Jack Murtha and the Ghosts of Haditha

Nearly two years ago on Feb. 8, 2010, Rep. Jack Murtha, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who was also a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran, died of complications from gall bladder surgery.

In what is probably a first in modern Congressional history, his untimely death was greeted ghoulishly in certain unseemly sectors with cheers and jeers.

“Sufficient time has passed since John Murtha’s death to reckon with his true record,” carped right-wing maven Michelle Malkin four days after the 77-year-old died in a hospital just outside Washington in Arlington, Virginia.

“No tears for the wreckage, poison, and damage to the public trust he left behind… John ‘Jack’ Murtha was an unrepentant smear merchant and corruptocrat to the bitter end.”

And for what did Murtha deserve such a vicious postmortem? Four years earlier, he had the audacity to draw attention to a single event on November 19, 2005 in Haditha, Iraq, where 12 Marines of Kilo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, killed 24 unarmed civilians, half of them women and children and elderly cowering in darkened bedrooms of two residential homes.

Today, Sgt. Frank Wuterich, 31, is currently facing a court martial at Camp Pendleton for his role in the Haditha killings. He is indicted on charges of manslaughter in connection with 19 of the 24 deaths, including five unarmed Iraqi students who had been riding in a taxi when the initial IED blast had triggered the incident. He is also charged with dereliction of duty for ordering his men to “clear” the homes that turned out to be filled with non-combatants. According to reports, an expected plea deal fell through on Friday and the trial, in front of jury of combat veterans, continues this week.

He is the only Marine left, so far, facing charges. UPDATE: According to reports last night, Sgt. Wuterich has struck a deal with military prosecutors in which he will plead guilty to dereliction of duty. All charges will be dropped. He is expected to face no more than three months in jail.

The Pentagon had been quietly investigating the horrific incident after Tim McGirk of Time magazine handed military officials photographic evidence and eyewitness testimony in January 2005 that contradicted the military’s original report that 15 civilians that day had died due to an IED explosion.

Time had already published its first explosive article on what looked to be a massive cover-up and possibly “the worst case of deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians” since the war began, when Murtha held a May 17, 2005 news conference in which he most memorably charged that “there was no firefight, there was no IED that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

In the years leading to his death, the 77-year-old had been smeared and vilified for those words. The Marine Corps community closed ranks, as the right-wing mobosphere went into high gear, shrieking that Murtha betrayed the Marine Corps, his country, had even aided America’s enemies. He was accused of hanging the men before their day in court, and “trumping up charges” against our military heroes for “short-term political gain.”

“He’s one of the most vile, despicable excuses for a human being I’ve ever seen, ranking only a few paces ahead of Judas Iscariot of thirty pieces of silver fame,” wrote Gary Gross, contributor to the Murtha Must Go website, in June 2008.

It is not the aim of this writer to defend the late congressman’s record in Pennsylvania, nor try to minimize his flaws and transgressions in other areas — he loved shoveling the pork into his district, especially into defense contracting businesses that directly benefited himself and his family, for example. By any other measure, he was one of hundreds of politicians on Capitol Hill today who have contributed to an overall atmosphere of institutionalized cronyism and hubris, the massive “feeding at the trough” that has eroded public confidence and paralyzed the federal budget process.

That said, Murtha was a tough advocate for veterans and had come out early and strong against the war in Iraq, a war that the majority of veterans today say was a mistake. He maintained from the beginning that he raised the specter of Haditha because he felt Washington had unnecessarily created the conditions that led to the killings in the first place, and that a cover-up was engaged in order to hide the devastating truth.

In other words, there had been a massive breakdown in leadership and discipline, and rather than risking embarrassment and facing the problem head-on, the military put in place a phony story until it was forced to investigate, he claimed. While calling for the Marines involved to be punished, Murtha saw this as an opportunity for Washington to rethink how it was overextending its volunteer force in a war that had clearly not been waged in the national interest.

“The big thing is the stress on these troops. They send these troops back over and over again. These troops are in combat every day …they send them in with inadequate forces. There’s no weapons of mass destruction, and in the end, they send them in with inadequate equipment,” Murtha told Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball the day of his 2006 news conference.

“So this is absolutely outrageous, and then the troops, you know—I don’t excuse them, but I understand why it happens, because the pressure is tremendous… and the responsibility goes right to the top. This is something that shouldn’t have happened.”

