"If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied."
Those bitter words do not come from some folk-singing anti-war protestor. They come from a conservative Englishman, Rudyard Kipling, in his collection, "Epitaphs of the Great War." And those same words were heard today on Capitol Hill from Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative Republican of North Carolina.
When he spoke, Jones was thinking about the Iraq war--but he was also looking ahead to a possible war with Iran.
The Congressman from the Third District of North Carolina is a remarkable figure. In almost all respects, he is an orthodox Southern Republican; his lifetime vote-rating from the American Conservative Union, over his seven terms in Congress, is 93 out of a possible 100. And so it was no surprise that Jones was one of 296 Members of the House to vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution on October 10, 2002.
But three years ago, Jones had his own moment of epiphany. At the funeral of a Marine killed in Iraq, leaving behind a widow and three young children, Jones concluded that he had made a mistake in voting to authorize the war. Moreover, he concluded that he had been lied to by the Bush Administration. And he said so--frequently, publicly, loudly. The White House and the Republican Party establishment were not pleased, but since his Damascene conversion, Jones has been re-elected twice, by wide margins.
Now Jones has a new cause: making sure that the United States does not go to war with Iran without specific Congressional authorization. In other words, no "accidental" spillage of the fighting from Iraq into Iran. It's worth underscoring that Jones is no dove, nor even a Christian pacifist. He supported, and supports, the war in Afghanistan, and proudly represents the Marine bases at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point, as well as Seymour Johnson AFB.
But the courtly Jones has chosen to put principle, as he sees it, ahead of partisan or personal loyalty. As he said at today's press conference at the House Press Gallery, "the Bible and the Constitution" guide him in all his actions. And so far, he said, with visible humility, the 600,000 people he represents agree with him as he prepares to challenge many of his fellow Republicans on the issue of presidential war powers.
Mindful of the war drums beating loudly--many from within the Executive Branch--in favor of a military confrontation with Iran, Jones makes a simple point: The White House must ask Congress for permission. To that end, Jones has authored House Joint Resolution 14, which would require the President to "receive specific authorization ... prior to initiating any use of military force against Iran." Six other Congressmen joined him today: Neil Abercrombie (D-HA), Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), John Larson (D-CT), Marty Meehan (D-MA), Richard Neal (D-MA), Ron Paul (R-TX). The other four co-sponsors, who could not be in attendance, include Rep. John Murtha (D-PA).
But Jones is undeniably the leader of this particular effort. Representative Larson of Connecticut, who as Vice Chair of the House Democratic Caucus is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, set a generous bipartisan tone by reaching across the aisle, figuratively, to say to Jones, "Walter, you deserve a great deal of credit, you have shown a great deal of courage." Then, Larson ripped into the Bush Administration for "doing away with 50 years of deterrence, diplomacy, and containment," leading to "the quagmire of Iraq."
Abercrombie of Hawaii was equally praising of Jones, and equally condemnatory of the White House. Abercrombie called the silver-haired North Carolinian "the conscience of the Congress," and then, like Larson before him, turned his rhetorical ire against "neoconservative ideologues promoting the agenda they had from the beginning--to go war with Iran and Syria."
Meehan of Massachusetts, who voted for the war five years ago, sounded a caustic note: The administration had "lied so many times," he declared, that Congress had no choice but to assert itself. Neal, also of Massachusetts, recalled the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, in which Congress authorized the escalation of the Vietnam War, as a mistake not to be repeated. The Bay State lawmaker reminded his colleagues, "Members of Congress don't serve under the President of the United States. They serve with the President."
Also speaking up for Constitutional procedure was Paul of Texas. One of just six Republicans who voted against the Iraq war resolution in 2002, Paul said it was "redundant," but nonetheless necessary, for Congress to assert its sole authority to authorize a war. "Isn't it sad," he lamented, "that we're introducing a resolution restating the Constitution?"
Gilchrest of Maryland, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star as a Marine in Vietnam, recalled being at boot camp at Parris Island when Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was approved. He and his fellow Marines simply assumed, he said, that politicians in Washington were wise and far-seeing. Since then, he added, he has learned to mistrust "end justifies the means" ideology.
The seven Members of Congress who assembled today agree on very little. Indeed, it's no sure bet that they would all oppose a hypothetical Iran war resolution; three of them, after all--Gilchrest, Jones, and Meehan--voted for the Iraq war resolution. Yet what brought these seven individuals together in support of House Joint Resolution 14 was their shared determination to make sure that the Executive Branch consults the Legislative Branch according to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
Of course, HJ Res 14 will not necessarily have an easy time becoming law. The Bush Administration will likely oppose any limitation on its war powers, and the Democratic leadership, for its part, seems reluctant to confront the President on Constitutional issues.
So that puts the burden on Jones & Co. And while Jones has relatively little power in the House, he has something that is nonetheless powerful: the courage of his convictions, steeled by the experience of signing thousands of condolence letters to those who have lost loved ones in Iraq. "I have hurt so badly," Jones said today, thinking back on the last five years since the pro-war vote that he now regrets. That intensity will keep him going, and it will surely inspire others.
And if the subject is inspiration, one's thoughts return to Kipling, to the same "Epitaphs of the Great War," which includes this sextain, entitled, "A Dead Statesman":
"I could not dig: I dared not rob/ Therefore I lied to please the mob/ Now all my lies are proved untrue/ And I must face the men I slew/ What tale shall serve me here among/ Mine angry and defrauded young?"
Whatever happens to Jones in the future, he seems sure of facing it with a clear conscience, unlike Kipling's Dead Statesman. Jones has cleared his conscience the only way he knows how--through prayerful repentance, followed by equally powerful determination. What Congress will do next, of course, is a far murkier question.