The final years of John Murtha’s life were stained by a controversy over comments he made concerning actions by U.S. Marines in late 2005 in Haditha, Iraq.
He was sued by soldiers for slander and chastised by political foes.
And the echoes of that debate followed Murtha to his grave years after he said Marines killed innocent civilians “in cold blood.”
But a powerful new investigative report by The New York Times seems to support assertions by the late congressman that Marines – stressed to the breaking point by the nature of that conflict – killed 24 people, including women and children, on Nov. 19, 2005.
A Times reporter found in a junkyard near Baghdad numerous pieces of evidence from the investigation into the Haditha incident.
Michael S. Schmidt wrote that some 400 pages of top-secret interviews and interrogations which were to be destroyed as the last American troops pulled out of Iraq were instead casually discarded. The junkyard also held additional classified information such as maps of helicopter routes.
Schmidt wrote: “An attendant was burning them as fuel to cook a dinner of smoked carp.”
Schmidt’s in-depth story charts both the atrocities committed at Haditha, as described in testimony by Marines who were involved, and the intense stress those military personnel faced each day from the threat of suicide bombings and roadside explosive devices.
He wrote: “Troops, traumatized by the rising violence and feeling constantly under siege, grew increasingly twitchy, killing more and more civilians in accidental encounters. Others became so desensitized and inured to the killing that they fired on Iraqi civilians deliberately while their fellow soldiers snapped pictures, and were court-martialed. The bodies piled up at a time when the war had gone horribly wrong.”
As has been reported, eight Marines were charged after the Haditha incident. Charges against six were eventually dropped, while one was acquitted and the eighth may face a trial for voluntary manslaughter in 2012.
The incident took place during the most intense period of the Iraq war – which was declared “over” just this past week, as U.S. soldiers began packing up and heading home.
The Times describes how on that 2005 morning, a convoy of military vehicles was headed to an outpost in Haditha when one vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.
One Marine died and others were injured.
Some of the remaining Marines went looking for those responsible for the bomb.
A day later, 24 Iraqis were dead – “including a 76-year-old man and children between the ages of 3 and 15 ... many inside their homes,” the Times reported.
Murtha, an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran, understood the horrors of combat.
He knew the circumstances those soldiers faced.
And he realized that such incidents were damaging to efforts to reconcile U.S. military actions with the Iraqi people.
Murtha had access to reports based on the same classified information uncovered – quite literally – by The New York Times.
Several months after the Haditha incident, the veteran congressman uttered the words that fueled political campaigns and led to twin slander lawsuits filed against him.
Former Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey, reached by email, said Murtha’s goal was to help the public and others in government understand that soldiers in Iraq faced very challenging circumstances which sometimes led them to take actions that resulted in unnecessary civilian casualties.
“Congressman Murtha’s purpose all along was to draw attention to the high number of civilian casualties in Iraq, said Mazonkey, who is now chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown.
“And, in many cases, it worked – civilian casualties were significantly reduced as we started focusing on winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.”
In his final interview, with The Tribune-Democrat’s Randy Griffith a short time before his February 2010 death, Murtha recalled the moment when he spoke out:
“What I was doing here was I was looking at the big picture. I make comments when I believe it might (bring) change. I felt very strongly because of what was going on.”
At least two political opponents – Republicans Diana Irey and William Russell – attempted to gain ground with voters and potential donors by attacking Murtha for his statements.
In 2006, Irey said: “Shame on you, Congressman Murtha. You have clearly lost your way.”
There is now speculation that the Times report will lead to a reopening of the investigation into the handling of the Haditha incident, both by the soldiers on the ground and by others later, as well as a probe of how classified documents wound up in a dump.
In addition, someone in our military needs to step forward and acknowledge that Murtha got it right, and that stances such as his helped turn the tide of this war in a direction that is allowing our soldiers to come home – six years after that bloody day at Haditha.
Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.