Murtha: Marines Murdered 15 Unarmed Iraqi Civilians

Rep. Jack Murtha, who came on our radar screen as a “hawk” (although always an opponent of the Iraq War) who called for rapid pullout of troops from Iraq on the basis that our mission has failed, has told the press that the Marines have killed Iraqi innocents in cold blood.

MSNBC:

A Pentagon probe into the death of Iraqi civilians last November in the Iraqi city of Haditha will show that U.S. Marines “killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” a U.S. lawmaker said Wednesday. From the beginning, Iraqis in the town of Haditha said U.S. Marines deliberately killed 15 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including seven women and three children. One young Iraqi girl said the Marines killed six members of her family, including her parents. “The Americans came into the room where my father was praying,” she said, “and shot him.”

On Wednesday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the accounts are true. Military officials told NBC News that the Marine Corps’ own evidence appears to show Murtha is right.

A videotape taken by an Iraqi showed the aftermath of the alleged attack: a blood-smeared bedroom floor and bits of what appear to be human flesh and bullet holes on the walls. The video, obtained by Time magazine, was broadcast a day after town residents told The Associated Press that American troops entered homes on Nov. 19 and shot dead 15 members of two families, including a 3-year-old girl, after a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Marine. On Nov. 20, U.S. Marines spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Pool issued a statement saying that on the previous day a roadside bomb had killed 15 civilians and a Marine. In a later gunbattle, U.S. and Iraqi troops killed eight insurgents, he said.

U.S. military officials later confirmed that the version of events was wrong. Murtha, a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq, said at a news conference Wednesday that sources within the military have told him that an internal investigation will show that “there was no firefight, there was no IED (improvised explosive device) that killed these innocent people. Our troops overreacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood.”

Army Times:

“It’s much worse than was reported in Time magazine,” Murtha, a Democrat, former Marine colonel and Vietnam war veteran, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “There was no firefight. There was no [bomb] that killed those innocent people,” Murtha explained, adding there were “about twice as many” Iraqis killed than Time had reported.

No official investigation report has been released by the Pentagon and a spokesman for Murtha was unable to add to the congressman’s remarks. “I do not know where Rep. Murtha is obtaining is information,” said Lt. Col. Sean Gibson, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Central Command in Tampa, Fla. “Thoroughness will drive the investigation.”

Gary Gross calls Murtha a “traitor.”

Frankly, this is the actions of a traitor or a sellout. He deserves to be ridiculed, excoriated and frog-marched off Capitol Hill, then remanded to jail. No bail. Doesn’t this idiot know the type of damage this inflicts on the Marines? Or is it that he’s so intoxicated with the thought of becoming the next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee that he’ll say anything?

Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt, Ed Morrissey, and others are aboard the bandwagon.

The problem is that Murtha is a retired Marine colonel and a decorated veteran of two wars. Whatever one might think of his policy preferences vis-a-vis Iraq, suddenly becoming a turncoat is incredibly out of character for someone with that background. Furthermore, this is a factually falsifiable statement that will either soon be authenticated or proved false. If the latter, it would certainly not advance his political career. I think we can wait for the frogmarching until then.

Furthermore, ” Military officials told NBC News that the Marine Corps’ own evidence appears to show Murtha is right.” Who these “officials” are is unclear, as is whether their confirmation will jibe with the results of the final report. Again, though, we’ll soon see.

Morrissey concedes that,

. . . the investigation might support Murtha’s conclusions; just because he has tried to smear the Marines with this conclusion doesn’t mean it may not later be proven correct. However, his knee-jerk reaction to assume their guilt and then to exploit it for his own political ends is shameful and egregious.

That Murtha would be in a rush to paint his fellow Marines (THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN EX-MARINE) as mass murderers in unfathomable. Murtha is a senior member of the Armed Forces Committee and privy to much more information than those of us in the blogosphere. My reading of his statement is that it’s based on his understanding fo the investigation as it’s proceeding.

That all said, Cori Dauber is right to note that, “the military can’t respond to Murtha in any kind of substantive way because the investigation is ongoing. Which means Murtha is making incendiary charges at a time when he knows the military cannot respond, not even to provide any context, or to balance any hyperbole (not that I would ever suggest Murtha might be prone to hyperbole.)” Further, while I strongly disagree with Bob Owens‘ characterization of Murtha as “Dishonorable John,” I agree that,

[I]t is unconscionable for any legislator to accuse U.S. military personnel of multiple counts of premeditated murder before an investigation into these charges is complete. Prosecutions must proceed at their own logical pace as evidence in the case dictates. Premature accusations by a public figure in such a case imposes an artificial timeline, endangering the accuracy and thoroughness of an investigation.

At the same time, such heated rhetoric as charges of murder of “innocent civilians in cold blood” is prejudicial against the defendants, poisoning public opinion against them. This would be an explosive charge in a civilian court, but to make such charges against members of the U.S. Military when they are engaged in military operations in that country is absolutely fissionable.

