A Story That Needed to Be Told

Patrick Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, is the only Iraq War veteran in Congress. In his new book, Taking the Hill: From Philly to Baghdad to the United States Congress, Murphy recalls his Philadelphia childhood, working his way through college, and his deployment to Iraq, where, as a lawyer and a captain with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, he led a legal team in Baghdad's Al Rashid District that advised commanders on combat operations, prosecuted U.S. troops, and administered a compensation fund for Iraqi civilians. Murphy launched his 2006 run for Congress with just $322 in his bank account, and, though he was outspent by nearly $3 million, he went on to win, taking office at age 33.

TAP spoke with Murphy on Capitol Hill earlier this month.

Holly Yeager: In the book, you describe two great turning points in your life, and both involve Bill Clinton, including a campaign appearance he made for you right before Election Day in 2006. Did that make your endorsement of Barack Obama a little difficult?

Patrick Murphy: Sure. If Bill Clinton was on the ticket, I would be supporting him, but he's not a candidate. I had to weigh that decision of who I thought was best to lead our country. It wasn't the most politically expedient thing for me to do, back in August 2007. Some people said it would be political suicide to go against that political machine. But I am going to do what I think is right for our country.

HY: When you first decided to run for Congress, you went to see Rahm Emanuel. Even though you were an Iraq War veteran, he said to you what he says to everybody: Come back when you have $250,000. Was he right?

PM: Yeah, I think there are a lot of candidates across America who think the national party is the cavalry and it's going to ride to their rescue. It's your fight, and you have to fight it. They might help out down the line, but you have to take your fight to whoever your opponent is and stand up and provide the differences. In my case there were some pretty compelling differences -- not just on Iraq. My opponent voted against expanding federal funding of stem cell research and he wasn't committed to restoring fiscal discipline.

HY: You've been in Congress for just a year. Why did you write this book?

PM: I believe it's a story that needed to be told. It's a story about the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and what's going on in the world in places that people only see on their television screens. I became a witness to our foreign policy, and I felt a responsibility to share my story and to speak out about what's really going on.

HY: You describe, very early on in the war, what you called "the seeming impossibility of the situation" and coming "face to face with the deadly reality of the poorly planned Bush war"—a feeling, you say, shared by almost every officer. Was it really apparent to everyone so quickly?

PM: It was pretty clear early on how shorthanded our troops were. In a sector where we had 1.5 million Iraqis, and our own four-star general, [former Army Chief of Staff] Gen. Shinseki, testified that following the ratios set out in our military doctrine we should have had 25,000 soldiers in that [Al Rashid] sector, at least. The fact that we had 3,500 is pretty damning—especially when you compare it with Philadelphia, where my father served with 7,000 police officers, for the same size population. We had half as many law enforcement, in a combat zone, where we don't speak the same language.

HY: Did you always have that sense of, "I just don't have what I need," whether it was Humvees or weapons or other equipment?

PM: The spirit of a paratrooper is that you are happy with whatever you have and you make do with whatever you have. No matter what the odds, we tried to do our best to accomplish almost the impossible. But until the Iraqis stand up for their own country, we cannot do it for them. They have to stand up, if they want a democracy. They have to stand up for themselves and for their country.

HY: How important was it to set up a compensation fund? You distributed more than $200,000 to Iraqis, mostly in payments of a few hundred dollars, to settle their complaints against the U.S. military.

PM: To them, it was transformational. Even just to adjudicate their case, to give them a letter that said I wasn't going to give them money, and cite the law. The fact that they were heard, and that they could make a case, was so important. That's what justice is about, and I tried to dispense it as quickly and as equitably as I could, given the circumstances. I dealt with hundreds and hundreds of Iraqis. I looked every single one of them in the eye, whether it was good or bad, and let them know how America stood on their case.

HY: You gave a powerful speech on the House floor in favor of the war-funding bill that set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, then saw President Bush veto it. You write, "Our nation and the world [were] being held hostage to the pride of a single man, who refused to acknowledge and correct his catastrophic mistake." Are you surprised at how tough it's been here in the last year for you and others who want change things, especially in Iraq?

PM: I have been surprised at some of the gridlock, and I've done my best to try to break it. I think it's a human quality to be able to admit one's mistakes.

When we look at the big picture and the global war we're engaged in, I think we need to refocus our priorities on al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda is strongest in Afghanistan, and the border of Pakistan. We need to make sure we're doing what's necessary to go after the person and the organization that killed 3,000 innocent Americans back on 9-11 of 2001. But I've talked to senior members of the Bush administration who have told me, off the record, that we're playing for a tie in Afghanistan, which is not acceptable in my view.

HY: What do you say to Democrats whose top issue is the war, who are frustrated that more isn't being done to bring U.S. troops home?

PM: They should be proud that the Democratic Congress passed a binding timeline attached to war funding. Although I appreciate and understand their frustration—and share it—their focus should be on the people who wouldn't stand up to the president, those Republicans who say they're moderates but refuse to do what's right.

HY: You describe being at an Armed Services Committee hearing and asking Gen. Pace about training Iraqis, and whether there was any plan to take Iraqis further from their daily lives to make their training more effective, just like we do with U.S. soldiers. How hard is it to sit still when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs says to you, "I'll get back to you"?

PM: You get that a lot in Washington. I think that is probably one of the most frustrating aspects of being here, is that people do not act with a sense of urgency. You think back to the leadership of President Roosevelt, when he said, "We need to make tens of thousands of tanks and tens of thousands of airplanes and tens of thousands of jeeps," and industry said, "We can't do it." He said, "Yes you can. Make it happen," and they did it, and they exceeded his goals, after first they said they couldn't. That was a sense of urgency that shows the American sprit that has been sorely lacking with this administration—not just on the war effort but also on diplomatic efforts around the globe.