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'From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security' by John P. Murtha with John Plashal

Murtha's autobiography makes relevant observations about war

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Dan Simpson, Post-Gazette Associate Editor

U.S. Rep. John P. "Jack" Murtha, a Democrat who has represented Western Pennsylvania in the House for nearly 29 years, has decided that now is the time to bring forth his autobiography covering the years from 1966 to the present.

"From Vietnam to 9/11: On the Front Lines of National Security"

By John P. Murtha with John Plashal

Penn State University Press ($29.95)


I expected the book to be the usual "walks on water, leaps over tall buildings" political puffery that such books can be. It wasn't; it is much better than that.

It is an analytical history of defense and foreign affairs matters that Murtha has been involved in from the Vietnam War through Sept. 11. He makes his comments from the informed position of longtime membership on the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the panel responsible for appropriating the money for America's various military ventures.

Best of all, many of his observations are very relevant to what Americans are going through right now as the country appears to be headed for a major regional war in the Middle East.

There are constant themes running throughout Murtha's congressional career as he took part in events from Lebanon to Somalia to Bosnia-Herzegovina. He has worked as an increasingly senior and influential member of Congress with presidents from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush.

One of these themes is the care that must go into a decision to deploy American forces overseas. A second is the importance of intelligence in making both strategic decisions, to avoid debacles such as the 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the subsequent precipitous U.S. withdrawal from that conflict.

Murtha warns against "mission creep" -- starting out to do one thing and then broadening objectives but not expanding the wherewithal necessary to carry them out.

He is very conscious of the potential and the limits of air power. He never loses sight of the value of tough, austere Marines, Army Rangers and other U.S. ground forces in accomplishing military objectives, reflecting in part his own Marine combat experience in Vietnam.

Best of all, there is a lot in the book that bears on the current situation facing the United States as it approaches war with Iraq. Specifically, Murtha is absolutely categorical about the need for the Executive Branch of government to work closely with Congress.

There are at least 14 references to this process in a 223-page book. Discussion includes decisions made with regard to Lebanon, Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia and other conflicts.

Murtha sees Congress as "the people's branch of government," responsible for providing an independent assessment of the pros and cons of going to war.

He supports the relevance of the War Powers Act in the decision-making process and embraces the concept of checks and balances in the Constitution to govern relations between the executive and legislative branches.

Murtha also believes in cooperation with our allies if we are to achieve victory against terrorists and insists that efforts to thwart terrorism must be worked out within the context of United Nations resolutions.

He argues that the war on terrorism must not evolve into a U.S.-only operation and must not be perceived as such.

One has to ask upon reading this important book if Murtha believes that his requirements of full congressional involvement in the decision-making process have been met by the Bush administration as it marches the United States to war with Iraq.

And, if not, why not, and why does he remain silent? His book is certainly very plain on the subject of that need.

Dan Simpson can be reached at dsimpson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1976.

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