited plebiscite ... not of all the voters but merely of those who would be called upon to do the fighting and dying" -- in other words, military-age men (no women in the fighting branches of the service then).

I don't know about Murtha, what moved him to switch his position in such a public way. Pennsylvania has had more than its share of casualties: over 100 so far. And because of the structure of National Guard units, they tend to come in clusters -- seven from one community, five from another, all in the same ambush. That hurts.

Maybe the newspaper and TV reporting got to him. Certainly the behavior of the politicians in the Bush Administration had a lot to do with it. According to the AP, "Several times a year, Murtha travels to Iraq to assess the war on the ground, and sometimes he just calls up generals to get firsthand accounts." I hope he remembers that what goes on in the battle zone, among the men and women serving and fighting, is just as real as the politics.

And I hope he's had a chance to talk not just to generals but to the many men and women serving in Iraq who declare they want the U.S. to stay and finish the job it started. And I hope he's had time to read some of the fine account now being written about the superb fighting being done by America's men and women in uniform, like Bing West's "No True Glory," about the Fallujah battles.

There's no shying away from the political buffoonery in West's book. But the main focus is on the men and women with the desert sand under their nails and their fingers on the triggers. West names them all, in good Ernie Pyle style, and tells their battle stories in gripping detail. I sat up far later than I intended one morning recently, reading his account of an astonishing day in which a wildly outnumbered group of Marines in the big city of Ramadi sniffed out an insurgent uprising brewing, went pro-active and nabbed some of the leaders before it began, then forced the rest of the insurgents to move before they were ready.

In a series of hellish firefights, they managed to chase the bad guys to the ground and keep them from their objective of seizing the city government complex. In street after street, the Marines took fire from the front of a house, only to then see young men in civilian clothes and unarmed moving down the alley behind it. The Marines had no authority to kill unarmed men in civilian clothes, so they didn't. And of course the insurgents knew they could go to another house a block away and find it fully stocked with AK-47s and RPG launchers and take another pot shot at the Americans.

Yet somehow, the Marines flushed them out and beat them. They took casualties along the way, but far fewer than seemed possible from the intensity of the firing (insurgents are not terribly accurate shots, it seems). While this was going on, Fallujah and Najaf and Sadr City already were up in full revolt. To have added Ramadi to the list of cities in flames might well have tipped Iraq into full-blown revolt. The Marines, with smarts and skill, cut that hydra's head and snuffed it out.

And it wasn't until I got to the end of that un-put-downable chapter, and West noted in passing that the domestic newspapers the next day only carried the blaring headline "12 Marines killed in Ramadi," that I recognized the fight he was describing. That is, I recognized reading about that day in the newspaper I work for. How the editors I work with shook their heads and cursed Bush for getting us into this, for the futility of it all. There was no context to the reporting. So far from having headed off another "Tet," the reporting made it seem this day in Ramadi was further evidence that we were well into one.

History will get it right. But history will arrive too late. Politics is what happened this week.

I hope Murtha had that sort of perspective when he made his speech.

McFeatters opens his column like this:

There is an old joke about a tourist lost in New England who asks a farmer how to get to Pooter's Corners. "Well," opines the old Yankee, "to begin with, I wouldn't start from here."

And that about sums up the venomous exchange of charges and countercharges in Washington about whether the Bush administration misled Congress and the public so it could invade Iraq. The question is interesting but increasingly belongs to the historians. As a practical matter, it's beside the point. We're there. We can't go back and start from somewhere else.

The nation's leadership should be focused on winning the war, not arguing about how we got into it, but the urge to score political points is overwhelming.