Profiles in Courage
Sen. Ted Kennedy honored two Americans with the Profile in Courage award yesterday. His speech was both moving and perfect for the issues that we’ve been facing in America. We hit a lot of criticism on this blog of the Bush Administration, but I thought I would start today with Sen. Kennedy’s words about two men of integrity, of dignity and of courage — who got it right.
These are Sen. Kennedy’s own words from the awards ceremony:
This year’s ceremony is very special to all of us in the Kennedy family, because it marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s book, “Profiles in Courage.” My brother was a Senator at the time, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for the book. It’s been a classic ever since, and I’m sure he’d be especially proud of this year’s honorees.
Five years ago, as we all know, America was shocked and our complacency was shattered by the worst terrorist attack in our history. But we emerged united together, and we rallied around our leaders, ready to fight back.
That unity has receded drastically since then, because of the war in Iraq. Our country has become deeply divided – with most of our people deeply concerned that our policies have not been adequate to the challenge and in fact have made the danger even more serious.
Our honorees today are two courageous officials on that issue – one appointed and one elected – who prove that dissent, even in wartime, may well be the ultimate act of patriotism.
Both are true profiles in courage. Our first honoree, Alberto Mora, was a well-respected attorney specializing in international law at a prominent firm when he was appointed General Counsel of the Navy at the beginning of the Bush Administration, and in the months after 9/11, he was a strong supporter of the war on terrorism.
But by the end of 2002, he realized that the Administration was going wrong in approving harsh and extreme interrogation techniques used on the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. He assumed that the abuses would stop when he called attention to them, but he was wrong.
And so he began a quiet, behind-the-scenes battle to challenge these techniques and the misguided legal analysis that supported them.
He was determined to fight for the rule of law, even against powerful opponents and the chief champions of the torture policy at the highest levels of government. He took on William Haynes, the General Counsel of the Department of Defense, calling his legal analysis “wholly inadequate.” He challenged David Addington, the Counsel to Vice President Cheney. He took his concerns directly to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
He had learned the importance of living up to his principles in his own early years. Both of his parents had fled from repressive regimes. His mother grew up in Hungary and came to the United States. His father had come from Cuba to study medicine at Harvard. Alberto was born here in Boston in 1952 and a year later, the family moved back to Cuba. When Castro came to power in 1959, they narrowly escaped to the United States and settled in Mississippi.
Alberto later graduated from the University of Miami Law School and began his impressive career in the law. He retired from the Navy at the end of last year, and is now back in private law practice as counsel for Wal-Mart’s international operations.
In standing up for his beliefs against torture as Counsel for the Navy, Alberto Mora embodied Edmund Burke’s famous words, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Faced with irrefutable evidence that by condoning torture, the government was acting, he said, in a way “clearly contrary to everything we were ever taught about American values,” and he felt compelled speak truth to power.
He said, “The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America—even those designated as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’ If you make this exception, the whole Constitution crumbles.”…
Our second honoree is a highly respected conservative Democrat in the House of Representatives from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, whose decision to speak out on Iraq electrified the country.
John Murtha is a vivid example of the words of President Kennedy in “Profiles in Courage,” “A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.”
His family has a long tradition of military service. One of his mother’s ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War. Another served in the Union Army in the Civil War and actually guarded the Capitol Building where John Murtha serves today. The widow of that Union soldier lived to be 96, and John remembers her telling him as a child, “One person can make a difference.”
We may even be distantly related. John’s father’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland, as did mine, during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-19th century.
John himself has a long history of patriotism and courage, despite the personal consequences or dangers.
When he graduated from high school in 1950, the Korean War had just begun, and he wanted to join the Army. His family insisted he go to college, but he felt so uncomfortable on campus sitting out the war that he left after freshman year and enlisted in the Marines. He became a drill instructor at Parris Island, and went on to Officer Training School at Quantico.
When he graduated, he volunteered to serve in Korea and received orders to do so. But the truce ending the war was declared, and he went to Camp Lejeune instead to complete his service.
