Elected officials have always had their reasons for wanting to end America’s recent unpopular wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Some cite broad concerns over blood and treasure, others focus on the geo-political and domestic consequences of prolonging quagmire and endless foreign intervention. Many are outright pacifists, they don’t believe in war to begin with.
Conservative Republican Congressman Walter Jones was the only lawmaker I can recall who turned on war out of profound guilt. Life-changing guilt, borne out of watching coffin after coffin return to his North Carolina district draped in the stars and stripes and met with the white, blood-drained faces of mothers and wives, fathers and children. For anyone, such a scene—repeated as much as it would in a district that hosts one of the largest Marine Corps bases in the country at the height of war—would be devastating. But for Jones, a man of deep Catholic faith who had come to believe that the Bush administration lied to Congress to get its approval for the Iraq invasion in 2003, it was intensely personal. He wept openly and talked about it. There was no whiff of political contrivance or calculation. In fact, his pain was so visceral it was at times hard to look at directly.
Those of us who did look, saw a brave, brave man who chose the isolation of his peers in the Republican party over compromising his own convictions. Simply put, there was Walter Jones pre-Iraq vote, and Walter Jones, post-Iraq vote. The latter spent the rest of his life—until his passing on Sunday at the age of 76—working towards redemption and a future where America’s sons and daughters aren’t sent into a meat grinder for politicians’ senseless wars of choice.
He told me in 2009 that writing thousands of letters of sympathy to the survivors of dead servicemembers was in part, penance for his vote. “I think I have been forgiven, though all of those letters, I really do,” he said. In addition, he’d joined a small, but stalwart cadre of conservative voices against the wars based on moral and Constitutional grounds (including new interventions in Libya and Syria). He became one of the loudest voices in favor of invoking Congressional war powers, starting with a pair of unsuccessful bills in 2012. He worked across the aisle with anti-war Democrats, as well as tireless independent voices in his own party like Ron and Rand Paul, Thomas Massie, and Justin Amash. He sought, and became a friend and compatriot to activists and non-interventionist media like Antiwar.com and The American Conservative.
“I would answer the phone and hear, ‘please hold for Congressman Jones.’ It made me feel really great,” Antiwar.com founder and editor Eric Garris told me last night. “(He) was a very sweet and principled man.”
Garris sensed that Jones was animated by his guilt over “sending soldiers to their deaths.” I remember his speech before the TAC’s foreign policy conference in 2017 where he recounted an anguished conversation at the airport with a young woman carrying an American flag folded in accordance with service members or veterans who have died. “It was so sad for me, Jones said, describing how he struggled, even after all of these years, to come up with words that did not sound trite or canned, to soothe her.
It was a lonely burden, this cross he carried. Republican hawks and neoconservatives were the most venomous in their spite and disregard. Just see how they sneered at Ron Paul in the 2008 presidential debates when he suggested that the war in Iraq was creating more terrorists, rather than beating. In our upcoming TAC print edition, writer Bill Kaufmann describes how the party took away Tom Massie’s committee chairmanship and tried to sabotage his re-election over his anti-interventionist views.
In 2005 Christopher Hitchens, then a darling of the pro-Iraq War, called Jones a “right-wing big mouth…a moral and political cretin.” Years later, in 2014, “Wall Street billionaires, financial industry lobbyists, and neoconservative hawks” tried to unseat Jones (he was in his 12th term when he died), by bankrolling his primary opponent. Turns out much of the “dark money” funneled to defeat him that year came from a PAC called “The Emergency Committee for Israel,” headed by neoconservative Bill Kristol, with the suggestion that Jones’ war views, which have included diplomatic solutions with Iran over confrontation, were anti-Israel.
Daniel McAdams, who worked with Rep. Ron Paul for years on Capitol Hill and now runs the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, recalled to me a vignette that perfectly encapsulates the daily challenges that Jones met, always with fortitude and grace: It was yet another emergency evacuation of the Hill, very common around 2005. A plane had flown too close to the center of Washington—but it was ultimately a false alarm, and members started walking back to their offices.
“As it happened, I spotted Walter Jones walking back up by himself,” McAdams said. “While the other Republican Members greeted each other, walked a bit together, shared stories, and compared notes on the way back up the Hill, no one spoke to Walter Jones. No one smiled at him. No Member extended him that normal courtesy. They looked the other way.
“I watched this play out in astonishment. Again and again. Once Walter Jones exited the war cult he simply ceased to exist. A man alone, wrestling with his guilt, determined to make amends. There are few in life I have admired as much as this brave, decent, and gentle man.”
Jones was indeed a man who viewed every soldier a human being, each a fellow member of God’s family on earth. He loathed to think they were pawns, and died a little more with each of them, every day. There are few people left in public life, particularly politics, who will leave such a legacy for the rest of us to both measure up to, and mourn. No doubt he achieved his redemption.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is executive editor of The American Conservative.