Robert Byrd was born into a world of hard-edged racism, anti-intellectualism, and the fundamentalist penchant for seeing doubt as weakness and compromise as surrender. To this he added a bounding ambition and emerged an utterly assured, reflexively hawkish politician for whom hubris might have been just a water-stop on the way to megalomania.
But, fate intervened. While pursuing an education he hoped would make him more electable, Byrd, perhaps inadvertently, paid attention to what was being taught. So, on March 19, 2003 an older and different Byrd, seasoned by decades of experience and animated by an astonishing commitment to unflinching self-examination, spoke these words in the United States Senate as the nation plunged toward war in Iraq.
“I believe in this beautiful country. I have studied its roots and gloried in the wisdom of its magnificent Constitution. I have marveled at the wisdom of its founders and framers. Generation after generation of Americans has understood the lofty ideals that underlie our great Republic. I have been inspired by the story of their sacrifice and their strength. But, today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.’
‘Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves. We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption which is understood by few and feared by many. We say that the United States has the right to turn its firepower on any corner of the globe which might be suspect in the war on terrorism. We assert that right without the sanction of any international body. As a result, the world has become a much more dangerous place.’
‘We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat UN Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet. Valuable alliances are split.’
‘After war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America’s image around the globe.’
‘The case this Administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice.’
‘There is no credible information to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11. The twin towers fell because a world-wide terrorist group, Al Qaeda . . . .’
‘The brutality seen on September 11th and in other terrorist attacks we have witnessed around the globe are the violent and desperate efforts by extremists to stop the daily encroachment of western values upon their cultures. That is what we fight. . . . .’
‘But, this Administration has directed all of the anger, fear, and grief which emerged from the ashes of the twin towers and the twisted metal of the Pentagon towards a tangible villain, one we can see and hate and attack. And villain he is. But, he is the wrong villain. And this is the wrong war. . .’
‘There is a pervasive sense of rush and risk and too many questions unanswered. How long will we be in Iraq? What will be the cost? What is the ultimate mission? How great is the danger at home?’
‘A pall has fallen over the Senate Chamber. We avoid our solemn duty to debate the one topic on the minds of all Americans, even while scores of thousands of our sons and daughters faithfully do their duty in Iraq.’
‘What is happening to this country? When did we become a nation which ignores and berates our friends? When did we decide to risk undermining international order by adopting a radical and doctrinaire approach to using our awesome military might? How can we abandon diplomatic efforts when the turmoil in the world cries out for diplomacy?’
‘Why can this President not seem to see that America’s true power lies not in its will to intimidate, but in its ability to inspire?’
‘War appears inevitable. But, I continue to hope that the cloud will lift. Saddam will yet turn tail and run. Perhaps reason will somehow still prevail. I along with millions of Americans will pray for the safety of our troops, for the innocent civilians in Iraq, and for the security of our homeland. May God continue to bless the United States of America in the troubled days ahead, and may we somehow recapture the vision which for the present eludes us.”
He counseled humility when we would brook no doubt, dissent when we demanded conformity and restraint when we craved the cathartic orgy of “shock and awe”. And in every particular Senator Byrd was proven right and the President, the Vice President, 97 senators, and the majority of Americans were proven wrong.
He was courageous, prescient, and articulated American values even as they evaporated. His words will forever belie the excuse that “everyone believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” and will stand as a monument to self-examination and those with the courage to practice it.