Murtha’s sin was that he didn’t use the tremendous pressure the Marines were under as an excuse to downplay their possible war crimes, like the right-wing war hawks often do (see: “Urinationgate”), but quite the opposite. He saw it as a pernicious side effect of a failed preemptive war strategy that threw Marines and soldiers into a dangerous urban environment and then expected them to kill and liberate at the same time.

“I don’t take a back seat to anybody for my service to the country, but there is no question in my mind they went way too far,” Murtha said in an interview shortly before he died. “I’ll tell you one goddamn thing, you can’t just kill people and not have an effect on the rest of the country. That had an affect on Iraq just like Abu Ghraib did.”

“It was terrible what happened to John Murtha, who should have been commended for speaking out in such a brave way,” said Nick Broomfield, an English documentary filmmaker who directed Battle for Haditha, which utilized scores of interviews with Marines and Iraqis to piece together a dramatization of the events that took place that day.

The movie had been torn apart by the audience upon its first screening in Los Angeles, Broomfield recalled, but as more facts in the case have been revealed and the war in Iraq now technically “ended,” people are more inclined to listen rather than take a shot at him for making the film in the first place.

“I think John Murtha was absolutely correct in his description that this was a cold-blooded massacre,” Broomfield told Antiwar. “He was torn to pieces in a completely unjustifiable way, but he made these statements based on fact.”

Hal Donahue, an Air Force veteran and liberal activist, told Antiwar that Murtha was a “profile in courage,” who “kind of felt vindicated” by the time he died two years ago. But Donahue predicts Wuterich “will get off” like the rest of the Marines who had been previously indicted for Haditha within the military system.

“(Haditha) became a political football,” he said, “that’s why it’s dragged on so long.”

A Man Vindicated?

For years, Murtha’s critics have insisted that he rushed to judgment before the military was able to complete its investigation, and convicted the Marines in the court of public opinion before they could face real justice. They said his use of “cold blooded” was irresponsible. They even accuse him of being duped by an elaborate al Qaeda PR scheme to make the US look bad.

They point to the six Marines whose charges in military court associated with the killing and the cover-up were dismissed or dropped (one more, 1st Lt. Andrew Grayson, who was charged with making false statements and ordering the destruction of photographs taken from the scene, was acquitted), as “exoneration” and further proof that Murtha was horribly wrong.

“Smear merchant John Murtha went to his grave without apologizing — encased in federal immunity protection,” Malkin wrote, referring to one Marine’s unsuccessful attempt to sue Murtha for slander.

“One by one over the last six years, the Marines were exonerated.”

That’s not exactly true, Michelle. The criminal charges may not have held up, but a closer look reveals that yes, the Marines did kill unarmed women and children in daylight and “in cold blood,” if one goes by the definition that the Marines felt they were following orders and the victims were shot — several, as it were, in close range in their pajamas and in their beds — deliberately and without regard.

Did they overreact? There is plenty of evidence offered by various eyewitnesses that indicates this was very much a possibility, as the men had just witnessed a brutal IED attack on their company and had come under fire from unknown sources in the middle of the street.

An investigation conducted in 2006 by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) begins with what happened after a roadside IED ripped apart a Humvee in their convoy, killing a beloved comrade, Lance Cpl. Miquel “TJ” Terraza, on the morning of November 19, 2005. The NCIS report found that Sgt. Wuterich then shot five unarmed Iraqis who were in a taxi near the scene of the explosion.

Eyewitnesses, including an Iraqi soldier with the convoy said, “they (Iraqi men) didn’t even try to run away … we were afraid from Marines and we saw them behaving like crazy. They were yelling and screaming.”

Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, whose testimony has now become key in the prosecution’s case against Wuterich, told investigators that afterwards, he did a “dead check” on the dead men by shooting them again at close range, and then urinated on one of them. He told investigators that the men had not been trying to flee but Wuterich asked him to lie about it — an assertion that Wuterich’s lawyer adamantly denies.

His decision to testify against his former sergeant has isolated him from the rest of the Marine Corps community. According to an extensive interview with Chicago Magazine in July 2008, Dela Cruz said he felt sickened when he found out the Iraqi men he shot and urinated on were unarmed students. He was not in the homes where the civilians were killed — but recalls what happened when he went into the rooms to the remove the bodies. “The first body I saw was an old lady,” he told the magazine.

