Is Jack Murtha a Coward and a Traitor?

The prize for the most dramatic oratory in the United States Congress in the new millennium goes to fledgling Representative Jean Schmidt.  In the midst of debate over whether the House of Representatives should vote on a resolution endorsing immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq she conveyed a message she had received from a Marine colonel, to Representative Jack Murtha.  Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran, inspired the debate earlier this week by calling for withdrawal from Iraq. 

Representative Smith's message quoting the colonel was simple:  'Cowards cut and run, Marines never do.'

Democrats are up in arms.  They believe Smith slandered Murtha.  No less a conservative voice than Jonah Goldberg seems to think they have a point.  In the Corner at NRO he argues that Schmidt didn't mean to call Murtha a coward and that it was a mistake to say anything that was bound to be interpreted that way.  He writes:

'Murtha's an honest, brave and patriotic guy. He's also wrong. But therein lies the debate.' 

Charging someone with cowardice, or worse yet disloyalty, isn't something anyone should do lightly.  Jonah Goldberg's generosity and temperance do him credit.  But he's as wrong as he could be here.  When people engage in debate within the boundaries of legitimate disagreement they should be respectful.  But we need to maintain those boundaries. 

Jack Murtha's call for immediate disengagement took him far outside the boundaries of legitimate disagreement.  He has never been able to articulate any plausible basis for his position on Iraq.  There is a simple reason for that.  There isn't one. 

Reasonable people cannot differ about whether or not the United States should press forward with our war against the terror masters.  For the time being Iraq is inevitably the principal front in that war.  A congressman who tries to duck his share of the responsibility for prosecuting that war is displaying moral cowardice.  Any American who recommends retreat is injuring his own country and calling his own patriotism into question. 

Almost all the Democrats in the House understand this, which is why only three of them would vote on the record for retreat. 

We mark the boundaries of legitimate disagreement by the way we characterize arguments that lie outside them.  What Jack Murtha did last week wasn't just wrong.  It was cowardly and disloyal.  That's the truth and Jack Murtha deserves to hear it. 

Thirty—five years ago he demonstrated that he had physical courage.  This week he demonstrated that he lacks moral courage.  There is no inconsistency here.  Thirty—five years is a long time and physical courage is not the same thing as moral courage.

Jack Murtha served the nation honorably and should be honored for it.  But his service doesn't establish that he is loyal now.  Nobody ever did the Republic of Rome greater service than Julius Caesar who capped off his military career by fighting a civil war and destroying the republic. 

Jean Schmidt didn't slander Jack Murtha and neither did any other House Republican.  On the contrary, he and his views have been getting way too much respect from all sides.

J. Peter Mulhern is a lawyer in the Washington, DC area.