GOP Rep. Still Doing Penance for War Vote

Walter B. Jones has sent more than 8,000 letters of sympathy to the survivors of U.S. service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Republican Congressman from North Carolina keeps writing them – in part as penance, he says, for the vote for war he cast on Oct. 10, 2002.

"I think I have been forgiven," he told me in a recent interview, with a rare note of hope, "through all those letters. I really do."

To say it is extraordinary to hear a United States congressman say he has begged forgiveness from God for a vote he considers a mistake is an understatement. In an era when politicians back-flip, flip-flop, scurry, and scramble to retract statements and explain away votes, Rep. Jones seems to have much in common with Jimmy Stewart’s Sen. Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, except instead of a political row over graft and a dam the local bigwig wants to build, Jones’ story is of a man who remains haunted by his own failure to initially resist intelligence manipulated by the White House to sell a war it wanted to wage.

While Smith’s celluloid stand came in the form of a redemptive filibuster, Jones was one of a handful of House Republicans who began to publicly excoriate the war in Iraq after 2004. Standing beside such congressional misfits as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Jones called repeatedly for a timetable and an exit, much to the chagrin of President George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Unlike the breadth of Christian conservatives in Washington – particularly Evangelicals, whose support for Iraq and the entire Global War on Terror is virtually messianic – Jones, 66, a Catholic, believes his opposition is rooted in both the Constitution and the Bible; it’s the morally right thing to do.

Rep. Walter Jones (Steve Barrett)

"I want to do what I think my Lord wants me to do,” Jones told Mother Jones magazine in early 2006.

Talk like that must have been double battery acid to the ears of Iraq war cheerleader Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist who the year before had called Jones a "political and moral cretin" for his change of heart.

But while Hitchens today is debating Catholic cardinals and rattling the saber for a confrontation with Iran, Jones has survived two reelection efforts in a rural, conservative district that’s home to Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Army installation and major war feeder. He attributes his success to his honesty, and perhaps just a little to the fact that people are now realizing he might be right, after all.

The Weight of the Dead

Jones plainly sees his failure to question the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat to the country back in 2002 playing out on the battlefields of Iraq – and by extension, Afghanistan, and in the faces of the wounded and the families and friends of dead soldiers, sailors, and Marines. He plays over his conversion like it was yesterday, and he speaks with the pathos of a man still bearing a cross-like burden.

"When I went to the floor of the House to give the president the authority to go into Iraq, I did not feel that the briefing that I had attended had convinced me that there were weapons of mass destruction, and yet I was not strong enough to vote my conscience," he said in our interview. "I was thinking of the politics, you know…. You represent a military district and a lot of retired military, so I voted for the resolution."

"The vote," he said, "I regretted even after I voted."

The niggling of uncertainty did not stop Jones from urging the change from "French fries" to "Freedom fries" in the House cafeterias in March 2003 – a rebuke to the French government for not supporting the march to war. By now, however, he probably has more in common with the French on war issues than with some of his more prominent GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill, as he has turned his attention from Iraq to putting the breaks on a Democratic president’s seeming advance into an indefinite occupation of Central Asia.

"The troops are worn out… we’re about to break the military," Jones said. "Mr. Obama, in my opinion, needs to slow it down, and he needs to have an endpoint to whatever we’re trying to achieve. And I base that more on history. History speaks for itself, in Afghanistan."

Jones looks at Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) already boosting a troop increase and knows his mission won’t be easy. Especially now that, as a party, Democrats are naturally torn between their impulse to stop the war and their new fidelity to the man in the Oval Office.

As public opinion polls and the Washington punditocracy finally come around to acknowledging the potentially malignant deficiencies in the U.S./NATO counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Jones has already been out front for months, demanding there not be an escalation beyond the nearly 70,000 U.S. troops planned for deployment by the end of this year.

In June, he sponsored an amendment to the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the secretary of defense to outline an exit strategy for Afghanistan – something President Obama has supported rhetorically, but so far not in practice. The amendment, co-sponsored with Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), failed. Jones continues his quest, speaking on the floor of the House as recently as this month, to get his point across.