A decade later, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam and again showed his extraordinary dedication. He was wounded twice, received two Purple Hearts, and earned the Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for his bravery.
At boot camp, he had done so well that he was given the American Spirit Medal whose citation reads “for the display of outstanding qualities of leadership best expressing the American Honor, Initiative, Loyalty, and High Example to Comrades in Arms.” He says today that of the sixteen military awards he’s received, he’s proudest of all of that one.
His patriotism and commitment to the armed forces continued strong after he left the military. When he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, he became the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress. Five years later, he was honored with an appointment to the House Appropriations Subcommittee with oversight of the Pentagon, and since 1989, he has served as Chairman of that Subcommittee or as its senior Democrat.
All of us involved in national security issues know that John Murtha has worked brilliantly for over thirty years in Congress to defend and strengthen our armed forces and protect our national security. He’s the voice of our troops in Congress. He knows what they’re going through, and he cares deeply about them. As he’s said so eloquently, “Anybody that’s been in combat knows it sears your soul.”
He consistently avoids partisanship. He’s earned the respect of the military, and become a confidant of generals and senior defense officials in both Republican and Democratic Administrations. Without doubt, he’s one of most respected leaders on military issues in Congress.
After 9/11, he initially became a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, and the White House cheered him on.
But he soon began to feel he could not stay silent after what he began hearing from our troops and senior military officials. He criticized the inadequate armor and other supplies for our troops. In September 2003, he said he’d been misled into voting for the war the year before.
Finally, last November, he decided as a matter of conscience to speak the unvarnished truth. He stated publicly that our troops in Iraq had done all they could, and it was time for them to come home.
You could feel the earth move in Washington, and the White House knew it. Their political operation went into overdrive, the attack dogs were sent out, and the “Swift Boat” tactics were dusted off. His military record was wrongly and irresponsibly called into question. He was accused of surrendering to the terrorists and “endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party.”
It was a familiar response from an Administration with a pathological aversion to thoughtful criticism – or any criticism – of its policy on Iraq.
They couldn’t fire or demote him, as they did with critics of their policy. They couldn’t ignore him or marginalize him, as they did with Alberto Mora.
Through all the attacks on his patriotism, he never wavered or backed down from his strong view. His courage in speaking out touched the entire nation, and he continues to do so.
Last week, he called on the Marine Corps to disclose the full truth about a shocking incident involving the death of a Marine followed by the death of numerous civilians supposedly in a bus in Haditha last November. The casualties were initially attributed to an I.E.D. explosion and shrapnel and firefight, but Murtha said he kept hearing reports from Marines in the field that something much worse had happened.
As he stated, “There was no firefight. There was no explosion that killed civilians in a bus. There was no bus. There was no shrapnel. There were only bullet holes inside the homes where the Marines had gone in….Our troops over-reacted because of the pressure on them, and they killed innocent civilians in cold blood,” he said. That’s John Murtha, telling the war like it is.
As Andrew Jackson said, “One man with courage makes a majority,” and John Murtha has proved the truth of those words in our own time.
More than a century ago, a biographer of Andrew Jackson wrote that Jackson “was the most American of Americans – an embodiment of the Declaration of Independence – the Fourth of July incarnate.” You could say the same thing about Congressman John Murtha.
The nation owes him a huge debt for refusing to stay silent. It took immense courage for him to do what he did, and he eminently deserves this year’s Profile in Courage Award."
Each one of us has an opportunity to be a profile in courage. Our Roots Project members are doing just that today in our nation’s capitol — handing every Democratic member of the House and Senate a copy of Crashing the Gate, and an invitation to join in the discussion with their fellow citizens.
This was a long read, but I cut only a paragraph out of the full text of the speech, because it was that good and that important. I loved the quote from Andrew Jackson especially: "One man with courage makes a majority." And I thought that beginning the day today with two men who did the right thing, who stood up for what they believed in despite the odds, would be a powerful message for everyone.