“Her mouth was wide open and her hands were up.” In a statement to investigators in 2006 he said, “I remember I was in shock from seeing all the dead people in this house,” including “dead children at the foot of the bed” and “smelling burnt flesh.”

“They either believe me or not. But I saw the truth. I saw it,” he told the magazine.

One would think — at least in the public court of opinion — that “exoneration” would mean that it was proved the Marines killed all those people because there was an actual threat, that they had been fired upon by insurgents, perhaps hiding among the children in their bedrooms. We know now by their own acknowledgement and evidence on the scene, that wasn’t the case.

So far, no one who has testified in Wuterich’s case claim they encountered insurgent activity in the two homes where the civilians were killed — but they went in blazing anyway.

What they are fighting out in court now is who gave the orders, whether they were “lawful” orders, and whether the Marines who shot up the civilians were acting within the “permissible” limits of what they understood the rules of engagement (ROE) to be. Wuterich has contended that he was indeed following his training according to an unedited 60 Minutes interview recently played for the court.

“I was extremely upset about that,” he said about the dead children. “I go over it and over it in my head — where did we go wrong?” There was no other way to handle the situation, he said, admitting that he told his squad to “shoot first and ask questions later.” But when pressed, Sgt. Humberto Mendoza, who also has immunity, told the court that his training never told him he should consider everyone in a house a threat if his commanding officer declared it “hostile” the way Wuterich allegedly did that day.

Nevertheless, former staff Sgt. Stephen Tatum, whose charges of murdering three unarmed Iraqis were dropped, testified on Jan 11 that Wuterich had declared the homes “hostile,” and according to his own reading of the ROE, that precluded the squad from having to identify their targets before shooting and blindly lobbing grenades into the rooms.

“I did not feel I had to [positively identify] individuals” as threats, Tatum said. He also testified that he was shooting at “silhouettes,” some shapes large, others small, but that he did not feel anything he did that day was wrong. Yet in copies of interviews for the 2006 NCIS report available on Broomfield’s website, Tatum admits to seeing children “kneeling down” in the room and Wuterich “firing at them.”

“I was trained to shoot two shots to the head and two shots to the chest and I followed my training,” he said in an amended statement (.pdf), signed by Tatum and dated April 3, 2006.

“I regret children had to die that day but I also know I did what I had to do.”

The killing is clear but what about the rampaging? Wuterich claims he was cool-headed that day — just following his training and orders to go after the insurgents shooting at them in the area. The prosecution tells another story, saying “he made a series of fatal assumptions and he lost control of himself,” prosecutor Maj. Nicholas Gannon told the jury.

“I interviewed a number of Marines that day from Kilo Company who confirmed the craziness — they did not regard it as crazy, but it was,” Broomfield told Antiwar.

What comes out of all of this is that the landscape of Iraq in 2005 — pockmarked by IED blasts, firefights, 500-pound bombs landing on houses, sniper fire, dead children and the smell of death — made for quite an untidy context for which to sort out things like ROEs. And when things went haywire like they did in Haditha, the chain of command seemed pretty negligent in setting it straight.

In another vindication of Murtha’s claims, Maj. Gen. Eldon A. Bargewell’s 104-page report on Haditha released in 2007, found that the Marines did not “did not follow proper house and room techniques,” that Wuterich’s squad passed along a false story about what happened there, that the company commander provided insufficient information up the chain. He also charged senior officials with ignoring the signs of a problem and deeming the incident as insignificant.

“Statements made by the chain of command during interviews for this investigation, taken as a whole, suggest that Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business, and that the Marines need to get ‘the job done’ no matter what it takes.”


In a story that has received little press, The New York Times reported in December that one of its journalists had found hundreds of documents related to the Bargewell report, tossed away in an Iraqi junkyard. The U.S. military says much of it is classified and was supposed to be destroyed. Maybe because of what’s in the transcripts — 400 pages of potentially damning interviews with Marines about that day in Haditha (read some of them, here).

Iraqi civilians were being killed all the time. Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar, in his own testimony, described it as “a cost of doing business.”

The stress of combat left some soldiers paralyzed, the testimony shows. 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 … the bodies piled up …

“Jack Murtha should be vindicated,” said Donahue. “I think history has, or will.”

Twitter Vlahos @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.