"While I regret the amendment was not approved," he said on the floor Sept. 8, "I still believe it is critical of the administration to articulate benchmarks for success and an endpoint to its strategy for Afghanistan …rather than simply ordering another surge of troops."

"The stress placed on our all-volunteer force cannot continue forever," he declared.

"So that’s where I am now," he said later in our interview. "We [McGovern and I] sent a letter to every member of the House … and this week, me and McGovern will probably be meeting with Sen. [Russ] Feingold, to see about a strategy."

Some more from our interview: It would seem that the same forces are lining up on familiar ends of the war debate: you are on the side of finding an exit strategy and not fueling the nearly nine-year war with more troops; Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman are on the side of pumping more resources in. Do you sense any shift under this Democratic Congress and White House away from the open-ended operations in Afghanistan? And how do you think the most recent debate over more troops will shake out?

Congressman Jones: When we debated the armed services bill, which is the authorization bill for next year’s plans for the military, [Rep.] Jim McGovern and I offered the McGovern-Jones amendment, which called for the secretary of defense to present a plan for an exit strategy by the end of December 2009. That got about 138 votes… we got about what we thought we would from Republicans, maybe 10 or 12 votes, that’s about it. But I talked to Jim and I said, I’m surprised we didn’t get 30 more votes from Democrats. Well, according to Jim, those Democrats were saying the same things our Republicans were saying, that we want to give the president a chance. So I heard the same things I was hearing three or four years ago, but this time I was hearing it from the Democrats.

We’re finally broke as a country and we have to borrow money to pay our bills… we’re breaking the military, the equipment is worn out. My hurt is the families of the military, my hurt is the pain of people going back four or five times, and if you don’t know what you are trying to achieve – how do you know that you’ve achieved it? People know – I mean I’ve had experts in the Army and the Marine Corps here to tell me that Afghanistan is a much tougher fight – that terrain is a factor, they’re better fighters than those in Iraq who were opposed to the coalition. So it’s a matter of knowing what we want to achieve. Do you think more Republican members may be motivated to oppose further troop escalation in Afghanistan now that President Bush is gone and a Democrat is in the White House?

Jones: I don’t want to use his name… but [Representative —], a very thoughtful [Republican] congressman, came to me the other day, and he said to me, I want to help you and Jim McGovern. I was pleasantly surprised that he is concerned about where we are going in Afghanistan, so my point in giving you that example is that I think in a short time more Republicans will start asking the same questions, I do.

I think there are a lot of Republicans starting to question how long and how much. Having been in Afghanistan eight years… there are some questions. You have impressed a lot of people on all points of the political spectrum with your stand against the party on Iraq and Afghanistan, but has it soured any relationships among colleagues, or with your constituents back home?

Jones: I think back home what has happened is people who were opposed to my position two years ago – not all, but many – better understand my position today. I was asked by a reporter in the district – after the primary two years ago – "Do you feel vindicated?" I said I cannot feel vindicated until we get the troops back home.

I guess in a way, because of my faith, I have a strong sense of right and wrong. When you ask for this job, you know you have to make tough decisions, but again… I have to feel that I’ve made the right decisions based on my faith. Did you ever feel there was an opening to draw in your fellow Christian conservatives to your position on the war, which is based in part on your faith?

Jones: All I can say is most members will make their independent, individual assessments. When it comes to war, I don’t think I can try to influence another person’s position… it is a personal understanding. I can tell you this: I think I have been forgiven for my own decision. Through all those letters. I really do. What kind of sense are you getting from your constituents about Afghanistan?

Jones: They want to know what we’re trying to achieve. I got 17 counties – and this is official, not political – officially I’ve traveled over 3,000 miles in my district, and so I saw a lot of people. And you get down to the military base area, they may fight until they drop, but the point is, what are we trying to achieve? And when you get these men and women three and four and five times in there, you have to get an understanding of the endpoint, or whether we really have a strategy.

Editor’s note: This article originally stated that Ft. Bragg is in Rep. Jones’ district. It is not, but Camp Lejeune is. We regret the error.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.