John Murtha: The Turning Point

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When the history
of the loss of the Iraq war is written by the losing side — ours
— Congressman John Murtha’s public opposition to the war will be
highlighted as the turning point.

are always looking for turning points when they aren’t looking for
watersheds. What is the difference? A turning point loses a war.
A watershed reverses an historical process. Murtha will be the turning
point. The loss of the war will be the watershed: the great reversal
of the post-World War II American Empire. Or so I hope — that
some good will result from this military and strategic disaster.

Murtha said
in full public view that the pottery is broken and it cannot be
fixed. There is only one rational response, he said: prepare for
a pull-out of the troops before too many more of them die in a lost
cause. He said this as a decorated military figure who has always
voted for military expenditures.

This was a
major turnaround. This is what turning points are, by definition.
Murtha will be seen by historians as the turning point of this war.
He is just too tempting a figure for historians to ignore. He will
become in retrospect the Tet Offensive of the Iraq War.

Murtha is
a media disaster for Bush. He looks like someone sent over by central
casting. He exactly looks like what he is: a Marine who no longer
wears a uniform. (There are no ex-Marines, as you will be informed
if you have ever refer to a Marine to his face as a former Marine).
He is an old guy. Old guys are supposed to be wise. He provided
the media with what it always is looking for: a man bites dog story.

Murtha has
this unique advantage: he was a warrior. He received a bronze star
and two purple hearts. This has created purple rage in the White
House. There is no way to paste the dreaded “pacifist-activist”
label on him. There is no way to tag him as a draft dodger, especially
when the White House is run by successful draft-dodgers.

Murtha is
a pro-military Democrat in a blue-collar district. He has no Presidential
ambitions or opportunity. He can therefore speak his mind as a non-partisan
patriot. Why non-partisan? The medals. On military issues, decorated
politicians who are not bucking for a promotion can speak out as
non-partisans. Dole did as a Senator. So did Kerry. Only when Kerry
ran for President was he attacked as a partisan on military matters.
He was bucking for a promotion. Murtha is therefore untouchable
on this issue. That is why he is the Administration’s worst nightmare.

The Democrats
around him can see the obvious: Murtha has gotten away with it.
His constituents are not calling for his head. He has challenged
the war where (1) he has expertise and (2) it counts most in most
voters’ minds: it cannot be won by us. This is an appeal
to pragmatism. Politicians are highly pragmatic.

rests on cost-benefit analyses. Let us examine the cost-benefit
factors in the minds of the voters — which I believe are not those
in the mind of George W. Bush.


The number
of ideologically pro-war hawks is limited. So is the number of antiwar
activists. There are very few of the latter — no crowds, no media
outlets, not much organization. There is the Internet, which is
significant and will grow more significant, but anti-war boots on
the ground are few.

This structure
is true in every great public debate: ideologues at both ends of
the spectrum, with the mass of voters in the amorphous and malleable

Voters today
are making mental calculations about costs and benefits. The politicians
are, too. The voters look at the death toll. The politicians look
at the opinion polls.

The death
toll will rise. This is the central, unchallengeable fact of all
wars. So, every politician who takes his country into a war had
better have a long-term strategy to offset the inescapable political
reality of the death toll. To work in the court of public opinion,
his strategy must rest on a measurable statistic of equal or greater
concern than the death toll.

This counter-statistic
may be enemy body counts. It was in Vietnam. Or it may be miles
gained on the ground. It was after D-Day. “Give George a headline,
and he’s good for 30 miles” was Omar Bradley’s assessment of Patton’s
motivation. Eisenhower appreciated every mile. Patton received his
share of headlines.

Here is the
crucial American political fact of the Iraq war: the hawks have
no statistic that rivals the death toll. “We don’t do body counts,”
said General Tommy Franks (retired). The Administration is betting
the war on the outcome of the election to be held later this month.
But once the election is over, what then? There are too many years
in between elections. The death toll rises every day. It is the
Chinese water torture of statistics.

do not care about Iraq. They do not care how many civilians have
been killed by American bombs. They do not care about Saddam Hussein
any more. They do not care about oil, which barely flows from Iraq.
Americans do not care about Iraq at all, except as a way to demonstrate
American power. That option is fading, day by day. The death toll
marks it.


The debate
has now been reduced to the doctrine of sunk costs. It therefore
cannot be won by Bush.

The voting
public thinks: “All those troops have died. We dare not lose. This
would turn those deaths into a gigantic meaningless sacrifice.”

This argument
works to one side’s advantage in every war. Before it finally ceases
to be believed by the other side’s supporters, it works until the
public finally recognizes the meaning of the doctrine of sunk costs:
the past is past. The past cannot be changed.

In economics,
this principle of analysis applies to losses already sustained by
an investor. The investor — emotionally unwilling to acknowledge
the finality of his bad judgment — clings to the hope that he can
“get even” by sticking with this bad investment. He stays the course.
If it rises, he imagines, his decision to buy will be vindicated.
This is all nonsense, says the economist. Had the investor waited
to buy at today’s lower price, he could have bought in cheaper.
There is no escape from the economic fact of the loss.

If the investment
continues to decline in price, the typical investor will sell it.
He just cannot take it any longer. He sells because the investment
keeps going down. When the fear of greater losses at last overcomes
his desire to get even in order to vindicate his own lack of judgment,
he sells.

It is exactly
the same in every war for at least one side. The voters hang on
to their belief that going to war was a good idea, that all those
deaths were not in vain. But eventually they realize that more deaths
cannot resurrect the dead troops. They know this in theory from
the beginning, but they do not know it emotionally.

This is why
the death toll is the death knell for one side or the other in a
war. At some point, one side says, “It’s better to surrender than
to fight on.”

The debate
today is over the meaning of the body counts. The war’s defenders
are still in the phase where they will not acknowledge the reality
of the doctrine of sunk costs. They will.

The fact that
the insurgents have tripled the number of attacks in 2005 over 2004
shows where this war is headed.

At some point
after mid-January, 2009, most American troops will be brought home.
A few may stay behind as special forces guarding the oil wells from
Iraqis — and not just the insurgents. But the war will be officially
lost, just as the war in Vietnam was officially lost.


has broken the pottery. He owns it . . . for now. Whether the next
President will play Nixon to Johnson, there will eventually be a
President who will play Ford to Nixon. The last helicopter will
pull out of the Green Zone. Let us hope that it is not then shot

2, 2005

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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