For politicians, let alone those with influence over the budget of the military, to weigh in on matters where the individual liberty of servicemembers are in doubt is quite dangerous. I dissent, though, from the implications of this:

To make such strong charges while our soldiers are in that combat theater of operations is to unnecessarily inflame Iraqi public opinion against our soldiers and place the lives of U.S. servicemen and women in danger of reprisal attacks based upon Murtha’s claims, which to date, are unsupported.

While probably true in an objective sense–our enemies will undoubtedly seize upon this for propaganda value–our leaders have a duty to conduct investigations into misconduct on the part of our troops and to share the results with the American people, consequences be damned. Should we have covered up the Mai Lai massacre? Surely not.

I hope Murtha’s conclusions are premature. Soldiers in combat zones make mistakes and sometimes kill innocents when their instinct of self-preservation overrides their training. My hope is that’s all that happened. Murtha is saying something much more than that, though. But American soldiers have in fact committed horrible attrocities in past wars and in this one. It’s an inevitable consequence of putting large numbers of people in harm’s way and giving them power to kill. It’s a sad but inescapable reality of war. Pretending that it doesn’t happen, though, does not serve us in the long run. Nor does dubbing those who speak out “traitors.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Furthermore, this is a factually falsifiable statement that will either soon be authenticated or proved false.

    Not precisely. Whether the incident took place or not is factually falsifiable. Whether it was done “in cold blood” is subjective. That’s a characterization of state of mind which is only subjectively falsifiable.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Fair enough. But his statement is about what the investigation will find. That much, we’ll see soon enough.

  3. lily says:

    Murtha also stated that he believed the incident was the result of stress. I don’t know if he went on to say that the stress came from the insufficient troop levels, but that conclusion seems reasonable to me.

  4. Ugh says:

    Other speculation seen elsewhere: He did it to try to prevent Rumsfeld’s toadies from classifying and then deep sixing the investigative report, as they tried to bury the Taguba report on Abu Ghraib.

  5. LJD says:

    Regardless of the ultimate result of the investigation, it is absolutely inexcuseable for Murtha to open his fat mouth before completion of said investigation, or before these troops get their day in court. I guess that standard only applies to ‘eenmy combatants’.

  6. legion says:

    LJD,
    You assume there would even be an investigation if Murtha, or someone with his clout, didn’t open their mouths. The whitewashing of Abu Ghraib, the 9-11 commission, and other so-called ‘investigations’ makes for a strong argument otherwise…

  7. MrGone says:

    In spite of what many are saying, Murtha doesn’t strike me as the political grandstanding type. For instance, he’s been in the congress for 32 years and the first any of us heard of him was when he called for troops to be pulled because he thought that there was a civil war going on and that we were now targets. He was called a coward and many other names then but it’s interesting how much of what he said is true and now beginning to happen. Including the draw down. At the time, I got the impression that he stood up on this because of his genuine concern for the guys in the field. It didn’t appear, to me at least, that he was politically motivated. Indeed, his proposal was rejected by nearly everyone, including the dems. So now he comes out talking about this incident. The MSNBC account mentions confirmation by military sources. â??This one is ugly,” one official told NBC News.

    One should also keep in mind that he’s a fairly plain talking guy. “In cold blood” may be just the way he talks not an attempt to be inflammatory. He may also be really upset about what happened.

    So, I’m not sure what his motivation here is. Whether it’s to keep it from being hidden or maybe it’s still due to ongoing concern for the troops. But I can’t really agree with the blogswarm that he’s a traitor, should resign etc. Call me naive, but he strikes me as one of the very few principled people we have in Congress. There’s a reason he’s talking about this and it’s probably a good one. You don’t have to do much imagining to realize the S#$@Tstorm this would cause and he’s not a fool.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Consider the following different formulations:

    “killed”
    “killed accidentally”
    “killed in the heat of battle”
    “killed in cold blood”

    All may describe the same objective phenomenon. The difference among them is intent and, presumably, degree of culpability. Use of the words “in cold blood” implies first degree murder. It’s inflammatory in a way that saying, simply, “killed” would not be and I don’t see how that can be seen any other way.

  9. Anderson says:

    Dave, according to the reports, women and children were killed execution-style as they prayed.

    If that’s not “in cold blood,” what is?

    If the charges are true, let’s hope that the killers are executed and that the rest of the Corps applauds the purification of their service.

    If not, then a big dish of crow to Murtha and others, & maybe a defamation suit or three.

  10. Herb says:

    That Female Ohio Congresswoman had it right. Murtha is a coward. Gary Gross has it right also, he is a traitor. A traitor to the American People as well as to the US Marines.

    Murtha is no doubt seeking his 15 minutes of fame by making charges that are no less than that of an Anti American rumor monger that is hell bent on trying to destroy a Military group that has the highest traditions of patriotism under their belts and who have proven the highest integrity standards obtainable.

    Murtha should be driven out of office with a Yellow Stripe painted on his back.

  11. Bithead says:

    The question, to my mind is, will we see an apology out of dishonest John, if the troops are found innocent by one way or another?

    I figure we stand about as much chance to see an apology of that as we will of the story about supposed domestic wire tapping, and the story about how a everybody knew that Karl Rove had been indicted.