John Murtha: The Turning Point

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.

Historians 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.

Pragmatism 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 middle.

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.

Americans 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.


Bush 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 down.

December 2, 2005

Gary 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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