Feature

John Murtha

The hawk who renounced the war in Iraq

John Murtha1932–2010

“I had two goals in life,” John “Jack” Murtha once said, recalling his youth in hardscrabble Westmoreland County, Pa. “I wanted to be a colonel in the Marine Corps and a member of Congress.” Murtha, who died this week following gallbladder surgery, accomplished both goals. The first combat veteran of Vietnam to serve in Congress, the 35-year incumbent was a staunch defender of military spending, but made headlines when, after voting in 2002 to authorize military force in Iraq, he renounced it.

His turnabout “was no small thing,” said the Los Angeles Times. One of Congress’ biggest Democratic hawks, Murtha was widely known as a tireless champion of the armed forces, a reputation burnished by his record in Vietnam. With the 1st Marine Regiment, “he spent the bulk of his time in the field” and saw fierce action near Da Nang; his decorations included two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. But in November 2005, Murtha “became the unlikely face of congressional opposition to the war” when he declared, “The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” With those words Murtha helped galvanize the anti-war movement.

Before being elected to Congress, in 1974, Murtha ran the family carwash, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, and served in the Pennsylvania legislature. “Gruff and jowly,” he became known “for using the power of the federal purse to make kings and deals,” said The Washington Post. Dubbed the “King of Pork,” he brought hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars home to defense contractors in his district of Johnstown, Pa. In 1993 he managed to get the National Drug Intelligence Center based there rather than in Washington, explaining, “This is where I want it.” Several times, he was the focus of ethics investigations. In the late 1970s, he was named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the Abscam scandal, after he was caught on videotape expressing a willingness to consider accepting bribes from an undercover FBI agent dressed as an Arab sheikh. Last year, federal authorities investigated his ties to PMA Group, a lobbying firm, which was among his major campaign contributors.

Never found guilty of any wrongdoing, Murtha said he hadn’t personally profited from any of his deals. “If I’m corrupt,” he said, “it’s because I take care of my district.” He is survived by his wife and three children.

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